The customer is always right, so the saying goes, but as the green shoots of economic recovery remain underground for the moment, it is easy for businesses to forget this sentiment and focus on boosting budding profits only.
However, failing to ensure high levels of customer service are delivered could be a costly mistake in the long run. When the market recovers, consumers are likely to remember those brands that served them well in the bad times, as well as the good. Businesses may gain more from ensuring their contact centres are offering high levels of support in testing times than in more profitable periods.
While many people think of call centres as the main way businesses deal with customers, new internet-based technologies are gradually gaining more interest. Agency nGenera CIM has carried out research into this area, which claims that “the customer service landscape is changing”.
Matthew Haines, nGenera CIM European managing director, explains: “By establishing these online channels, businesses can reduce strain on the call centre, increase agent productivity, reduce costs and ensure consistency and accuracy of messages.”
Call centre phone queues are the biggest frustration for consumers in dealing with brands, according to research from nGenera CIM. As many as 66% of respondents cite this as annoying, although not being able to find information on a company’s website and waiting for email replies are also problems that drive people mad.
As well as denting brand image, this has an impact on the bottom line. UK businesses that transact online face up to £1.4bn in lost sales due to poor customer service, with 94% of consumers saying they would proactively look for a competitor or stop using a company’s website altogether, according to nGenera CIM.
In a move away from relying solely on call-based customer service, technology companies such as Panviva are working closely with contact centres to offer online support guidance, tracking every step in real-time to help ensure customer issues are resolved the first time they are raised.
Panviva chief executive David Frenkle explains: “Contact centres should be seen as the face and personality of the brand. There isn’t any room for searching around for research to answer queries – you have to come up with a solution as quickly as possible to ensure that the fantasy of the perfect brand is not destroyed.
“We use GPS-style technology so that centre staff are able to follow triage-like routes and ensure the right advice is given at the right time so the customer remains happy.”
Introducing such traceable technologies means that resolution times are reduced and consumers are looked after every time they are in contact with the brand, be it on the phone, through email or with remote assistance.
Chris Hancock, managing director of agency Gasbox DMG, says: “Every customer wants to feel like an individual when they interact with a brand. But this feeling needs to be based on the brand having a real understanding of them and their circumstances.”
Using new technology, particularly anything that provides real-time data, is a vital step in making sure that companies can balance the expectations of customers with the time and effort needed to sort out any problems.
Heather Richards, vice-president for professional services at technology business Transversal, cautions: “If a customer doesn’t get the support they need, they will be frustrated and it will shape their brand perceptions. Brands have to ensure that consumers remain loyal to them by supporting them as much as possible, finding out all the information they need immediately, answering the questions quickly and ensuring they provide adequate responses.”
One currently popular way of tapping into customer queries and supporting them in real-time is to use social media as part of the armoury of a contact centre. Salesforce.com has responded to this trend by building an application called the Service Cloud, which captures online conversations and enables brands to respond to queries.
Tim Barker, senior director products EMEA at Salesforce.com, says: “Customer service teams can access these social media conversations and help provide responses on a one-to-many basis. Brands are beefing up direct communications with customers through social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.”
Elliot Schrage, vice-president of communications, public policy and platform marketing at Facebook, claims that increasingly people connect with organisations and products through “communities of experts that are part of their online social network”.
Schrage says that not only does social media offer companies a way to respond quickly to customer issues but also with more personality. “Organisations need a powerful way to become part of the conversations about their products allowing companies to engage with customers on a more personal level,” he notes.
But simply investing in some hot new technology or visiting community messageboards is not enough for brands that really aim to provide excellent customer service. For brands to ensure that their contact centres offer the same levels of expertise as other marketing channels, companies need their agents to be embedded in the values of the brand, according to Christine Ashworth, GSI Commerce’s head of customer services.
