This is an audio transcript for the MyCustomer podcast, recorder 4th May 2017. How to deliver proactive customer service:
Chris Ward: Welcome to the first in a new series of My Customer Podcast where we'll be honing in on a key topic or trend that is helping businesses to connect the dots between customer service, marketing, sales, and customer experience. My name is Christopher Ward. Today, we're shining the spotlight on the topic of proactive customer service and some of the mechanisms and new ideas that are allowing brands to solve customer issues way before they're allowed to escalate to the combustion and rage we heard from the hapless customer in the clip just now. Over the next 30 minutes or so, we'll be looking at what proactive customer service is, some examples of how leading brands are doing it well and some practical steps for anyone trying to make their own customer service operations more proactive.
Today, I've enlisted the help of author and customer experience expert, Adrian Swinscoe, and call centre stalwart and futurologist for BT Global Services, Dr. Nicola Millard. So what does it mean to have proactive customer service? I started by asking Adrian and first Nicola for their definitions.
Nicola Millard: Proactivity I would say is one strategy from a customer perspective that makes things easy. I think if you flip it round from a corporate perspective, it's really about managing demand before demand manages you. I think proactivities all around trying to push messages out so that people then don't flood you back in.
Adrian Swinscoe: There's research that shows that somewhere in the region of between about 25% and 40% of all calls into UK contact centres are avoidable. What does that mean? That means that a customer wants to either ... If it's pre-purchased, a customer is on your website and is looking around trying to buy something or whatever and it faces a problem and it was trigger, now they're trying to contact you. There's a problem there right. They haven't been able to find the information that they've got so there's a problem there or if they're at the point of purchase, there's something they don't understand and the buying process, that might trigger a call or it's post purchase and there might be a problem with delivery or something that has to do with understanding something or instructions or whatever it might be.
All of those things are the causes of these calls coming in but if you step back and look at it and go, "Yeah but we can probably solve those by understanding those and if we solve them, in the industry they talk about call deflection. This is not about call deflection. This is about call elimination. If we get better at some of the basic stuff that we do to enable our customers to have the right sort of service and the right sort of experience and if you do that you save money.
Chris Ward: Proactive service is really about removing the heavy lifting, both for your stuff and your customers. As Nicola explains, it's also about offering the right choice for customers at the right time.
Nicola Millard: Those questions say in the work that we've done around financial services for example, around what would you like your bank or your insurance company to tell you before you have to tell them. Its obvious things. In that particular industry, its things like is there anything weird going on in my account? Is there transactions that are going on in my bank account that you think might be rather suspicious? Tell me rather than me having to do that myself. If you're on holiday and you suddenly find out that your card isn't working, the last thing you want to know is that it's been cancelled for the security reasons and they didn't tell you so again, if it's being cancelled, tell me that you're cancelling it so that I can uncancel it if obviously there isn't fraudulent activity going on.
Those are the ones that got the real popular vote in terms of tell me before I need to tell you. Obviously, we actually did ask specifically around financial services other things that people might want to know. Things like is my account going overdrawn or has a larger amount come out of my account in the first place. Tells me that there's a large amount coming out. I probably know there is but just tell me there is one. Another subtle one, which is an interesting compromised position between customer and corporate is do you have any better deals available for me. Proactively tell me if there is a better deal here to be got.
Chris Ward: The benefits of this type of proactivity can be far reaching too. According to a 2015 report by Enkata, taking initiative in your customer support can increase customer retention rates by between three and five percent. Customers say being contacted proactively leads to a positive experience. As far back as 2013, a survey by In Contact found that 87% of consumers said they wanted to be contacted proactively by brands and for those that were, 73% said it improved their opinion of the brand in question. For 60% of brands, proactive service means outbound calls to customers in advance, with 26% of those sending emails also.
However, new and innovative ways are regularly being trialled as Adrian explains in the case of UK utility provider, Anglian Water.
Adrian Swinscoe: What they do is they've got this, it's like a text messaging service to which proactively notifies customers according to their post codes if there's going to be a water shortage or water outage. Maybe they're doing some works or whatever. They can target, they can segment their customer base by a post code so that they understand where the public works are going to be and they go, "Right, fine. It's going to affect those guys," then there's a push notification that comes out. Then what that does is it just understands the cycle of what's going to happen. For example, imagine you're at home and you went to turn the tap on kind of want to make a cup of tea or whatever and there's nothing comes out of the tap or it's all brown or whatever it might be.
