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It’s not just our own expectations that count.

While it’s great to set standards for ourselves and for our businesses, there’s really only one set of expectations that we all have to meet: the customer’s.

No longer are our own standards enough. Internal benchmarks and metrics can be deceiving; it may look like all goals are being completed, KPIs are being met or exceeded, and performance levels are soaring, but really the numbers are a false positive.

If, despite all of that, customers are still not satisfied, then all of those metrics are useless.

It’s almost a little selfish to use our own expectations as company benchmarks. By doing so, we’re missing out on the answers to several vital questions: what do customers expect from the brands they do business with? More importantly, what do they expect from MY brand?

To answer these questions, we need to look not just to ourselves, but to our customers and their demands, as well as the technology available to meet those demands. By taking all of those things into account, we can create a welcoming environment for our customers and our agents.

Customers are more demanding now than ever. We have to adapt.

What do we want? Service! When do we want it? Now!

If we’re going to blow our customers away with our levels of geniality, we first must understand what our customers want from us as businesses. As the state of the world is evolving, so too will the levels of service have to change. Brands aren’t merely names attached to products; they’re representations of a person’s values (like this).

The questions still remain though: how can we meet people’s expectations if we don’t even know what they are? How do we determine what they are?

Customers have a lot of preconceived notions about customer service, but there’s still room to surprise them

Most companies are still gauging the customer experience landscape through market research, including focus groups and online surveys. However, this is not always the best approach. The head of the advertising agency for the $500 million Docker’s® pants brand told me years ago, “be careful not to just photocopy what your customers say they want.” In other words, customers think they know what they want, but often can’t communicate it to brands. And often what they say and what they do are often totally unrelated. We must do all we can to get into their minds and anticipate their true needs, and market research alone will not give us the information we need.

Could Jeff Bezos have focused-grouped 100% online sales and service 10 years ago? Could Steve Jobs have focused-grouped a cell phone with no buttons? People likely would have said, “That’s a terrible idea!” But once people saw it in practice, they realized it was exactly what they needed.

So many of us are still struggling with the operational and qualitative challenges of delivering basic customer care. We still get overwhelmed with call volumes, and we still grapple with responding to emails within 24 hours, let alone 30 minutes; many of us have not adopted human-powered chat, or automated chat, or even basic texting. On the qualitative side, we still struggle with conveying appropriate levels of empathy in our interactions. As we all know, it’s hard to train empathy; we need to hire for it. One challenge as we start to rely on more automated inquiry response tools like chat bots is how to convey empathy during these types interactions. Artificial intelligence is becoming mature enough to help with this effort. Bottom line, customers won’t likely care if AI or humans (or a blend of the two) are interacting with them – as long as an appropriate amount of empathy is conveyed and their issue is resolved effectively.

Customers don’t think in terms of channels. Why should we?

Forget about customer care channels, it’s all about the device.

If we we’re really going to be customer–focused, let’s admit right now that as customers, we don’t think in terms of communication channels. We think in terms of devices. Our phone, our computer, our tablet, our TV, our Kindle, and our connected home devices are all the portals through which we can communicate with our favorite brands.

To that end, we need to make channels invisible and ultimately be channel-agnostic. Customers don’t care which method of communication they can use to get in touch with a company for assistance or purchases, they care that they can do it on their favorite device. Our online presence and our contact centers must be optimized accordingly to make sure we are keeping up with the norms and attitudes of current and future customers.

Let’s take smart refrigerators as an example. These machines can scan the items inside and proactively order more groceries for you when they detect a shortage. An owner of a smart fridge doesn’t care about which communication channel the fridge used to re-order milk; she’ll just care that the fridge is smart and taking care of her needs. A change in thinking from our old, outdated ideas of customer engagement is needed in order to meet and exceed customer expectations.

Admit it, our benchmarks often focus on the wrong things

Yes, we have benchmarks, but they are often too operationally or internally focused. Sure, it’s great to have a short average speed of answer, handle times, and email turnaround times. Those metrics don’t tell the whole story, though. Wait times could be at their lowest ever for your company, but if you’re not resolving your customers’ issues, then that seemingly exceptional KPI means nothing. Why do we measure satisfaction with the representative, or with the customer service interaction only? That’s an internally focused metric that enables the customer care leader to measure the area they control. But customers don’t experience a business that way. They think of the holistic customer experience – not isolated interactions. We cannot afford to be short-sighted when it comes to customer service; we have to look beyond our own internal expectations to determine how effective our customer engagement practices really are. This evaluation includes tracking the entire customer experience, from the initial interaction, to various touchpoints, to service or support calls, and to the overall purchase history of the customer. With the entire picture, we can get a better sense of how the customer really feels about our brand or business.

Get off your %$# – We have to be proactive

If we want to be the go-to resource for our customers, we have to make it as effortless as possible to interact with us. More than just simply knowing what they want, we have to be proactive in how we deliver those results to them. People know our brands, and now it’s time for brands to know their people; they need to know who is reaching out and why before an agent even starts an interaction.

