Video chat – is it a contact centre technology?

October 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Companies and consumers are increasingly seeing the benefits of implementing live chat. It drives engagement while providing an efficient, fast channel to answer customer queries. Consumers like it as they can engage on chat while still doing other things, making it unobtrusive compared to the telephone or email and fitting in well with their busy lives. The Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study found that web chat satisfactorily answered 93.5% of questions asked, and that the average session length was just 4 minutes and 29 seconds. Agents can participate in multiple chats at the same time, increasing efficiency compared to channels such as voice. Consequently more and more organisations are implementing live chat on their websites.eptica_video_chat

Many commentators and analysts are now looking beyond traditional text, to video-based chat. There are three reasons behind this:

  1. The technology is mature from both the customer and corporate point of view – almost every PC and mobile device has a built in camera and broadband/3G speeds are able to transmit high resolution moving pictures without undue break up or jitter.
  2. The rise of video calling through services such as Skype and Facetime means that consumers understand and are comfortable with video as a channel.
  3. A picture is worth a thousand words. People relate to seeing other people and engage more deeply than through text-based channels.

However, amidst all the talk of video chat I’d argue that it is much more part of the sales process rather than acting as a customer service channel. There are significant cons to go with the pros outlined above:

  1. One of the advantages of text-based chat is that agents can manage multiple chats at once. Obviously this isn’t possible with video chat, as the agent has to give his or her full attention to the viewer, rather than sharing it amongst multiple chat sessions.
  2. Staff skills. All agents are ambassadors for your brand, but generally they are not visible to the consumer that they are in contact with. So they can wear what they like and appearance is not an issue. Video chat is different, so you have to be sure that your agents are comfortable with appearing in the flesh and have the skills to engage with consumers through video.
  3. Most contact centres are busy and noisy places – there’s no way you’d want agents to be taking video calls in the middle of crowded offices. Therefore companies offering video chat may need to set up separate spaces, adding to cost and limiting the numbers of agents that can answer video calls at once.

Where video chat fits really well into the customer journey is during the sales phase. I’ve seen some really strong examples where this works. For example, a large US electronics retailer offered video chat that connected consumers directly to in-store staff. They could then take products from the shelf, unbox them and demonstrate them to the interested consumer, enabling them to view the item from all angles and get a real feel for it. Essentially it provided the in-store experience, without the consumer needing to leave their PC.

Another example is in high end fashion retail. Staff could bring out clothes from the warehouse, enabling customers to virtually examine them, giving advice and feedback to help make a choice.

What is important is that both of these examples are pre-purchase and actively help customers to make a choice and spend money with a particular company in a way that meets their individual needs. They are very valuable parts of the sales process, rather than customer service.

So, from my experience, video chat can be extremely powerful in specific situations – however it shouldn’t be part of your mainstream contact centre activities. It is a specific channel and needs to be handled in a special way, with its own staff and objectives if it  is to deliver real benefits to customers and your wider organisation.

What are your views and experiences? I’d welcome feedback and thoughts in the comments section below.

Why good customer experience starts with employees

October 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Consultancy Nunwood has just released its latest research into the experience and service offered by UK companies. Based on feedback from 7,500 consumers on 263 brands, it highlights individual success and overall trends in the UK customer experience.eptica_employees

The picture it offers is patchy. From the boardroom down, companies recognise the importance of the customer experience to their ongoing success. The best performers are getting better, but a large number of organisations and sectors are not improving – or are even performing worse than in 2013. This conclusion mirrors our own findings in the most recent Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study, which identified a widening chasm between leaders and laggards.

From reading the report, here are my top 5 conclusions:

1. The customer experience begins with staff
Companies that recruit and retain evangelical, engaged employees are those that deliver a superior experience to customers. First Direct, the number one ranked company within the study, was praised for its friendly, empowered staff who combined knowledge and empathy with the ability to make discretionary decisions. First Direct recruits almost half of new staff through existing employees, and rather than looking at the financial services industry, tends to look at those with experience in the care and hospitality sectors.

2. Customer experience is a long-term project
Senior management understand the importance of the customer experience – it has moved from theory into practice. But it is not necessarily easy to make changes without a long-term strategy – consequently companies that are beginning projects now may not see any benefits until 2016. Rapid improvements are possible (as seen by the entry of Nationwide and ao.com into the top 10), but this requires targeted investment in capabilities and culture.

