There are lots of stories about companies that have delighted their customers. Take Sainsbury’s renaming its Tiger Bread based on feedback from a three year old girl that it looked more Giraffe-like or US restaurant Morton’s Steakhouse delivering a meal to an arriving passenger who tweeted, asking to be met by a porterhouse at Newark Airport.
Examples like this are undoubtedly good PR and can really humanise a brand for the wider market. However it’s the more prosaic day to day treatment of a customer which ultimately makes the difference in highly competitive markets. As an article in the Harvard Business Review argues, consumers switch suppliers because of terrible service as soon as they can. Whether it is an airline losing their bags, a utility with long hold times, a retailer that is rude or a delivery that fails to turn up when they wait in, customers will increasingly use their power to move to a competitor.
That’s not to say that customers don’t want to be delighted, but as Forrester points out, it’s more important for them to feel their time is valued. In a recent study by Forrester, 77% of consumers said that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good online customer service, significantly up by six percent from 2012.
Customers want every interaction to be smooth, clear, seamless and fast. This means that efficiency and consistency should be the first goals. ‘Delight’ can then follow as a potential added bonus. However this is often easier said than done given the scale of customer interactions, across more and more channels. So what do companies need to do? Rather than focusing on delight, it should start with getting the basics right and making the process of ordering or interacting with a company as effortless as possible.
Forrester points to 4 steps that can make the difference.
- Invest in making it easy for customers. Simply installing technology such as web self-service and virtual agents is not enough. Companies need to look at best practices to keep content relevant and straightforward, helping customers to get what they need with minimum effort.
- Build a multichannel platform. 69% of US online consumers want to be able to move between virtual and physical customer service channels, without needing to repeat themselves.
- Standardise the experience across channels. Ensure that every customer interaction, irrespective of media type, is queued, routed, and managed in the same manner and with access to the same information for consistency.
- Help your agents help customers. Give agents all the information they need (such as access to customer records) so that they can deliver personalised experiences based on understanding and context.
Much of this may sound like basic common sense but it’s amazing how frequently companies do get this wrong. With more and more interactions happening across multiple digital channels the situation is becoming increasingly complicated and existing customer teams are often overwhelmed by the number and frequency of interactions. So, rather than focusing on delighting customers every time, first look at respecting their time and delivering what they are looking for seamlessly, if you want to strengthen engagement and build loyalty.
The first secure ecommerce transaction took place 20 years ago when a lucky shopper paid $12.48 plus shipping to buy Sting’s album, Ten Summoner’s Tales, from NetMarket. From these small beginnings online sales have grown to hit £93 billion in the UK last year, according to IMRG, and are expected to top £100 billion in 2014.
How we shop today is radically different to 1994, changing the retail sector completely and reshaping the competitive landscape. ‘New entrants’, such as Amazon, have grown to become billion dollar corporations, while many long-established high street names have disappeared.
Aside from the benefits to consumers in terms of greater choice and lower prices, ecommerce has driven 3 major changes that have impacted business, particularly retail.
1. Customers demand more
The balance of power between companies and their customers has shifted. The combination of greater competition and the advent of social media means that consumers can easily switch supplier, as well as share their experiences on social media. This doesn’t just apply to retail – customers are demanding more from every organisation they deal with, from utilities and banks to government departments. No matter what sector you are in, you are judged by the same standards as the best performing organisations, so you need to ensure you are benchmarking against them and improving to provide what customers want.
2. The customer experience is paramount
Twenty years ago, the experience received by customers was patchy. Some high street shops were renowned for poor and unhelpful service, but as consumers had little choice, little was done to improve the experience. Indeed, the term customer experience was little known back in 1994. Its importance has developed in parallel with ecommerce, across every channel and sector.
Now, in today’s multichannel world, shoppers expect the same, consistently high, levels of service in-store as online, or over the phone. At the same time, the recent recession has focused retailers on better understanding their customers and delivering what they want, no matter how they make contact. The technology and tools are available to empower staff with the right information to provide this, helping to retain customers and build brand loyalty.
