Contact centres – the end of 28 days later

28 DaysContact centres aren’t perfect, but they are better than what went before.  They are here to stay, even while we continuously improve their performance.  Contact centre transformation is easier when we don’t lose sight of the core reason for the centre in the first place: to enable customers to talk to our company, buy things and get help.  

28 days.

Nowadays it has a different association (see illustration) but many of us in the UK still associate this timeframe with a familiar phrase:  “Please allow 28 days for delivery.”

It was a routine part of the terms and conditions for mail order.

A serious customer journey

Mail order, of course, meant not just receiving goods by post, but ordering them by post as well.  Find the product you wanted in a newspaper (or magazine or catalogue), fill in a paper form, cut it out, write out a cheque for payment, put them both in an envelope, address the envelope, put a stamp on it, go to a post box, post it…

…and wait.

For up to 28 days.

Almost a month.

Then when the parcel arrives, open it and see if what you have received is anything like the black and white image in the original advertisement.  Or the right size.  Or if it works properly.  And has not been damaged in transit.

And if it’s not right, begin the whole rigmarole again. In reverse.

Not, by any measure, an ideal customer journey.

Contact Centres make it better

Contact centres changed all that.  Want to buy something? Call up, place the order and it will be dispatched quickly.  Problem with a product or service? Call up and the agent will handle your problem or help explain what we need to do to resolve it.

Sure, none of us like being put on hold or to have to navigate through endless sequences of IVR numbers; and many of us have service disasters we can recount about when we got to speak to the agent from hell, but we forget, sometimes, how much better it is than it used to be.

Oddly, the internet hasn’t killed off the contact centre. Despite that we can now order things and services online from our laptops and tablets and mobiles, many of us still want to call up and talk to someone. And when things go wrong, while email, customer forums and online chat are all very well, many of us still want to call up and talk to someone.

Why?

Because our lives are complicated and what we want is complicated and our problems are complicated and sometimes we need to explain to someone – a person – what we want, and have them confirm that they have understood what we want, and that something will be done about it.

And a website can’t do that.

Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work this way, and every one of us has a horror story to tell. But most of the time it does, and often, it works very well indeed.

Contact centres enable this experience.  And they continue to do so: while most now also handle customer communications across a range of channels, the customer telephone call tends be the heart of the operation.

Keep sight of the purpose

The challenge facing all of us who work with customers, however, is how we equip our people in contact centres to deliver a service which is consistently good, and consistently cost-effective – while  customers remain complex people with changing needs, and the technologies available to customers and to us develop constantly.

I believe that the only way to succeed in meeting this challenge is to remember one thing:  the core purpose of the contact centre is to enable customers to talk to our companies, to buy and get help.

Everything we do in a contact centre is about doing this better.

And when it gets hard to do this – and it will – we can console ourselves with one fact: even when things aren’t great, for most of our customers, things are much, much better than they were.

Contact centres revolutionised how we engage with customers and vice-versa. People complain about  them, sure, but how many of us remember what it was like before they were commonplace? I, for one, don’t want to wait 28 days again…

Ryanair: kings of the customer experience.

Image of Michael O'Leary 2/06/2011Silver tongued charmer

“You’re not getting a refund, so **** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?”

“People say the customer is always right, but you know what – they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”

“Mother pays £200 for being an idiot and failing to comply with her agreement at the time of booking. We think Mrs. McLeod should pay €60 [just] for being so stupid… Thank you, Mrs. McLeod, but it was your ****-up. We’re not changing our policy.”

“We already bombard you with as many in-flight announcements and trolleys as we can. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things.”

Michael O’Leary is the CEO of Ryanair, a European budget airline headquartered in Ireland. The quotes above are some of the things he has said at press conferences and results announcements over the years; this thinking is reflected in the uncompromising ways in which the company operates. In many ways, he is the antichrist of orthodox customer experience thinking.

The Ryanair Customer Experience Paradox

According to much customer experience orthodoxy, Ryanair should be in serious trouble. Poor customer experience should result in customer dissatisfaction, disloyalty, social media backlash and poor brand reputation.

