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What will be the key drivers of change in customer experience in the next two to five years?

How contact centres, the agents who work in them, and their skills and training will need to adapt to meet the customer and client expectations of the future

The new conversational skills

When you look at organisational strategy today, 90 per cent of it seems to be based on getting technology to do the work – AI, Big Data, all of those brilliant things that in the future are going to help with channel shift and personalisation.

But we need to be wary of leaving behind the people element. Fundamentally we are still going to require people to deliver customer service. It’s not all about tech. It’s about bringing in the right people with the right skills and mindsets, and some of the messages around that are getting confused.

We hear a lot about how the easier enquiries will increasingly be handled online or by self serve, leaving advisors with the more complex ones. But there have always been complex enquiries. They haven’t just appeared from nowhere, so it’s not as if we’re grappling with a brand new problem.

But there will be new conversational skills to teach. For example, in a complex environment where you have longer and more siloed customer journeys – utilities for example – one customer’s experience might be chopped up across a dozen teams, potentially contractors as well, responding to different elements of the enquiry.

What we see is that there are some very specific conversational skills that drive high CSat (customer satisfaction) scores and NPS (net promoter scores, ie, the willingness of customers to recommend a company or product) in these circumstances. They revolve around being able to explain complexity: to summarise well, to ensure understanding, and being able to make it really clear what’s coming down the line after this interaction.

This much more complex set of conversational codes will shift and change depending on what channel the advisor is working on. That versatility is something I see becoming increasingly important in the future. 

The psychology of the memorable experience

In the 1980s it was just about answering problems. Today it’s about answering problems across a huge range of different channels. Wind forward to tomorrow and we’re coming to terms with the fact that the human beings we are dealing with are very complex!

There are behavioural aspects of interaction which, when you bring them into the future world of customer experience, really start to drive outcomes. One simple example is what creates a memorable experience, and research shows that the best ones have a peak in the middle and a peak at the end. If you’re trying to create loyal customers, you need to pay attention to their experience around those psychological points. 

Some companies are grasping this and putting effort into the end of the experience. In retail that might be focusing on how people leave the store and making sure that’s as interesting and engaging an experience as when they came in.

In a contact centre that might mean ending the experience by referring to the most human part of the interaction they just had. Instead of saying ‘is there anything else I can help you with’ it might be ‘oh, and enjoy that pizza when you get home’ because at some point the customer mentioned they were ordering something to eat.

There are common truths in the psychological and neuroscience space that organisations will need to start paying attention to and those elements will be a much bigger part of the complex mix of interacting with customers.

The pursuit of sales talent vs. service talent

It’s amazing the number of times we go into a company and they say: ‘we need to swap our service people for sales people because our service people don't have the right personality for selling’. That’s already a flawed way of thinking and will be even more so in the future because there shouldn’t be a lot of difference between the skills needed for the two.

In today’s economy it’s much more about a service ethos of doing what’s right for the customer and adding value. It’s not the 1980s school of ‘look deep into my eyes while I sell you something you don’t want.’

We shouldn’t be talking about selling or service, we should be talking about creating value at every single touch point.

That’s something we’ll all need to respond to in the next few years.

The days of seeing customer service as a cost and trying to drive that cost down as far as possible is not a sustainable strategy. In the new world every touch point a customer has with an organisation, across whatever channel, is an opportunity to add value. This massively changes the advisor’s skill set because we shouldn’t be hiring any more for people who can sell or people who can serve, but people who want to do good for the customer. 

The power of permission

Process can only get you so far. In the next few years, what will make a difference to the quality of organisations’ customer service is how well they adopt a permission culture.

The industry has always exhibited a bias towards the tangible. Ideally organisations would like to put everything into a process: ‘if you write it down, they will do it’.

There will always be an element of the advisor saying, in this instance, I need to do something different for this customer, even if the process tells me otherwise.

The companies who get that right are those who have real clarity on what they are about. They are able to create a permission culture where their people know what to do, know what the business stands for, and are empowered to do what’s right in the moment even when the process dictates something otherwise.

We ought to have cracked this by now – it’s not really a futuristic thing – but in the next few years as the world gets more complex, a strong permission culture is going to be the crucial differentiator.

The changing workforce

What do we know that’s changing about the employee workforce? Personally I’d like to dispel the myth that it’s all about millennials.