That would maybe trigger you landing on their website or you just picking up the phone and just trying to call them. What they're trying to do is they're trying to deflect the demand, but they're not really. What they're trying to do is they're going to say, "Look, us doing works on our system which is going to cause an outage is going to cause a problem for our customers. When our customers notice that problem, one of the first things they're going to do is they're going to react to the problem and try to contact us to get an answer." What we're trying to do, what they're trying to do is give them an answer before they actually have the question.
What they end up by doing that, this has allowed them to save because they take that proactive approach, it's allowed them to save hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds in contact centre cost in terms of agent costs, telephone time and so on and so forth.
Chris Ward: This example is important as it highlights an event in which an organisation is deliberately contacted their customers prior to an issue occurring that may force them into visiting that companies website or jumping on to social media or any number of self serving options that their company has set up. While self service is a vital part of the customer service mix, Adrian believes this is a fundamental misunderstanding that it is proactive too.
Adrian Swinscoe: If you have a proactive strategy to ourselves towards customer service, it will lead to an increased level of self service. The self service is like the outcome of being proactive about your strategy. What people try and do and this is the struggle that many companies can have is they're trying to introduce more and more self service capability into their business. They're trying to force people into self service rather than actually thinking about what customers need and what they want. Rather than forcing them, they can help them into it by actually being focused on the customer.
Chris Ward: For Nicola, contact centres are only just scratching the service of what they could be doing in order to aid the practise or their operations. I asked however she thought most businesses just weren't set up to switch from being reactive to being proactive in their customer service.
Nicola Millard: A lot of the research that I've been doing over the past probably five or six years has been showing that actually proactivity could be a very core function of a contact centre and contact centres are a wonderful hub for data and I think one of the things that we're seeing on the technology side especially is that we've never had a lack of data in the contact centre space. There's always been tonnes and tonnes of it. What we have now is much better technology that actually can analyse it and make meaning of it in real time. I think the opportunity there is using much more real time analytics tools to work on the data that's flooding in to the contact centre to try and make meaning of those patterns is the technological way of trying to become a lot more proactive.
Are contact centres set up to be? Well, that's an interesting question. I think some of them are starting to be of the mindset of let's look at how we can deflect things. Let's look at how we do manage demand rather than demand managing us. How can we be much more proactive from simple things like putting something on the IVR if someone's ringing in to say, "We are aware of this incident. If you're bringing about this, we know about it. We'll put bulletins on the IVR or through social media to get you updates as to what's going on."
Social media obviously can be a really nice proactive tool where there's big things going wrong so just pushing messages out to say we know about this. Don't report it. Don't ring. The lines are very busy so if you're ringing about something else, yeah, hang on the line. That kind of thing I think can be ... The analytics tools can give you a clue as to how you can start to become a lot more proactive and push those messages out. I think a lot of contact centres are starting to get a lot more proactive because there's nothing worse than having a tsunami of contacts wash over you when there is an incident that you know about and you could start to push messages out to try and manage that demand.
Chris Ward: When a brand attempts to use data to predict its customer's next move, but without establishing the full picture of their personal circumstances. This type of story has become increasingly pertinent as our access to consumer data manifests. The challenge is, with every new story like it that occurs, whether it be free transactional data or data in the contact centre, consumers are becoming more wary of how that data is being used.
Nicola Millard: You can't be proactive without personal data. You can't. You can guess, but you can't so it is all around what data as customer am I willing to actually trade with you in order for you to use some of that data more proactively and again, we asked in one of our surveys last year again with the insurance and financial services industry in mind, we actually asked customers how willing would you be to share this data with your insurance company or your bank and actually, there wasn't a huge amount of delight to say, "Wow, yes. I'd share all of my data." In fact the one that got the highest vote was the sensor that measures energy usage in your home. Even then, that was less than a third of people said that they would be willing to share that kind of information with their bank or insurance company.
Social media data very, very, very few people wanted to share that within any corporate. Even things like my location from my smartphone. Again, unless people see that there is an advantage for that, certainly in the retail space their might be some advantage. If the retailer, if I've clicked in collect for example, opted to do that and I've told them that I will collect at some point, but I don't know exactly when but if I break the geofence with my smartphone, it could be that you alert the click and collect guys to get my parcel out so that by the time I get to the desk, my parcel is there. No need to wait for them to scrabble around in the back room.
