SOCAP International

Gazing Into the Future of Customer Care

Successful companies will be customer centric, with customer information driving the corporate wheel. Experts predict which elements will propel these changes.

Making accurate predictions is always a risky business. As SOCAP International celebrates its 40th anniversary, however, the future for customer care seems clearer than ever. It’s a high-speed race that runs through technology innovation, accelerates to handle a steady rise in the importance of customer experience and the customer care professional, and requires smart companies to constantly fine-tune their processes and methods to stay ahead.

Beth Ziff, past chair of SOCAP, says the customer care future is “extremely exciting” and represents “tremendous opportunity.” But Ziff, VP of operations at Premiere Response, a division of American Customer Care, says customer care professionals “must decide if they are change agents or stagnant, content to stay in their comfort zones.” The future, she suggests, will belong to those willing to be flexible and to accept the sheer constancy of change.

Indeed, Ziff predicts that the future’s successful companies will be customer centric, with customer information the hub that drives the corporate wheel. Gone will be the days when senior management viewed customer care as the complaint handling bureau and, at best, a cost of doing business. Instead, customer care can even become a profit center with return on investment measured in activities such as follow-up sales during service or in marketing campaigns that produce upticks in loyalty program participation.

Ziff stresses the need for customer care executives to be tech savvy. Richard Shapiro, founder and president of The Center For Client Retention, agrees that customer care professionals must evolve their thinking right along with technology. Shapiro says the business of meeting customer expectations used to be “one and done” telephone-based responses provided during regular nine-to-five business hours. Email changed all that, along with the skill sets needed to perform the work.

“Consumer affairs managers were thrown off base,” Shapiro says. “It was a big change. The skills of people answering the phones were not the same as those responding to email.” The difference was between the spoken and written word—the difference between a transitory phone conversation and a permanent written record. “The process changed. Companies had to monitor, review and check email,” he adds. While some companies continue to use the same customer care representatives for both telephone and email response, others have created units to just handle email.

Now change is taking place again, Shapiro says, with customers using social media to communicate with and about companies. Previously, when social media was just creating a consumer foothold, a company’s marketing department or an outside agency might have handled this customer interaction. “Now companies realize that social media is just another channel and consumers want engagement,” Shapiro says.

Engagement Is Empowerment

The basic routines of customer care may be the same—respond, answer, engage—but the landscape is changing. The route to customer satisfaction is becoming more complicated and the risks of falling short are looming larger. Products are more complicated. Hiring and training investments are undermined by high employee attrition rates. At the same time, for many companies, personalization is becoming a bigger quality metric than call volume productivity. Customer care representatives have more consumer information at their fingertips, and they are expected to use it. The net result? The pressure on companies to conduct customer care with the right people, processes and technology firmly in place is growing ever stronger.

According to Matthew D’Uva, SOCAP president and CEO, “Consumer behavior towards customer care has changed considerably since SOCAP was founded. At SOCAP’s inception in the consumer movement, companies were just beginning to put 800 numbers on packages as a way to open up to consumers. Today, there are so many more channels for consumers to engage and companies are aggressively exploring opportunities to find new ways to serve them. Also, consumers have changed. Call volume and engagement opportunities continue to rise and certainly have been rising in the last 40 years. Consumers are empowered and value good customer care. This is good for SOCAP members—and will result in companies who chose not to invest in customer care to struggle in the future.”

Consumers expect companies to have quick answers to sophisticated problems, and processes and technology are critical to ensuring that agents and customer care can deliver. —Matthew D’Uva, SOCAP President and CEO

Fast Is a Beautiful Thing

Along with the proliferation of social-media channels comes the opportunity for companies to prove their customer care capabilities. This could be a blessing or a curse. As Shapiro says, “You only have one opportunity to wow the customer,” adding, “Expectations have increased.” Customers want information, and they want it fast. Even within email, customers want a response in an hour, not a day or five days, Shapiro says.

Interactions with a lasting impact will spring from conversations that are authentic, empathic and respectful and where the consumer affairs professional is empowered with the consumer history and preferences, the right technology and the authority to make a difference—and make it fast.

