This article originally apppeared in the Sept. issue of CUSTOMER magazine.
It’s a new day for the customer.
The wealth of online content, the popularity of the smartphone, and the widespread use and unpredictable possibilities of social media have turned marketing, sales and support upside down – or, perhaps more accurately, downside up.
You see, it now seems that it’s the customer who is manning this ship.
Meanwhile, businesses are casting around trying to figure out how to target and engage consumers; deliver products, services and support that keep them on the hook; and avoid hitting any social media icebergs along the way.
This will be no small feat given the sea change we’re experiencing in how consumers prefer to shop and communicate with businesses. But customer care, marketing and even top executives at many organizations are working to introduce and leverage multi-channel contact centers, mobile apps, social listening tools, data analytics, video, and more to address the rising tide of customer expectations.
“Online customer service has been the ultimate game changer,” says Duke Chung, chairman and co-founder of Parature. “As customers, we have gone from patiently standing in line and very personal face-to-face and voice-to-voice interactions to an online world where everyone perceives they’re at the front of the line, and they have a level of anonymity and detachment that allows them to be bolder and more demanding of an organization’s customer service department.”
Mariann McDonagh, chief marketing officer at inContact, expresses a similar sentiment.
“Thirty years ago, companies had more than a day to respond and customers felt that their needs were met,” says McDonagh. “However, now customers are barely willing to wait a few seconds to have their question answered. That means it’s more important than ever to be available for your customers when and in the channel they prefer.”
A key reason many of us have adapted to communicating via modes including chat, text, and e-mail is due to the rise of the mobile and multi-functional device known as the smartphone.
Smartphones let us communicate pretty much whenever and wherever we like. And it can be so much more convenient and less intrusive to others when we chat, text or e-mail – as opposed to talk on the phone – while waiting in line to order coffee at Starbucks, readying to deplane from a flight, or hanging out at a child’s soccer match. Using these modes of communication from the home or office, meanwhile, allows us to multitask during interactions and respond to messages at our leisure.
Parature’s Chung expects live chat to gain a more prominent role as a preferred channel, as consumers craving personalized, high-touch service turn to chat “so they can stay online, multitask, avoid hold times, and use the brief-burst language they’ve become accustomed to through texting.”
So convenient are devices like smartphones and tablets that the mobile channel is emerging as the consumer’s primary choice for all activity with service providers, says Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst of Gartner. That will only accelerate, he says, as customers realize that their needs can all be met through this touch point.
Maybe so, but Ovum Research says that today something like 80 percent of smartphone customers in developed countries still prefer phone calls with a customer service representative over obtaining assistance through any other channel, while 20 percent of them prefer to use smartphone applications to communicate with organizations in financial services, travel and communications. The firm adds that by 2016, 37 percent of inbound customer service calls in North America will be made from smartphones.
Meanwhile, Armin Gebauer, CEO of MobileAware, tells CUSTOMER that his firm believes that within 5 years the majority of customer care interactions will take place via mobile device.
Of course, mobile only amplifies customers’ already high expectations for quick results. At the same time, however, it’s beneficial in that it pushes some organizations to design more effective customer care tools, and can create new opportunities for businesses to connect with their customers and prospects.
“What we’ve found is that the experience a customer has via a mobile device is drastically different from the experience a customer has via a landline phone, especially if the caller is mobile, i.e. driving, walking around, etc.,” says Mike Iacobucci, CEO at Interactions Corp. “The callers are usually more hurried and have less patience while using mobile devices. Background noise is more abundant on a mobile device and often the call quality can suffer – making automation even more difficult.”
On the up side, mobile is leading many organizations toward simplicity in customer care, says Alex Bratton, CEO and chief geek of Lextech Global Services.
“That's one of the key reasons mobile is growing so quickly, people can actually understand how to use the technology without bulky manuals or significant time spent,” Bratton adds.
Indeed. Already, contact center outfits like Genesys (News - Alert), among many others, have introduced mobile care solutions. Such mobile apps give end users one-click access to live support – and without repeating their mobile transaction, problem, or specific location. American Airlines is among the first users of Genesys Mobile Engagement.
But it’s the emergence of SMS messaging that has created mobile’s greatest impact on customer interactions, according to Ken Condren, vice president of technology at C3/CustomerContactChannels.
“Significant market segments, including Gen Y, Gen Z, and a large number of international markets, list mobile SMS as their preferred method of communication,” Condren says. “Customer satisfaction survey response rates jump dramatically when utilizing SMS platforms. Recruiting in certain international markets is greatly dependent on mobile technology. SMS outbound alert messaging offers a low cost, effective alternative to agent or IVR-based communication.”
While the mobile channel enables more convenient, customer-initiated interactions, it also places increased pressure on providers to serve their customers more proactively, adds Lara Albert, vice president of global marketing at Globys. And customer interactions, even analytics-driven ones, that worked in the past don’t necessarily translate to mobile, she says.
