Expert predictions: Customer service challenges and opportunities for 2014

8th Jan 2014

A number of UK customer service, experience and engagement leaders have pooled their insight based on the themes that preoccupied their own communities during the last year. We hope you enjoy the rich diversity and also notice the many common themes that shine through.

This is our way of completing the year and setting 2014 agendas. Please use it to refine your own.

Ann-Marie Stagg, director, Call Centre Management Association (UK)

The UK contact centre industry is sometimes described by commentators as being either mature or stagnant but after a period of; “keep your head down and get on with it,” in 2013 we have seen that our membership has once again become much more active and keen to take part in everything that we do.

Social media has been a sexy thing to talk about and cloud technology, omni-channel and home working are all significant developments that our industry must surely embrace in this new era of mobile commerce. While a number of organisations are making considerable progress in adding these things to their customer service offering, the focus has remained on doing the basics right.

There has been a good deal of positive energy around and many organisations are looking to recruit, to educate and to develop their people.

In 2014 we expect the current focus on customer experience to remain undiluted and that a minority of organisations will once again invest some serious money in adopting leading edge technologies to improve customer service. Many others will continue to gain cost efficiencies from improved processes, better staff education, increasing agent authority and engagement.

Organisations will also benefit from the growing professionalism of the people that lead their customer facing teams and in 2014 our role will be to continue to support them, to educate them and to identify and share best practise wherever it is found.

The more that things change, the more that they stay the same, but I do look forward to having parcels delivered by pilotless drone!

Jane Thomas, managing director, South West Contact Centre Forum

Despite the challenges of most recent years, 2013 has seen our member base grow, and become very active, conscious and eager to take part in the many initiatives and events throughout the year.

This has been particularly evident in centres wanting to share best practice, hungry for tangible evidence of what the best in the industry are offering their respective customer base. This appetite has also been driven by many centres re-structuring and aligning their work force to embrace the challenges they face in serving their customers’ needs.

Efficient, lean operations doing the basics right, has led to key areas of interest in specialist training and people development especially addressing the ‘right behaviours’ for maximum customer experience.

The agent behaviours and customer interaction has been an interesting one when many organisations are then applying the principle to the hot topics of 2013 which have been  Social Media, cloud technology, which because of the flexibility associated with such, has led to many organisations implementing a home working strategy.

Key for the members in the South West, has been for them to firstly identify their strategy, and then the implementation piece. Whilst there are many companies leading the way in these areas, there is still much work to be done.

Many organisations still need to deliver an omni-channel experience across the customer journey; a single view of the customer is still daunting to many businesses, which are challenged by working in silos. Marketing, sales and service are somewhat still distant in many businesses, yet the forum is starting to see many more Marketing Managers accompanying their Head of Operations.

It is with this in mind, that in 2014 we will underpin this enthusiasm and positivity to embrace change, by continuing to highlight best practice and top performers. Key to success for many will be the requirement for continued Investment in resource and technology – tracking customer and employee engagement will ensure competitive advantage.

There will also be great benefit to continue to offer organisations timely benchmarking and research, both regionally and nationally, in order that they may continue to gain cost efficiencies from improved processes, and staff engagement.

Jon Snow, chairman, Directors' Club (GB & NI)

From my perspective 2013 has been a year that saw the emergence of two themes – omni-channel experience and cloud contact centres – and the blossoming of a third theme – customer interaction analytics.

The essential need to deliver an omni-channel experience at each touch point across the customer journey is forcing change upon most consumer facing sectors and many B2Bs as well. Consistency of experience at each brand-to-customer touch point and the need for transfer of context between channels – resulting in a single view of the customer – will define the customer contact agenda in 2014.

To achieve true omnichannel experience, we must move away from departmental silos and see a closer working relationship between sales, marketing and service. We are championing the role of the Chief Customer Officer in 2014.

True omnichannel experience requires more effective customer insight across the customer-to-brand touch points. Text and speech analytics are now mature technologies that can offer substantial and quantifiable competitive advantage if employed centrally to track customer and employee engagement, identify broken processes, highlight best practice and top performers, and spot brand champions.

