Transforming customer experience through tech

Person looking at website on laptop

The 21st Century is the Experience Century – owning things is no longer the main measure of success for consumers; instead they look for shareable experiences and quality of life. 

Organisations that want to connect with these consumers must use websites, apps and other high tech tools to deliver an enhanced Customer Experience. 

But too many are failing to use the same tools to engage their own employees – many of whom are, like today’s consumers, ‘digital natives’. 

  • Everyone’s talking about Customer Experience – but what is it? 

Customer Experience (CX) is defined as the sum of all the interactions a customer has with a company/organisation over the course of their relationship. Effectively, it’s the end-to-end customer journey through all of an organisation’s different physical, digital and communications touchpoints.

Physical touchpoints could include taste, smell and packaging for an FMCG brand, or build quality and product performance for a car or home electronics brand. Some companies may have their own showrooms, or work through dealerships, so the in-store environment can also come into play.

Digital touchpoints will include websites, apps and online CRM systems; increasingly, they will be delivered via mobile devices and smartphones.

Communications touchpoints include an organisation’s advertising and Public Relations -- how it shapes and projects the image it wants customers to take away from its marketing. But they can also cover how phones are answered or the attitude and training of face-to-face sales people, service engineers, or call centre staff.

A lot of people think CX is purely about Customer Service -- but while Customer Service contributes massively to Customer Experience, there are a myriad of other elements that contribute to CX. To repeat my first point, CX is the sum of all the interactions someone has with an organisation -- which could include being ignored when they walk into a store or showroom, or cut up on the motorway by a branded delivery van!

An organisation’s employees, or the sales people representing it in retail channels, are a key channel for delivering superior Customer Experience. It’s no good saying you’re great if your staff don’t act like they believe it. Everyone in an organisation has to be aligned with corporate objectives and on-message. So teaching staff to understand their role within the organisation and how everyone contributes to outsiders’ perception of it is hugely important. Staff are also a channel for management and directors to get information fed back to them. Great organisations are learning all the time – from their customers, their suppliers and their employees. I urge people to read Moments of Truth by Jan Carlzon on this subject, written in the 80s, it’s still so relevant today.

  • Why is it such a hot topic?

As Generation Z, the first digital generation, come of age, we are seeing a fundamental shift in attitudes which is impacting business on so many different levels. In the Experience Century, it’s all about sharing rather than owning, and experience has become a social currency. It’s not just consumers who are changing – employees expect to be communicated with, engaged and trained in a completely different way to they did back in the 20th Century.

In the retail industry for example, the average age of a retail assistant is just 22. This is the generation that expects a personalised service when they shop online or engage with social media and yet companies aren’t providing personalised workforce apps for their colleagues.

If Baby Boomers were the ‘me generation’, looking for validation through personal wealth, and ownership of things, Millennials and Gen Z value experiences and sharing experiences. Things that Baby Boomers bought, Millennials and Gen Z rent or borrow -- or experience vicariously, by following others on social media. 

The 21st century is the Experience Century and that means that the Customer Experience that an organisation delivers become even more crucial to its success. Good experiences are shared on social media -- and so are poor ones. Really bad experiences go viral -- and can easily damage or destroy a company’s reputation worldwide.

All of that, plus 78% of CEOs say CX will be the differentiating factor in their companies success over the next 10 years!

  • So can a bad experience really ruin a customer’s relationship with a brand?

Absolutely. A recent report from PwC, Experience is Everything, highlighted the fact that CX is now a lead differentiator between companies. Speed, convenience, knowledgeable help and friendly service were mentioned as core to a positive customer experience by close to 80% of consumers.

Of the 15,000 consumers surveyed in 12 different countries around the world, 60% would stop doing business with a company due to unfriendly service, 46% because of employees lack of knowledge and half because they don’t trust the company. One in three (32%) say they would walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience.

What was really interesting from the report was that even in a digital world, consumers still want a human element. Employees are core to the Customer Experience -- 71% of the PwC respondents said they think a company’s employees have a significant impact on their experience. It doesn’t matter how great your tech is, if your staff let you down.

  • How can technology help with the physical interaction a customer has with an organisation?

Many consumers (but not all) may want to interact with a real person, but tech can still play an important role in that interaction. If you phone a company’s helpline, you may be speaking to a real person, but they will have access to your customer details and other personal data on a screen in front of them and you can be browsing their website, or even comparing prices from rival providers, at the same time. 

Of course, increasingly, people don’t talk to a helpdesk on the phone, they communicate via text on a PC or a smartphone. In the main, people expect to be communicated with via digital channels and sophisticated tech -- it’s how many consumers are communicating with family, friends and work colleagues, after all. It saves time, it allows easy access to useful information and it can speed up the purchase process.

Most developed countries have high levels of smartphone ownership -- in countries like the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy and South Korea, more than two-thirds of the population owns one.

Don’t forget, what’s true of consumers is also true of employees -- Millennial and Gen Z staff expect to be communicated with via digital devices – so tech is now a key training tool. There’s an app for everything -- including learning about your job!

  • So how exactly can technology be deployed to train a company’s people to deliver enhanced CX?

