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A learning experience: How L&D is improving the customer experience

30th Nov 2012
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What are the opportunities and implications for supporting customer strategies with technology-enabled learning?

Customer-centricity has become a core strategic focus for the majority of organisations. And, learning to support sales, customer experience and brand awareness represents a significant opportunity for customer service teams to work with learning and development (L&D) to drive business value. Why stop there? Extending this learning to the customer is a natural progression.

Digital technology can be a great enabler. It has created the smart learner who accesses peer and expert intelligence online and on-demand. It has also created the smart customer who is connected, well-informed and brand-savvy. Competitors are one click away, as are peer reviews and information about products and services.
Buying over the last two decades has become a more open process online and the binary relationship of customer and vendor is converging in the process. A recent IBM Report called Leading Through Connections frames this 'convergence of the digital, social and mobile spheres connecting customers, employees and partners in new ways to organisations and to each other'.
Proven business case for online learning
Increasingly, online learning and learning technologies are being used as a way to provide better customer service and increase loyalty. In an annual study of how top performing organisations are using learning to improve business performance, the Towards Maturity Annual Benchmark 2012 reports that 42% of organisations are using learning technologies to support and educate the customer. 77% state that improving customer satisfaction is a driver for investment. It's worth noting that only a third of this number is achieving a measurable result. However, those that are report an impressive 20% improvement. It's evidence that developing a customer-centric learning strategy is worth the investment for solid business reasons.
If employees, customers and partners are being connected to each other, what are the opportunities and implications for supporting this process and what role can technology-enabled learning play?
As organisations open up their networks and open up their learning - security and other risk factors apart - a shared vision across internal (employees) and external (customers) becomes increasingly important. The correlation between brand, employee capability, engagement and customer service becomes even clearer and more important. Learning technologies have a role to play.
Findings from a brand new study conducted by Brightwave in partnership with benchmark specialists Towards Maturity show that organisations embedding learning technologies in their brand and customer strategy programmes are:
  • 8x more likely to say that their solutions are currently helping to provide a competitive advantage.
  • 5x more likely to report an improved reputation as a customer-focused organisation.
  • 3x more likely to report increased customer loyalty and customer satisfaction.
  • 2x more likely to report increased cross-selling/up-selling.
  • 5x more likely to use social media. As a result, two out of four businesses say their employees are now more engaged with the company and brand values.
This level of impact shouldn't be ignored. The top performers are getting results from getting it right. However, this isn't the case across the board. One critical factor for an effective implementation of online learning programmes is, not surprisingly, a strong alignment to the needs of the business and audience it's trying to serve. However, the research shows that learning and development professionals are still grappling with how best to support better sales and customer service, clearly needing an injection of expertise from the business area it's designed to boost. In practice, defining need and identifying key performance indicators for improvement is 18% lower than the benchmark average across all training topics.   
Extending learning to the customer
We've seen how e-learning can support the employee to better connect with the customer. A perhaps surprising 42% are using learning technologies to help train customers. Extending learning to the customer is not new, but it is a significant value-add and represents a rising trend. Product education (from the humble instruction manual to mobile apps to YouTube how-to's) can help people make sensible purchasing decisions and optimise their use of a product or service.
When designed well, and accessible in the right media, this type of information adds value to the customer which in turn promotes loyalty. Part marketing, part training, part service: learning has a role to play here and there is an untapped opportunity for learning professionals to support marketing to improve the customer experience.
Put simply, if it helps your organisation sell effectively it is likely to help the customer buy. So, how can you use product knowledge and the learning as part of the sales process? Learning can not only equip your own teams to provide a better customer service but also help your customers make the right decisions.
Collaborate to differentiate
Customer service is increasingly a powerful differentiator and the ability to work cross-function to deliver the best possible customer experience is also becoming a key indicator of success. We're seeing a significant gap developing between those that embed learning to support customer strategies and those that provide learning on a more transactional basis. The more mature learning organisations are embedding the brand and using a mix of digital technologies to reach their employees, experiencing a 10% uplift in sales as a result. However, with only 16% of respondents agreeing that learning technologies are automatically considered by marketing as part of product launches and corporate communications, there is some way to go before this becomes business as usual.    
Cheryl Clemons is communications director at Brightwave.

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