Not too long ago, customer care—the proverbial contact center—was regarded as a necessity. It was corporate overhead; operational in nature, something that fulfilled a customer-facing function, much like express lane checkers at a grocery store or tellers at a bank. Move ‘em in, move ‘em out, keep ‘em happy.
An important job, with potential to cross-sell or outbound call its way into the revenue stream. But strategic? Not for a very long time.
According to Ron Strandin, CEO of Envision, that perception is drastically changing.
“Ten years ago, contact centers were strategic, but they’ve evolved into an operational infrastructure as time went on. Today, because of social media and being the centralized point for the ‘voice of the customer,’ that role is evolving back to strategic,” Strandin said. “Customer care now provides the larger narrative around what the market is saying, which tells me what I need to do with my business.”
Whereas customer care has always been the first area to know about a product defect, an outage or an oversight, it now has the potential to become a hub for data aggregation, enabling companies to delve deeper into who their customers are, what they want and emerging market trends.
“Data is the new oil, and social media is the most prolific oil field,” said Vivek Jetley, senior vice president and head of Transformation for EXL. “When you look at the number of people on Facebook, Twitter and other channels, and the evolving demographic makeup of those users, no B2C company can ignore social media and the opportunity for interaction it presents.”
Grandma’s Tweeting and Uncle Bill Likes It
A few years back, companies talked about embracing social media to position for those whacky Gen Yers. Today, these channels are ageless, with everyone from high school juniors to AARP seniors getting in on the act.
“Today, people in their 60s, 70s and 80s own iPads; 50 year olds have active Facebook pages, tweet and use YouTube,” Jetley said. “People in every age group, in all parts of the world, are embracing the interactive quality of social media—and they’re not limiting those interactions to family and friends.”
This social proliferation is also driving a rather dramatic shift in power. In the world of the contact centers, the customer really is king.
“Once upon a time, the contact center organization had control of the customer. Now, the customer is in control,” explained Kimberly Davis, product marketing manager for HP’s Customer Engagement Management Services. “People are more mobile, more social; with the power to quickly compare pricing, sample competitor products or broadcast service issues out to the social universe. Customers are no longer at the mercy of the organization, and that’s a fundamental change that companies are going to have to deal with.”
So, along with the yang of social media—providing a vehicle for companies to know and interact with their customers on a very intimate, personal level—comes the yin of everyone in the universe—as well as competing companies—knowing what those customers are thinking as well.
Does this mean that, in a few years, when an individual posts something negative about a company, that company’s competition will use that medium to engage that unhappy person, and offer him or her a special deal to try a product, switch providers or rebook at a different hotel/airline/restaurant/whatever?
No one really knows for sure. But, what we do know is that things are changing, and customer care, as we know it today, will never be the same again.
Another fundamental shift is consumers’ perception of what customer care should be.
“Response time of 24-48 hours used to be acceptable. Now, it has to be immediate. If a customer can’t get an answer to an email, he or she might post something on a site, tweet, and then pick up the phone,” Strandin of Envision said. “With all these channels, which can be used simultaneously, the concept of ‘first call resolution’ drastically changes. The first call could be the escalation point after multiple contact attempts through other channels.”
So, fast resolution to avoid contact—that’s the objective, right?
“We’re seeing many companies investing in ways to resolve queries before they begin, using self-service tools built on historical data—where this makes sense for customer satisfaction. However, every company’s goal is not to avoid call or chat,” Jetley of EXL said. “Very often banks, for example, want the interaction for cross-selling, relationship building and to leverage the data from that interaction to build a more detailed customer profile.”
And here’s the clincher: although, in their infancy, the introduction of online channels often saved companies money, in this new multi-channel world fueled by social media, that’s not always the outcome.
“I spoke to a major airline that recently added a chat channel, and 20 agents to support it, to its phone-based customer care center. I asked, ‘did the number of phone calls you received go down.’ They didn’t. ‘Is your customer base bigger?’ Not measurably,” Strandlin of Envision said. “If multiple media is costing you money, you have to use the data derived from it to gain value.”
Although today, most companies are just ‘listening’ to social media, with these duties relegated to a separate cell within the customer care organization, things will look much different in the not-too-distant future.
Each of our experts agreed that what’s coming is a true multi-channel approach, where consumers can interact with their companies of choice however they want, whenever they want.
“We’re seeing contact centers looking for ways to break down the siloes to give their customers a more seamless experience. For example, a customer may initiate a chat and then want to pick up the phone—and resume the conversation from where he or she left off,” said Davis of HP. “Companies have to start looking at ways to enable that kind of seamless interaction across channels.”
But, wait a minute. Most companies have customer emails and phone numbers (or at least caller I.D.) —but what about all the other identities that individual has across the social sphere?
“Some companies are already spending a lot of time collecting customer identifications across channels. They’re asking people to ‘like’ them on Facebook or follow on Twitter—to increasingly match the various identities to the customer profile and track these back to a single, centralized database,” Jetley of EXL said. “That is the future. If your competitors are already tracking their Facebook and Twitter followers, and you are not, then they’ve forged ahead.”
The All-Important Human Element
Regardless of channel, the contact center is still about people—agents, hired for their exceptional verbal skills, trained well, with a wealth of resources at their fingertips. Enter new channels, where engaging written communications come into play.
How in the heck do you staff your organization with those people? Or, can you automate?
“Empathy remains the key critical factor in any medium,” said Jetley of EXL. “Deciding how you communicate with a 70-year-old, versus a 30-year-old, through any channel, is not an automated function.”
Our experts agreed that, with all the different personnel requirements, the at-home, virtual agent will become the norm in the years to come.
“To meet today’s requirements, contact centers have to incorporate new pieces of decision-making, change management and business processes,” Davis of HP said. “The virtual contact center, with at-home agents supported by cloud technology, provides the best of both worlds. It’s a way to get the specific talent you need for the different interactions, and connect them as seamlessly as you connect your customers through the various channels.”
Some believe this model will replace, or at least augment, the traditional brick-and-mortar contact center that we all know and love today.
“In the future, we see a contact center that’s not a place but a community of work-at-home agents with different skillsets, all feeding information into a centralized application that analyzes big data in real time,” Strandin of Envision said. “Companies have to start looking at customer contacts as data, not calls.”
For businesses that outsource customer care, that means asking new questions when choosing the right partner.
“Today, most companies and most outsourcing companies can ‘listen’ to social media. If you’re looking for the provider, find a partner that has the sophistication you need to increase capabilities,” Jetley said. “You need the right agents and a robust knowledge base, but you also need the data base expertise, the analytic capabilities, and the ability to scale.”
Clearly, social media, big data and a more sophisticated consumer are fundamentally changing the way companies approach customer care. Our experts have weighed in, now keep the conversation going.
If you’re a company, how are you coping with the new world order of customer care? And, as a consumer, what’s most important to you in terms of customer care?
Go ahead, we’re listening…