“Whether you have a telecom operator sending an overage alert, a pharmacy alerting a prescription is ready, or a department store reminding you of today’s holiday sale, if customers are willing to provide information, they expect a relevant, more meaningful experience in return,” she says. “The success of the mobile channel rests on this ability to interact with someone based on their behavior (habits and patterns) and context (best time to engage the user). With the right tools in place, more sophisticated analytics capabilities are enabling providers to leverage the rich customer data that is unique to mobile to deliver highly personalized and relevant interactions.”
Contextual marketing is built on an understanding and interpretation of complex operator data – relative location, social graph, usage, accessibility, and content – to determine when an individual is most receptive for what message based on his or her real-time behavior, Albert explains.
This discussion gets to the heart of the changing worlds of marketing and advertising.
Marketing used to involve media campaigns focused on one-way messaging and brand impressions, notes Marcel LeBrun, senior vice president and general manager of Salesforce Radian6, in a June blog. But social marketing is focused on building customer connections, two-way conversations and customer relationships, he says, adding that social media has moved from a specialized team in marketing to the foundation of marketing.
“We believe that marketing is undergoing the biggest transformation in 60 years,” he says.
LeBrun talks about two-way conversations; but, in fact, the conversations impacting advertising and marketing are coming from pretty much every direction as consumers communicate freely with one another about their likes and disappointments related to companies, their products, and the customer experience they deliver.
That’s why social media is a deeply disruptive technology for businesses and their customers, adds Daniel Taylor, vice president of operations at Vocalabs.
“It has never been easier for individuals to get the word out to their social contacts in the event of a particularly good or bad experience,” Taylor says. “The formation of stronger communities around celebrity influencers in particular means that individual experiences that meant little merely a decade ago get amplified rapidly and to dramatic extent.”
Danny Kalish, co-founder and CTO at Idomoo, adds that social networks have given every personal customer experience – good or bad – a stage and a megaphone.
“A decade ago, The New York Times may have established your reputation, and a nice customer service call may have calmed a disappointed customer,” Kalish notes. “Now the social networks, with many independent and unedited opinions, have more influence on any service provider’s reputation, and frustrated customers will air their disappointment publicly via tweets or Facebook posts way before a company representative even knows they’re angry. The opposite also applies. People are generous with their recommendations of great services, and friends who are more receptive to another friend’s recommendation than any paid advertisement. Idomoo takes this a step further. A positive customer experience like receiving a funny personalized offer, or great birthday video card, can be shared virally from one customer to all their online friends.”
Joe Staples, chief marketing officer at Interactive Intelligence, agrees, saying: “Social media’s impact is huge. It isn’t just another media type. It’s a different media type with such broad adoption. Companies have to pay attention to it or risk losing their customer base. On the positive side, it also provides vendors new and creative ways to reach their customers.”
However, for all the talk about the impact of social media on customer service and marketing – and the move by important companies like Salesforce.com and Oracle (News - Alert) to snap up social media listening, analysis and campaign optimization outfits like Buddy Media, Radian6, Collective Intellect and Vitrue – Marty Beard, president and CEO of LiveOps (News - Alert), says that more than 70 percent of customer complaints made on social media never receive a response.
“It’s time for change,” he says.
Indeed. Matthew Storm, director of innovation and solutions at NICE Systems, says that while viral and important, social networks have yet to become a significant channel for customer service.
“In a recent study conducted by NICE, we found that social networks are the least useful channel for accomplishing a task and only 3 percent of consumers used this channel in a situation that required assistance from their service provider,” Storm says. “However, we feel that a social media presence is part of understanding the customer’s journey, and that journey will most likely unfold across more than one channel. When social media is part of that journey, it is critical that companies provide an experience that is seamless and informed, personalized and real-time, and guarantees fast and effective resolution.”
So what’s next in terms of the customer experience and the back office systems that enable it?
Well, we’re certain to see more solutions and mounting adoption of mobile apps. There’s also sure to be increased uptake in analysis, campaign and listening tools related to social media. Prospects also are bright for big data analytics solutions that enable organizations to comb through massive amounts of information in their own and third-party resource stores as part of efforts to build loyalty, lower churn, win new customers, and drive average revenue per users.
But beyond all of that, many companies are now saying that video is on the cusp of playing a more prominent role in the customer experience.
Vanguard Communications Corp. notes that video can be used to educate and enable customers to evaluate products. Of course, it could be leveraged to help customers learn how to use products before or after purchase, and independently or with the guidance of an in-store or contact center representative. Or it can just be used to enable more intimate communications.
