Why should I call you anymore?

As the demographics continue to shift in favor of the Millennials, enterprises have to seriously rethink their approach to customer engagement. And soon … real soon.

Currently held wisdom by customer service leaders maintains that the status quo is what most customers want today: specifically, that they prefer to call. Much of this point of view has to do with traditional views of how customer service centers should be operated along with traditional assumptions of customer contact channel preferences. In a recent survey conducted by the Customer Executive Board (CEB) in 2013, at least 50% of those polled don’t see this changing only within the next 5 years.

How Customer Service leaders perceive timing go customers switching channel preferences. SOURCE: CEB 2013
How Customer Service leaders perceive timing go customers switching channel preferences.

This is in stark contrast to what their customers are actually doing, or at least trying to do prior to having to place a call. A recent survey also conducted by the CEB with actual customers concluded that almost 58% of those that had to place a call into a customer service center accessed the company’s web site first to try and resolve their issue. A significant 34% tried to follow on the web site while on a call with a customer service representative, largely to determine how they might get the information they were seeking next time without having to place a call.

How customers were contacting customer service prior to placing a call. Percentage of customers that opted to follow online while on a call with a customer service representative. SOURCE: CEB, 2013
How customers were contacting customer service prior to placing a call. Percentage of customers that opted to follow online while on a call with a customer service representative.

The gap between what customer service center leaders assume versus how their customers are actually trying to interact with them is a significant one. Significant enough, in fact, that it is having an impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty. And this should be a concern not only for customer service leaders but also for the companies they represent.

In The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, the authors make a compelling case that directly links customer effort with customer loyalty. And while the customer service industry vendors and analysts are convincing their customers to spend significant amounts of money on enhancing the customer experience and delighting the customer, the research points to a marginal gain in loyalty. It also points to a significant decrease in loyalty if customer effort is excessive. And the impact is apparent. The industry recognized Contact Center Satisfaction Index (CCSI) for 2013  saw a dramatic drop of 8 points from 2012 to 2013, the first drop recorded since 2007. The CFI Group, the authors of the index and the accompanying report, also determined that the Contact Process represented the biggest impact in improving the CCSI, with an impact value of 2.6 (second was Policies and Procedures at 1.9). Arguably, the inconvenience of channel switching has been perceived by customers for years, but a rising CCSI through to 2012 indicates that this was somewhat tolerated by customers. So what happened in 2013? Did we reach a tipping point?

The answer, it appears, lies with the Millennials. Millennials as a demographic now represent 27% of the total population and have already surpassed baby boomers. It is expected that by 2030 Millennials will surpass all other non-Millennials as the dominant demographic group. Millennials are digitally native. They grew up with the Internet and an increasingly connected world. They are heavily engaged in social media. They have embraced the mobile revolution and adapt quickly to rapid advances in technology. These advances have brought about the Right Now Economy, where access to information and the ability to purchase almost anything is now possible via an intelligent Internet connected device. The result is an increasingly empowered consumer with heightened expectations and harsh intolerance for older ways of doing things. They have become empowered consumers and, as a result, have heightened expectations of an ideal customer experience … and a harsh intolerance for anything that does not meet up to these expectations. It should come as no surprise, then, that when web sites limit self-service options and force customers to call that this will have a negative impact on the customer experience which becomes particularly pronounced in the case of those in the Millennials demographic. As the CCSI 2013 report explicitly concluded, “Perhaps 2013 was the year that expectations finally overtook the ability to deliver.” To make matters worse, social media has provided a new weapon for customers to use against enterprises that don’t quite measure up. Where word of mouth is still considered the most effective way for enterprises to acquire new customers, social media amplifies this process by hundreds if not thousands of times. The last thing an enterprise needs is a tweet of Facebook post of a bad experience. Damage control in these cases is difficult if effective at all.

If enterprises and their customer service departments are still looking for the tipping point, it has already come and gone, putting most enterprise customer service center implementations increasingly at odds with the needs of its rapidly changing customer base. Customer service centers need to embrace change if they are going to address this critical gap. Customer service in the modern age requires stronger web and mobile self-service channels, while gradually de-emphasizing the voice channel. To accomplish this requires changes that are sometimes easy to implement but more often disruptive to the current way an enterprise does business with its customers.


Breaking Down Department Silos

Customer service organizations have traditionally remained separate from other divisions within an organization. Much of the key interactions between customers and the enterprise happen in the service organization but are most often disconnected from other interactions the customer may have with other groups within the organization (ex. sales, billing). Understanding the complete customer journey and connecting the customer’s interactions together allows an organization to better understand a customer’s needs and wants, how the customer prefers to interact and to become more pro-active not only in addressing a customer’s issues but in retaining their loyalty and influencing future purchasing decisions. This requires information to be shared and managed across different groups in the organization and tighter collaboration amongst those groups.

Leveraging Existing Assets to Promote Self-Service

Web sites and mobile applications may have their shortcomings when it comes to limiting the self-service experience, but enterprises should consider these limitations as opportunities to improve that experience. And leveraging the customer service center’s current human capitol and legacy contact center infrastructure can be a key part of this process. When customers are forced to call in to a customer service center, agents can be trained to ask customers a specific set of questions to determine why they ended up having to call. Common reasons include:

  • The web site or mobile application interface was not intuitive enough to be able to locate what the customer was looking for;
  • The web site of mobile application suggested the customer call because their issue could not be resolved through self-service;
  • The web site or mobile application made calling a prominent choice throughout the entire self-service interaction, leaving the impression that calling was the only way to address their specific issue.