And it does.

In spades.

But here’s the thing.  The customer experience Ryanair offers does not  affect the bottom line. In fact, one might argue that it is a major reason for Ryanair’s consistent, spectacular bottom line growth.

Ryanair has just announced yet another set of stellar annual profits. To March 2013, the airline made  operating profits of €718m ($924m) on revenues of €4.88bn ($6.28bn), up 11% from last year.  And this is no flash in the pan: Ryanair consistently grows revenues and profits every year. Ryanair is a company that likes recessions.

Something is amiss.  And on the basis of the company’s sustained growth and returns, it doesn’t look like it’s Ryanair. So is received customer experience wisdom mistaken?

And if so, does this mean that we should abandon our efforts to improve the customer experience?

Just the opposite.  Ryanair succeeds (and its CEO is noteworthy) precisely because it is one of the few companies to have understood exactly the customer experience that it needs to compete strategically – and then makes sure this is what it delivers.

Ryanair proves the strategic case for customer experience

Ryanair is a lean, low cost airline.  It sets expectations for customers about how it works and what it will and (and particularly) won’t do.

It does not burden itself with the very high costs associated with exceptional customer service, because it offers very little by way of customer service.  This is why O’Leary is so uncompromising about refunds – because if Ryanair compromise on this once, they will have to do it again.  And then they will need to employ people to manage refunds. And they will get more complaints, because customers will think that they might get something by complaining.

So Ryanair will have to staff a complaints department.  And this will lead to escalations, and reporting, and budgets, and bureaucracy, and management’s attention will get distracted by customer issues, and this will take their eye off the ball of running things very cheaply and efficiently.

And at that point, their cost base will have ballooned and they will no longer be competing on cost.  (And then their competitors will kill them by competing on service).

Instead, Ryanair are very explicit about the customer experience they offer.  They are low-cost. They will get you there, on time. With your bags.  That’s it.  No other promises. They deliberately limit the customer experience and manage it tightly because doing so is essential to their strategic success.

And against these things – the things which, because they really understand their customers, they know are most important to them – Ryanair are among the best in Europe.

And this is the lesson Ryanair teaches all of us about the customer experience.

Customer experience is not about being nice,
it’s about meeting strategic goals

We must not fall into the trap of blindly accepting that our goal is to make things a great as we can for customers. This is not the purpose of customer experience transformation.

Our purpose is instead to specify, build and deliver the customer experience we need in order to meet our organisations’ strategic goals.  And then we must drive this experience as ruthlessly and singlemindedly as Michael O’Leary drives Ryanair to succeed.

Ryanair and Michael O’Leary are, in effect, posing each of us a very challenging question:  what is the customer experience our companies need to offer so that we can best meet our strategic goals?

PS I hate flying by Ryanair, but I do so when I have to. 

(Image credit: ilovemyirishculture.com under a Free Art License)

The customer experience is about more than fixing things.

Perusing books at Selfridges 1942It’s about employees

At the start of the year, Forrester Research‘s Kerry Bodine and colleagues made some predictions about the areas which will grab attention in the customer experience space this year.  One prediction was that employee engagement will be “…white-hot…” in 2013.

They may be right.  The good folks at HCL have been making this point for some time and attribute their startling growth to an “Employee First, Customer Second…” approach.  In 2010, their CEO, Vineet Nayar, even wrote a book about it in 2010.

Unusually for a CEO these days, at the time of writing some three years later, Mr Nayar is still in post and the HCL stock price appears to be doing very well. Perhaps there is something in what he says.

The core idea, I think, is this: employees are the company.  They make the difference for customers.  If they are happy, motivated and enabled to succeed, then a good customer experience may be possible.  If employees are unhappy, unmotivated or not equipped to succeed, then nothing we try for the customer will really make much difference.

It is in our control

For those of us interested in customer experience transformation, this perspective offers another potential bonus: while we cannot manage our customers, we can and should manage our people. The challenge of working with our people to make things better for customers is in our hands, no-one else’s.