The fact is we also have an aging population as well as people who want to stay in work longer. The issue is not so much how we deal with millennials, but how we deal with a generally far more diverse workforce than we have been used to.

We also have to deal with and respond to a society where there are issues with trust and issues with purpose. We are seeing that trust, as measured in society, is on the way down. Meanwhile Millennials (though not just limited to this generation) are choosing to join organisations where they believe they can be part of something that does good and work somewhere that is socially responsible.

In the customer experience industry we are used to seeing a particular set of headlines: customers are changing, it’s all about omnichannel, what do we do about millennials…However if you just see it as a millennial issue it’s very easy to convince yourself you can fix the problem just by making everything more digital and more social.

No, it’s more complex than that; it’s about people. It’s about how we engage with our whole workforce in a manner that makes them truly connect with the purpose of our organisation and trust us as leaders, to lead in a business that does good in society.

The future of advisor training

In contact centres, where you are talking about a large volume of people needing an induction period of three to four weeks, then the onboarding experience used to be pretty dreadful. It was several hours of PowerPoint presentations, stuck in a classroom, attempting to absorb the most information you’ve ever had to take in, in your life. It was a process that left you very ill equipped to deal with customers.

If that was 1983, then 35 years later… well for some organisations it hasn’t moved on that much! Thankfully we are seeing much better ways of doing it in some sectors, and yes there are companies looking at more innovative and community based ways of training. Virgin Media for example.

They have a pre-join process so before you even walk through the door on your first day you’ve already had access to your learning app, you’ve seen videos introducing you to the organisation and you’ve had a message from your floor manager welcoming you on board.

We are now much better at using blended digitised learning solutions. Instead of relying on PowerPoints, organisations are maximising lots of different learning platforms to create truly capable people who feel confident before they even have their first customer interaction.

Some are also using virtual reality to simulate the contact centre environment so you’ve done the job before you actually do the job. Trainee advisors are able to learn what they need to in a real-time context, rather than just learning an entire system that may not apply to their job  in practice.

Whereas most training is ‘push it out and you will learn this stuff’, more sophisticated companies are learning that employees do better with a more self-directed process, working with the content they need, when they need it. So that means having an objective to complete within a certain timescale, but a flexibility within those learning solutions that they can use themselves.

Also we have communities of learners who create environments where new hires talk to other new hires. That gives them a sense of being part of a broader set of people all going through the same experiences. It taps into the social learning and social environment of shared experiences.

And I think you’ll see more organisations take self-directed learning to the next stage where the learners themselves contribute to the knowledge of the business.

In sophisticated companies there’s an acceptance that policies and practices change so quickly that the people in the front line often have more experience of and expertise in them than the teams developing them.

In that style of learning environment advisors can record video content of themselves talking their way around a system so other learners can gain from it – and ‘like’ it – so it becomes like a Google for learning within the business.

Ideas like this drive engagement, they drive learning and they are really innovative and exciting. What’s more, they work! In one organization we know of, 70% of advisors were engaging with the content outside of working hours, which is a massive turnaround in an environment where there tends to be high attrition and low engagement.

The new roles needed for a new age

I think I’ll answer this by telling you what we don’t need! One of the things I think we shouldn’t do is keep bringing in roles that effectively outsource the role of leadership. In many organisations, people have been hired to look after employee engagement or communications, which are areas an organisation’s own leadership should be deeply engaged in. The role of leadership is to engage and communicate and create an environment where people want to come to work, and to do good for the customer every day - frankly, these organisations aren’t very good at it.

A much more useful role would be something that builds on the growing involvement of psychology and neuroscience to understand the art of human interaction and the behaviours of conversation.

We’ve seen speech analytics companies selling technology to tell whether a customer is happy or not. We’ve seen organisations use that analysis to search for behaviours they thought were driving success. But you can’t deploy technology if it doesn’t measure the right thing. If you don’t know which behaviours do genuinely drive success then your analysis won’t deliver any worthwhile insights.

So before going big on data it would be handy to have an expert who really understands the psychology of interaction and what behaviours create the outcomes customers are actually looking for.

First published by Capita Customer Management

Photo of Sally Earnshaw

Sally Earnshaw

Managing director, Blue Sky, part of Capita

Since 1992 Sally has built, led and directed teams in customer service and sales, delivering outstanding results. She has extensive experience of developing and executing learning strategies within the corporate market, particularly financial services.

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