Battle royal: Fight to reduce customer friction

It’s a common cliché: the customer is King. But, with improving ‘customer experience’ and reducing ‘Customer Friction’ common global business priorities, the fight to secure customer loyalty remains a battle royal. Customer friction is an intriguing concept. It’s a buzz-phrase with corporate grandeur and complexity, but one that’s easily resolved by common-sense solutions. Yet few companies recognise the most obvious solution of all: the telephone.

Customer friction is the wasted time spent on hold or in a queue. It is the duplication of scripted ‘personal identifier’ questions, being transferred from one department to another, or awaiting the email response that never comes. It’s the perennial inability to communicate with a human rather than a machine. Friction is poor customer service, and it  can squeeze the life out of customer experience, not to mention an irrevocable impact on customer loyalty and brand profitability.

More than half of UK businesses believe that customer service is essential, but only a quarter of consumers think that it has improved in the past three years. Some 90 per cent of UK consumers walk away from a purchase if they get bad customer service, whilst 89 per cent stop doing business with companies if their post-sales customer experience is poor. Given that it’s far more expensive to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one, the price of bad customer service is high. If the customer really is to be King, businesses’ customer engagement strategies need to improve royally. And the good, old-fashioned telephone may just be the answer.

Hold the phone

In the wake of the rapid surge towards electronic and digital media, there is a risk that telephony becomes one of business’s most under-valued communication tools. Yet it provides a simple and cost-effective solution to many of the root causes of Customer Friction. Despite this, a company’s decision to change telephone systems is often based on secondary drivers, and leads to replacement systems that fail to respond to key organisational needs.

Commonly, businesses only seek to buy new telephone systems when the maintenance contract on their existing service has expired, or when line capacity needs increasing due to company expansion. In many cases, companies opt for like-for-like replacements and fail to give consideration to the communication needs of their organisation. In the process, telephony is often considered a commodity purchase and is therefore a product-focused, rather than solutions-based, decision. Enhanced functionality and leading-edge features may impress the IT contingency responsible for the purchase, but if the utility does not help address customer and colleague challenges, it becomes another example of corporate waste.

Companies should not consider replacement telephony as an end-of-life purchasing decision. Having a telephone system that is fit for purpose is a constant requirement in a modern era where customers expect high-quality customer service, real-time communication and immediate response. Email was originally introduced to bring speed and efficiency to business correspondence, but companies are increasingly forcing customers to communicate electronically. Some organisations choose not to publish telephone numbers on their corporate websites, while many personal email sign-offs fail to include full contact details. As a result, the immediacy of the online channel is undermined.

The true speed of customer service is often at odds with the instant automated reply. This has a damaging effect on customer experience. Despite the advantages of digital and social media, there is nothing more immediate than human-to-human interaction over the telephone. Evidence repeatedly shows that customers with a complex enquiry prefer to speak to a real person than to use the web or email. In fact, data shows that 85 per cent of people who make a complaint online never receive a response.

Caller ID

The advantages of telephony go beyond human engagement. Integrated systems can link with in-house CRM solutions to provide caller recognition, sparing both customers and customer service representatives the need to go through personal identifier scripts. Moreover, this technology can help ensure calls are routed to the most appropriate department, based on real-time customer information. This minimizes the time spent on hold and reduces the need for customers to be transferred from department to department – and forced to re-start their enquiry from scratch.

The most effective systems will provide call metrics, helping companies measure call activity and resource departments according to identifiable trends and likely customer demand. These analytics can provide operational intelligence, whether managing a small five-person team or a large call centre. And further, integrated systems can provide seamless connectivity with remote workers – ensuring staff can access colleagues irrespective of their location. This enables mobile employees to be contacted by customers directly via their standard landline number, or be accessible to help answer colleague queries in real-time rather than play the waiting game of email. If necessary, remote workers can even be conferenced into live conversations with customers to give a call an added dimension or accelerate decision-making.

Telephony can also play a vital role in providing business continuity when unexpected technical failures or weather conditions threaten to lock down offices and damage productivity. Building resilience into a telephone systems and integrating it into the data network can help companies maintain business as usual and prevent avoidable damage to the customer experience. After all, a missed call could be a missed opportunity.

An engaged tone

The customer friction that scars the business landscape is actually an opportunity to win competitive advantage. By leveraging telephony capabilities to design systems that reflect real-world operational needs, companies can overcome common customer pain points and drive renewed brand loyalty. The question is: how?

Companies with the best reputations for delivering optimal customer experience will have strong telephony at the heart of their operations. But their solutions will not have happened by accident. The smartest companies will design their telephony system around the identifiable needs of stakeholders across their organisation.

Designing an effective customer contact strategy depends upon an appraisal of how an organisation works, and how that reflects in the customer experience. Therefore, before implementing a new telephone system, companies should consider a variety of factors. How do your customers expect to be treated? What’s their perception of your service? Who are your customers? How do they contact you? Who answers the calls and how do they respond? How do you identify and manage your key customers? Can you personalise your approach? In which areas do you get most calls, and how do you resource that?

The whole process requires comprehensive and intelligent employee engagement, as well as practical and technical understanding of the common pain points that can damage customer communications. This is best achieved by taking a solutions-focused approach to telephony – and partnering with telecommunications experts that can provide consultancy and capability to develop telephony systems that match customer needs.

Call to action

To succeed, companies should take a proactive, strategic approach to telephony.

With communication as a key determining factor in the customer experience, it’s clear that companies must maximise all available routes to the customer. The telephone will continue to play a dominant role in customer engagement as part of wider multi-channel communications strategy. In a competitive environment where consumers are abandoning brands that fail to offer personalised and immediate customer service, telephony can significantly enhance the customer experience.

Chris Potts is marketing director at ANT Telecom.

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