3. Integration is vital
At many points over the last two decades experts have predicted the end of the high street, with all retail sales moving to online channels. This has obviously not happened, and with the growth of click and collect services and flagship stores, physical shops have never been more vital. However, what is crucial is that all these channels are integrated to meet customer needs. Shoppers might browse the web on their mobile, place an order through their PC and then pick the item up in a shop or return an ecommerce purchase in-store. Consumers want the ability to switch channels dependent on their circumstances and needs, meaning that retailers need to integrate their operations to ensure a seamless, cross-channel experience that is centred on the customer.
Expect to see equally radical change in retail over the next 20 years, as new channels, and distribution mechanisms, build on the foundations of ecommerce. However, what won’t change is the need to focus on the customer – delivering the right experience across the multichannel journey. Organisations in all sectors therefore need to put in place the framework to manage every channel holistically, underpinned with consistent information based on customer needs. By doing this, they will be able to build lasting relationships that increase loyalty and revenues, now and in the future.
In increasingly competitive markets, customers look for experiences that match their expectations and needs. Essentially this means that as consumers continue to become more savvy at researching and comparing brands, companies need to realise that when it comes to customer experience, they need to create a brand promise and deliver on it. After all we live in a world filled with technology-empowered consumers who have access to more information on brands than ever before.
It is worth remembering that creating a customer experience that delivers is not just the preserve of luxury or elite brands. For example, the top 100 UK brands for customer experience, ranked by customer experience consultancy, Nunwood, includes everything from airlines and department stores to discount supermarkets – all of whom succeed in delivering on their brand promise.
A recent Forrester CX Forum highlights the attributes that brands require if they want to generate brand resonance in today’s markets. Forrester call their methodology the TRUE Brand Compass Framework, in which TRUE stands for Trusted, Remarkable, Unmistakable, and Essential:
- Trusted: because companies need to earn trust from consumers by being transparent and accountable
- Remarkable: because by doing things differently in a way that disrupts the market inspires consumers to talk about companies
- Unmistakable: because companies should strive to be the one and only at doing things the way they do them
- Essential: because companies should try to become irreplaceable in the lives of their customers
So how can a company become TRUE? There are three parts to delivering an excellent customer experience that supports the brand:
To begin, an organisation needs to create a corporate culture that supports the brand. For example at Mercedes USA , which operates through 362 franchise dealerships in the USA, the company worked to ensure that all staff fully understand the brand and what it stood for. All employees had the chance to drive Mercedes models and were invited to visit the company’s factories to see the quality standards it followed and wanted to extend to dealer staff. “Customer experience follows employee experience,” according to Steve Cannon, president and CEO of Mercedes Benz USA, “and that’s why you’ve got to start in your own buildings, folks”.
Customer service staff are also central to delivering a positive customer experience. Firstly ensure you have the right employees in place, secondly that they have been trained to understand your brand, and finally that they have the skills for their role. For example, some agents have strong verbal skills so need to be working on voice-based channels, while others fit better on written channels, such as email and social media.
Staff, no matter how motivated, can’t give consistently high levels of service without access to the right tools and information. Customer service employees need to be supported by a system that integrates information and knowledge into a single repository that underpins all customer interactions across multiple channels. Centralising knowledge raises customer satisfaction, ensures consistency and increases First Contact Resolution rates. In fact, Forrester calls knowledge management “the jewel in the customer service crown”.
The user experience (UX) of the customer service agent is therefore critical to the customer experience (CX). The systems that customer service agents use must be simple and intuitive to operate, providing them with the tools to access information in an efficient, consistent and fast manner.
Consumer expectations of brands are continually increasing. In many sectors there is little to differentiate between similar products, meaning that the customer experience can make the difference. Companies must therefore strive to be well-positioned on the Forrester TRUE Brand Compass, have employees that truly ‘buy-in’ to the brand promise and well trained customer service teams equipped with the tools to service consumer needs.
All organisations understand that customers go on a journey when they interact with them. However, this is rarely a straightforward trip, but more of an expedition with twists and turns, ups and downs, spanning many channels.