3. The best are getting better
Generally the top 10 brands have increased their lead over others in their industries. Across all 263 brands surveyed the overall improvement in performance was just 0.6%, while the likes of First Direct saw scores increase by 3-4%. Clearly many laggards are not moving forward. In highly competitive markets this is bound to impact their ability to thrive in comparison with better performing peers.

Again, like the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study, some sectors are rising faster than others. Financial services (up 2.2%) and entertainment and leisure (1% higher) all improved at a faster rate than the average. In contrast utilities (down 0.8%) and grocery retail (which recorded a 0.1% drop) all took a step backward compared to 2013.

4. Customer experience is a key differentiator
Consumers are increasingly demanding, meaning they expect the best possible experience from every company they deal with. Fail to deliver and they will move elsewhere. Consequently those brands that do not stand out for customer experience risk losing business to rivals, no matter how excellent the rest of their operations are.

5. Companies need to understand what excellence looks like
Given it is a relatively new discipline for many brands, it can be difficult for them to set strategic goals and objectives. Working with a framework, such as Nunwood’s Six Pillars of Customer Excellence (personalisation, expectations, time & effort, integrity, resolution and empathy), gives direction to programmes and helps with measurement on the journey. You can read more about the Six Pillars in this previous Eptica blog.

As the Nunwood study points out, customer experience is now top of the management agenda for companies in all industries. Consequently it is time for laggards to invest in order to improve performance if they are to compete with customer champions in the long term.

Delivering knowledge everywhere

October 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Smart organisations realise that the customer experience is the responsibility of everyone within the company that comes into contact with consumers. From frontline staff within branches or stores, through product experts and marketing teams adding content to websites, to senior management, all have a role to play in winning and retaining customers through superior service.eptica_knowledge

But how do you ensure that all staff have the tools to do the job? The first step is obviously to create processes that span the customer journey and train everyone involved, whatever their department, to work together to make the experience trouble-free. Customer experience/service targets should be set that are relevant to the consumer (rather than simply being business metrics), and monitoring should be put in place to make sure that standards are met.

However, these steps are akin to building a car. Without petrol it simply won’t go, no matter how polished and shiny it is. When it comes to customer experience, knowledge is what powers successful organisations, meaning that it needs to be relevant, current and consistent, and then shared as widely as possible across departments and staff. Centralising knowledge will help ensure this consistency and also drive efficiency. Companies need to create a single, intelligent knowledgebase and then make it easy for it to be accessed and updated, whatever the channel and irrespective of whether it is going to be used by staff or customers.

So how can you take knowledge outside the contact centre? From our work with customers here are 5 different areas where knowledge everywhere delivers business results.

1. Mobile workforce

More and more companies rely on a mobile workforce of engineers and installers making house calls. In many cases this is the only time a customer actually meets a company representative, meaning they are very much an ambassador for your brand. Knowledge, both of the individual customer situation and the technical information they need to rectify any issues, is therefore critical. Arm your mobile workforce with access to your centralised knowledgebase and customer information to ensure that any faults are fixed quickly and customer satisfaction maximised

2. At the Point of Sale

Customers expect the same, consistent information when they are in a retail store, browsing its associated website or simply on the telephone to the retailer’s contact centre. Consequently, it is important to extend access to your knowledgebase to retail staff, either through mobile devices such as tablets or by using the existing technology infrastructure of point of sales devices such as tills.

3. Within the wider enterprise

At Eptica we’ve heard tales of staff moving from customer service departments to other parts of the business, who have pleaded to retain access to the customer service knowledgebase. This demonstrates the power that consistent information can have to help people do their jobs across the business, so make it available to all who need it and extend the range of answers within it to cover all their functional areas by continuously monitoring the types of questions and requests for information. Customers don’t see departmental silos within your business – so make sure knowledge enables you to give fast answers to their queries, whoever they ask.

