Back in the day, the world was quite orderly. The Germans owned engineering; the French were master marketers, the Swiss were the bankers, and so forth—the world was indeed an orderly place. I lived in Europe for 10 years and the overwhelming theme was that the USA was known for customer service. We owned it. We invented it. Americans were demanding people, and if a business did not live up to expectations, it would die. The USA was built as a service culture.
In rapid and dramatic fashion, the world order has changed. The Internet and smart devices have created an unprecedented age of transparency and flow of information. The days of blind brand loyalty are gone. Customers want to interact on their own terms and in a way that best suits them. And, if the experience is poor, the price uncompetitive, or just a hassle, customers will switch to the competition in a flash. Customers across the globe are speaking out and speaking loudly—they want a frictionless experience and they need to know that the companies that they do business with have their back. Companies need to respond and proactively stay ahead of these advanced customer demands.
Telecom company Telstra is a good study of how a business has re-invented itself to deal with the new world order. Telstra is the most recognized brand in Australia. It started as the Australia Post Office in the 19th century and evolved into a government-owned phone company. Now operating as a non-government, publicly traded company, Telstra is the most widely owned stock in Australia. It has enjoyed a competitive advantage because it owned the backbone and infrastructure in Australia, including all of the wireline services. Even with these advantages, the strong Telstra brand was not a loved brand; in fact, it was probably more loathed than loved. The Australian government has acquired Telstra's backbone and is launching the National Broadband Network. The playing field will soon be level for Telstra and its competitors, including newcomers to the market. (Read more about Telstra in our C-suite Strategies section).
The challenge that Telstra is facing is not unique. Across the globe, new entrants to the market are giving incumbent brands a run for their money. Large retailers are entering the insurance and banking markets, new low-cost wireless plans are emerging in markets controlled by long-standing telephone companies, and brick-and- mortar companies are facing stiff competition by online companies. The only true way to compete, both now and in the future, is with a strategic approach to the customer experience. And in this ever-changing global world, that's no easy task.
So, what does customer experience look like in the future? There are a number of best practices available today that many companies should be taking advantage of, especially as technology and access improve. Here are a few that I consider priorities:
1. Value the customer's time
No customer ever really wants to get on the phone or interact with a company. No one ever buys a product or service so that they can call a company's service department. The best customer service is when the customer does not have to interact at all. But, if contact needs to be made, then great customer experience companies make the experience quick, easy, and frictionless.
Contact information should be prominent on the company website with a toll-free number or email address. USAA is known for its strong customer loyalty. It has designed its website so that contact information is easy to find, and the site is easy to navigate.
Chat should be present on virtually every page of the site. Telstra has worked hard to make it easy to chat if that is what the customer wants, for example.
Perhaps one of the best technology innovations in recent years is the customer call-back feature. If there is a long queue, the customer is told that there is going to be a 10-minute wait; however, they can press 1 to keep their place in the queue and a customer service representative will call them back.
Nothing is worse than providing all of the key customer information through the IVR, only to have to repeat it again to the person who actually answers the phone. Even worse is when you then get transferred and you have to repeat it all again as if the call just started. Customer satisfaction is bound to go up whenever you can demonstrate that you value the customer's time, not just say it in a voice recording at the beginning of an IVR interaction.
2. Leverage digital channels
When ATMs were installed decades ago, no one missed the interaction with tellers. Today, we scan our own groceries, print out airline tickets at airport kiosks, and purchase just about everything online. There are apps to buy tickets to the cinema and to pay for food or coffee.
Even with all of the talk around improving self-service, most companies still struggle to accomplish this. There are some mobile providers that average more than 12 contacts from their customers per year. I am an avid user of Amazon and I have never once contacted them. They are proactive, make it simple to do business, and they have removed the defects in their processes by constantly listening to customers.
At a minimum, companies should enable their customers to contact them through their channel of choice, whether it is social media, chat, SMS, email, or phone.
3. Create dynamic knowledge systems
One of the best ways to improve customer experience is to have a dynamic knowledge system that customer representatives can access in real time. The technology today is fabulous because it is sortable, can change dynamically, and representatives have access to key information to be able to solve most problems.
Better yet, you can make the same information available to your customers. Many customers have a passion for helping other customers solve problems, and the closed feedback loop provides a much better customer experience.
4. Empower and engage employees
If you want to know what your customers are talking about, your customer service representatives will have the answer. The first step to having loyal customers is to have loyal employees who are true promoters of the brand. High attrition is a good symptom of low employee engagement. The front-line representatives of the company need to have a crystal clear view that the customer is at the center of everything they do.
Every call is an opportunity to build a relationship. There are still companies focused on handle time as an efficient measurement. Who would ever really want to underserve a customer because of time constraints? Customer service reps and other customer-facing employees need to know that they are empowered to do the right thing for the customer.
5. Focus on the right metrics
We call it metrics mayhem. Some companies might measure as many as 30 KPIs. There is so much data, so much information, that companies become paralyzed with busy activity. In reality, most successful companies look at only two or three KPIs. One key measurement that very few companies focus on is the number of contacts per customer. Figure out which few metrics say the most.
Most companies have customer delight and satisfaction as part of their company mission, but so few are able to really rise above poor processes and customer interactions to become great companies.
The most successful companies are focused on what their customers want. They are focused on call deflection and building promoters of the brand through programs like Net Promoter Score. They want to get it right on the first call, and they realize that the lifetime value of a customer is critical to their success.
6. Lower cost to serve without sacrificing experience
The final key is to have the right cost structure to be able to compete. The airlines have learned this over the past 20 years. Mobile companies are now faced with new competition in the market. Online banks don't have the branch infrastructure cost burden.
New cloud-based services allow companies to move swiftly through the global markets to offer new services. It is hard to imagine that Google is only 10 years old and Facebook is even younger.
The cost to serve is going to become a major challenge for companies in the very near future. The demands for better, frictionless service will only become more important. The winners of the customer experience challenge will be the successful companies into the next decade.
Telstra is becoming one of those winners. It has grown its subscriber base by millions, far outpacing competitors. It has empowered employees to become advocates for the company, thus encouraging customers to do the same. The company is well on its way to winning the race for the best customer service.
These challenges are universal to most every industry and the challenges are global.
The real benefit here is that a good customer experience ultimately pays for itself. The winners of the next decade, no matter where in the world they are, will be the clear customer experience champions.