Along this journey, Jeff Toister, the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It – identifies three critical ‘Moments of Truth’ for customers which have a pivotal effect on the customer relationship. It’s an interesting take which digs in to the psychology of often unpredictable customer behaviour:
1. The ‘Welcome’
This is the first impression which sets the tone for the rest of the experience. Customers often suffer from ‘confirmation bias’ which causes them to selectively (and unconsciously) filter information based on whether or not it fits with their expectations. This bias can strike even before the customer has had any direct contact with the organisation – they might for instance be annoyed at having to negotiate a complex telephone system or get caught in traffic en-route to the shop. Whatever the reason the organisation needs to anticipate this and over compensate for this by going out of their way to offer an ‘outstanding’ first impression – ‘good‘ simply isn’t enough.
2. The Peak
The part of the experience that represents the greatest difference from the norm – either positively or negatively. Toister argues that we don’t notice good service. We only notice service that’s different from what we expect, which is what the peak represents. Therefore the argument suggests that by offering truly exceptional customer service there is a big opportunity to make a positive impression which can ripple way beyond an individual customer’s experience and even go viral via social media. Of course, the reverse is true – a poor, substandard impression spreads even quicker.
3. The Farewell
This is the last impression that the customer is left with and therefore the one that will last the longest. This is also the most critical point of the journey since the customer is now in a position to make a choice in whether they will interact with the company again, as well as publicise their experience through word of mouth, online reviews or social media. At the very least the farewell helps them decide if they’ll buy from your company again.
Even if we don’t agree with all of Toister’s points, most of us can probably see elements that make sense. So how can we apply it in our day to day roles?
For the ‘welcome’ the key point is to replicate customer behaviour and really seek to understand the customer experience – test, test and test again. If, as with the example above, the telephone IVR is overly complicated then try to simplify it or find another way of doing things. Benchmark against competitors and if there are elements of best practice elsewhere then look to see how it can work for your organisation – there is no shame in adapting winning elements.
Data is key to uncovering pain points. For example, if people keep calling or emailing with questions at a certain point in the process, analyse this to see whether there are any common threads. Are they confused by a particular part of your site or the language you are using? If that’s the case then you need to make changes to your website or the information you display. If you can’t amend something (for example it is a legal requirement to display particular wording), make sure you have tailored help available to get customers over the hump in the journey. Proactive web chat for instance could kick in if people spend a certain amount of time stuck on a page or tailored self-service help could appear on the page itself.
It’s never been more important to be consistent. We live in a multichannel world and it’s vital we make sure the experience matches across every channel. Using a centralised knowledgebase that’s kept up to date online and provides the same answers directly to customers via online channels and to agents answering email, phone enquiries and questions over social media is one way of maintaining that. It means whichever channel a customer uses the answer is the same every time.
As Toister alludes to, customers have become ever more demanding when dealing with organisations. Mapping and testing your customer experience is key to ensuring customers enjoy and complete their journey as well as build a lasting relationship with your organisation.
Cross-channel sales, also known as web-influenced sales, are purchases that are touched by a digital channel but are not completed online. According to US data from Forrester, cross-channel sales are becoming increasingly important and are worth four times more in total than online sales alone. In fact, the analyst estimates that cross-channel sales will reach $1.8 trillion by 2018.
A big part of this new trend involves people using mobile devices at the pre-shop phase to gather more information about products and comparing different options before they buy. Often this is while they are actually in-store ahead of making an online purchase.
That’s not to say that mobile sales conversions are not rising also. According to UK figures from IMRG, much of the £91bn shoppers spent online in 2013 was driven by mobile commerce, with over a quarter (27%) of internet sales coming directly from tablets and smartphones.
So consumers are increasingly more inclined to both use their mobile devices in-store ahead of making offline purchases, as well as using their tablets and smartphones to buy online.
Consequently retailers need a clear mobile strategy that is integrated into the customer journey if they are not to fall behind.
This isn’t just about retailers having a mobile optimised web site. Retailers need to think about the wider customer experience. Questions to consider include:
- Do they provide free Wi-Fi in-store to make it easier to engage with customers on mobile devices?