“You have to engage staff in the brand experience. You have to replicate the face-to-face experience for customers in-store and match these expectations on telephone calls and online,” she warns. “It can’t be a case of one format for one component – the same rules should apply throughout. Agents must have an increased understanding of brand experiences and audiences to match the personality of the brand.”
Some of the large FMCG retailers are already aware of this challenge. Andrew Higginson, chief executive of Tesco Retailing Services, says: “Offering first-class customer service is central to our Tesco values.” And when Justin King moved to Sainsbury’s as chief executive, he famously moved the customer services department next to his office so he could monitor complaints first hand.
Brands in other sectors are also recognising the need to integrate contact centres better with the rest of their marketing channels. Online gold buyer Cash4Gold, which has been building a profile over the last year as more people turn to its services, claims that it is aware of how important it is for the brand to tie together all online and call-based customer service elements.
Jeff Aronson, chief executive and founder of Cash4Gold, says: “Real-time support is fundamental to brand building and should be for any brand. Customers must be able to talk to our employees to feel secure enough to sell gold to us; we cannot ignore the customer experience.”
With all this talk of bringing more online services and technology to contact centres, however, Sascha Hausmann, chief operating officer of RateTiger, warns that brands should not get carried away automating everything. “People look for personal contact and have more desire to talk than type,” he says.
Instead, technology needs to make things more personal. Avoiding call queues can be made simpler by offering callback systems or using videos and webcams instead, Hausmann says.
Not everyone agrees that more automation is a bad thing, however. Fifty-five per cent of consumers would prefer to solve their issue using an automated system instead of waiting to speak to a human representative, according to Convergys research. Gabrielle Sanders, customer management solutions director at the company, claims that as long as problems get solved “in a consistent fashion”, people don’t mind the method. It’s the solution that counts.
While new technologies may help brands equip their contact centres with the tools to do a better job in less time, it appears that pleasing the customer ultimately comes down to classic brand-building marketing techniques.
As Paul Kennedy, head of consulting at Callcredit Marketing Solutions, puts it: “Ensure you are challenging negativity at every possible point across every possible channel – while maintaining the budget.”
Case Study: Virgin Games
Virgin Games, Virgin’s online gaming service, uses a multimedia contact centre solution from NEC Philips Unified Solutions to support its customers.
The all-in-one software, which combines call, chat and email customer contact facilities, aims to help the brand interact with people through their preferred methods, leading to higher satisfaction rates. Virgin Games claims that since introducing the software, it has seen a 200-300% improvement in service delivery.
Virgin Games operations director Christina Thakor-Rankin explains: “Customer satisfaction is one of the key selling points of the Virgin brand and we treat all customer contacts irrespective of channel as ‘on demand’. We aim to respond accordingly, with an average combined response time of under five minutes.”
Words of wisdom
Don’t forget contact centres need to be integrated with the rest of the brand.
Kevin Thompson, head of customer services at Sage’s Small Business Division, says:
“Service is part of our product and our brand. A brand will find itself in peril if it doesn’t deliver what the customer wants; it’s up to us to prove we have the expertise to support them in all circumstances or our brand would be completely devalued.”
If your customers are using certain technologies, it’s appropriate for you to be there too.
Andrew Small, head of CRM at BT Global Services, says:
“The most important thing for any brand to remember in a contact centre is to ensure that every consumer touchpoint is serviced. The often hefty expectations your consumers have of you can be met as effectively and efficiently as possible, using all the same technologies that they are using.”
If you get it right, every area of the brand will benefit.
Penny Downs, customer services manager at Arsenal FC, explains:
“It’s important that customer service reflects the brand. Ours didn’t do this before we moved to the Emirates [Stadium in 2007] because it wasn’t integrated. With consolidated teams delivering a combined service, the brand is much stronger.”
Fulfil your customer service provision.
Oke Eleazu, vice-president of the Institute of Customer Service, summarises:
“The fulfilment is in the promise, so understand customer requirements and ensure you deliver them with the right results to keep that valuable custom.”