Big data is currently one of the biggest untapped assets in UK organisations. Outsourcers should seize customer interaction analytics as a business development opportunity!

Finally, cloud technologies will gain traction in 2014. In particular, cloud contact centre solutions. The first and most obvious impact will be in the small and medium contact centre segments. Cloud solutions will give smaller organisations access to the latest contact centre tools and should boost their performance.

However, in the longer-term, cloud contact centre solutions will increasingly be adopted by the large contact centre segment, resulting in a greater mobility of contact centre employment, a rise in home-based agents, and a resurgence of offshore outsourcing.

Jonty Pearce, editor, Call Centre Helper

We have based this information from regular polling of our extensive community of contact centre professionals. It is based on conversations that we have through our online web chat, webinars, website, LinkedIn group and Twitter.

What’s Hot

  • Web chat
  • Net Promoter
  • Customer effort
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Speech analytics
  • Social customer service
  • Flexible shifts
  • Multi skilling
  • Web self service

What’s Not

  • Slow IT systems (we really out to do something about this)
  • Average Handling Time as an agent metric
  • Under-staffing
  • Email response times over 1 hour
  • Scheduling by Excel
  • Answer machine detection
  • IVR
  • Outbound telesales

What’s Next

  • Video Chat/ Skype in the contact centre
  • Net Easy
  • Removing commission based incentives
  • Outcome based metrics
  • Multichannel technology
  • Home Working
  • Web RTC
  • Automatically feed answers into FAQs on the web site 
  • Merging marketing and customer service

Martin Hill-Wilson, founder, Brainfood Consulting

I have found 2013 a particularly lively year for getting on with it. Relative to previous times, we are definitely in a period of transition. Quite a radical one in fact. My two outstanding themes have been Social Customer Service and Performance and Quality.

Experiencing consistent feedback from webinars, workshops and roundtables throughout the year, I’m clear that 2013 will go down as the one when ownership for service issues via social channels moved from Marketing to Customer Service/joint ownership. At least here in the UK.

From informal polling, at least 60 percent of audiences kept saying they were now operationally involved and in the driver's seat. That said, the topic remains new and quite unnerving for many. Particularly for those not personally active on social channels. 

What does this suggest for 2014? I would guess that given increased stories of consumer activism and clear signs of general growth, social customer service will keep moving up the priority list. For some, it will no doubt become an urgency.

 Also keep an eye out for the first early examples of engagement hubs in which marketing, sales and service agendas are operationally unified and underpinned with smart customer analytics.  

My other focus for the year has been the P&Q Challenge. This is an industry wide effort to fast track an improved return on the way contact centres undertake their performance and quality activities. It’s a crowd sourcing approach and everyone involved has contributed to the pot.

As a result, the ‘Strategic Quality Framework’ was born and around forty companies are now involved in pioneering work getting it implemented in their own organisations.  It’s a six month programme.

Two things stand out from me. First is the obvious benefit of having time out from the operational environment. This has been a unanimous opinion. It seems reflecting, planning and testing ideas with others is something the industry needs to find more excuses for in times of rapid change.

Secondly, everyone's next generation version of quality management has put much greater focus on the voices of both customer and advisor. In other words, we are finally building an outside-in view of how we perform.

Taken together, I see 2014 as a period of sustained creativity for our industry.

Paul Smedley, Founder & Chair, Professional Planning Forum

2014: engagement requires trust and passion

One thing is clear from the past year - good customer experience and engagement is about the end-to-end customer journey.  Are our products & services truly fit for the customer's purpose? From the scandals of miss-selling or market rigging to the publicity over THE Call Centre, it is no surprise that customers are not enthusiastic about contacting us nor happy about being able to resolve their needs for themselves.

For all that social media is clearly growing; the NICE global customer survey suggests that web and phone are by far the most frequently used channels but that half of those unable to complete web transaction resort to a phone call.  