Tech tools for training include apps on mobile devices and PCs, company intranets/extranets for sharing learning, manuals and training modules in the Cloud which staff can call down as and when they want. Plus, of course, Virtual Reality (and Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality) deliver huge benefits for staff training -- engineers can ‘see’ what’s inside the machinery they have to fix, delivery drivers can learn new routes, and customer-facing employees can run through and role-play a range of situations that they might be called on to handle in a face-to-face encounter. We can even create VR immersive environments -- which simulate the inside of a retail outlet, complete with stock on the shelves and crowds of customers…

We’re not talking about replacing humans with technology here -- all the studies reinforce the message that consumers like to have people to talk to and human interaction is very important in CX training; but the human element can be enhanced and reinforced with well-designed tech, and this is where we focus our efforts as a business.

Technology-based training also puts the employee in control of their own learning programme, allowing them to go through things at the speed that suits them and to refresh their memories and their core inter-personal skills. It can also help train people up quickly when new products are added on-shelf or in-store, or when new brand or corporate messaging in introduced.

Three-quarters (75%) of knowledge is lost within a week of receiving it. Tech can be used to ensure that customer-facing staff are continuously refreshed on the brand they represent, as well as creating tech products that support them as employees and enhance their work life, so reducing attrition and improving engagement.

  • What do companies need (resources, equipment, networking, people, corporate culture etc) in order to build tech-based training for CX?

Most companies have consumer-facing tech solutions (websites, e-commerce, customer service etc) to deliver an enhanced brand experience for customers – but if they aren’t using the same tools and channels to talk to their own staff, there is a disconnect.

As we’ve discussed, employees are increasingly Millennials/Gen Z themselves -- we’re talking digital natives who live a significant part of their lives online! But digital natives have yet to reach the upper echelons of many organisations, which means the corporate culture and mindset may not have taken on board the fact that they need to be communicating with their employees using the same channels and tools as they are with customers. Internal staff communications must mirror external consumer communications.

That means organisations need to make sure staff have access to PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones -- either ones supplied by the company, or their own. We’re seeing more and more large operators fund capital programmes to equip their entire, often vast workforce, with handsets as they see the benefit in ensuring their business is properly connected. Obviously, companies can save money if staff provide their own devices, but corporate IT professionals will have to police any ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policy to ensure there is some level of consistency in terms of accessing messaging and content. 

  • What kind of skills do staff need to deliver better CX, and how can tech help teach those skills?

You can find dozens of lists of CX skills by browsing the web -- but personally I think it boils down to the following core skills, all of which can be enhanced through tech-supported training programmes and tools:

1. Listening. Listen to everyone – customers, suppliers, employees, total strangers. Insights can come from the strangest places and businesses should ensure they are equipped with the right tech to provide them with insight on consumer behaviour. Companies like Skyfii for example are leading the way here.

2. Communication is linked to listening. If you can’t listen, you won’t be a good communicator.

3. Empathy. You can’t fake this, but you can learn it. It’s not about repeating buzz words and phrases, it’s about really understanding what the customer needs. I’ve seen great results from immersive VR training, whereby employees are plunged into a scenario where they receive both excellent and extremely poor customer experiences. The impact this has on the individuals is far better than any classroom training I’ve seen.

4. Helpfulness. Not just finding the product someone wants, but finding out why they want it – and whether it’s the right one.

5. Emotional Intelligence. It’s all about being aware of other people’s emotions and why they might be acting in the way they are. It applies to customers – and fellow staff.

6. Honesty. Nothing destroys a relationship quicker than being caught lying or avoiding the truth. So if a product’s out of stock or a delivery has been delayed, apologise, explain what the problem is, and when you’ll have the product or when it will arrive. And sound like you care…

7. Problem solving and service recovery. Sounds simple, but true problem solving is about more than just finding an answer – it’s also about working out why something has happened and what can be done to stop it happening again. When something goes wrong, the experience isn’t over and, in fact, often this can be an opportunity to improve the brand perception by recovering the customers poor experience and improving on it.

  • Who (organisations, companies, brands) are leading the pack when it comes to applying tech to CX training?

I feel this is a growing industry and one that isn’t yet fully exhausted but there definitely are some leaders when it comes to applying tech to the customer experience. Firstly, Bacardi have worked with us to create a WorkLife app for many of their frontline staff. The application fuses together everything their frontline teams need in one place. Functionality includes e-learning, customer surveys, new product launches and product information, customer service training modules, roster information social media integration and audit functionality.

Companies like Skyfii are providing their software to large shopping centres and retail outlets across the globe to provide their clients with detailed analysis on the customer journey that has never been seen before.

St Modwen homes, a FTSE 250 housing developer, has now started to utilise e-learning for their construction staff as well as translating all of their HR policies into electronic and interactive guides – subsequently improving readership, ownership and engagement.

Clearly, products like Microsoft staff portal are becoming more and more popular however I would argue that these products only solve a small proportion of a workforce’s daily challenges. People need and want a holistic approach to their working day, not yet more apps and more products to sign in to. The best products will be aimed at meshing many applications together to create a seamless, one stop, worklife app that provides the experience generation with everything they need to provide the CX that is now so essential and prerequisite.

Mat Garner is co-founder of Ethos Farm.