Where applicable, agents can educate the customer on how to accomplish the exact same thing using self-service. Customer feedback provided to the agent can be used to improve the design and functionality of a web site or mobile application so that they are both easier to navigate and include a way to resolve the specific issues brought up by these customers. Over time, as self-service becomes a more all-encompassing channel, customer service centers should see their call-based traffic decrease, resulting in tremendous cost savings for the enterprise and a better overall experience for their customers.

Offering the “Right” Number of Channels

A common message being emphasized by legacy contact center software providers is that enterprises must offer the largest number of channels of communication possible, whether they be voice, chat, email, social media and, of course, calling. Obviously, from a technology vendor’s perspective, more channels typically means more licensing revenue. But is this truly an optimal approach? Intuitively, one would think that the more options you provide a customer the more they would feel empowered to make the choice most convenient for them, translating to a better overall experience. Research in this area has proven that this is not at all true. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz concludes from the results of some extensive research in this area that the level of happiness of an individual is reversely proportional to the number of choices they have to make. Put another way, the more choices a person has, the more confused they become, the more stress they feel, and the less inclined they are to make the right choice or any choice at all. This revelation has important ramifications when it comes selecting channels of communication. The key is not to provide as wide a range of channels as possible, but only a few select channels … as long as they are the right ones. This includes self-service channels using a web or mobile-based application, and providing alternatives such as chat and perhaps email or calling. Less stress associated with choice means less effort and results in greater satisfaction overall.

Proactive Engagement

When a call is inevitable or seems more feasible, the traditional method used is to publish a toll free number for customers to dial. This results in a typically poor experience. Customers have to first deal with an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system to triage their call or to try and encourage them to address their issue using voice self-service. This is followed by being bounced to a queue managed by automated call distribution (ACD) software where customers wait on hold for an agent to take their call, something that can last for several minutes if a customer service center is busy. Even when finally speaking with an agent, the customer often has to repeat information to the agent and can be transferred several times in order to have their issue resolved.

Proactive outreach provides a more convenient and cost-efficient way to connect enterprises with their customers when a live audio conversation is needed. When a customer needs to talk to someone, they can request that the enterprise contact them at a time and date convenient for them. When the call is placed, the right resource within the organization is now in contact with the customer, eliminating wait times and unnecessary transfers. The resource has context for the call which will allow them to address the customer’s issue quickly and avoid any unnecessary duplication. From an enterprise perspective, proactive outreach reduces the costs associated with managing incoming calls and having to tie up expensive legacy resources with calls on hold. It also allows the enterprise to draw from a wider pool of resources to respond to the customer’s needs, and these resources may be from other departments within the enterprise and not necessarily customer service representatives.

Changing How Customer Success is Measured

Customer service centers focus a great deal on metrics. This is how they are measured and how they measure their agents. Metrics include talk time, hold times in queue, whether first call resolution has been achieved, and client satisfaction surveys that ask whether their issue was resolved or not and how satisfied they were with that call. These metrics are heavily geared towards contact center efficiencies, which is in line with the typical categorization of these centers as cost centers, but not at all in line with the optimal way to communicate with their customers. For example, first call resolution assumes that a customers’ issue was resolved on that one call, when in fact the customer may have tried self-service first and failed or called the company a half dozen other times on related issues. Interactions viewed as standalone entities does not paint an accurate picture of the customer’s experience, nor does it answer the question “Was your issue resolved?” A holistic view of all of the customer’s touch points with the enterprise, and tracking the customer journey throughout provides better information to pinpoint whether a customer’s issue has been addressed, whether it was done quickly and efficiently or over several interactions, whether it was conclusive or led to other questions/issues and what the optimal channel for that customer’s communication on that issue would have been. Metrics such as talk time provide little value anymore in this new paradigm, as all customers are different. Customer service centers should rather be incentivized on actually solving the customer issue in a manner that was most convenient and efficient for that customer, because this maps directly to reduced customer effort and increased customer loyalty.

Mapping the Customer Journey

To gain a more holistic view into a customer’s touch points with an enterprise requires the collection of big data and an intelligent platform that can make sense of this data and provide recommendations to take action on. Such a platform could link relevant data elements such as customer history and preferences, preferred channels and topics addressed during communications with the enterprise, and provide recommendations on next steps to take with the customer. These next steps could be proactive. An example would be an outreach campaign to offer a free upgrade to a product they purchased previously and that they had identified issues with. They can also be reactive. For example, when a customer initiates a web self-service interaction again seeking answers on a topic or related topics they’ve contacted the enterprise about previously, the web application could direct them straight to the information they need without having them browse or search for the answers again. Or suggest a quick chat with a specialist to ensure their question is resolved quickly. And as more interactions occur, this platform could learn how the customer prefers to interact and offer recommendations accordingly, further fine-tuning and improving the customer experience. The result in either case is reduced effort and a much happier customer.


Implementing many of these changes requires commitment from the top to the bottom of the organization, and a concerted willingness to embrace the longer term vision of truly connecting with its customers and achieving a high percentage of customer loyalty in the process. Continuing to execute the same practices that were adequate even 10 years ago does not take into account the changing demographics of our society that will continue to put new demands on enterprises, and they must be flexible enough to rise to the occasion and accommodate this ongoing change. Enterprises that choose to adapt will reap the rewards of a highly loyal customer base which will, in turn, spur the growth of new customer acquisitions through word of mouth and its amplification through social media channels. Enterprises that ignore these changes may find themselves struggling to keep up with their competitors, which can lead to far more serious consequences down the road.

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