We see attempts at achieving proactive engagement via Google NowSpotify playlists, and many other ways, but in reality, we are just beginning to tackle this challenge. Smart assistants and connected home devices like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Home are all still reactive; you have to actively make verbal requests of these devices yourself. Otherwise they just wait patiently on standby. (What they actually do with all of your voice data will be a subject for another blog post!) An example of proactive service via a “connected home” device would be this: the device would sense that your internet or cable service is down, notify you and the service provider and get it fixed without any effort on your part. Things get interesting when companies start to build customer service into the device itself and become “self-healing” or self-replenishing. Truly proactive devices (like home refrigerators) that understand when you’re out of certain items and re-order them are still a few years away from coming to market. Some perishable food brands are experimenting with commercial ice cream freezer cases that trigger inventory replenishment requests back to the food distributor. The Nest thermostat is one of the more proactive “connected home” products; it adjusts your home’s temperature after learning what your heating and cooling needs are based on when you are home, when you are away, and time of day adjustments you make to the thermostat for a few days after you install it.

In terms of providing more responsive customer service through traditional communication channels, vendors like Digital GeniusQuriouswise.ioInbentaPypstreamTeckstSolutions by Text and Marketeer are employing texting, semi-automated chat bots and / or artificial intelligence in some interesting ways to more effectively support agents or consumers. Salesforce is just rolling out their version of AI called Einstein which is initially focused on helping agents be more effective and efficient, but promises much more as the technology matures. If we want to deliver truly proactive customer service, we need to start experimenting with these emerging technologies.

As we explain in our recently published white paper, before investing in technology, you need to build internal alignment around what kind of experience you want to deliver to your customers and then build a compelling business case to secure the necessary funding and resources for implementation. It all comes back to investing appropriately in ways that meet your overarching strategic goals.

Young woman using laptop computer at home, wearing headset.
By becoming channel agnostic using the latest technology, you can make life easier for your customers and your agents.

It’s time to integrate your tech systems and make the customer experience more seamless for agents and customers.

Regardless of what your market research says, we can safely say that a key goal should be to reduce customer and agent effort. No matter what you do, whether you use tech or not, it’s all about reducing friction; everybody wins in this scenario – interactions occur with more efficiency, your costs go down, and generally your customers will be more satisfied. What more could you ask for?

Before we look to technology as the panacea, we need to get the basics figured out. There are still countless ways in which we inadvertently make sales and support interactions more difficult for both our agents and our customers. Luckily, the solutions to these problems are fairly straightforward.

Much of this efficiency can be achieved in very low tech ways. Many of us still struggle to maintain up-to-date FAQ’s, or to make the FAQ search function actually return meaningful results. Over the past three years, I spoke with 55 companies in the consumer products space and 95% of them were still struggling with this very issue. So, in order to implement any technology that is database driven or AI reliant, you’ll first need an up-to-date, well organized knowledge base that is constantly maintained by a human. Without the basics in place, you’re putting the cart before the horse.

Beyond knowledge bases, there are still systems out there that don’t align, leaving customers in limbo; as a customer, I cannot count the number of times I’ve contacted customer support and the IVR did not understand my request and there was no way for a human to step in to assist me. (This scenario is so common that I’ve heard people swapping “IVR from hell” stories over beers at a bar.) Additionally, there are many times when I’m browsing a company website on my smart phone and realize I need to switch that interaction over to a phone call, only to have to recount my entire journey through their website and how it relates to what I’m hoping to get accomplished. The technology is out there for all of my contextual information to be passed along to the agent I’m hoping to reach, yet so few companies elect to use it. Who is that helping?

For example, many larger companies in the cable and wireless space have grown through acquisition and have not integrated their various business units. They still behave more like giant holding companies that own disparate business units. While they market an integrated message to consumers e.g. “We have cable, internet and internet phone service for you!”, the reality is quite different behind the scenes. This lack of integration makes for an incredibly frustrating experience for consumers as many of us well know. To drive a good customer experience, business have to do the hard and unglamorous work of integrating their back-end systems so their customer service experience matches the promise that the brand markets to consumers.

What have we learned?

It’s time to get current everyone. We, as customer care professionals, cannot afford to rest on our laurels and do things the way they’ve always been done. As customers gain more and more knowledge about the world of customer service / customer experience thanks to social media and tech reporting, their expectations are changing as they become aware of what’s possible. We can’t continue to overlook this fact because if we do, we’ll disappoint them and they’ll take their business elsewhere. Therefore, we need to think like our customers and truly anticipate what they need. We also need to implement modern tools and technology into our organizations including detailed customer journey maps, predictive analytics, well organized knowledge bases that can be integrated into other tools, and AI-powered technology that helps reduce friction for our agents on the front lines and for our customers. Our industry must change its thinking from reactive to proactive; if we don’t our customers will proactively avoid the brands that make life difficult for them.

Get your roadmap for reduced customer experience friction here.


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