It seems to me that the fundamental challenge we take into 2014 is surely about trust - in our brands and in our promises; we need new ways of rising to what is a well recognised challenge.  Intriguingly, this is no longer just the remit of Marketing; increasingly the customer contact operations are vital guardians of the customer's voice.  Our members are operational people. So, by example, let me bring this down to some everyday challenges.

Firstly, how do we improve quality, performance and customer experience?  We're known best for customer contact planning, but at the last national seminar it was the new community around quality that attracted the biggest audience - over 100.

There is a real groundswell of interest in doing something better in this area.  Two thirds were reviewing their approach at the moment; three-quarters had reviewed it also in the last 5 years. However this is not universal; a quarter had still not got this message and the P&Q research found that 78% said performance and quality in their organisations was NOT an empowering form of self management. In fact 57% said that what they currently did was not even an effective way of capturing performance insights.

Secondly, can we take advantage of analytics?  At the corporate level people see the benefit of Big Data in joining the dots between the different parts of a customer's experience.  Operationally, there are many new sources of insight - not least speech & text analytics which mine the actual conversations or emails. Case studies from innovators show amazing results - even now in smaller organisations - but the vast majority of the industry have not yet found ways to listen to our customer conversations in this way.

Finally, volatility and flexibility are old challenges from the advent of call centres; yet how many are now taking advantage of the proven ability to set up totally virtual home working environments or to develop lifestyle shifts? 

A shocking statistic from our own research is that most contact centre operations (56%) do not even have measures in place to identify the flexibility they need - let alone track progress in increasing flexibility.  Indeed in one recent event over 90% identified the need to do better in this area.

I want to end with a comment on that other vital part of engagement - our colleagues.  One of our themes for 2014, in our PPF communities, is that people build success.  If we want to improve our performance - close the gap between our aspirations and our current reality - then the place to start is with our people. That is why flexibility matters. That is why we need new approaches to performance and quality. Colleagues are a great way of hearing what customers are feeling and experiencing. 

If the fundamental challenge for 2014 is about trust; the best strategy we can follow is to listen - to colleagues as well as customers - and to act on what we hear.  Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Sandra Busby, managing director, Welsh Contact Centre Forum

The challenge of efficiencies and productivity made 2013 an interesting year.  If the past twelve months has been characterised by one issue, it has been customer retention.  Now this feels like something we’ve been saying for the past few years but the penny seems to have finally dropped with contact centres both realising and rising to the challenge of leaving corporate messages to one side and putting customer experience at the heart of their operations. 

At the crux of this, as ever, is the customer agent.  Against the balance of budgets which have loosened but remain tight, centres have had to multi-skill agents to ensure the customer feels they are having a real conversation with a human being. 

While a handful of trailblazing contact centres really cracked fully integrated omni-channel communications in 2013 (and I hate the word ‘omni-channel’!), 2014 will put the customer at the heart of everything.  Contact centres need to start from the building blocks of recruitment, training, motivation, attrition - all those issues that you need to master in order to ensure you’ve got the best people engaging with the outside world.

Success will be about building strategies which enable these people to deliver a quality experience every time in a way that fits with the customer’s lifestyle and expectations.  Yes, contact centres need to create an environment which integrates voice, Facebook, Twitter, email and web chat, but it’s absolutely vital that within this agents have the skills and the confidence to put the customer and not the technology at the front and centre of the experience.

Organisations are trying to get their heads around keeping Mrs Jones who wants to speak on the phone happy, while at the same time being proactive about how her teenage daughter wants to buy a mobile package.  But it’s not always as simplistic as that- industry experts are focusing on Generation Y, but I’m convinced there’s a smart generation in their 40s who want to engage with brands via mobile communications. If we want to ensure we’re equipped to please not just the next generation of consumers but the current one, then we need to nail this.  2014 seems like a good place to start.

Steve Hurst, editorial director, Engage Customer

2013 has been a defining year in the world of employee and customer engagement – and is setting the scene for further rapid changes during 2014 and beyond.

