“We’re in an experience economy, consumers are very fickle,” said Tony Bates, chair and CEO of contact center software provider Genesys. “They want great experiences. They want them at their fingertips, they want them digitally and they want them done in the way that they like to have them, not in the way that businesses are serving them.”
The pandemic only accelerated these forces, setting in motion lasting effects that will permanently alter the future of customer experience technology. But how do companies truly deliver good customer experiences?
According to experts, product executives and customers themselves, the answer involves more than just migrating to the cloud and updating tech stacks. It requires a new mindset and an entire organizational shift in thinking.
About 10 to 15 years ago, the primary way many customers interacted with sellers was through support agents located in massive overseas contact centers. The focus then was on increasing efficiency, reducing call times and funneling customers in and out the door.
“It was not thinking about the end person. It was thinking more about the internal systems and capacity and how quickly could I get you in and out of a queue,” said Bates.
Customer experience was also viewed as a costly back-office function, not a central tenet of business strategy.
“I think we’ve often underestimated the importance of [customer experience] to businesses and treated it as a cost center or otherwise,” said Adrian McDermott, chief technology officer at Zendesk. But that’s changing as more companies realize customer experience “is an important pillar of your brand presence, and it’s something that you need to invest in.”
“We’re in an experience economy, consumers are very fickle.”
In many ways, the rise of subscription-based business models slowly forced this shift. Because “the switching costs for both customers and employees is approaching zero,” vendors have to provide good experiences in order to drive repeat business, said Brad Anderson, president of products and services at Qualtrics.
But the last few years have only exacerbated that shift.
“What would have probably taken another 20 years certainly got accelerated by the pandemic,” said Simonetta Turek, general manager at Twilio Flex. “Rethinking how you sell, how you service, how you support customers, is very much on the table now.”
When the pandemic hit, suddenly the only way companies could interact with their customers was virtually — through phone, video, the web, social media and other digital channels. But companies struggled to keep up with a surge in requests and demands, especially as they had to shift their own operations to a work-from-home model.
Their websites were outdated, their contact centers were still using legacy on-premises software, their call center agents were overwhelmed and their sales teams were struggling to conduct highly personalized sales processes virtually. These challenges not only heightened the pressure to migrate into the cloud so they could move more quickly, but also increased the expectations of their customers, especially for companies competing against younger upstarts with more modern technology.
Today customers expect a good, consistent experience regardless of where and when they interact with a company, and they also want those experiences to be intuitive, personalized and instantly available from anywhere in the world via any channel. Customers don’t want to explain their issue over and over again to a call center agent, for instance, but want agents to already have their history on file, taking into account all their past interactions with the company.
“I think CX now is much more about data and using data to define a very personalized experience across every interaction,” said Rob Tarkoff, executive vice president and general manager at Oracle CX.
It’s also increasingly important to customers that they can find answers on their own if possible. “Self-service to [customers] is wherever it needs to happen. It could be Google, it could be YouTube, it could be a bot,” said Laura Bassett, vice president of product marketing at NICE CXone.
Similarly, customers want to be able to choose how they interact with a company rather than having that channel dictated to them. Customers expect that they can choose between phone, text or even social media to contact a company, and they don’t want to wait until business hours to do so. “People want to be in control of the journey,” said Zendesk’s McDermott.
With such great expectations, businesses have their work cut out for them if they want to unlock top-tier customer experiences. Not only do companies need to upgrade their tech stacks to handle the need for faster, more efficient customer interactions, but they may also need to restructure their entire customer-facing operations.
“If you think about up to now, most end consumers have really, unfortunately, put up with these pretty fragmented interactions,” said Genesys’ Bates. Part of that is due to disparate technologies, but part of it is because customer-facing teams like marketing, customer service and sales are often fragmented themselves.
Customer expectations are “creating a big wake-up call” for companies to not only invest in new technologies but also to break down silos within their company and rethink the way they build products and services, Bates said.
To respond quickly and efficiently to customers in the digital age, most experts believe vendors need to be in the cloud.
