The viral impact of poor customer service

Social media has radically changed the relationship between customers and companies, tilting the balance of power towards the consumer. Poor experiences can now be transmitted around the world in seconds, hurting brand reputation and potential revenues.Viral Impact of poor customer service

US cable company Comcast is the latest business to find itself in the global spotlight, after a simple request from a customer to cancel his internet service turned into an ‘epic harangue’ from the agent, who refused to give up on persuading him to stay. A recording of the last 8 minutes of the 20 minute conversation has been heard to by an estimated 5 million people in just a few days, after it went viral via social media. You can listen to the call itself here.

Clearly, the customer service agent felt that he was doing his job, by trying to persuade the subscriber to stay, but his refusal to take no for an answer means that not only has Comcast lost one customer, but may potentially miss out on new subscribers, who decide to buy elsewhere. The company has since apologised for the agent’s behaviour and said it is investigating the incident.

Analysing the scenario, there are four lessons for every company to learn:

1. Put the right incentives in place
The agent was obviously incentivised to try and retain the customer, hence his increasingly desperate attempts to persuade them to stay. However, given it was obvious from the outset that he wanted to switch, the best course of action would have been to respond graciously and helpfully. That way there was the chance that the subscriber would come back to Comcast in the future. Incentives were obviously playing too much of a role in driving the wrong agent behaviour, and ended up being counter-productive.

2. Match staff to the right roles
One of the key skills a telephone agent requires is empathy – they need to demonstrate that they understand the customer point of view and take on board what they are saying. In this case the agent failed to take no for an answer or show any understanding of the caller’s situation. Some people have strong written skills, whereas others are more suited to verbal communication – match your staffs’ abilities to the right roles for them.

3. Provide multichannel options
It is classic business practice to make people cancel via a voice-based channel such as the telephone as it gives the opportunity to talk people out of their decision. However this has to be weighed against the annoyance and inconvenience it causes the customer – if you have to hold for a long time before being bullied into changing your mind, the customer service cost can outrank the retention gain. So offer multiple channels to make contact by, rather than forcing people onto the phone.

4. Remember the power of social media
A few years ago a conversation such as this would have been shared with family and friends. Now it is simple to record, disseminate and spread around the world, with coverage on major news sites and social media. Companies need to ensure that if the worst does happen, and a customer issue spreads rapidly, that they have the ability to monitor conversations and respond quickly before major damage is done.

When it comes to a customer service interaction going wrong, Comcast is not alone – there may well be thousands of similar issues at other companies that don’t make the same splash. This means organisations need to put in place the practices, systems and training to make sure that they both guard against giving poor service and also act swiftly to apologise for mistakes before they escalate further.

A Shock to the System?

Figures released this week by the Energy Ombudsman show that complaints against energy companies in the UK are at their highest ever level. They more than doubled, from 10,598 in the first six months of 2013 to 22,671 in the same period of 2014. 84% of complaints related to billing and this news follows previous large fines for misselling for a number of utilities.

Driven by a desire to open up the market to greater competition industryEptica Utility Customer Service regulator Ofgem has introduced new measures to make it easier to switch supplier and to simplify tariffs for customers. This includes the ability to move utility within three days by the end of 2014 – while next day switching will be in place by the end of 2018. Currently it can take five weeks to switch, including a two week cooling-off period where customers can change their minds.

All of these developments, along with consumer dissatisfaction at rising bills, put the spotlight on customer service. Making it easier to switch increases the power of customers, and they are likely to demand a better service to win and retain their business.

So, how is the utility industry faring, when it comes to the customer experience? The picture is mixed, according to the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study, which evaluated 10 leading UK utilities. It replicated consumer behaviour by measuring them on their ability to provide answers to ten routine questions via the web as well as their speed, accuracy and consistency when responding to email, Twitter and web chat.