I believe that how company drives its people to make things better for customers indicates whether a company regards the customer experience as an overlay on their “core business’ of selling, shipping and service – or if their approach to customers reflects serious strategic intent.

As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said in his letter to stockholders a couple of months ago:

“One advantage – perhaps a somewhat subtle one – of a customer-driven focus is that it aids a certain type of proactivity. When we’re at our best, we don’t wait for external pressures. We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features, before we have to.”

Proactive customer experience is a strategic choice

This idea of proactivity is the whole game, right there.  Organisations which are serious about the customer experience proactively drive their people to seek to make things better before customers see reasons to complain.

Sure, there are companies which are doing good things by listening to customers and putting in improvements to fix things which customers don’t like.  This work is valuable, and good, but it does not address the real challenge.  If we simply fix things about which customers complain, then we are  playing catch-up. We are saying, in effect: “we aspire not to make customers unhappy.”

The difference is in the bottom line. Jeff Bezos again:

“Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”

Customer experience is much more than fixing things for customers. It is about making a strategic choice to be proactive in making things better for customers, it is about reflecting this choice in the ways we guide and enable our people to make things better for customers – and it is about doing so because it is the most effective way to grow and sustain the bottom line.

How do our companies measure up?

(Image credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

CRM can be fun. No, really.

Finish line.Thinking about CRM (Customer Relationship Management) from the sales team’s point of view has stimulated some interesting new possibilities.

I once oversaw the transition of a B2B CRM system from a locally installed brand name system to a market-leading cloud-based competitor.  The old system had limped along with inaccurate data, incomplete records and resentment by the sales team.  People saw it as something that could not be trusted, an overhead that  got in the way of sales and marketing.

We were not alone, as Ben Meredith points out in a recent post.

When we came to implement the  new system we had one primary principle: it had to work for the sales team.  This meant that it had to be exceptionally easy and attractive to use, relevant to their roles, with clear triggers for when and how it was to be updated. All other requirements were secondary.

The outcome? An almost seamless transition within six weeks and excellent adoption.

Results? Better accuracy of data, trustworthy analytics and sales forecasting. Better marketing, easier sales, improved customer relationships. Everything we wanted our CRM system to deliver.

These results happened only because we paid attention to the core challenge: whose job are we trying to make better?  For most CRM implementations, this will be the sales team. Get it right for them, and things will get better for the customer too.

Which is why I like the thinking of app developer LevelEleven. Their newly rebranded Compete app adds game elements to Salesforce.com to help drive sales team performance. Their real trick, of course, isn’t the app, but the psychology: good sales teams thrive on competition.

CRM as fun? That can’t be bad.

The qualia of customer experience

Red rose in snow picWe cannot truly understand what our customers experience. But we can understand how they behave. If we want to make things better for them, we will be better off observing what customers actually do, not trying to work out what we think they are experiencing. 

I can’t get into Joe’s head

My friend Joe cannot see the colours red or green – he is colour blind. My colour vision is normal. Science explains this by saying that some of the cone receptors at the back of Joe’s retina are different from mine.

But when I try to understand what Joe sees when he looks at, say, a grassy meadow, I am unable to do so.  His experience of the greenness of the grass is different from mine.   I cannot put myself into his head.

Qualia are what we experience

Philosopher Clarence Lewis in 1927 coined the term qualia to describe the distinct subjective experiences we each have when, for example, we smell a rose, see the white of snow or taste a lemon.

Qualia (singular: quale) are the essence of experience.  They are also pretty much inexplicable by science.  Science – cognitive psychology, neuroscience, physiology – has pretty much nothing to say about what Joe experiences when he sees a blue sky and how that compares with what I experience when I see that same sky.

If you don’t believe me, imagine trying to explain the greenness of a meadow to someone who is blind from birth.

Scientific methods

This is, in part, why understanding the customer experience is tough.  Each customer’s experience is different. If we ask them about their experience – to describe the qualia of buying – we can only get a limited understanding of what they experience.

How does science address the problem of qualia?  It ignores them. Instead of seeking to understand what we experience, scientists instead focus on what they can observe. In particular, they focus on behaviour.  Rather than investigating what  people experience, scientists explore instead what people do when they experience X or see Y.