According to D’Uva, “I hear lots of consumer complaints and often it’s clear to me that consumers are frustrated by the inability of companies to give them an answer quickly. Many of these problems aren’t caused by unhelpful agents ... they’re caused by a poor investment in process and technology to give the agents the resources they need to give the consumer the answers they seek immediately. Consumers expect companies to have quick answers to sophisticated problems, and processes and technology are critical to ensuring that agents and customer care can deliver.”

Consumer Channel Hopping

Quick answers to tough problems could prove daunting for many firms. Additional automation, however, will help companies pick up the pace in the years to come, says Suzanne Henricksen, Clorox director of brand insights, digital insights & consumer affairs. “Automation of work that is performed manually today will free up agent time so they can be more focused on value-added customer interactions,” she says.

Predicting a consolidation of technology partners that will foster integrated solutions and collapse silos, Henricksen says the future will be marked by “consumers contacting us in their channel of preference while also allowing us, as companies, to resource those channels appropriately so that the more expensive channels are primarily being used for the most difficult situations that need special care and attention, while the simpler situations are being handled in more lowcost and automated channels.”

It’s a process step as much as a technology step and Colleen Hebel, senior manager of corporate consumer affairs & translation at Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., says that the step forward must be taken with care: “Companies need to ensure that they have a strategy around the channels they offer customers, as once a company opens the door to a new channel, you will need to manage it effectively and consistently to ensure that consumers have a consistent experience no matter which channel they choose.”

Answering consumers in their preferred channel will represent a major milestone in customer care, Henricksen says. She predicts customer care representatives will be able to transition seamlessly among channels without confronting different processes or technologies. This will streamline workflows and add to knowledge management, netting a faster and more consistent response.

Picking the Agent of the Future

People with the right skill sets are another important part of the technology equation, particularly in the contact center. According to Henricksen, “I think the recruiting criteria needs to change greatly so that we are all hiring the agent of the future versus the agent of the past that so many people have in their mind whenever they think of contact centers today. Agents need to be able to work across much more sophisticated technologies, understand the language of social media and truly become advocates of the brand, as opposed to someone just responding to the consumer issue at hand.”

In this technology-rich environment, the agent will gain a much more complete customer view—the type of view that builds understanding and rapport. Chip Horner, worldwide director of consumer affairs at Colgate- Palmolive Co., says, “The technology tools for the contact center will continue to evolve so that the service representative can see the whole consumer, that is, not just prior contact history for a particular consumer across channels. This could include software that presents publicly available personal data about the consumer from social-media sources and public databases. This software could also link computer telephony, the cloud and search engines. Companies and internal consumer affairs departments will then need to determine if and how they would want to use this capability which would enable the service rep to personalize the interface and potentially build rapport with the consumer.”

Henricksen also expects to see more IT professionals in customer care organizations because there is more technology in the day-to-day workflow of an agent and in the running consumer affairs in general. “There’s a greater need to have an IT expert on hand within the customer care org structure,” she says. “Relying on general IT departments who may not fully understand the needs of the consumer service world, and the imperative for speed, is becoming a huge challenge as consumers and activist groups become more sophisticated in their use of technology.”

Making Smarter Technology Choices

While the channels for consumer interaction are expanding and the complexity of the customer care challenge for agents is growing, Tom Nichols, chief strategy officer at Wilke Global, says companies do have an unlikely advantage, and that’s the ability to trail rather than lead the technology adoption parade.

“Key elements in consumer care mirror but lag behind the consumer on adoption of technology,” Nichols says. How so? Consumers, he says, tend to use a new communication channel to interact with friends and family before they start using it to interact with companies. As a result, companies can see how to use a technology before adopting it.

Even here, however, the foresight advantage for companies may be short-lived. That’s because technology is changing the consumer’s relationship with the enterprise in a fundamental way. According to Nichols, consumers are turning from being solely requestors of information to the real-time recipients of tightly integrated, information-rich capabilities. He offers the example of Google Glass. With devices always on the lookout for timely information, “companies can predict the information that will be relevant in the moment, rather than the consumer going to fetch it,” he says. Likening it to advanced manufacturing, he calls this phenomenon just-in-time information in the consumer space.