4. Across the web

The Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study found that 53% of companies now have web self-service systems that make it easy for customers to find fast answers online. This is a positive move, and the next step is to ensure that web self-service is available everywhere on your site. For example, use clearly marked question boxes that can be accessed without having to leave a particular page or provide a simple way of asking a question during the customer journey. You can even tailor your knowledgebase to give context sensitive help – suggesting questions and answers dependent on where consumers are on the site.

5. With partners

Few companies manage their complete supply chain. Many outsource part of the customer service function, while others use third party logistics companies to make deliveries or handle returns. Just because these organisations are outside the building is no reason that they can’t have access to either the whole or selected parts of your knowledgebase. This makes the entire process seamless and consistent – after all, in the customer’s eyes you are who they are buying from, so they expect you to deliver, whether it is directly or via partners.

Knowledge is a central part of delivering the customer experience that today’s consumers demand – companies therefore need to make sure it is available everywhere if they want to thrive.

Getting senior level buy-in for customer experience

October 8, 2014 1 comment

Senior management in today’s businesses are now much more aware of customer experience (CX) and what it means. However, while they may increasingly understand the term and grasp its importance, ensuring that they actively support programmes designed to change and improve the customer experience in their organisation can still be a challenge.

eptica_senior_buy_inWhat do you need to do to get senior management buy-in for CX initiatives?  Here are three key areas to consider:

1. Gain management attention
The first step is to develop a strong, formal business case for your CX project. What may seem obvious to you needs to be spelled out in language that senior management understand if you want to gain their backing. Do ensure you take these points into consideration too:

  • Tailor the message to your audience
    The motivations of senior management will differ according to the type of organisation – private or public sector, publicly quoted or not and which market sector. Make sure you use business level language, models and terms they understand to back up your case for investment.
  • Build your case from scratch
    Management won’t sign off a budget on your word alone, so use third party endorsement to back up your case. For example, what are industry analysts saying about similar projects? If installing new software or hardware, your preferred supplier (and their customers) should provide evidence of business benefits.
  • Be flexible and under commit
    Make sure that you present a flexible model for CX that can evolve as business priorities change. Adopt a phased approach so that the project can gain buy-in and generate momentum. Ensure you under commit on the numbers so that any business changes don’t completely undermine your case. Go for early wins that validate what you are doing and guarantee future investment.

2. Making it real
Many senior business people already buy-in to the idea of treating customers well but they don’t always change their behaviour or encourage their staff to make changes. To overcome this hurdle, CX professionals need to move on from requesting their support to outlining how individual executives can make real changes. Many managers are unsure about what they personally should do, so it’s important to explain the detail of a detailed CX programme and highlight the activities that each department or team needs to adopt.

3. Use persuasion and repetition
One major challenge is to persuade business executives to change their behaviour in line with CX initiatives. As Forrester analyst Megan Burns says, ‘persuasion happens one-on-one, not in big meetings’. A single rousing speech or packed board meeting will rarely change executive behaviour overnight, no matter how strong the content. CX professionals need to work hard at getting to know individual executives, identifying what matters to them and pitching the CX story so that it complements their point of view. Constant repetition of the CX message will help people digest it a little at a time. While this sounds like hard work, it is what’s needed to create meaningful culture change.

Customer experience is consistently ranked at the top of CEO and senior management priority lists. They see the benefits – but this doesn’t mean they understand the changes that need to be made or the budgets that have to be allocated. Think like a manager, speak their language and build one to one relationships to transform awareness into concrete action.

Celebrating 30 years of National Customer Service Week

Whatever the industry, customers now have more choices than ever before. The balance of power between companies and consumer has shifted dramatically due to increased competition, the ability to share bad experiences instantly on social media as well as higher expectations of service. As a consequence, companies that have built their brands and reputations on rock solid customer service are flourishing. Even organisations that previously were accused of neglecting customer service have changed tack and reinvented their brand to be more customer friendly.eptica_celebrating_nat_cust_week

Customer service keeps a substantial proportion of the UK workforce employed. Some 70% of us perform roles that involve dealing directly with customers and the service sector generates around 78% of the UK’s GDP. This importance is reflected in National Customer Service Week, organised by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), which takes place next week, between 6th – 10th October.  Originating in America, it’s now celebrating its 30th birthday with events worldwide dedicated to celebrating and improving customer service.

