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Outsource magazine: thought-leadership and outsourcing strategy | September 22, 2017

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The Right Time is Now!

The Right Time is Now!

In November, Outsource hosted a breakfast roundtable debate, in partnership with customer engagement solutions provider Rapide, looking at the challenge of “improving business processes in real time”. Presented by Outsource editor Jamie Liddell and Rapide’s Client Services Director Mike McMaster, the debate featured senior professionals from major providers and aimed to investigate the voice of the customer, innovation, automation, sentiment analysis and much more – a hefty task for first thing in the morning, but our guests were more than up for the challenge…

The event kicked off with a Q&A between the two presenters, outlining the topics for discussion and giving Mike the opportunity to share his thoughts on some of the challenges thrown up by the rapid evolution and accelerating complexity of the customer and client contact arena – and, in particular, why he finds the voice of the customer such an interesting aspect of business process outsourcing: “There’s a great joy in working out how to join the dots between what somebody has experienced on the end of the phone, or the end of an email, all the way through to your client contracts, the SLAs they’re measuring you with and your own profitability performance.”

Mike continued: “The voice of the customer first started cropping up in some academic papers and dates back more than 30 years. Since then it’s gone through a huge transformation in terms of what it actually looks like. We’ve all sat and filled in very large surveys; I’m long enough in the tooth to have been sitting ticking pieces of paper and sending forms back – and there are some business processes where actually that’s still the way what the customer thinks is captured – and, like most people, I’ve had the experience of ticking my way through the boxes thinking ‘none of this is actually how I feel.’ And then you get to the little box at the end with ‘do you have any other comments?’ And I love and hate those because that’s where you get the opportunity to say what you really think – but you also know that no one’s going to do anything with it: maybe 10,000 other customers have submitted one of these, and even if there’s someone reading through 10,000 pieces of paper (and my very first job when I graduated was marketing executive for a major British chemical producer and I got the job of reading through the 10,000 comments…) trying to distill that manually into something that can be condensed down and taken to senior management to take decisions on is well-nigh impossible. Whereas someone else is sitting there with the tick boxes and cranking out 400 pages of graphs and charts.

“For that first survey, we were dealing with the bulk chemical industry, where there’s almost no differentiator because you’re buying standardised commodity product. So it’s purely driven by price and whether you can you get it in the right place at the right time. And in the check-box survey my company came out number one in the market. They, had they were outranking all of the competitors on every single measure. But I had a real problem, because it was not what the comments were telling me. The one that I lifted out to illustrate the point to the senior managers said ‘You’re not so bad, we can’t do business with you’. They were better than all the competitors but that didn’t mean they were any good… And the gap between what people wanted and what was actually being delivered was so huge the market was there for anybody to come and do a reasonable job – and they lost business like crazy. And the scary thing for me at the time was that the numbers data didn’t show it. And that’s when I got quite excited about this box at the bottom of the questionnaire…”

Jump forward a few decades, and things have changed – or, at least, should have changed. By way of one of the anecdotes which helped make him such an engaging presenter, Mike explained why surveys – as opposed to more evolved customer experience measurement tools – can still cause problems on both sides of the transaction.

“One hang-up I have with surveys,” he said, “is that normally they’re put together by big corporates in ‘corporate speak’, not in English – it doesn’t feel like a human communicating with a human. And then of course there are surveys where there are a seemingly endless succession of questions. In the worst one I’ve found – an IVR survey – you phone up to leave your feedback and it takes 18 minutes to complete! And I’ve actually completed this survey because I wanted to leave feedback about a really positive experience I’d had. I’d taken my granny to lunch, and she’d liked it, and I wanted to tell this particular organisation that she’d liked it, and especially why she’d liked it: because the waitress talked to her, engaged with her, and when she ordered her ice cream with butterscotch sauce, the waitress asked ‘would you like extra butterscotch sauce on that?’ – and my granny loves butterscotch sauce… That didn’t feature anywhere in 18 minutes of questions, so I never got to tell the organisation what actually had made the difference to the experience. And in the process that survey sapped my will to live. In fact it was so painful it changed my perception of the experience I actually had. Surveys aren’t a good experience to complete – which means you’ve done a fantastic job with the customer on the phone, then somebody hits them with a survey and actually reduces their satisfaction level through the process of surveying. And at the same time it doesn’t capture the core of what drove that experience.

“The other reason is that typically they’re not real-time. And very often we see organisations putting things up periodically. There is a place for that, but it’s not good at capturing how did that person feel at the moment they put the phone down to your organisation, and you completed the online ticket for the query that they raised. That’s the problem: we want to grab how they are – especially because if they’re unhappy for some reason that’s the moment you can do something about it. Some of them are surveyed a month later asking ‘how was your experience a month ago?’; if I’m unhappy about it, I’ve been unhappy for the last month and it’s too late to intervene and change the experience. So we believe in real-time – and by real-time I mean something that is fast enough that you come back on the phone in moments if there’s been a problem. We believe the focus has to be on what the customer has to say rather than the boxes we want them to tick.”

So, how to get that focus? In many ways, Mike went on, technology has solved the problem of getting that key interaction with the customer in real time – and the key is to make sure your organisation’s business processes are set up to enable you to do exactly that. Having systems in place whereby, for example, key elements of an email can trigger a live intervention from an agent, an go a long way towards not only resolving a problem but making that resolution an altogether more pleasant experience: “If a system is flagging a problem and ensuring a very fast, real time response, it’s often a surprising pleasure for the customer that someone’s listened to them and that someone is doing something about it. Just the act of responding will set you aside from the normal experience we tend to have day-to-day, which is ‘I’m talking to a big corporate and nobody cares…'”

Mike then went on to discuss work Rapide has been doing with some of its clients – some large outsourcers. In one example which struck a major chord with the attendees, a situation had arisen where the client organisation was providing help desk services to its own clients and wished to improve its real-time information capture from those for whom they were raising tickets.

