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.
Organisations can find it difficult to deliver a consistently good customer experience across every channel and every interaction. Customer expectations are constantly rising, and the growth in enquiries, often through unstructured digital channels, increases the pressure on businesses to perform, time after time.
A good starting point for meeting these needs is to break the customer experience down into separate components. As customer service expert Micah Solomon points out, essentially it is both an art and a science, so your approach has to embrace both smiles (the emotional, personal side) and systems (providing consistent, scalable service).
Achieving this balance requires companies to focus on four key areas:
1 Benchmark both smiles and systems
Traditionally companies have benchmarked their customer experience against competitors. This seems logical, as these are your immediate rivals when it comes to winning and retaining customers. However, it is worth looking beyond your industry to capture best practice and ideas from sectors that are good at smiles (such as hospitality) and systems (manufacturing companies). That way you get to improve both your processes and the softer side of your customer experience by looking at experts in each area.
2 Build the right team
Few people possess the exact mix of smiles and systems when it comes to how they think and operate. So make sure you build a balanced team that includes both types of person, putting them in the best roles for their skills. Recognise their strengths and ensure you incorporate all of their ideas in improving the customer experience.
3 Make it scalable
Smaller organisations, such as local shops, often score highly for customer experience as they have the time to deliver a personalised, friendly service to consumers. Scaling this in larger companies is more difficult, but it comes down to a combination of training and empowering your staff. Look at the success of the Games Makers at the London 2012 Olympic Games – thousands of volunteers, but all with a single focus on ensuring that spectators had a wonderful experience.
4 Measure the right metrics
Traditional contact centre metrics focused on productivity, such as measuring average call length or the number of interactions agents completed in a shift. While these are necessary to meet targets and deliver efficiency, it is vital to look at other metrics that focus on customer satisfaction (such as Net Promoter Score) in addition. Balance smiles and system metrics. Ensure staff understand what they will be measured on, and put in place the right systems to record everything involved in the customer interaction.
5 Use technology as a platform
Obviously the systems side of customer experience requires technology to ensure that interactions reach the right agent, and that they are armed with the right information to solve a customer’s query. However technology can also help on the smiles side as well. By automating processes and enabling customers to find information themselves (such as through web self-service systems), agents can focus on more complex interactions which require more time. Technology such as linguistics can also analyse incoming digital communications to understand their tone, helping prioritise and giving vital information that can be used to provide a personalised, empathetic customer experience.
Customer experience is now central to business success. Companies therefore need to ensure they embrace both smiles and systems if they are to deliver the experience that customers really want.
Despite the growth of new channels, email is still a vital part of the customer service mix. Consumers like the fact that email provides an audit trail, is convenient and allows them to send emails in their own time, rather than having to respond instantly as on the phone or social media.
With the growth in smartphones and tablets, you don’t even need to be in front of your computer to send or respond to email. Many interactions that begin on other channels (such as social media) escalate to email because of its flexibility and privacy. It is therefore no surprise that email usage is up – recent figures from Experian found that volume had grown by 11.2% when you compare Q4 2013 and the same period in 2012. Recognising this trend, 40% of marketers plan to increase their spend on email platforms this year.
However the growth in email causes potential issues for customer service teams. The sheer volume of incoming messages can cause delays in responding, particularly as emails contain unstructured data that takes time to read and understand. At the same time customer expectations are rising – they want an answer within minutes and hours, not days and weeks. Fail to provide one and they may well email again, adding to the backlog, or move to a more expensive channel, such as the telephone, to get an answer.
Fortunately linguistic technology can help companies to manage the email mountain, while increasing efficiency at the same time. Linguistics, the scientific study of language, is able to better understand the context of unstructured data, delivering benefits for companies in three key areas:
1 Improved efficiency and customer engagement
Using linguistics enables customer service systems to understand the meaning of questions asked in incoming emails. Rather than just looking at individual keywords (such as ‘delivery’ or ‘cancellation’), it understands the context of what is being said, and then acts on it. This could be routing the email to the best department or agent, or automatically suggesting a relevant answer for the agent to personalise and send. This increases productivity as agents can handle more emails per hour, while at the same time improving the quality and consistency of the response that customers receive.
2 Improving data accuracy
Customers want a joined-up response, whatever channel they contact you on. However many organisations have data gaps in their records, such as missing phone numbers or Twitter handles, meaning they find it hard to deliver an integrated response. How do you know it is the same John Smith contacting you by email that spoke to you last week by phone? Linguistics lets you extract information freely provided by customers within incoming emails (such as in the signature) and cross-reference/update the master customer record. This gives a more cohesive view of the customer, refining the multichannel service you can provide.
3 Improving understanding
By looking at the context and language of the email linguistics lets you analyse the tone of the interaction quickly and easily. This can then be used to both prioritise and route the message, and for longer term analytics. For example an email from a customer threatening to cancel their contract unless their problem is immediately solved could be prioritised so that it is answered more quickly than normal. Equally, a message praising the service received could be routed to marketing in order to provide VIP offers or to ask the customer to take a survey. Analysing responses, such as terms used around specific products, gives a deeper insight into how customers actually feel about them, and measures how it is changing over time.
As we’ve seen, email usage is growing and customer expectations are rising fast. Therefore organisations need to look at ways of improving efficiency and taming the email channel – linguistics delivers an answer that provides tangible benefits, while improving the customer experience.