National Customer Service Week day by day
Eptica is a strong supporter of National Customer Service Week and we’re seeing our customers really using it to focus their efforts on celebrating and improving the role of service within their organisation. This year sees the week grouped into different themes for each day:

  • Monday 6th October is dedicated to understanding your customer. With changes in technology and channels transforming how customers interact with organisations, organisations and employees need to develop new skills and capabilities. Recommendations for the day include focusing on who your customers are, what channels they use, what their requirements are – and how this will change in the future.
  • Tuesday 7th October asks organisations how easy they are to do business with, across every channel. Can consumers find the information they need and do your processes make it easy for everyone within the organisation to work together? One way of testing this is to carry out your own mystery shopper research to see how your customers are treated when they contact you across every channel.
  • Wednesday 8th October will assess how effective organisations are when dealing with problems and complaints and whether they have the right processes in place. Do agents have the right training and how do you respond to a major crisis? Use the day to test your abilities, and benchmark against other organisations across your own and other sectors.
  • Thursday 9th October looks at the business impact of customer service. How do you measure this and what is the involvement of senior management in customer service? Firms are encouraged to take a quiz which highlights a few trends and facts that many won’t be aware of.
  • Friday 10th October is about recognising individuals within an organisation that have gone the extra mile to help customers in need. For example, you could run an awards ceremony to highlight star performers providing a chance to celebrate the best and an opportunity to encourage their behaviour across your organisation.

Redoubling efforts in light of declining customer satisfaction levels
To get ready for National Customer Service Week, the ICS has suggested a variety of activities that companies can carry out with their staff including pub quizzes, events, surveys, satisfaction surveys and a complaints master class. All of these activities are designed to address the stark fact that over the last 18 months customer satisfaction levels have fallen in 12 out 13 sectors, according to the ICS’s UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI).

It’s never been more important to redouble efforts to deliver the best customer experience. Consumers want faster, more comprehensive service across more and more channels – and have no qualms about taking their custom elsewhere. Whilst we can’t predict the future, it’s highly likely that the next 30 years will see even more challenging conditions for companies.  Let’s use this week to prepare to meet this test by boosting long-term customer satisfaction levels.

5 Areas to focus on for customer engagement

September 26, 2014 Leave a comment

eptica_key_themesThis week’s Eptica Customer Day brought together customer service professionals from multiple sectors, enabling them to compare best practice and learn from each other.  It was also a great opportunity to tap into the experience that Eptica has gained working on multichannel customer experience strategies and implementations around the world. My thanks again to all those who attended, in particular to our keynote speaker Adrian Swinscoe and guest speakers Andrew Babbage from Laithwaite’s Wine and Sue Turk and Matt Bailey from Bristol Wessex Billing Services Limited, who presented case studies on the benefits they are receiving by using Eptica.

Looking at the day as a whole, I saw five themes that ran through the conversations and presentations:

1. Customer service should be everywhere
The traditional view of customer service is that it is solely the responsibility of the contact centre. Given its central importance to every organisation this is starting to change, meaning that more and more companies are benefiting by joining up customer service systems, processes and knowledge with the entire business. Examples included integrating with back office functions (such as delivery systems), to remove silos – by doing this Laithwaite’s Wine has reduced back office costs. Other companies are sharing knowledge management systems across departments, and extending it to front line employees, such as shop staff, who can access it via tablets or point of sale technology.

2. Focus on the marginal gains
As Adrian Swinscoe pointed out in his keynote presentation, minor improvements can make a huge difference to the customer experience. He recommends that companies need to adopt British Cycling’s approach of aggregating marginal gains, looking at where they can make multiple, small improvements that together add up to major advances. This extends to technology as well – optimising Eptica’s software through regular reviews and talking to agents can reap big gains in efficiency and service levels.

3. Chat is coming
The benefits of chat are increasingly recognised. It combines the immediacy of the telephone, with the audit trail and written strengths of email in a channel that is easy to use by consumers. More and more organisations are therefore either trialling or rolling out web chat, and are looking at how best to deploy it within their multichannel infrastructure. There was much talk about video chat and whether that will deliver additional benefits when it comes to the customer experience, balancing cost against the additional engagement it provides.