The headline findings show a real difference between channels:

  • Utilities answered an average of 66% of routine questions on their websites, although this varied between companies. Three companies scored 80%, while two only answered three out of ten questions.
  • Email performance worsened. Just 40% of companies answered a question emailed to them, down from 70% in 2012.
  • The time taken to respond to email also deteriorated. One company took over 317 hours to reply – hardly helpful for next day switching. The fastest response was 6 hours 22 minutes.
  • Twitter was more promising, with 50% of companies successfully answered a tweeted question. The fastest took just 20 minutes, but the slowest replied in 95 hours 15 minutes.
  • At the time of the research no utility offered web chat, which is a proven way of delivering fast, personalised service to customers.
  • Consistency was also an issue. Two companies provided the same answer on two channels – others either failed to respond or gave different responses.
  • Channel choice was patchy. For example, one utility didn’t offer email to non-customers or have a Twitter handle, meaning that if consumers couldn’t find an answer on their website, they were forced to call the company to get an answer to their question.

The rising tide of consumer dissatisfaction and increasing legislation mean that customer service will be crucial to utilities in winning and retaining business moving forward. While some utilities are already providing fast, helpful service, there is a great variation between different channels and different companies. Utilities need to benchmark themselves against market leaders and ensure they are on the channels that their customers want to use – the time to act is now, before faster switching changes the competitive landscape forever.

The importance of the agent user experience to delivering customer engagement

Contact centre agents are at the front line of providing customer service, acting as the public face of an organisation. It is therefore critical to give them the training, tools and information they need to deliver a superior and joined-up customer experience.Contact Centre

However, as they have often grown in a channel-based, ad hoc manner, many contact centres struggle to integrate information from different systems or make it easily available to agents. The result? Agents are unable to deliver a consistent, fast response to customer queries, leading to longer calls, email backlogs, inefficient service, angry customers and demotivated staff.

Analysts and contact centre managers recognise the need to integrate information into a single repository that underpins all customer interactions. Forrester calls knowledge management “the jewel in the customer service crown”, for example. Centralising information raises customer satisfaction, ensures consistency and increases First Contact Resolution rates.

Giving agents the right information is only part of the solution. The systems that agents use have to be simple and intuitive to operate – they need to have the right tools at their fingertips to access information in an efficient, fast manner. The user experience (UX) is therefore critical to the customer experience (CX). So how can you deliver this?

Involving agents in system design
One straightforward way is to involve the agents themselves in the design and development of their systems – this delivers ownership and ensures that technology has the functions they need when doing their jobs. Two good examples of this are Eptica customers Domestic & General and NHS Business Services Authority (BSA).

Domestic & General has 6 million warranty customers in the UK. It needed to ensure its 1,400 front line agents provided excellent, efficient service, through access to consistent, comprehensive information when responding to callers. However, this information was stored in a paper based system meaning staff had to search physical folders to find answers to customer questions. The pace of service was hindered, reducing consistency and lowering First Contact Resolution rates. It transformed operations with a centralised knowledge management system from Eptica, but knew that ensuring agents used the knowledgebase was vital if customers were to benefit. Domestic & General gave the new system a high internal profile by branding the project as Fido and assigned a full time project team to work on the implementation. Fido aims to be the agents’ best friend when it comes to getting the answers they need.

This has helped drive adoption, as has a simple, intuitive interface that enables agents to provide comments and ratings on specific articles. Customer call times have been reduced by nearly a quarter (22%) and annual support and training costs have been lowered significantly. First Contact Resolution rates have increased, hold times halved and the time taken to train new agents has decreased by 20%.

Like Domestic & General, the NHS BSA, which is responsible for a wide range of healthcare administration services, heavily involved customer service agents in designing its system, which was named Sherlock. The information in Sherlock was collected through agent focus groups and was rolled out with a month of intensive training and feedback before it went fully live. Agents access information by simply typing questions into Sherlock and are able to flag where content needs updating with a single click. As well as 3,000 articles the system has useful phone numbers, desk aids and telephone messaging and a Buzz Area which lists updates to the knowledgebase by stream and time.

As in any area of technology, the user interface is constantly evolving. Consequently, we today introduced Eptica 9.1, the latest version of our multichannel customer interaction software suite. The focus for Eptica 9.1 has been on the user interface, with new features including:

  • Clearer layout, including adaptive width for messages and red borders for over-delayed requests
  • Improved agent response panel making it even more intuitive and easy to use
  • Re-styled controls with better contrast for improved accessibility
  • Modern, flat style icons and design with hover effect and re-skinned editor toolbar
  • Automatic, multi-language spell check that works as agents type

Organisations need to improve efficiency while meeting the increasing demands of customers. To achieve this, they need to empower agents with the right systems that make it simple to access information and deliver a consistent and fast service to customers. Therefore to achieve a better customer experience, start by improving the user experience for agents.

