Executives Need to Invest in Understanding the Customer Experience

Executives Need to Invest in Understanding the Customer Experience

Delivering superior customer experience (CX) is a mandate that now extends well beyond the bounds of customer service, support, sales, or IT departments. It requires a cultural shift that emphasizes pervasive information sharing and intent analysis across the enterprise. Executives not fully immersed in CX leave their organizations open to churn and reduced market presence. Executives across all domains need to step up and lead their organizations’ CX efforts in order to survive. 

Call it a sixth sense on the part of consumers. When connecting with a company to make a purchase or get a question answered — be it on a sales floor, over the phone, or online — one can intuitively sense the environment of that company. They can tell whether it’s an inspiring and innovative place to work and cares about its customers and community, or is a terrible place to work that doesn’t respect customers and has a stagnant corporate culture. Of course, there are cases where no intuition is even required, and the state of an organization’s corporate culture is obvious through encounters with seemingly apathetic employees lacking the right information, or through confusing online interfaces. This is the crux of the current state of customer experience, or CX.

CX has long been seen as the primary duty of customer service personnel, and, more recently, technology staff charged with designing well-functioning digital and virtual interfaces. However, missing from the equation have been higher-level executives and decision-makers who haven’t paid enough attention to CX efforts and have taken things for granted. A lot of leaders have never experienced how good (or bad) their company’s customer experience is, and they assume it is always good, or at least passable.

This standoffishness by business leaders won’t cut it anymore. First of all, CX needs to be recognized as more than presenting slick user interfaces or arming customer service staff with the latest and greatest analytics platforms. Rather, it is all-encompassing, focusing on not only the mechanics of transactions and engagements, but also customers’ feelings about their time spent with a company. Was it surprise, joy, disappointment, or frustration? Or does it leave them feeling dirty dealing with this company?

Within many organizations, hierarchical management structures, siloed information sources, and low levels of training and inadequate career development lead to subpar CX. This is where executives and managers need to step up and build organizations more responsive — and more empathetic — to customer needs. Delivery of high-value CX has become a strategic concern for businesses — growth and revenues will now rise and fall based on customers’ perceptions. This especially becomes acute as customer interactions go digital, in a world where engagements can be seen as commoditized and impersonal.

Only business leaders themselves can provide an enterprise-wide vision for uniting the organization behind superior CX, and remove the obstacles that stand in the way. They need to bring the following types of fresh thinking to the way people, processes, and technology deliver CX:

  • Commitment and training across all employee and management ranks to supporting or delivering superior CX, with tools and access to customer knowledge as needed.
  • An accommodating corporate culture that rewards empathy and an unwavering commitment to excellence
  • A well-connected, highly integrated, and intelligent infrastructure, sprinkled with AI tools that can augment human capabilities.

Many organizations fall short in these areas. A recent survey of 300 C-level executives showed that only half are confident they are able to provide high-quality digital experiences to customers such as proactive digital conversations, online and mobile self-service, and chatbot interactions. The survey, conducted by Joe McKendrick, co-author of this article on behalf of Information Today, Inc. and NICE, also finds a majority (59%) rate their company’s first-contact resolution with customers as “poor” or “less than adequate.” One of the reasons why companies don’t have a good initial contact is because they don’t understand the “intent” of the customer interaction fully at the first initial contact, this sometimes results in poor customer service or, worse, churn. Delivering superior CX is especially difficult in the modern world because of the volume and variety of online as well as in-person touchpoints, and due to customer expectations stemming from gaming and social media apps usage.

The key to CX going forward is an ability to turn data into actionable insights. This is present among forward-looking enterprises, comprising 18% of the survey total. These companies support a fully integrated experience model to enable predictive and proactive support, as well as enabling shared insights and data across employee teams. When something is not going right at the customer contact level, the CEO is aware as well. These organizations are further along in leveraging artificial intelligence that will help to predict customer behavior and needs — 33% report now having a “full capability” in this area, compared to only five percent of their lagging counterparts.

There is a range of AI applications that enhance CX, from interactive chatbots to systems that make autonomous decisions, within bounds, pertaining to customer accounts. This, in turn, frees up customer contact agents for higher-level tasks, which always consists of communicating important information to the business, be it product malfunctions, service shortfalls, or other forms of feedback. This is where executives need to step in, as only they are in a position to appropriately reconfigure their organizations to ensure that everyone involved — product development, financial, logistics, and more — has access and is acting on this information as part of a continuous feedback loop between producers and consumers.

