Is effort the new loyalty?

Customer service is a vital element for brand loyalty and part of this is making it as easy as possible for consumers to find answers to their questions. Collecting data from interactions can help smooth the process

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“Loyalty is a very loaded term. Who are we loyal to? Friends and family. But not really companies,” warned BT’s customer experience futurologist Dr Nicola Millard at Marketing Week’s Customer Retention summit in September.

Millard says “making it easier for customers to come back” to brands could be an important way for companies to measure success in future. As a result, BT is starting to measure customer effort levels how much work consumers have to put into surfing a site, contacting a call centre or sending the brand an email.

The future may see even more brands using the resulting “effort” metric to predict or judge satisfaction and loyalty. This fits with consumer expectations. Forty-six per cent of consumers agree that loyalty to brands is a thing of the past, according to research by BT Global Services and Avaya. Conversely, 83% say they buy more from companies that make it easier to do business with them.

“It is an early science,” says Millard. “We are working with Henley Business School on this, including how we measure effort. We have multiple channels, so we are looking at how easy it is to find the website or the contact number.”(See The Customer Effort Model box, below.)

The benefits of making it easier for people to navigate and contact a brand is not just to do with making more profit for businesses it is also to do with the company spreading out exactly how people make that contact into different communication channels.

Millard says that ever-informed consumers, combined with brands that have historically pushed people away from contact centres, mean that when people do actually ring up a business, the lines are very busy. As a result, a vicious circle ensues: people are using the same channels to complain, these are then overwhelmed and consumers go on to feel even more annoyed about the effort they have put into the experience.

BT’s research into the “autonomous consumer” (see box, below) also shows that consumers feel customer service representatives are not always knowledgeable enough about their operations. Fifty-six per cent of online consumers claim that their calls tend to be about more complex subjects rather than simple transactions, which are now done on websites; and 79% say they always or sometimes know more about the product or problem than the call centre agent.

Millard says that making sure different channels combine for a homogenous brand experience is tough for companies. “When I hit that frontline person, then I might say ’well that is not what it says on the website’ and that is a big challenge for brands,” Millard says.

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This means that there is even more need for internal customer contact teams to know what the other areas are saying, doing or offering consumers. Otherwise, the true effort metric cannot be tracked, as the same data needs to be available to each part of the business.

For Alex Bannister, head of customer marketing at Nationwide, putting this in place can be tricky. “The data collection element is hard [in terms of customer comments and feedback],” he says. “Our customer-relationship management (CRM) system records most interactions, but not all of them.”

Bannister points out that Nationwide’s advertising strapline is “We’re on your side”, and that customers expect the company to demonstrate this. “The feedback loop must work,” he says. “This is real stuff we can and should influence.”

Millard agrees that businesses need to be able to record what their staff do to help make contact easier for customers who may then become more loyal.

“From a customer experience perspective, we need to make sure that the website knows what the contact centre is doing, and they know what the frontline is doing and the service is actually tallied up,” she says. “From a customer perspective, it’s your brand that they are looking at they are not looking at those lovely siloed channels that we have created, so that is a big challenge. And there are very demanding customers that are spotting inconsistencies.”

These demanding customers want their problems to be solved by an expert, according to BT’s research. Ninety-three per cent say they are always or sometimes happy to have their call transferred to someone who can answer increasingly complex demands.

Simon Kaffel, former data and analysis director at Sky and head of data planning and analysis at Zurich Financial Services, warns this is a tricky job.

“The larger an organisation gets, the more complex it is and the more people it needs,” he says. “Finding an expert for all products and services is a very difficult thing to do.”

BT has started to solve the issue of customers putting in too much effort by connecting people to experts in the business whenever it can. It has an “intelligent directory” of staff, which can be searched via keyword, job title or skills. “You can start to unearth people within a large organisation,” says Millard.

She suggests that in some businesses, the “back office” staff could almost become the new “front office”, where experts are on hand to answer customer queries through any channel.

“We need to be ’speed dating’ the customer and the expert together,” she says. “But it could be anarchy out there because everyone is potentially dealing with everyone.

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“You need really good customer relationship and workflow management. You also need measures to show who is talking to who and that it is working.”

Some brands use CRM software and practices to help them work out who is contacting them, how, when and why. But for Zurich’s Kaffel, it can be unhelpful to split out this function. “In businesses, there are these CRM roles but there shouldn’t be the need for that sort of role,” he says. “Considering what a customer wants should be prevalent through the whole of the organisation. Is there a need for a bespoke CRM function? I don’t think there should be; it should be ingrained within an organisation.”

