Keeping the autonomous customer happy

Keeping the autonomous customer happy
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What best describes you?

Giving customers what they want in an age when they have access to everything, everywhere, is what BT’s customer experience futurologist Nicola Millard is charged with. No easy task. She outlines some of her principles and practices.

You don’t meet many ‘customer experience futurologists’. What does your job entail?

Futurology is about spotting trends. In that sense I’m a futurologist but I have said that a more accurate title for me might be ‘soon-ologist’ as my timeframe is closer than a lot of traditional futurologists (typically three weeks to five years).

I’m not a technologist, although I work for BT (British Telecom), which is a technology company – I am actually a psychologist. My focus is how technologies change behaviours.

The ultimate aim of the job is to engage with our customers on a level that goes beyond simply boxes and lines and into understanding what their strategic challenges are into the future. I also work closely with our portfolio teams to ensure that our global contact centre solutions are future proofed.

You’ve been at BT for 22 years. What’s kept you so enthralled you’ve stayed?

BT is a big, global company – we have around 100,000 employees in 170 countries and five very different lines of business, so it’s hard to get bored.

I’ve done everything from user interface design to running technology trials in contact centres and business consultancy.

I now have one of the best jobs in BT, doing research, writing blogs and papers, running workshops with our major global corporate clients in multiple sectors and presenting at conferences around the world.

You’ve talked about consumers being empowered. What does this mean?

Whenever customers have choice they are empowered. The difference now is that customers have choice with no geographical boundaries and with total transparency, courtesy of the internet and social media. Search engines are our new mechanisms for advice seeking (which is the natural human reaction to too much choice) and we are becoming increasingly happy to serve ourselves, as long as it is easy to do so. This means consumers are often cutting organisations out of the dialogue until the last minute.

How should businesses be trying to connect with those empowered consumers?

The first challenge is that loyalty is in decline. Although we can no longer take loyalty for granted, we know that customers will consume more with companies that make it easy for them. So ‘make things easy’ is the first rule.

The next thing is to understand how and why consumers want to contact you – given that there is a proliferation of channels out there. The surprising thing that research tells us is that customers often still want to pick up the phone – but, by the time they do so they have often done a search, been on the website and haven’t found what they want. As a consequence, nearly 50% of us only ring when we have a complex or emotive issue. This means that the first human contact with the organisation for an autonomous customer is the contact centre. The problem with that is that you frequently get a lovely person who knows less than you about the product or knows as much as the FAQs (which you have already read) or isn’t empowered to do anything. So that’s the second challenge – network the consumer with the person who can answer their question or get them to their goal – wherever that person happens to be.

Finally, understand the strengths and weaknesses of multiple channels and become able to tie them together. Customers are goal directed – if one channel doesn’t work, they switch to the next.

What’s BT doing in that regard?

‘Easy’ is one thing that we have taken very seriously. We have implemented a ‘net easy score’ in our UK consumer business (BT Retail) and found that customers who have ranked us as very easy to do business with are 40% less likely to churn.

Our contact centres are the focus of our multichannel strategy, with webchat and social media being integrated alongside our traditional phone capabilities.

We’ve also placed that same emphasis on the contact centre portfolio that we sell to our global corporate clients – making multiple channel integration easy, enabling chat, calls and social media to sit alongside each other or the same platform. And we’ve introduced cloud-based contact centres, so companies can cope with variation in demand and virtualise in order to network experts in.

The recession hit Britain hard. How does this affect the way you communicate with your customers?

In tough times there is always a temptation to cut service levels. This would be fine if customer expectations of service have gone down – but the research has shown quite the opposite. In fact, it’s the online retailers that are setting the gold standard for service, value and convenience and they are driving expectations up. So, rather than cut service, the canny organisation looks at cutting out things that customers don’t value and investing in things that they do. In that sense, recession can result in a huge amount of innovation and positive change in companies, which might not happen if there wasn’t such an urgent impetus to do so.

How should we be managing the customer experience and where does the multichannel revolution fit into loyalty?

If loyalty is positively correlated with ease of use, which it seems to be, then making things easy for customers is a good first step. However, as customers, we are more and more omni channel. The challenge for customer experience is that, as customers switch channels, they spot inconsistencies. Customer experience design needs to ensure that things are consistent and that it is easy to switch from one channel to another without needing to start from the beginning every time.

How is BT engaging with a younger audience and using social media?

The demographic for social media might be older than you think. The average age of a Twitter user hovers around 40. But younger customers certainly have less appetite to engage through email, for example, and are more likely to use channels like webchat as well as the full capabilities of smartphones (like location-based services and mobile payments).

Webchat, I think, is the channel to watch at the moment because it’s a good bridging tool between online and the contact centre and also sits beautifully alongside its trendier young cousin, social media, because you can bridge a public conversation into a private one.

There is a lot of focus on ‘customer experience’ but few companies have it right. What is your advice?

The first step is to get the basics right. Look at what customer demand is and make it easier for customers to get what they want through appropriate channels. Inevitably this tends to cross organisational boundaries, so customer experience has to be a unifying factor strategically which is measured from the customer perspective end-to-end.

A lot of companies have siloed measures that act against each other. The classic one is when contact centres are measured on being quick (call-handling time) but logistical deployment as a result of the call are measured on accurate delivery – being quick and being accurate are often working against each other.

Companies can then look at the opportunities to delight the customer, where they value it and, where they don’t, just make it as easy as possible for them.

Dr Nicola Millard is a customer experience futurologist at BT and will be speaking at the ADMA Forum on Friday. 

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