Horner agrees that big tech-driven changes to customer care are on the way, including changes that will lower the amount of effort required to produce a quality customer interaction. “That means more and improved voice recognition technology, more virtual agents that provide fast and accurate answers, more contact points and channels for consumers to reach out to manufacturers, and more wearable technology for the consumer to obtain information or request it. Further, location technology is just beginning to help the consumer easily find or purchase products and obtain answers. Finally, advanced technologies may better enable concierge service, where the consumer is always connected with their personal service rep,” he says.

And, of course, companies will become increasingly sophisticated in their own use of consumer data. Hebel of Maple Leaf Foods says the role of customer care is increasingly about extracting the compelling story from the data: “We’re now providing deeper or more valued, actionable insight to our stakeholders as we’ve increased the data collection coming in through the multiple channels.”

In a Sea of Change, Care Remains a Constant

With so many potential features and functions, companies risk going overboard in their use of technology solutions for customer care. The trick with technology is striking a balance between capabilities that create customer delight and interactions that feel intrusive and off-putting. That means the best companies will have to be deft in their approach to consumers, being both tech savvy and people friendly.

Self-service offers a case in point. According to Hebel, companies may be becoming too reliant on technology to the detriment of customer care: “For the best consumer interaction, a human touch or personalization is required and appreciate. We need to be careful of automation and removing the human element.” You need to find the right balance of self-service, where a consumer can find information quickly as it best suits them, and continuing to offer personal interaction, which can create a positive consumer experience and creating a potential brand advocate, she adds.

Looking into the future, the trade-offs between efficiency and effectiveness, productivity and personalization may even suggest the need for a customer experience officer. Ziff says it’s a position that is not just marketing, risk mitigation or quality assurance: “The corporate culture will help determine where [the position] sits … the right person will have the vision and be an influencer, understanding what the consumer will say and how the business will be impacted.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that Ziff finds that global companies tend to be more focused on the customer experience, given the need to understand variations in national, regional and local market demand and react appropriately. In these firms, customer care is more likely to have a seat at the senior management table. At the other end of the care divide are companies that cater to Wall Street, not consumers. “They don’t even have a phone number on their packaging,” she says.

For companies seeking to build a more care inclusive culture, part of the equation is having the right people; part is having the right processes. Shapiro cites the example of Amazon: “You send them a note that says call me at 11 p.m. tonight, and they’ll call you.” He suggests that companies in care-building mode look at the processes of the best in class. The good news is that doing so may not be that difficult to accomplish. “Most companies allow you to come in and look,” Shapiro says. “They’re very open.”

Looking into the future, the trade-offs between efficiency and effectiveness, productivity and personalization may even suggest the need for a customer experience officer.

Don’t Be Afraid to Break Some China

As they look at the programs of other firms, care builders also need to think about whether their processes really do put customers first. Companies that push consumers to a webpage or charge more to conduct business over the phone than on the web may enjoy short-term gains but lose loyalty over the long haul, says Shapiro. In such cases, customer care executives need to push back and speak up. “Customer care will only increase in value if the managers aren’t afraid to go to the CEO,” Shapiro says. “This is what we do and this is our value.”

D’Uva says that along with customer care executives taking a more outspoken role in company affairs, companies need to increase their investment in customer care, viewing it as a strategic asset of the company. According to D’Uva, customer care is something that must be integrated in all aspects of business strategy—product innovation, quality, marketing, corporate communications. “The voice of the consumer is important and customer care can bring this perspective,” he says. “As technology tools improve, we’ll see the increasing power of customer care in being able to integrate diverse consumer perspectives through all communication channels—social, chat, web, phone, email—to allow the data to tell a compelling story to executives. The importance of the voice of the consumer is clearly important, but customer care must be given the resources to invest in harnessing this voice.”

So what’s ahead? While not every turn in the road is clearly marked, the future of customer care will be shaped by companies gaining new leverage from their customer relationships. In this exciting new world of interactions—versus transactions, firms will talk and consumers will talk back. How that conversation is conducted, how the information produced is used, and the ability of firms to anticipate and respond to changing customer expectations, will set the corporate pace. And as with all things in a competitive marketplace, the very best companies will exceed it.

Robert Cohen is a freelance writer with SOCAP International.