“Video customer service – especially from an agent to a customer – enables a customer to know enough about an agent to trust the service they are being provided,” says Laura Bassett, director of customer experience and emerging technologies at Avaya. “When viewed this way, it’s no surprise that we are seeing the majority of video customer service solutions being sought from us are related to ‘trust verticals’: financial (I trust you with my money or my retirement plans), health/pharmacy (I trust the mail-order pharmacist will get it right), or personal consultation (I trust my weight loss coach).
“Video customer service is taking off because the general population now has expectations that match what the technology can accomplish. Before Skype, Facetime and the like, folks knew video as TV – almost always continuous, with a great picture, transmitted from a full studio setup. After years of video calls on webcams with family, friends, etc., they now know that Internet video can be useful, but there can be issues – just like cell phones. This means that businesses can now comfortably make the decision to deploy video, knowing customer expectations are realistic.”
For smaller organizations looking to provide high-touch service, video has proven to be a unique channel for creating a rich and interactive experience, says Storm of NICE Systems. He adds that some of NICE’s larger clients are experimenting with video, mostly to provide alternatives at retail stores, branches and kiosks.
“Sixty hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube every minute,” says Annie Weinberger, vice president of promote solutions at Autonomy (News - Alert), an HP company. “YouTube is the second most popular search engine, only behind Google. Consumers want to learn and ingest information through videos, but many companies don’t feel like they have the right tools to deliver video in a way that is optimized to consumer preferences.
“Video is full of such rich information and data – images, text, voice – that companies are challenged to make their videos searchable and relevant,” she continues. “Having a technology solution that can watch a video like a person would – understand text, recognize people, find an exact point in a very long video that is what you’re looking for – ensures that when companies are able to optimize their video content, then consumers are easily able to find the information they need and business can target, engage and deliver video as customers expect.”
Adds Bratton of Lextech Global Services. “A new area just emerging is the operational use of video in the enterprise. We have all sorts of video cameras in place, but the only people with access are the control room security folks.
“When we give access to those same cameras to facilities, operations and executive teams, we provide real-time information on people, vehicle and asset flow for better decision making,” Bratton continues. “Next we'll be able to expose those same cameras to our customers. Imagine being able to look at the parking lot traffic after a baseball game to see if the rush has died down or which concessions stand has the shorter line.”
Some other exciting areas that are getting a lot of attention these days, and may well get some decent adoption in the not-too-distant future, include avatars and augmented reality. Both of the above are both part of the larger trend of gamification – that is, the practice of bringing features commonly found in video games to other applications like customer service or shopping.
“Autonomy has a technology called Aurasma that allows people to bridge the physical and virtual worlds by enhancing the real world with digital information,” says Weinberger. “Through image recognition, Aurasma augments landmarks, billboards, magazine ads, and blank walls with videos and 3D animations.
“For example, by aiming their smartphones or tablets at a box of Tsubo shoes, a video pops out of the box that shows that pair of shoes on the runway, with the ability for the consumer to click through to a web destination for more information,” she explains. “Newspapers, games, schools and automotive, entertainment, fashion and sports marketers are all embracing this technology to bring customers closer to brands and provide gateways for further engagement.”
U.K.-based grocer Tesco is using augmented reality in South Korea, where its research showed that people strongly dislike grocery shopping. As a result, the company introduced Tesco Homeplus, which uses signage in the subway to recreate the feel of a grocery store. That way, people can quickly scan with their cell phones the desired items depicted on the subway platform signs and have those products delivered to their homes. Tesco Homeplus has made Tesco the No. 1 delivery grocery in South Korea, says Altimeter Group analyst Chris Silva.
Meanwhile, solutions like AvayaLive Engage, which was introduced in February of 2011 and is now in release version 3.0, allows employees and/or partners to communicate using avatars, video, text and audio communications. Today, business school MIT Sloan, Canadian service provider TELUS (which leverages the platform for employee training) and TedxBoston are among the users of AvayaLive Engage. But this kind of thing could potentially be expanded beyond internal use to address customer-facing applications.
The same could be said about gamification solutions from companies like Badgeville.
Chris Lynch, Badgeville’s director of product marketing, explains that the company’s Microsoft SharePoint connector solution is today used internally by businesses to identify – and recognize with online rewards like badges – the most high value behaviors of users in SharePoint environments. For example, take the sales staff. Sales people traditionally work within their own silos, says Lynch. If they do collaborate, he adds, they tend to do it via e-mail with a set group of people. But the larger organization could probably benefit more from sales meetings if sales people shared their notes within a SharePoint wiki. That way, even far-flung employees can share information about customers and prospects, potentially resulting in more sales.
Amit Shankardass, chief marketing officer at Alorica, says that avatars, natural language speech recognition, and video-based support are all part of the advent of humanization technology.
“This is the adaptation of current and new technologies to take on a more human-like persona and interaction,” he says. “These technologies provide a more personal and personalized service experience while ensuring consistency of experience and cost-effectiveness.”
Edited by Brooke Neuman