The advantage of cloud-native vendors such as help desk provider Zendesk or communications platform Twilio is that their software can scale easily, is more reliable and can integrate with the latest technologies more seamlessly than on-premises software. “If digital channels [are] a bolt-on to what they have today, it’s very expensive to do, very expensive to maintain and actually the experience is still subpar,” said Twilio’s Turek.
During the pandemic, long wait times and missed calls provoked the ire of customers. With the cloud, which makes it easier to enable technologies such as AI, machine learning and automation, companies can increase speed and efficiency by answering customer questions automatically with a bot, routing calls to the appropriate agent more quickly or surfacing customer data and context mid-call.
The demand for personalization also necessitates that customer-facing teams have a good underlying data infrastructure.
“One of the most significant trends that is happening right now is there’s a consolidation happening where CX leaders are saying, ‘I need all of my customer experience data to be in one place,’” said Qualtrics’ Anderson. Naturally, that has given rise to customer data platforms, or CDPs, which help capture and store customer data from across an enterprise.
As customer interactions become increasingly digital, having a good user interface is also paramount. Customers should be able to easily navigate a company’s website, find support articles or contact the sales team.
“It’s been proven time and time again that level of effort is actually more predictive of loyalty than anything else,” said John Ball, senior vice president of customer workflows at ServiceNow. “So if your level of effort in your customer service request goes up, you are more likely to look at alternatives.”
But technology alone won’t solve these new customer-experience challenges. That requires different ways of thinking and, at times, even a complete overhaul of how an organization approaches its customers and manages its customer-support personnel. “I actually think that technology pieces may be the easiest,” said Turek.
First, it’s incredibly important that a focus on customers comes from the very top of an organization. “I actually think it has to be a CEO agenda item, and it has to be something that the C-suite owns cross-functionally,” said Lara Caimi, chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow.
“[I]f your level of effort in your customer service request goes up, you are more likely to look at alternatives.”
Similarly, every business function needs to adopt customer-centric mindsets, understanding that every interaction a customer has with a company is an opportunity to either better or worsen their view of a company. “It has to be a part of the whole company’s mission, every function, every person. They have to feel like they can make a difference from a customer-experience perspective,” said Caimi.
To truly deliver great experiences, they will also need to break down organizational silos between marketing, sales and service, and that shift is already underway. “Gartner is predicting in the next three years sales and service will actually merge into one department,” said Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and CEO of conversational intelligence company Uniphore.
Although customer experience used to be thought of primarily as providing pre- and post-sale support, now it’s evolved “to include a lot more about understanding signals and data from customer interactions and tying that into execution systems, be it marketing, sales, commerce, service, content management,” said Oracle’s Tarkoff.
For that reason, many organizations think “all customer-facing services and activities should be aligned underneath one leader, so that you have one organization that is understanding and driving the entire experience,” said Anderson. The rise of chief customer and chief experience officers reflects this, as more companies recognize the need for executives tasked with solely focusing on the customer.
Enterprises may also need to shift how they measure customer experiences. Beyond traditional data such as net promoter score (NPS) and customer satisfaction score (CSAT), customer lifetime value, churn or retention can also help gauge how much total value a customer is receiving from their experience with a company.
Qualitative data, such as customer sentiment, is equally important. As customer experiences become ever more long term and relational, qualitative experience data gathered via website reviews, tweets, customer calls, surveys and more will become even more important.
“I think the ability to gather very insightful qualitative data is an underrepresented, underappreciated tactic,” said Sameer Patel, chief marketing and solutions officer at SAP CX.
To succeed over the next several years, companies will truly have to put customers front and center. That means forward-looking companies will need to migrate to the cloud, adopt emerging technologies and even restructure business departments.
“The situation we’re here talking about is not a nice-to-have, it’s a ‘roof is on fire’ situation,” said Patel. Companies unable to deliver will simply get left behind by newer entrants into the market built around nimble technology and an innate understanding of those customer needs.