5 impacts that Amazon has had on customer experience

Last month Amazon turned twenty. In 1994 founder Jeff Bezos left his job, drove to Seattle and set up the business in his garage. Originally going to be called Cadabra (as in Abracadabra), the name changed to Amazon after fears that people would mishear it as “cadaver”. It now offers over 230 million separate items for sale in the US alone and had 2013 revenues of $74.5 billion.

Amazon has radically changed how consumers shop, read and watchamazon films, and affected a wide range of industries, from bookselling to video rental, and now, with the new Amazon Kindle Fire phone, mobile telecoms. So what have been the 5 key impacts on the customer experience?

1. Make it simple
As a web-based business Amazon has focused on making the customer journey as straightforward as possible. Ideas like One Click shopping (and now ordering via Twitter) ensure that the checkout process is fast and simple, without consumers having to re-enter credit card details or addresses. This also applies to customer service. If consumers have a query or want to return an item information is readily available and automated, with the maximum use of self-service, supported by channels such as web chat and email.

2. Share the experience
Amazon was the first company to introduce customer reviews and has made them central to the online shopping experience. Now, almost every retailer provides an opportunity to review the product that you have just bought – even down to a pack of nails from a DIY site, while most people won’t make a major purchase without checking relevant reviews on both products and the retailer itself.

3. Offer what customers want
Twenty years ago, customers were limited in what they could buy through the physical size of their local shops. The internet changed all of that, but led to the opposite problem – too much choice. Due to its size Amazon is able to capture a huge amount of data and uses it to deliver personalised offers and recommendations based on previous purchase history, tailoring information to particular customer needs.

4. Keep innovating
When Amazon started, people saw it solely as an online bookstore. However, this was never the long term goal – it was simply a start point to build customer trust in the then new experience of buying online. Since then Amazon has expanded far beyond retail – offering streaming services, digital downloads and physical hardware such as the Kindle ereader, Fire tablet and new Fire Phone. These not only integrate closely with the retail side of the business, but add innovative new features. For example, the Fire Phone has a near 3D screen and the ability to provide information on anything it sees or hears. Amazon has never rested on its laurels, and is continually moving forward.

5. Always put customers first
Compared to competitors with physical stores, Amazon operates on very low margins. From the beginning Jeff Bezos talked about being focused on customers, rather than competitors, and taking a long term view. It is rumoured that its core retail business just breaks even, and overall profits are still small compared to total revenues. Amazon’s strength is that it aims to think like a customer and provide what they want, building loyalty in a crowded market.

The internet has radically changed consumer behaviour over the last twenty years, widening choice and shifting the balance of power between companies and customers. Amazon has been at the heart of this and is helping reshape how we shop, both now and in the future.

Delivering patchy performance – UK retailers and customer service

The UK retail landscape has changed radically in the last ten years. The rise of the internet, new competition, increasingly demanding consumers and the slowdown caused by the recession have triggered the demise of many long-standing players, transforming the sector.

How are the UK’s top retailers coping with these challenges? To find out, the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study evaluated 40 leading UK retailers, spread across four sectors, food & wine, consumer electronics, entertainment and fashion. It measured them on their ability to provide answers to ten routine questions via the web as well as their speed and accuracy when responding to email, Twitter and web chat. Sample questions included:

  • Can I add items to an order before it is delivered?
  • Can I order online and pick up instore?
  • Do you have an ethical sourcing policy? If so, where can I find details?