I think I'm willing to trade. I'm willing to trade data if I can see that there is a tangible advantage for me to do that. If not, no. I'll become 110 years old on Facebook or I'll give ... I always say the biggest lie we tell today is I've read the terms and conditions. We're giving away a lot for free for things like free wifi but I think even then, a lot of people are now registering on free wifi as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck because again, why would I give you my email address so that you can then spam me forever on things I really don't want to know about so that there's no advantage for me to do it? I just want the free stuff. I think this is an interesting area because it's an area that's quite a tough one to answer because this all depends on data.
What am I willing to give a corporate in order to use it and then what's appropriate? What's the value add back? Does it make my life easier? Do I get special offers? Do I get money off? Do I get free stuff? I need to know the advantage because otherwise I'm not going to give my data.
Chris Ward: In the Charted Institute of Marketing's 2016 study of data practises, nine in 10 consumers confessed to having no idea what companies do with the personal information they hold. Yet the big enough hope comes in the fact that 2/3 of those same consumers actually said they would share more personal information if organisations were just more open about how they were planning to use it. It seems the prognosis is clear. Businesses have to first be proactive in communicating with customers how they plan to use their data and what benefits this will bring them, prior to considering how they may actually go about using data for future proactive messages and offerings.
As the contact centre shifts towards being seen as more of a guardian of customer experience, this more strategic and measured analytic play is being matched by more real time needs from within the organisation also.
Nicola Millard: The other aspect of proactivity is also within the business. Pushing back into product lines. Pushing back into maybe the website guys if the website is suddenly down. They're getting lots of calls about the website being down, the first thing you do is obviously you need to tell the customer, but you need to go back into the website guys and say, "Did you know this website was down? Okay you did. When is it going to get fixed because we need to manage customer's expectations."
It's turning it round a little bit around not just proactive out to the customer, proactive into the organisation because a lot of this is around how do we pragmatically solve stuff that's coming in but the contact centre is kind of the pulse here because it's the area where the data is probably coming in in terms of the customer contacts telling you that there is something wrong down the line. Again, that mindset shift to the guardians of customer experience is an interesting one. Obviously there are lots of ifs and buts around that so in order to become the guardians of the customer experience, they need the backing of senior managers to become the guardians of the customer experience.
There needs to be a mindset shift around this is not about cost and transaction. This is about investments and value. All of those things that need to be recognised in the boardroom I think for that tree trickle down to happen in the contact centre goes to become a hub, the guardians of the customer experience and the hub of all the data that actually helps you to become a lot more proactive.
Chris Ward: As we've mentioned already, for those businesses that have recognised the value of putting contact centres at the very heart of their customer experience operations, a plethora of new solutions are arriving in the marketplace because of more control. Not just over the proactive messaging they're able to put out, but also in terms of guiding interactions their contact centre agents are experiencing with customers in the moment. Increasingly companies are looking towards artificial intelligence, machine learning, and even emotional analysis to guide them in this area. Adrian tells me about one particular new technology from a company called Cogito that's being leaned on not just in service, telephone interactions, but sales too to provide agents and sales people with more proactive advice during the heat of any customer call they may be having.
Adrian Swinscoe: They're doing a very cool thing with AI and machine learning and emotional intelligence. It's super cool in that what they're doing is, and it's based around, it's a spin out out of MIT media lab with Alex Pentland, Dr. Alex Pentland who wrote the book Social Physics. It's all based on his work and adding some AI and machine learning algorithms and stuff at the top of it and what it does is in simple terms, is they have this cloud based learning engine sort of thing that they see analyses their conversations in real time so it doesn't record them. Just analyses in real time based on their understanding and sort of stuff.
It's got this little app that sits on the agent's desktop which basically gives them advice, practical advice which says, "You're talking too fast. You're interrupting too much. Maybe you should listen a little bit more. Customer sounds angry. Maybe you should just listen. Let them finish." Just really, really, really, really, really simple guidance around that whole EQ sort of thing. The results are staggering. It's brilliant but what I think is brilliant about it is this idea that it's technology that's not trying to replace people. It's technology that's trying to enable people.
