Customer experience: 10 best practices that separate the leaders from the laggards

Make no mistake, customers are in control—now more than ever. And they’ve gained control because of the vast resources available to screen, evaluate, and determine if a vendor can solve their unique business challenge; before the vendor is even aware they’re in the market. This reality is changing the landscape of how companies do business, including the quality of customer experience they must offer to compete in their market and win.

Put simply, businesses cannot afford to provide a less than stellar customer experience, on a consistent basis. Doing so risks not only losing existing customers in increasingly commoditised markets, but also losing opportunities to gain new customers via the best—and most affordable—marketing channel, i.e. via existing customers.

So what are the best companies doing to deliver a knock-your-socks-off customer experience (CX)? Let’s explore a few emerging strategies that have proven to deliver:

1. View your customer service as a second marketing department.
There’s a popular expression: customer service is the new marketing — based on research showing the power of CX through online reviews, and their ability to drive new customers. Studies indicate 90% of consumers’ research online reviews prior to making buying decisions, and 60% of the buying process is already done before they reach out to a vendor. Two factors come into play here — quality of offering and customer service. By incorporating marketing into support, and discussing advanced new product offerings, discount offers, requests for reviews, product feedback and upcoming releases as a part of all customer interactions, companies can take what is typically seen as a cost centre and turn it into a powerful profit centre instead. 

2. Get to know your customer better than they themselves do. In a non-creepy way, of course.
Angela Smith, a senior manager in the services sector suggests doing what Amazon does and taking the time to truly know and understand customers. “The key is being able to anticipate customer needs—before they may even be aware of them — and to make recommendations that resolve issues in people’s lives. By being proactive, companies become valuable allies in helping people lead better, happier, more productive lives, all of which lead to greater customer loyalty.” By making helpful suggestions based on existing data, companies can not only improve the quality of the customer experience, they can simultaneously add substantial revenues to the bottom line as well.

3. Integrating customer support channels.
Learn how customers want to be supported in your market, and then focus on that channel. This can often be a chat or a phone call, depending on the issue. If it’s a quick and easy answer, chat will usually do the trick. If it’s more complicated and requires a discussion, phone works best. Whatever you do, don’t simply offer a FAQs section to address customer concerns. Research shows that few things drive customers away as quickly as not having a real, live person to support them.

4. No more, “That’s a different department, let me put you on hold and transfer you.”
The last time someone did this to me, I waited over an hour on a sunny Saturday to schedule an appointment with a TV repair person. How do you think I felt when I finally made my appointment… sixty-three minutes later? Great CX starts with empowered employees who can seamlessly get to the bottom of any customer issue quickly and with one stop.  

5. Is your IVR the definition of insanity?
OK, here’s one we’ve all experienced- the nine-option IVR that is so long you’ve forgotten which option was best, so you have to repeat the five minute diatribe yet again. Angela Smith suggests, “Use a short IVR—respect your customer’s time and make it easy to navigate service options. Not doing so is a cliché for bad service; truly disrespectful, and almost always leads to poor CSAT and reviews.”

6. Balanced metrics… who’s serving who?
First and foremost, metrics need to primarily serve the customer. However, all too often, it’s obvious to the customer that they primarily serve the company’s profits instead. Metrics must focus primarily on full and complete issue resolution and customer satisfaction, and then take into account company profitability goals. Smith points out that for many companies, it’s a fine line to walk: “Unfortunately, financial statements only show net profit. While you have to tie these elements together, you can’t give away the family farm doing so, or customer service begins to eat net profits, which stockholders and boards hold dear. The key is to learn who your best customers are as opposed to who might be just shopping lowest pricing, and depending on your vertical, reward them accordingly.” This strategy allows companies to maintain high levels of service for loyal or potential long-term customers, while protecting profits and not wasting money and resources on prospects with little or no brand loyalty.

7. Understand the characteristic support issues of your market.
A great emerging strategy is to research and determine the primary customer support challenges within a given vertical — for example excessive shipping time of replacement parts — and then work on finding ways to improve, reduce or eliminate existing bottlenecks.  Then, ask customers who have a great CX experience to write a review afterwards. Companies that do this (think Zappos) are considered disruptive service leaders in their markets, and good reviews, like bad ones, spread quickly. The impact reviews can have in regards to driving new business can be substantial. Just ask any service provider about the effect that five-star reviews have on revenues, compared to even four-star reviews. In most cases, consumers follow the “Google model”—i.e., seek out the “best of the best” and call them; why bother to look on the second page or even the bottom of the first page, if you’ve already found your answer? This strategy is proving to work especially well in highly commoditised markets.

8. Is CX a part of company culture?
This is important- as customer service reps (CSR) can only be as good as management allows them to be. Smith points out CX must be built within a company’s culture—including its values, mission and goals. “Even the best CSR’s hands will be tied if they don’t see the same level of commitment from management. If management doesn’t care, why should they? Great customer experience comes as a mixture of top down and bottom up.” Much can be learned from people who interact with a customer base on a daily basis. While reports will provide an visual overview, there’s no better research than sitting down regularly and asking your CSRs what’s on your customers’ minds and how you can empower them to be better at their jobs and improve CX.

9. Hire people who don’t hate their jobs—then give them reasons to not hate their jobs.
OK, I know this sounds basic, but so many companies still treat customer service as a necessary evil I thought it important to discuss. What if instead, companies realised that support is typically a very difficult job, which requires certain skillsets to be performed well? What if they viewed a CSR as a professional job and offered a great working environment that attracted people and reduced turnover, instead of burnt them out in an average of nine months? How good could support be if your company screened for empathetic, friendly people that genuinely enjoyed solving problems, then provided a great working environment that encouraged them to stay? What impact would that have versus hiring, training, and repeating on a regular basis? In my experience, this single factor has made the biggest difference in providing a superior CX. Without fail, all companies that provide an exceptional customer experience enjoy low turnover as a result of providing a fun and enjoyable working environment for CSRs.

10. And finally, any company trying to deliver on a great customer experience must occasionally challenge existing practices and assumptions.
How good would any technology company be if their attitude was, “We’re as good as we can be—as a result, we’re not going to try and innovate or improve further”? Without question, they’d be out of business in a year. There’s a lesson here; the best companies innovate and disrupt markets—constantly challenge the status quo in order to improve. By continually challenging their CX processes and delivery they stay ahead of the competition and lead the industry — both their competitors and customers.

Errol Greene is Solutions Development Manager, Clear Harbor, LLC.

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