The Study found wide variations between different sectors, channels and individual companies. These meant that while some retailers scored highly, the overall performance was patchy, with over a third of questions going unanswered online, via email or through Twitter. On a channel by channel basis, performance varied as follows:

  • On the web: Retailers topped the overall study (which also looked at the insurance, travel, consumer electronics manufacturers, utility, telecoms and banking sectors) when it came to answering questions on the web – but also brought up the rear. Fashion retailers scored an average of 79%, while entertainment and electronics retailers only managed 52%.10% of retailers scored 9 or 10, while 17.5% were only able to answer 3 or fewer questions. This means that whilst the overall average for retailers was 60% (up from 53% last year) – 4 out of ten questions are simply not being answered online.
  • Twitter: Over eight in ten (83%) of retailers are on Twitter, but just 33% responded successfully to tweeted questions and the average response time was slow at 13 hours 10 minutes. The fact that there was a 30% difference in performance between email and Twitter, even though the same question was asked on both, shows that the sector needs to share knowledge better between the two channels.
  • Email: Overall, 63% of retailers successfully answered a question emailed to them, a 10% improvement on the same study last year. Speed of email response had also improved dramatically – with an average time of 35 hours and 43 minutes (versus 67 hours last year) but this does mask enormous differences – one electronics retailer responded in 7 minutes, yet another in the same sector, took nearly ten days.
  • Web chat: When the research took place just three companies (8%) had web chat deployed, although others advertised on their web site and simply did not have it working at the time or have introduced it subsequently. Those that did offer chat, principally electronics retailers, benefited from its speed and flexibility – 83% of interactions received satisfactory answers in an average time of 4 minutes.

In an increasingly competitive market retailers should look at the following five key areas if they are to continue to meet rising customer expectations:

  1. Increase efficiency across channels: Retailers need to invest to improve efficiency by centralising customer service and automating as much as possible. Technology such as web self-service can deflect simple interactions to online channels, while advanced linguistic analysis can better understand incoming emails or tweets and suggest more relevant answers based on an understanding of language and context.
  2. Value customers’ time: Retailers need to deliver a multichannel response, answering questions quickly, on the customer’s channel of choice, powered by consistent, centralised knowledge. Retailers are advised to investigate new channels and devices such as mobile and social and ensure they have a presence on them that meets customer needs.
  3. Engage: To build loyalty and a deep relationship retailers need to engage with customers. Understand the customer journey and consumer expectations. Use linguistics to analyse and understand the questions people ask so that you can fine tune the experience to best meet their needs. Proactive web chat not only helps customers by quickly answering their queries but also increases engagement and drives additional sales.
  4. Benchmark the best: In a world where the internet increases competition and makes it easy for new entrants to launch, retailers need to be constantly improving. As a first step, companies should therefore benchmark their performance against immediate competitors. But they should also look further afield and review the wider market to spot new ideas that can be adapted and incorporated into operations, to increase differentiation and efficiency.
  5. Integrate with the business: Everyone is involved in the customer experience, from those working in shops to delivery drivers and senior management. Retailers are advised to work across departments to share information and link systems together to give an end-to-end view of the customer relationship. In the longer term linguistics can become part of the customer experience and information shared as part of a retailer’s big data strategy.

To download the study in full, including a sector-by-sector breakdown and to access further recommendations from Eptica please visit: http://www.eptica.com/Retail-Multichannel-Study-2014.html.

Building loyalty within the insurance sector: it’s not all about price

June 27, 2014 2 comments

In recent years, the consumer insurance market has changed out of all recognition. New channels such as the internet have transformed the landscape. Indeed, according to the Financial Conduct Authority, almost half of all internet users have researched motor insurance on price comparison websites, with 4 out of 5 of them going on to buy policies through them.LinkedIn_building_loyalty

Customer loyalty is a thing of the past and this is impacting the insurer’s bottom line. As reported by the Financial Times, in the last 19 consecutive years the UK motor insurance industry has failed to turn an underwriting profit. For every £1 earned through premiums, insurers are paying out £1.08 in claims and expenses.

The customer relationship deficit
In this challenging market, retaining customers becomes even more vital. However, research conducted in the United States by KBM Group suggests that only 38% of customers are strongly engaged with their insurers. 36% are moderately engaged and 27% report ‘weak’ levels of engagement. This makes the latter two groups even more prone to switching. Overall the report identifies a ‘customer relationship deficit’ for the entire industry.

On the upside it found that engagement boosts loyalty. Customers who feel ‘engaged’ by their insurance provider will accept a price differential of between 8 and 15 percent before they defect to the competition. Therefore the more ‘engaged’ customers feel, the more they will be prepared to pay before jumping ship. This means there is a significant business opportunity for any insurer that can differentiate itself and increase engagement.