Chris Ward: But what for those businesses that are still living solely in the reactive realm? Well, as a final point, I asked both Nicola and Adrian to provide their top tips for companies looking to take some initial steps towards becoming more proactive with their service.
Adrian Swinscoe: Listen to or ask your customers and your front line people what problems do your customers have on a regular basis and then go fix them. As simple as that. Now, you might want to rank those in terms of effort and impact and prioritise the ones that are low effort and high impact and that gives you a list of priorities. On the assumption that you've got a list of things, you're probably going to have a list of priorities and you'll have a list of ones that are reasonably low effort and high impact and that's your short list. You should do that straight away and in doing that, by solving those problems, you're automatically going to make your site better, your experience better. You're going to become proactive.
Oh, guess what? You're going to make your employees feel great too. People don't like doing the same thing over and over again. It gets boring. If we can help make somebody who is there trying to do their best for a customer day in and day out, we take away that boring stuff which I know that some people are trying to do with bots and so on and so forth, but that still doesn't solve the customer problem.
Nicola Millard: There are various stages and steps that we're looking at in terms of achieving this so I think firstly, absolutely it's looking at where the contact center's value lies and changing that value proposition and I think that is changing tangibly in the industry. Again, I used to joke the only thing that changed in the contact centres were the carpets and that's changing phenomenally now. We've got tonnes and tonnes of different channels coming in to the contact centre. Again, they're having to cope with it. Their whole raft of different challenges on each of those channels. There's a whole load of data coming in to the contact centre and obviously there's even more data coming in around them as we move into the era of the internet of things and clouds of clouds and so more and more data flooding in about stuff basically.
I think the contact centre potentially is becoming a lot more strategic as I said before. It's the kind of beating heart there. It's the hub where all the data comes in about what customers are thinking about you and what they're struggling with and what they're having problems with and actually sometimes, we'll say why they like you. That information is really, really strategic and it is a case of we need to listen to it. Now as I said, the technology is kind of fairly instrumental to that because contact centres have always had data. It's just that we haven't been able to make so much sense of it in real time before so the more powerful tools that we have to do that helps the contact centre to actually not just say we think this is happening, put the data behind it as well because we need to know the size of the prize in terms of the demand.
It's then around the willingness of the business to listen. That is around that senior mindset change around this isn't just a cost. This is an absolute value add. This is the hub of the organisation and help them to use that data as well. I think there's a few things. In that road to proactivity, I think there are three areas that we have to look at. There's the personalization aspect. How do we make things more personal for customers? This isn't even proactivity. This is simply when the customer logs on or comes in, we know who they are. We can personalise the interaction using their data. That's the first step. Proactivity is once you know that person, you can start to use their data a little bit better to do the things like say, "Hey, there's some weird activity on your current account. Did you know?"
Because you know the habits of the person, you've personalised the journey. You can start to look at abnormal data and become much more proactive around that. Then of course the third step as we get into much more advanced technologies is can we moved from personal and proactive to becoming predictive. Now, admittedly that's when you start to get a little bit creepy. This could be crossing a creepy line somewhere but this is all about can I start to predict what might happen based on the data that I've got based on other customers that have had this data and based on actually the fact, which is an interesting discussion again, whether customers are willing to share that data in the first place as well. Are they willing to let you use that data in order to start to predict what you might be doing and then again how do you then switch from predictive to proactive and to try and actually nudge people to say, "Hey. It looks as if you're about to do this."
Chris Ward: Of course, with predictive strategies, the creep factor Nicola mentioned alongside the Target story from earlier in the piece should always be at the front of everybody's mind. To finish up, I asked Nicola, however, in order to achieve the goals both her and Adrian outlined, brands would have to move their marketing departments closer, both hierarchically and physically to their contact centre operations.
Nicola Millard: I think with the marketing spin on, it's not about marketing stuff that I don't want, that isn't relevant to me. It's marketing stuff that I probably do want that is relevant to me but also putting into that social factor as also at the appropriate time. I think that's a really interesting blurring lines between marketing and service and sales at the moment because all of this data is becoming a lot more personal. There is the ability to maybe be a little bit more proactive with selling and marketing, but it's based on that personal stuff and it's then got the links into service as well because you can then create opportunities based on much better data about the customer, assuming of course the customer is willing to share that data in the first place.
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.