The changing landscape of customer engagement [round table discussion]

31st Jan, 2019

The changing landscape of customer engagement

Customer engagement is an evolving artform. Technical advances are attempting to keep pace with evolving consumer demands. Identifying today’s challenges and building tomorrow’s infrastructure is a complex process. It’s also one which Netcall approaches in an innovative fashion. 

We recently hosted a series of discussions with customer experience and transformation professionals as part of the Engage Focus Groups event in London. This open forum looked at the various ways of improving consumer experiences. We considered the steps required to overcome challenges in specific companies. Then we weighed the benefits of investment against the costs of doing nothing.

Leading UK brands joined our discussions – Sky, GWR, Arnold Clark and Just Eat. Public sector representatives included Northumbrian Water and Kent Fire & Rescue. Charities including Save the Children and Tearfund also attended, sharing insights and opinions. This provided an excellent cross section of professionals to discuss the challenges around improving customer journeys and average response times.

When customer engagement goes wrong

Throughout our discussions, we heard examples of poor IT governance and data siloes. One company had twelve document management packages, because of localised decision making. Another multinational business admitted it had 21 different IT systems around the world. A UK public sector agency described having two customer databases. One contained people, while the other stored data on the products they’ve registered. Yet updating one database didn’t update the other.

Clients receive a fragmented, inconsistent experience from multiple legacy IT systems. They have different results and experiences, depending on how they get in touch. Even ten year old contact centre systems might be out of date. For instance, social media contact may need separate, siloed software systems. Social media is often managed by marketing teams, not contact centre staff. Customer engagement suffers as a result.

One attendee related a story about customer signatures. For twelve years, every new client had to sign a document three times. It transpired the legal team had insisted on this document in the mid-noughties. Yet the paperwork (hated by staff and customers) was never used. Identifying it as irrelevant and eliminating it made the customer journey simpler and easier.

Our delegates also highlighted common mistakes and mindset errors among big businesses. With culture being high on the agenda as a key barrier to successful business change. Average call handling times are a red herring, given the huge disparity in caller needs. Yet there is a cost to doing nothing – often lost market share. Five years ago, cost was a primary factor in brand choice among consumers. Today, ethics is becoming more important than price for many people. Firms perceived as treating staff and suppliers well are gaining a competitive edge.

Follow the leader

Our delegates talked at length about companies that set new service standards. Amazon has set a benchmark for customer engagement. “We want to be the Amazon of…” is a common ambition at board level. Yet customer expectations extend across different industries, where great service isn’t as easy.

Another company praised for exceptional customer engagement was appliance retailer AO. They provide a half-hour delivery window – competitors ask customers to be available all day. AO also sends a text 30 minutes before staff arrive at a customer’s home. Yet its competitors claim these processes are too expensive. It needs a cultural change to share employee schedules with customers, but it’s possible.

Having looked at industry benchmarks, our discussions moved on to matching them. One of the key topics for debate involved IT resources. This can be the biggest barrier to a brand becoming a market leader. By contrast, technological challenges weren’t regarded as a major issue. IT solutions exist for customer facing brands, but implementing them is the hard part.

Agents are customer engagement experts, and this should be recognised by management. They have the greatest understanding of how clients feel, and what they need. Companies need to move away from agents doing their job and then going home. They have to become an integral part of the business, helping the firm to grow and develop an effective culture. Managers should view agents as equals with tech staff or accounting personnel. Involving them in key decisions ensures the customer’s voice is heard on major projects. Indeed, it’s often best to start with customer-facing teams, and then work back.

Planning a route to success

The end goal for any customer-facing business should be a seamless journey. Organisations need to evolve towards this objective because customer expectations are changing. Processes that used to serve you well may not do so today. Keep track of customer expectations, rather than persisting with existing methods of doing things.

All our discussions highlighted the importance of good communication between departments. Data siloe

 undermine streamlined processes and cost-effective IT solutions. A lack of understanding does the same. Everyone agreed staff engagement and customer satisfaction go hand in hand. Systematic and continuous improvement needs to happen from within. If you’re not fixing internal processes, customer experience standards have a ceiling.

Senior management regularly invests inexpensive software which isn’t optimal for purpose. Indeed, a report by McKinsey suggests 70 percent of transformation projects fail. Success comes from consulting personnel who’ll use the software on a daily basis. This avoids function creep, wasted expenditure or false dawns. Several attendees also advised against asking for feedback and then ignoring it.

The future

Finally, we invited our delegates to imagine the contact centre of 2025. Phone enquiries will gradually cede to video chats. SMS use will treble within five years, and chatbots will be another growth area. Yet chatbots struggle with security logins because they can’t handle password reminders. Their use is industry specific, and shouldn’t always be relied on.

Our attendees agreed human beings will always have a need for conversation. Dealing with clients isn’t all about cutting costs. Using more cost-effective solutions doesn’t detract from the need for human interaction. The UK’s 6,000 contact centres will evolve by 2025, but some aspects will remain unchanged. Nothing beats positive and helpful service from proactive contact centre personnel. It's an objective every firm should embrace, regardless of its size or legacy issues.

Read an overview of all the round table discussions at last year's Engage Focus Groups here

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