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The winners of Strictly Come Customer Service 2015 are...

4th Dec 2015
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I write this having just been involved with the November wave of conferences and summits that focus the UK customer service industry on what’s now in their zeitgeist. Since the previous wave in spring, things have moved on.

No doubt about the winner. The hottest topic right now is automation in the shape of shiny white robots looking like Star Wars extras and intelligent assistants who spookily get smarter over time. Between them, so go the rumours, they are on course to hollow out the carbon based life forms who currently deliver us customer service in favour of never tiring silicon equivalents.

This feels exciting news to many. Amateur and professional pundits are lining up in front of camera to breathlessly repeat the emerging story of this alien invasion. The whole thing has become a kind of crowd sourced Hollywood script writing exercise. With all the reality bending implications that Tinsel Town specialises in.

I’ll write more about this and other forward looking trends in my next post. But let’s just agree that robot fascination acts as the full stop to 2015.

So how did we start the year?

The primacy of all things digital

Well my own recollection was a January conference I’d been invited to by Capita for its customer management clients. It was full of the big brands. Types like O2, BMW, M&S, John Lewis, Dixons/Carphone, Thames Water, etc. The whole point of the day was to move beyond traditional contact centre topics. And in the main we managed to. Instead we talked digital.

In fact I’ve been talking digital ever since. It’s become a one word title to represent a sea change in behaviour, competencies and infrastructure. It’s also become completely overused and needs to be retired. Now that any precise meaning it once might have had is entirely lost.

For instance, when used as an in vogue business buzzword, if you are not involved in digital then quite frankly you are somewhere between Neanderthal and Luddite. No doubt this conceit is borne of people’s survival instinct when confronted with an incoming threat.

Leading that charge are the digital architects who have become the imams of customer experience management. Only certain communication practices are deemed part of the true faith. Apostasy is to mention voice and white mail. The more radical ones, bent on a world full of pure collaboration, even deem email a cardinal sin.

I’ve had fun pointing out that these days SIP, VoIP and ‘click to call’ make voice as digital as you can get. Added to which I can only think of telex as a channel we have fully retired over the last 30 years. The truth is that “Channel Multiply, They Seldom Die”. Your brand will have its own unique channel mix.  Ideally it will be based on understanding the complexity and emotional signature of your customers’ service tasks.

That’s why Amazon has just opened a physical bookstore and why Nationwide Now is enjoying great success in its mortgage business with a virtualised sales team. The latter is being piped into branch based customer meetings via high quality video. Deciding on a mortgage falls into the top end of complex and emotional tasks. What’s needed to steady nerves and facilitate decision making is trust in the advice being given.

If you are not involved in digital then quite frankly you are somewhere between Neanderthal and Luddite.

The decision to use video is that connecting visually accelerates the flow of trust. Video trumps voice in this respect. Grandparent’s use of Skype tells us that a picture paints a thousand more words about the grand children that voice ever will. Bar face to face, video has the broadest communication bandwidth of all the interaction channels.

These are the type of service design principles I’ve been exploring in master classes with both Capita and BT Ireland clients over the year. And I can confidently report that many classic brands remain on a very steep learning curve to make all this work as envisaged.

Omnichannel - thanks for another ugly word

This reminds me of the other equally overcharged word for 2014. Please stand up ‘omnichannel’ and take a bow.

This is a phrase borrowed from the retail sector. Given all the complexity of offline and online supply chain harmonisation to provide those ‘click and collect’ services which reached new peaks over this year’s Black Friday weekend, you could argue ‘omni-channel’ is well chosen.  

Unfortunately, contact centre vendors nicked it and made omni-channel another milestone beyond cross-channel and multichannel: concepts they had previously held out as being the Shangri-La of customer interaction.

However, shoehorning new vocabulary and kicking the can down the road is not the solution. We still need to understand why we keep failing to make the mark or be damned to repeat it. The core of it is that we are still missing a vital trick in all these infrastructure-led projects that promise a transformational impact.

We fail because of little to no investment in the behavioural change needed to support new infrastructure. I’ve seen this time and again. The technology and business teams lack alignment when they should be regularly sourcing and trialling changes to workflow, skills and daily routines that will deliver the ROI.

But neither brand nor vendor seem to get it.

I’ve challenged a number of the top vendors this year about the importance of providing affordable ‘value extraction’ services for their customers now that SaaS has commoditised all infrastructure features and enabled clients to churn for a better ‘mousetrap’. Where’s their differentiation? The new black is to make sure clients can use the stuff effectively. The same message applies to in-house tech teams as well. A totally obvious yet revolutionary concept to many.

Don’t forget about culture

We all know there has been some great work done on driving the dynamic between customer engagement and employee engagement. A visit to any apple store confirms this. Although the increasing length of service queues I see at their Convent Garden store looks like contact centres all over again to my eyes.

I recently chaired the financial services stream for’s annual conference. I have to say I was surprised and impressed with the sectors’ progress. As a single example, there is real momentum coming from Barclays’ digital eagles’ initiative. It’s breathing new energy internally and providing many opportunities to engage with the world at large. Can elephants dance? We shall see.

It’s usually tough for any organisation beyond its start up phase. This is a time typically fuelled with high levels of employee engagement based on a fluid, fast moving culture which is motivating to work in. Thereafter there seems to be an inevitable tension between bulking up in size and slimming down in risk taking. To avoid turning entirely sclerotic, organisations need to unlearn this habit.

The technology and business teams lack alignment when they should be regularly sourcing and trialling changes to workflow, skills and daily routines.

The Performance and Quality (P&Q) Challenge I’ve been running for contact centres since 2013 is a great example of one way to do this. Over six months each cohort develops the appetite and tactics for shaking up their cultural norms. Where they usually start from in that journey remains truly shocking to me.

Typically, it’s a rigid tick box exercise based on internally defined quality metrics. Of course, they know this is at odds with the ‘outside-in’ expectation of a personalised customer experience. But it’s caused through a lack of strategic alignment which then manifests as a proxy Mexican standoff between compliance and CX teams with the contact centre advisor and customer as meat in the sandwich.

I’m happy to report that the resulting P&Q strategies are dedicated to leaving these realities behind. It’s actually a huge cultural shift albeit from a very traditional base. For instance, none of the 100+ organisations that have taken part so far had used ‘voice of the advisor’ as part of their feedback and learning loop.

That might sound strange. Any outsider would immediately recognise that advisors must have valuable insight into what matters to customers. But the traditional efficiency culture does not recognise that value and prefers to target working harder than working smarter. That is until the P&Q Challenge unsettles the status quo.


My impression from the sum total on webinars, keynotes, conference chairing and master classes I’m involved in is that significant change is happening. 2015 was the year when the very early signs of a quantum leap in capability could be glimpsed.

Behind the scenes, it remains a real struggle. Organisational culture and ways of working are at odds with becoming ace at this next generation of customer service expectations.

The willingness is there. It’s just damned hard making it happen.



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