For example, if a certain dispute can be resolved by issuing a refund within certain limits, it should be automated and approved instantly without the need for a human in the loop. A major reason customer satisfaction erodes is because of the length and longer timing of processes to resolve issues. Obviously, if the issue can’t be resolved by an AI system or chatbot, then it should be immediately escalated to someone who can assist the situation rather than a cryptic “we will get back to you” message.

When you contact Uber or Lyft with a dispute for a ride, the automated chatbot tries to resolve the issue and have successfully resolved many issues without a need to escalate within a matter of minutes from the initial contact for many users, which instills confidence in the brand. Quick resolutions of queries or problems builds brands, and costs far less than attempting to woo back dissatisfied customers.

Again, it’s important that the entire enterprise — not just contact-center agents or chatbot administrators — be engaged in the CX process. The NICE survey also finds only 18% have such open or forward-looking corporate cultures amenable to superior CX, with fully integrated experience models that enable predictive and proactive support, or an emphasis in the enabling of shared insights and data across employee teams. Their culture, from top to bottom, focuses on the customer. They not only strive for CX excellence, but operational efficiency as well. They fully empower their CX staff with real-time access to tools, training and coaching based on analytics and AI.

Culture, from top to bottom, needs to focus on the customer and both the known/expected problems as well as the possible unknown problems. Scripting to tackle only the known problems might backfire as most organizations, especially not mature ones, don’t know what problems they might face in the field with the customers. They not only need to strive for CX excellence, but operational efficiency as well — and equip employees with the tools and training required to act on the insights borne from AI and analytic systems.

While technology is reshaping today’s digital-first CX, it’s a question of where it can be most impactful, and how business leaders can take advantage of these opportunities. AI can help with options for delivering superior CX, such as intelligent virtual assistants, sentiment analysis, and customer history and intent analysis. Using AI can not only analyze the massive data available on the specific customer, understand the latest issue they contacted customer support about, what was proposed or conversed, and possibly propose an amicable solution either directly to the customer or to the employee who is dealing with the issue. Without AI, this could literally take minutes to hours to understand the issue at hand, and try to come up with a solution that might be acceptable to the customer.

Executives can sharpen their CX acumen, forging a highly integrated and forward-looking experience for their customers. It’s possible to deliver better customer experiences in several ways, including:

Build a customer-focused culture. Many organizations claim to be doing this, or aspire to do so, but the vision is often far from the reality on the ground. Executives and managers not only need to devote more technology, budget, resources, and training to CX, but also paint the vision of how their companies want to treat employees, communities, as well as employees themselves.

Assign accountability, but treat superior CX as a strategic necessity that is a critical part of everyone’s job. As mentioned above, the challenge with CX is that it has been contained within the contact center, sales, or IT domains. CX needs to be accountable to an executive team, or solidified in emerging formal roles such as “chief customer officer” or “chief customer experience officer.” While it’s important to develop accountability in the hands of a strategist who can unify or integrate efforts across the corporate silos, the responsibility and stewardship of CX needs to be part of every executive function. Even if there is a formal CX role in place, it’s important that everyone’s job be that of chief customer officer and be accountable to the customer.

Employ artificial intelligence and related data analytics to predict and gain a deeper understanding of customer needs and preferences. High-powered analytics tools and platforms can bring massive scale to personalization and personalized attention, the very core of the customer experience going forward. AI can predict some of the demand, customer needs, and sometimes foresee customer issues coming up ahead of time. A combination of chatbots, natural language processing, sentiment analysis, predictive analytics, self-service tools all can elevate the game to the next level.

Incentivize for superior CX. Compensation systems are one of the most powerful motivators driving executive actions and decisions. For many executives, reward systems are tied to the performance and year-to-year growth of their particular business units. Plus, compensation and rewards may be tied to narrowly defined aspects of traditional customer-service metrics such as customer satisfaction scores, customer effort score, and net promoter score. CX occurs across a broad spectrum of activity, including digital interfaces, contact center employee responsiveness, sales team integration, service follow up, and many other activities.

Become more immersed in the customer’s perspective. Along with high-powered analytics, human intelligence is invaluable. Traditional customer-service metrics provide some insight into the customer experience, but only tell part of the story. Executives across all domains need to speak with customers on a regular basis to better understand what they like about their experiences with the company, and what they don’t like, personally following the customer journey — stepping outside and purchasing a product or service, and contacting the organization from the outside through various channels will provide a first-hand glimpse of CX in action.

Customer experience needs to be front and center in management decision-making. It takes an enterprise to deliver superior CX, and business leaders need to make this happen and be fully immersed in it as if their business depends on it. Because it does.