Exceptional customer service is the holy grail of business. Communication and marketing teams around the world focus on this key element, and yet as much focus as it receives, exceptional service remains elusive at best, and frequently highly problematic for many organisations, says Karl Reed.
One of the primary reasons for this is that the inter-play between technological evolution and consumer behaviour has created a permanently shifting communication landscape. So the real challenge for brands is adapting to ongoing changes in communication behaviour, rather than settling on a fixed methodology or approach.
Today’s consumers have a fundamentally different communication mind-set compared to that of 10 years ago. The overwhelming momentum of social media means that the Generation Y (Gen Y) mind-set not only dominates the market, but it’s spreading at high speed across age segments that a short while ago were considered immune to such things. Consumers of all ages and types now want to communicate with brands in their own time, using the medium of their choice – ranging from Facebook to Twitter, fax, email, SMS and Skype chat, to name just a few. If a brand can’t deliver reliable communication within one of these preferred channels, the consumer will simply go somewhere else. The age of the demanding consumer has truly arrived.
Demanding consumers are impacting business strategy itself. Whereas in the past seeking out and exercising choice could be a painful exercise for the customer, now choice is inherent in the digital landscape, and brands need to find a way to deal with this reality. In addition, the distance between the boss and the individual consumer has shrunk dramatically. Not only can brands no longer dictate the terms of the customer conversation, but they have to deal with the fact that consumers are increasingly demanding immediate access to executive level communication, something that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. As the recent BlackBerry saga illustrates, where once delayed press statements would serve a brand dealing with product failures just fine, now they spark outrage. Consumers want to hear from the top, right this second.
So, the general customer service paradigm has clearly evolved well beyond manning the phones as politely as possible. But in attempting to give customers what they want on the communication front, brands need to be able to understand and address the issue of fragmentation. Depending on what kind of product a brand offers and what kind of audience it’s communicating with, specific communication demands and challenges will vary widely. The first crucial customer service step any organisation must take, therefore, is to establish a method through which to listen – very carefully and identify what it is that its own customers really want.
Ideally, the brand/consumer conversation should take place within a neutral context, and should be threaded into the fabric of the brand’s communication structure, rather than being carried out as a specific intervention. Decision makers at all levels should also be careful to leave everything they think they know about their customers at the door. The point is to put a process in place that allows the brand to hear what customers really want – interpreting and acting on what they are saying comes later. Customers will have different ideas, demands and complaints about communication, but regardless of the specifics, common threads will emerge, and it’s these the organisation needs to first assess, and then address.
Ultimately, given the rate of communication change currently occurring, it is not possible or advisable to cater to every possible communication channel. Rather, the organisation should assess the outputs of the consumer conversation, decide how each element impacts the business strategy, and then settle on an appropriate strategic response. Only then can tactics and technologies be mapped out.
This might sound like dry, process orientated stuff, and not nearly as exciting as rolling out revolutionary new technology within a contact centre. But it’s imperative that the process occurs in this order if high customer service levels are going to be achieved, and maintained. Many organisations have regretted rooting their business strategy in technology – letting, in other words, the shiny stuff define the strategic parameters of the business. As any MBA student will tell you, positive business evolution occurs when technology works as the enabler of a well designed business strategy.
To evolve a business strategy in a manner that takes full cognisance of the communication revolution currently under way, the organisation must partner with a service provider backed by proven credentials across the business communication spectrum. Listening to what customers really want and then acting on what they are saying can be an extended process, and the participation of an experienced specialist possessing a detailed understanding of the wider communications terrain is central to avoiding getting stuck out on the notorious bleeding edge of technological change.
Success potential is also significantly enhanced when the CEO or leader of the company is in the driving seat of the process – without energetic executive backing, listening to what customers want can easily dissolve into a chaotic, never ending endeavour.
Should your customers be able to put a Skype call through to a service agent via your website? How should you control digital reputation? What revenue potential do outbound campaigns have? The list of questions goes on and on, and for each brand, what customers want and how they want it delivered differs. Brands must effectively utilise and manage multiple forms of communication between the agent and the customer – and they need to achieve this within the context of what their consumers are telling them about how they would like to communicate.
In this brave new world, learning to listen is a pivotal first step every company needs to take.