How do we define an ‘engaged’ customer?
The research demonstrated that engaged customers are those who confidently agree with the following 3 statements:

  1. My insurer describes and promotes its products honestly
  2. My insurer treats me like a valued customer
  3. My insurer stands behind its promises.

The insurance lifecycle
Drilling down further, the research looked at the lifecycle experience from the very beginning of the purchase journey right up to the point of renewal (or end of customer relationship). It found the following critical factors that influence engagement levels and are demanded by customers:

  • Stage 1, the shopping experience: learning about the insurer’s products and having expectations met.
  • Stage 2, the buying experience:  applying for and purchasing a policy from the insurer—and, if necessary, reminding customers to complete the application and make the initial premium payment.
  • Stage 3, receiving the insurance policy and having initial questions answered by the insurer.
  • Stage 4, relationship building experience: receiving tips and newsletters, showing that the insurer cares.
  • Stage 5, the growing experience: looking out for the customer’s best interests—for example, by receiving recommendations from the insurer as needs and lifestyle change.
  • Stage 6, the service experience: receiving assistance from the insurer when solving a problem, such as billing issues or making a claim.
  • Stage 7, the renewal experience: asking if the customer’s needs have changed, looking for coverage gaps, or trying to find discounts to help the customer save.

The common theme with all of these is the ability to deliver fast, consistent and comprehensive information to customers and potential customers across multiple channels. Central to this is a focus on both strategy and process – establish a centralised knowledgebase of information, make sure that you are able to cope with every channel efficiently and effectively, and use customer interactions to tune your engagement strategy and products going forward. In particular, analyse what customers are asking and saying across digital channels to make sure you have a deep and engaged relationship.

Price may be a key factor in customer buying decisions when it comes to insurance, but relying on it alone can have a major impact on insurer’s bottom lines. Adopting a more customer-centric strategy based on the 7 lifecycle factors above could make all the difference, reinforcing loyalty, satisfaction and revenues at the same time.

Five projects to deliver Customer Engagement

Engaging with customers is one of the key challenges facing businesses today. Building and maintaining strong relationships across multiple devices and channels requires a combination of reactive and proactive processes in order to meet the needs of demanding customers.Eptica_Customer_Engagement

Gartner has talked extensively about the Customer Engagement Center (CEC), the replacement for the Contact Centre that it believes should underpin customer engagement. Its recent Magic Quadrant, which includes Eptica, provides a useful overview of the technologies and functionality needed in the CEC. Driven by the growth of CECs, Gartner sees the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market expanding, with a 13.7% increase in spending on IT last year.

In a recent blog post, Gartner Analyst Michael Maoz outlined 5 key projects to work on now to drive engagement, without necessarily committing to a new choice of IT architecture. The idea is that these deliver value and help improve the customer experience – without breaking the bank. The five are:

  1. Mobile – delivering a tailored experience and support to consumers using tablets and smartphones (I would add the Internet of Things here too).
  2. Empowering agents with the right context. Providing visibility beyond the interaction looking at emotion/sentiment analysis, customer value, past experience and likely reason for contact. This can be used to personalise responses and workflows, as well as setting priorities.
  3. Arming agents with the right information, providing consistent knowledge that can answer customer questions, whatever channel they use to make contact.
  4. Improved web experience for site visitors, including better search functionality, web chat and video answers amongst other features.
  5. Ability for agents to listen to customers on social media and engage with them more easily.

All of these are critical projects, and have a real impact on the customer experience. They also link directly to customer and organisational needs, making building a business case a lot easier than pitching a ‘big bang’ transformation project of the entire CEC architecture.

The good news, in my experience, is that you can build from each of these to produce more cohesive, efficient engagement. For example, a centralised knowledgebase that spans all channels will improve service levels on the web, mobile devices, social media, email and the phone. Technology such as linguistics will analyse incoming digital interactions and provide a guide to customer sentiment, as well as enabling the automation of routine enquiries by automatically suggesting relevant responses. None of these projects need to take years to implement – cloud-based systems (another growth area for Gartner), mean that deployment can be fast and flexible, yet able to expand to meet changing needs.

For those companies looking to improve customer engagement over the next 12 months, now is the time to review Gartner’s list and see if there are opportunities to benefit from these key projects.

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