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Transforming customer experience in a distance economy

The need is not to setup continued channels of video calls, audio calls or bots, the goal is to manage customer relationships remotely yet effectually.

The shift into the new normal is an ambivalent time for customers and companies alike.

For Indian customers, the incongruity of job and health uncertainties along with forceful agilities of new ways of working, living, and surviving are unveiling intriguing new facets of customer behavior. Customers want more control, they like more control. They want quick-in, quick- out, with little time for pleasantries yet an expectation of engagement with empathy. A diverse range of customers are now compelled to communicate via place or time unbound non-physical touchpoints; means they now also realize that they can easily seek more choices, compare their experiences with that of others, and find more ways to express their opinions.

Companies have much to learn from this phenomenon. Firstly, increased common access via digital channels means increased comparison. Product quality or variety are not the only differentiators anymore. Branding, spreading awareness and sales as well as service experience are crucial to set one apart. Secondly, engagement and providing service with keeping in mind the emotional reasons for customers’ interactions, is imperative to maintain loyalty and positive reviews. Thirdly, continued but relevant and tailored information provision and communication via multiple channels will keep your customers closer to you. Omni-channel is now taking a new definition.

As companies strive to acquire, retain and service customers effectively alongside reducing costs to survive in the new normal, words like Digital and Automation are front and centre. This transformation that companies must embrace, with experience of the past to meet the radical of today, is one, to tread quickly yet meticulously.

It all starts with understanding why customers are interacting with you
The starting point to this transformation, optimizing digital presence and automation is to understand interaction drivers — why customers engage with you, contact you and which channel they use for different reasons.

As more customers move online, the transition of a traditional customer used to engaging in store to digital channels is one driven by many emotions. There remains a great sense of familiarity and assurance in F2F experiences. Acquaintances with owner/store managers, leveraging it for resolving issues, ease of access to get assured responses, sense of care through a history, deep rooted psychological needs to shout and vent frustration or anger, haggling for discounts, are some relatable experiences. The same traditional customers may not always have the avenue to achieve such experiences digitally, and hence, may exhibit the need of replicate such interactions in an online journey. For optimal experiences, companies must account for permitting and positively reacting to the technical as well as emotional asks of such interactions. These could be reassurances on – products, services and sales commitments, unclarity of information, anxiety, lack of faith, or building trust via assured responses, providing avenues to vocalize poor experiences/expectations mismatch or leaving warnings.

Continuous monitoring of 100 percent of the interactions with movements across multiple channels (bots, IVR, voice assistants, emails, FAQs, social media, contact centres, in-store, etc.) can therefore uncover valuable and actionable insights for companies for state assessment, enhancing interaction aids and identify and quickly correct vulnerabilities. This goes much beyond the traditional ways of evaluating call tags in contact centres, sample audits for individual channels or standard clickstream analysis. It demands deeper cognitive analysis for newer key performance indicators. Companies can start by analyzing interaction reasons in individual channels and over a period, aim to combine  a multi-channel understanding. This will enable identification of specific poor drivers of experiences across sales and services, help operational and conversational improvements and drive cost efficiency.

Empower your front-line with the right amount of information, flexibility and authority
As nature of customer interactions increasingly change,it is logical to augment the vanguards that drive customer experience. This includes digital interaction channels (chat bots, voice bots, IVR, voice assistants, emails, FAQs, social media, etc.) and human interaction channels (contact centres, on-ground staff and channel partners). Monitoring changing trends using interactive analytics will provide direction to enhance relevance of information given through such channels. It will also help determine the necessary information that agents should be armed with, to satisfy dynamic customer needs.

Further, as work-from-home becomes a permanent reality, companies should reskill human interaction channels using simulated and cognitive technologies, aiding them with best practices, guided (not scripted) responses for new customer requirements or tonalities, easier access to data for fast responses, refresher courses and training on empathetic communication skills. However, as transformations are driven by the top, changes are typically forced upon the frontline warriors without necessarily empowering them. To maintain the balance between uniformity and ingenuity, one must allow front-liners flexibility to  identify  suitable  ways of responses or entrusting them with more authority   in terms of what they can offer to customers. This can save much of customers’ repeat calls/clicks, especially when resolution is delayed due to routing of queries through multiple departments  of  an  organization. This empowerment will ensure that transformation is participative, faster-paced and not obligatory.

Automate wisely
While more things change, the more they  remain  same. In the midst of digital transformation waves, we sometimes forget that what humans inherently crave for is a human connection. After all, India loves to talk! In a distance economy, more so than ever.

Automating the interaction front-lines seems like the latest trend. Behold the chat bots, digital and voice assistants, voice bots, customer query and feedback forms, automated routing, complex IVR flows, mobile apps etc. Such automation, no doubt, has tangible ROI from a cost efficiency perspective in the long term.

However, the decision of automating interactions is so far largely driven by the volume of such interactions and corresponding reduction in cost. They do not necessarily keep in mind the negative impact such automation might have on customer satisfaction and NPS in the short or medium term. In many cases, reasons for the highest volume calls are also the company’s key value or service proposition and therefore, also the biggest driver of customer satisfaction. The risk of losing a customer in these uncertain times is even higher if one does not have access to the expected resources at the requisite time. Companies must find the balance between which processes interactions to automate, how much to automate and the impact of each such automation on short, medium and long-term customer satisfaction.

In order for digital ease platforms to not become digital barriers to optimal experience, enable a well-planned journey for the transition of customers’ mindset and dependency to more automated processes, yet continue to keep a human interaction channel swiftly available for those that prefer them. Driving awareness of ease- of-use is key and phased introduction to multiple automations will help reducing negative satisfaction impact. As technological advances happen, more human- like sounding aids will also ease the transition process without negatively impacting customer experience.

A single channel of communication is not the solution
Each customer has varied reasons to connect with a company through multiple channels. E.g. A tech- savvy customer who almost often uses his mobile app  or reads FAQs to resolve queries, may urgently want   to talk to a contact centre agent when he is unable to complete a transaction. Some customers regularly track their payments, deliveries, status through their online accounts but may occasionally need additional emotional validation from speaking to a contact centre agent, even if the agent repeats the same information. However, in many cases, it is almost impossible to find a company’s contact number to interact with a representative. Preferences of channels of communication are driven by many factors such as customers’ need in the moment, past experiences, demographics, emotional quotient, level of access, unavailability or knowledge of ease-of- use. A single channel of communication can keep costs low. However, depriving a diverse set of customers from some channels, with neither creating awareness nor allowing a transition period can have perilous medium- term effects on customer satisfaction and limited medium-term ROI.

As companies settle down from knee-jerk reactions in the beginning of the new normal, awaits a significant opportunity to transform customer experience for today’s empowered customer. After all, customer experience is the new normal.