“Their clients were also their customers and they felt they had to capture that voice. We could have done something cute and put out an executive support line that was a separate route for very senior decision-makers to go through to. But what they’d realised was that actually they needed to capture the voice of the customers and measure the experience of all of the contacts. Because that same FD who’s trolling down the corridor having had a good experience being helped out with his laptop in getting into his spreadsheets then gets grabbed and pigeonholed by the call centre management for ten minutes telling them exactly what they think of the IT outsourcing that he’s picked. He may be saving a fortune – ‘but do you realise that the phone systems weren’t integrating and the screens weren’t running for twenty minutes this afternoon, have you got any idea who issued that call to us?’ What the organisation were realising was that in their monthly review, they produced the standard reports their SLA required and they hit the numbers – but what was actually happening? We enabled them to spot individual users who were getting deeply unhappy with the experience they were having and intervene to do something about it.”

At this point the debating gauntlet was thrown down to the rest of the guests – and picked up with alacrity. Agreement was pretty much general that the key challenge is getting in front of the customer immediately – or as soon as feasible – both to get feedback (negative or positive) and, of course, to resolve any issue while creating the kind of pleasant interaction outlined by Mike. “Empowering the customer” was a phrase which came up repeatedly – and numerous strategies were put forward by which those assembled were already looking to do just that.

The challenges and opportunities posed by social media were brought to the fore very quickly – as Mike said, “the speed with which you find out whether you’ve succeeded or failed has got to be faster than somebody can tweet it” – research Rapide conducted around Twitter conversations has shown that 96 per cent of interactions with brands involve people talking about the brand not to it – “so the brands aren’t in the conversation: they’re not even invited to get into the conversation.” One simple step organisations can take to take advantage of Twitter’s huge potential is to jump on feedback immediately – if someone responds “yes” to the question “would you recommend this product or service to others?”, build in a mechanism such as a “tweet your feedback” button to enable them to do just that.

Getting feedback, of course, is only part of the challenge – and the importance of the human touch hasn’t disappeared as a result of the technology which organisations can now deploy. Indeed, the technology acts as a tool to improve responses, especially human ones. Even the most potentially awkward interactions can be leveraged using the right approach, said one of the attendees; Mike agreed, citing work Rapide has done for a major bank’s credit collection department where some of the conversations relate to proceedings which may end in court action or even the bankruptcy of the consumer concerned – yet the feedback is obtained in such a way as to create a positive customer experience.

One of the guests asked his companions how many were still organised along voice/non-voice lines – and seeing a majority answer in the affirmative, exclaimed that this was increasingly archaic as the division is now so blurred thanks to the proliferation of different media through which a conversation takes place. Only the correct application of technology can unify all the different streams of that conversation, let alone enable even adequate feedback techniques to be implemented – and operating a strict voice/non-voice delineation is likely to hinder a coherent application of the technology in question and reduce its effectiveness.

“This issue is exacerbated”, said one of the guests, when social media is brought into the picture – partly because so few organisations have a coherent social media strategy which goes beyond pushing the corporate message: “It’s not just about marketing yourself; it’s also about being set up correctly to engage with the customer when they complain about you.”

The value of – and strategies around – social media influencers was a matter of lengthy debate, with those assembled taking a wide variety of different approaches towards such individuals. One obstacle highlighted was the fact that there is a huge – and growing – number of potentially valuable social media channels available beyond the ‘Big Three’ of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and conversations about one’s brand may be taking place on any number of them – and in a variety of different languages. This related to a broader challenge, one guest pointed out, which is that “the customer isn’t prepared anymore to follow your route: he or she will choose a communication route with which he or she feels comfortable” and often that means social media where comments may find a very large audience. Engaging with those who do have large social networks and can be considered influencers has great potential but also comes with a number of risks – and, again, technology can only go so far here.

The guests were then invited to consider the difference between communicating with internal customers – ie, their own employees or those of their clients – and external ones (typically, consumers). Capturing a customer experience here can be a complex challenge for the reason that internal customers may be much more circumspect about expressing discontent – it was pointed out that they are much less likely to take to social media, for example, to complain as it may impact very negatively upon their own positions. Moreover, the issues requiring resolution here are often very problematic and related directly to sensitive issues – for example, payroll, as was highlighted by one of the attendees representing a major payroll provider. However, feedback is seen as no less important than when dealing with external customers: discontented employees can be even more damaging than vituperative consumers…

Along with many other topics covered, an area of particular interest was how to link the customer experience back to P&L – being able to demonstrate in cold hard figures an ROI for the investment in technology and people required by customer engagement. One relatively straightforward metric mentioned was the reduction in inbound calls (and hence call-management costs) resulting from improved deployment of technology and the increased utilisation of alternative channels where possible. Once again, it was pointed out that good technology is vital to both monitor and optimise the conversations had on non-voice channels, and tying them in seamlessly to voice engagements can actually reduce the requirement for the latter over time – a pleasant thing for any CFO to observe.

And then the conversation turned to how companies could point to customer engagement not only as a cost-saver, as in the above example, but as a driver of revenue. However, for that, as well as much else on the agenda, Outsource readers will have to wait for our forthcoming white paper in association with Rapide – keep your eyes on the website and our own social media channels early in the new year…

This article originally appeared in Outsource magazine Issue #34 Winter 2013.

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