- Do they know the type of information in-store customers tend to look for on their mobile devices – and is it quickly available on their sites?
- Are online assistants armed with up to date information?
- Can customers scan barcodes for more information?
- Do you provide money off coupons via mobile?
- Is it easy for customers to see view social media conversations about specific products?
Looking forward, here are four key areas to consider, when developing mobile strategies that cater for cross-channel sales:
- Ensure frequently needed information, such as store details, product stock levels etc, are easy to find using small screen devices
- Help customers get fast answers to their questions by extending technologies such as web self-service and proactive chat to mobile
- Use the location information available for mobile devices to help give customers a more personalised experience
- Ensure mobile is integrated with other channels, such as the web and telephone, so customers are not forced to repeat themselves or re-enter information
The indications are that mobile-driven cross-channel sales are going to be the new normal. Retailers must therefore ensure they incorporate it within their plans for developing the customer experience moving forward.
When interacting with organisations, customers value convenience, speed and consistency above all. Self-service systems deliver in all three of these areas, which is leading to their widespread adoption on the web. But self-service isn’t stopping there. Advances in speech recognition and voice to text technology mean that companies are beginning to look beyond websites to applying self-service to channels such as the telephone, in the contact centre and to apps on mobile devices. This convergence opens up new opportunities for engagement and improving the customer experience.
At present however the web is the primary channel for many consumers looking to interact with organisations through self-service. Whether accessing websites via traditional PCs or mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones, the web is an intrinsic part of the relationship between customers and brands. According to Forrester 52% of consumers say they will abandon an online purchase if they can’t find an answer quickly to their question. Essentially, consumers don’t want to have to switch channels to get a response, which means that companies need to invest in technologies such as web self-service to deliver the right customer experience.
Natural language powered web self-service makes it easy for customers to get answers to their questions, with minimum effort and maximum accuracy. It goes beyond static FAQ pages or keyword search by understanding the whole question being asked and then providing the most relevant answer from its centralised knowledgebase. Advanced web self-service systems use technologies such as linguistics to analyse the context of the whole question, and therefore get the heart of what the customer actually is looking for. So, for example, it can tell the difference between cricket the game and the flying insect by reviewing the words around it. Questions that cannot be answered satisfactorily through web self-service can be automatically escalated to agents via email, and the resulting answers then added to the knowledgebase.
At a time of rapidly rising customer contact volumes on digital channels, web self-service provides five key benefits:
1. Improved customer service
Nothing annoys customers more than having to switch channels unnecessarily when they have a query. A well-structured web self-service system understands their question using natural language techniques and delivers a fast response, avoiding the need for them to call or email. This improves customer satisfaction ratings and has a positive impact on Net Promoter Scores (NPS).
2. Greater efficiency
Analysts Contact Babel suggests that it costs £3.87 on average to answer a query over the phone and £3.70 via email. In contrast web self-service has a negligible cost per transaction, as there is no need for direct agent involvement. In most cases web self-service has reduced calls and emails by over 50%, while still improving service levels. The efficiency savings are therefore potentially large, whatever business sector you operate in.
3. Reduced load on other channels
By deflecting incoming interactions from other channels, the load on contact centre agents is correspondingly reduced. This means they have more time to deliver personalised answers to more complex questions, such as around accounts or billing queries, that cannot be provided through web self-service. In turn this improves the customer experience.
4. 100% consistency
With a single knowledgebase behind web self-service, customers receive the same, consistent answer however they phrase their question. The same knowledgebase can be extended to underpin other channels, for example being provided to agents answering email or phone queries, further increasing efficiency and multi-channel consistency.
5. Advanced insight
Static FAQs provide no insight into the questions your customers are asking. In contrast, web self-service systems can be analysed to view the most popular questions and the insight used to improve business processes. For example, if 90% of queries are asking if a specific product is available in blue, or 75% of questions are sent at a specific point in the checkout process, companies can use this information to modify their operations and boost revenues.
Natural language powered web self-service is a technology that benefits organisations and their customers equally. In an increasingly competitive market, all companies should investigate how it can help them boost engagement and increase efficiency – before their rivals do.