When Michael O Leary chief exec  at Ryanair said in a TV interview after issuing two profits warnings that his job was to ‘change customer behaviour’ he clearly had got it wrong – and deep down inside he’s an intelligent enough  person to know he’d got it wrong -which is why it is Ryanair who is changing.

Customers will no longer tolerate having two fingers continually put up to them by organisations such as Ryanair, those days are well and truly over. And the 50 per cent increase in profits this year at Ryanair’s arch rival Easyjet who base their business model on a robust customer service offering is testament to that.

So we have a sea change in the dynamics of the relationship between organisations and their customers and the employees that serve those customers. This is the change that we forecast back in 2009 when we (Chris Wood and I) formed the Customer Engagement Network.

  • A perfect storm of financial meltdown leading to the need for sustainable customer retention strategies, new customer communication and interaction channels to market.
  • The now ubiquitous mobile channel.
  • The proliferation of social media tools such as Twitter and many more as customer and employee communication channels.

All these have all come to pass. The game has changed Michael old son and changed forever.

It’s true to say that for the first time in history our customers – and our employees – have access to, and are using, more advanced technology than the organisations that purport to service them. This fundamental shift in the dynamic of the relationship is acting as a catalyst for customer and employee behavioural change – and that pace of change is accelerating.

My ten year old daughter is typically on four given communication devices at any given time – and none of those is the telephone! The telephone will of course always be an important communication and customer service channel – indeed it is increasingly being used as a ‘last resort’ when other channels have failed, when failure demand kicks in.

It is my strongly held belief that the customer of the future, indeed of now, is not in the least bit interested in your internal silos.  They will expect the organisation they are interacting with to be on the channels of THEIR choice at times when they want to use them. If as an organisation you do not live up to that expectation they will leave you and find a competitor that does – and never ever come back.

And it’s important to remember that whatever else happens customers HAVE ALL THE MONEY.  Yes folks, HR has got to be talking to Marketing if you are to have a realistic chance of long term survival. It’s as simple as that. And deep down Michael O’Leary damn well knows it!

Helen Curl, head of portfolio, UBM Live

2013 has been a year when delivering excellent, personalised customer service, whatever the channel, has really come to the fore. This is the key driver of change and investment both in the UK and internationally.  After several years of ‘doing the best with what you have’ and financial caution, we have seen businesses attending our live events in greater numbers, with specific buying needs in mind and most encouragingly - budgets. Amongst vendors too, there seems to be a return to optimism and innovation.

Across the UK, US and Japanese markets, there are some common areas of focus - getting social media customer service right, the blended-channel customer journey, integrating analytics, cloud solutions, up-skilling staff and home working.  But the overriding principle behind all of these is the desire to increase professionalism.

A tangible sign of this was the high quality of entries for 2013’s ECCCSAs (European Call Centre & Customer Service Awards). The best entries also showed that recognising individual success and rewarding initiative brings benefits for business as a whole.   

‘Top 50 Companies for Customer Service’ launched social media benchmarking this year based on feedback from real customers. It now covers 4 channels reflecting the multi-channel reality of its members. Notably, the top 5 companies in each channel were those who scored highest for ‘personalisation’; attesting to the huge importance of treating each customer as an individual.   

Encouraging individuality and diversity in the workforce is also a key focus of ContactAbility; a new charity for the contact centre industry which we were proud to support in 2013. Inspired by the Paralympics, it aims to promote employment on the basis of customer service ability rather than physical ability. This again speaks to the growing recognition that identifying and retaining talent must be a cornerstone of our businesses.

In 2014, we will continue to bring the industry together through our live events, online community and awards programmes to learn from each other, from the brightest thinkers and leading associations in our industry; supporting them on that journey to professionalism. To do this we too will be ‘up-skilling’:  the ECCCSAs move to a new date in June and an even bigger venue, recognising their significance to the industry and demand for places. CCEXPO has a new name as ‘Customer Contact Expo’, moving with the times without losing its heritage and strength as a meeting place for all.

Optimism can be just as contagious as moaning. So as a team we hope that the entire industry catches that particularly positive bug in 2014.

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