Millard feels that CRM is only useful if the data brands hold on customers is actually used to decrease the customer effort levels. She cites Tesco as using data particularly well, to inform what stock is held by which stores, for example. This means its shoppers have to make less effort as the items they need are always on shelf.

But while BT, Nationwide and Zurich might already be thinking about this issue, how can brands with less information to hand about their customers improve their effort scores?

“Even just walking in your customers’ shoes and understanding that experience is vital,” says Millard.

And if a brand does not have analytics tools in place to monitor calls to a contact centre, listening in to customer calls or looking at emails will help a company build up a picture of how much effort people have to put in when dealing with the business.

Nationwide publishes how it is doing in terms of customer complaints and its internal “service tracker” scores on its website. It is also trying to match the customer experience back to transactional data.

“There is a paradigm shift from a product focus to a customer focus,” says Bannister. “Financial services companies will have to look at both they won’t be a ’customer-centric’ organisation overnight.”

Virgin Media measures how it is doing with customers using the Net Promoter Score metric. For Sean Risebrow, director of customer experience at Virgin Media, the definition of loyalty is about those who stay longer, spend more, talk to other people positively and cost less to serve. In other words, customers who have an easy, low-effort relationship with the brand.

He sums up: “I would spend less time worrying about the definitions of loyalty and more time thinking about what you measure on a relationship level.”

The Customer Effort Model

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’There are some areas where consumers expect to expend effort, such as applying for a mortgage’

Nicola Millard

BT Global Services

BT is working with Henley Business School to examine what “effort” means for customers when they contact or interact with a company. The aim is to make customer journeys easier and engender more loyalty as a result.

One example of effort might be physically going to a supermarket, or how much intellectual energy they have to use to solve their customer service problems.

There is also the emotional effort needed to tackle issues and what parts are going to cause anger, frustration or happiness. BT is breaking these elements down according to the customer journey too.

However, Dr Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT Global Services, says there are areas where consumers expect to expend effort. “Things like airline security if it was really easy it would be unsettling,” she says. “Or applying for a mortgage you expect some of it to be difficult.”

For Sean Risebrow, director of customer experience at Virgin Media, measuring consumer effort should be part of various other measures a brand can put in place.

“When customers talk about the overall relationship, they will talk about products, value for money and the importance of service,” said Risebrow at Marketing Week’s Customer Retention summit. “If you are going to measure customer effort, you need that service element to be a critical part of the overall relationship.”

Virgin Media is working on what customers really want from service. “People want a simple, easy service interaction so that they can go off and do something more interesting,” says Risebrow. “I do think that ease of doing business and customer effort is critical, but it needs to be in context of overall product, price and service.”

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The Autonomous Consumer

How loyal do customers feel to brands? BT Global Services and Avaya spoke to 1,500 consumers in the UK and US, asking them how they would like to deal with firms, contact them and what levels of loyalty they felt.

Forty-eight per cent of people call contact centres after looking something up online. And by the time they talk to someone, 79% say they always or sometimes know more than that person, making them very informed and autonomous.

At the same time, consumers are bypassing organisations altogether, with more than half agreeing that they trust the content on a customer forum more than on an organisation’s website. And 83% are using product reviews to check quality.

BT’s research also identifies “shopper swots”, people who plan their purchases before buying them. Nearly 80% of people who have internet access in the UK research a product online before buying. Added to this, 59% like online shopping because no one tries to sell them anything.

Autonomous consumers are also happy to help others through forums and those with smartphones are the people who are most likely to ring a brand’s contact centre. Two-thirds of people with smartphones have recently rung call centres, compared with 50% of other customers. Dr Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT Global Services, says such phones are helping create “a monster customer, who is very informed about a brand”.

More contact from all kinds of channels means that more monitoring needs to be put in place, according to Simon Kaffel, head of data planning and analysis at Zurich Financial Services. “Companies will need to be more responsive, having people monitor emails coming through,” he says. “It needs a dedicated team. It is early days [in terms of aligning data]. Everyone wants to use email more.”

Brands can monitor the data customers provide via their smartphones and make the most of it. Millard gives the example of Foursquare, the location-based service that allows people to ’check in’ to wherever they are. When they get the most check-ins, they become ’mayor’ of that location.

“Smart companies are beginning to say ’this is the new loyalty’,” she says. “Starbucks in the US knows who its ’mayors’ are and when they are in a branch, so they can start to differentiate the experience. There is a ton of data we can mine.”

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