This is a good principle to adopt when working on customer experience.  Trying to understand the experience of customers is likely to be less valuable – and less effective for guiding our actions – than observing what they actually do.

The perfect, but useless, manuals

This is shown by the PC manuals fiasco. A few years ago a major PC manufacturer took great pains to consult with customers so that  the manuals for new users to set up their PCs were as well-written, user-friendly and accessible as possible. For several years, users rated the manuals as the best in the business – they even won awards.

But it wasn’t until the company undertook some studies into what new PC users actually did that the truth emerged.

More than 95% of users never opened the manual at all.

They turned on their PC and assumed that the start-up process on-screen would take them through set-up. And if it didn’t, they got very unhappy indeed.

The company had made the mistake of asking customers what they thought, instead of  observing what they actually did.

The colours of marketing

Leo Widrich of Buffer.com has written a great article for Fast Company on the science of colours in marketing. In it, he explains how colours can influence customer behaviour.  He also describes an experiment by Hubspot to understand if customers prefer to press a red or a green button on-screen (read the article to find out which button won :-)).

The folks at Hubspot just needed to know which colour encouraged more customers to press the button. They did not need to know why.

As Leo Widrich says in his article: “…data always beats opinion, no matter what.”

And if we are to make things better for customers, it is probably best for us to adopt the same attitude. Let’s worry less about understanding the customer experience and worry more about observing the things customers show us they prefer.

(If you want to find out more about qualia and why they pose a problem for science, the best source is Daniel Dennett, a terrific writer on philosophy and cognitive science.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is a good first port of call; a more technical discussion can be found in his article, Quining Qualia, (in A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, eds, Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press 1988)).

(Image credit: Paulis under Creative Commons Attribution license)

Your competitors are not who you think they are

bad_spellers_untie_postage_stamp-p172016310883664861uuftb_216Customers don’t compare the online experience they get from us with that from our competitors. They benchmark instead against the best they have seen, regardless of sector. We have to understand this if we are to use customer experience to help us sell and keep customers.

Don Peppers is one of the pioneers of the customer experience industry. In a recent LinkedIn post, he  tells the story of a bad customer experience a colleague had with Stamps.com when trying to unsubscribe from their service.

The customer horror story, however, was less interesting to me than that he (like we all do) compared this experience with Stamps.com with that offered by another company – and found Stamps.com wanting.

That company was Amazon.

Amazon does not sell anything which Stamps.com sells.  Amazon is not seeking to take customers away from Stamps.com. I would be astonished to find that Amazon features in any strategy document which Stamps.com use to understand their competitive landscape.

In the traditional sense, they are not a competitor.

But when you think in terms of the customer experience, are they a competitor?

Damn right.

Customers do not compare the online experience they get with one company with the experience offered by competitors in the same sector. Instead, they compare their experience with the best experience they have had online, regardless of sector.

If we do not offer an experience  which measures up to the best experience which our customers have had elsewhere, then we will have unhappy customers.

It’s not fair, I know.  Customers are not even comparing apples with pears; they are comparing stamps with books.

This really matters.  Because if we aren’t aiming to be cheapest (and very few of us can, in the long-term) and if our market is crowded with me-too products with pretty much the same features (as in almost every consumer market sector), then how do we compete?

The experience we offer our customers, that’s how. When we make it easier, faster and more pleasant to buy and use our products, we win and keep customers.

If this is how we choose to compete, we need to understand that our ‘competitors’ aren’t our competitors.  As far as our customers are concerned, our competitors are everyone who is offering a service, or a sale, or an experience which follows the same grammar of customer engagement that we do. And if we aren’t competitive when compared with these, we won’t get or keep the customer.

Worse, as Don Peppers is showing, they will tell the World about how unhappy we have made them.

But, as Amazon demonstrates, if we choose to compete in this space, with the right attention and commitment, then maybe we could become the benchmark: and that is a very powerful place to be.

(Picture courtesy of Zazzle.com).