4. Put your agents first to get best results
Contact centre staff are not robots.  They need to be provided with the right tools, information and training if they are to both do their best and remain motivated. Their skills and inclinations vary – some are better on the phone, while others prefer written communication channels. The vital thing is to understand their individual strengths and give them the opportunity to focus on what they are best at, while still ensuring that all types of interaction are successfully covered. One idea to keep agents happy was for the whole team to focus on a particular area (such as complaints) in the morning, before handling more positive communications in the afternoon.

5. The call centre is dead
The traditional telephone only call centre is on the way out. Today, companies need to offer a full range of channels to their customers if they want to retain them. Importantly, introducing new channels, such as social media or inbound SMS, can’t be at the expense of shutting down older ways of making contact. Indeed, some companies still receive a large percentage of interactions through the post – while others are actually implementing fax for the first time to meet customer demand. Consumers will judge you by the channels you offer, so cover all your target demographics and be driven by customer requirements.

Whatever sector you are in, the customer experience has never been more critical to business success. As the discussions at the Eptica Customer Day showed, companies that invest in improving customer service are seeing real benefits when it comes to greater loyalty, increased efficiency and closer engagement with consumers. The day sparked some great discussions, and I look forward to next year’s event to see how our customers have further enhanced the customer experience within their organisations.

Reducing complaints in the water industry

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

At a time when consumers are getting ever more demanding, it is good to see that complaints have fallen over the last year in one sector. According to the Consumer Council for Water, an industry watchdog, written complaints made by customers to their water providers have fallen by 18% in 2013/14 compared with the previous year in England and Wales. While four water companies did record a rise in complaints, in total the number of complaints across the industry, which stands at 123,218, is the lowest since the CCW was formed in 2005.eptica_being_water

The CCW did however warn that this momentum could be lost if water companies failed to deliver affordable bills. Which is why it is good news that industry regulator Ofwat has introduced plans for water companies to keep price rises below the cost of living  with customers expected to be paying on average of 5% less, before inflation is applied, by 2019-20.

One of the drivers to improved customer satisfaction in the sector is likely to have been the Service Incentive Mechanism (SIM), a customer service metric introduced by Ofwat in 2012.  SIM is designed to encourage better service across the sector, combining quantitative and qualitative data to measure the experience of customers who have contacted their water company. The results for each utility are then ranked, allowing customers to compare the performance of different water companies.

Delivering an improved customer experience
The data from the CCW demonstrates that it can be possible to balance increased investment, customer satisfaction and reduce prices at same time.

So what are the lessons for organisations in other sectors? How can companies increase customer satisfaction and retain business? One of the keys is technology – by centralising knowledge and making it easy to access, companies can ensure that they provide a consistent, well-informed, efficient and accurate response to customer queries.

This is the approach taken by Bristol Wessex Billing Services Limited (BWBSL), the joint venture that handles billing customer service for Bristol Water and Wessex Water. BWBSL, who spoke at this week’s 2014 Eptica Customer Day, has implemented Eptica’s dynamic, self-learning, knowledge management software to deliver fast, consistent, accurate answers to telephone customer service enquiries for each company.

The Eptica software enables customer service staff to type in customer questions in plain English and then quickly access answers, ready to pass onto callers. This is helping to increase First Contact Resolution (FCR) and reduce Average Handle Times (AHT).

Here are four lessons for organisations who want to improve customer experience (CX) and satisfaction levels:

  • Centralise knowledge. Create a single knowledgebase and make it available across multiple channels. Ensure it is easy to update – content doesn’t stand still.
  • Expectations are always rising. Keep looking at areas to improve, such as new channels and touchpoints that customers are adopting. Don’t just benchmark against direct competitors but look further afield. Customers judge you against the best CX they receive, irrespective of industry.
  • Introducing better customer service operations often increases efficiency. For example, letting customers access answers themselves using self-service technologies can improve First Contact Resolution rates, cutting costs by reducing the number customer calls/emails and reducing the need to follow up interactions.
  • The customer experience is a differentiator – even in regulated industries, customers engage more, are more loyal and complain less to regulators.

We live in a world where consumers are increasingly active and vocal if they receive poor service. The lessons from the water industry are clear – by focusing investment on the customer experience and using technology to support agents, it is possible to improve service levels and reduce complaints.

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