Nine Ways to Enhance the Customer Experience

By Kate Leggett  |  Posted 2011-01-28

Today, the gap between customers’ expectations and the service they receive is huge. Customers expect personalized, competent service, and they want to be able to connect with a company at any time, in person or virtually, over any communication channel they want to use.

However, companies struggle to offer an experience that meets customers’ expectations at a cost that makes business sense. When they fail, enterprises face escalating service costs, rock-bottom customer satisfaction numbers, and anecdotes of poor service experiences that are amplified over social channels and deeply erode their brand.

There’s no denying that mastering the service experience is hard. But finding innovative ways to enhance the end-to-end customer experience can help you move the needle in a positive direction. Here are nine approaches you should consider.

1. Understand your customers. Customers know what good service is, and they demand it from each interaction, over any communication channel they want to use. Data from Forrester shows that, in general, customers still prefer to use the phone, closely followed by e-mail and Web self-service. That being said, we also see differences in channel preference by customer demographic. For instance, the younger generation is more comfortable using peer-to-peer communication, social networking and instant service channels such as chat, so you need to make those technologies available. You must understand the demographics and communication preferences of your customers and ensure that you can engage with them in the way they want to engage with you.

A case in point is American Airlines, which, after a technographics assessment, realized that 41 percent of its passengers were comfortable leveraging their cell phones’ Short Message Service (SMS) and wireless Internet capabilities, while the 29 percent who were “super-connected” were comfortable using most of their mobile device features.

In response, American Airlines crafted its mobile strategy to target its typical customers with e-mail and SMS alerts, and offered a mobile Web site for more advanced transactions for its super-connected customers. These pioneering offerings have helped deepen customers’ engagement and loyalty.

2. Align your service offering with your brand. It’s important to stay true to your brand and design a service experience that supports your value proposition. Customers need to know what your company represents—which is especially important in today’s message-cluttered social media world. Here are two companies that have aligned their service offerings to reinforce their brand:

• Apple’s products are high-style and priced at a premium. Its customer service is very much in line with its brand and is delivered on the customer’s terms. For example, you can arrange a phone call with an Apple Expert who specializes in your query, and you can talk at your convenience. Apple will even call you. As an alternative, you can e-mail the company or browse its extensive knowledge base.

• IKEA offers high-style but do-it-yourself products. Its shoppers are comfortable with serving themselves—from pulling products off shelves to self-checkout to assembling products on their own. IKEA’s service mirrors its brand: The company provides exhaustive Web self-service in a multitude of languages, a chat bot, some e-mail support and limited phone support. Customers aren’t disappointed with IKEA’s lack of white-glove service because they don’t expect it; they know it’s not the company’s business model.

3. Don’t offer silos of communication choices. Your service experience should allow customers to start an interaction over one communication channel and complete it over a different one. For example, they should be able to start an interaction over the phone and follow up with an e-mail containing more detailed information.

To provide this kind of experience, channels can’t be implemented in silos. Instead, they must be integrated so that agents have a full view of all customer interactions over both traditional and social channels. In addition, if a service request has been escalated from a Web self-service session, agents should have access to the full session history so they don’t repeat questions or searches—thereby degrading the customer experience.

Companies like T-Mobile take cross-channel communication a step further. If a customer can’t find the right information via Web self-service, he or she can escalate a question to a chat or an e-mail agent. As the customer is supplying additional information, the company runs an under-the-covers search through its knowledge base to locate possible answers. T-Mobile then presents these answers to the customer, who can decide whether the answer meets his or her needs. If not, the customer can continue to request help from an agent.

4. Couple your customer service system with others.Customer service agents must navigate through an average of 20 disparate applications to find the information they need, thereby increasing the time needed to handle queries and decreasing customer satisfaction. Customer service systems should be more than just a database front-end for customer information and cases. They should be integrated with back-office applications so agents can provide customers with fast, accurate answers to their queries.

High 5 Sportswear, an athletic apparel distributor, exemplifies the benefits of integrating customer service systems with a larger IT ecosystem. In the past, the company’s customer service agents had struggled—sometimes for up to 48 hours—to track down customer interaction history, piece together customer claims and validate discounts.

To fix this problem, High 5 deployed an integrated sales and customer service solution that allows agents to quickly access customer sales data and discount levels, and properly complete and efficiently route service tickets and track orders. The result was higher-quality customer interactions, better productivity and faster turnarounds on orders.

5. Define an efficient service experience. Agents typically don’t follow the same discovery path through customer service applications, which negatively affects agent consistency and leads to higher turnover. One solution is to apply business process management to a customer service offering. Agents are led through a set of screens, which display the information needed to resolve customer issues and ensure compliance with company policies.

An international bank used this strategy when it realized its poor customer sat scores were the result of service agents in the bank’s 23 contact centers following different processes. Agents now use a process-driven desktop that provides all the information needed to resolve multiple queries during a single transaction. As a result, first-contact resolution has improved by 30 percent, and call transfers have been reduced by 20 percent.

6. Keep your customers’ experience top of mind. Not all service requests can be processed in real time. Some need offline research time, while others, such as e-mail requests, may have built-in delays. It’s important to communicate service expectations to customers and then meet them in order to instill a level of trust.

You should also offer proactive service to customers, such as service alerts and proactive fixes for common issues. Let customers flag conditions for which they want to be notified. These communications will help keep customers loyal.

7. Pay attention to your knowledge strategy. A good knowledge program is a key element of a good service experience. A Web self-service presence is a must, and agent knowledge that is the same across communication channels guarantees consistent, accurate answers.

Maintaining relevant knowledge is an ongoing task. One approach is to allow your agents to flag inaccurate or incomplete content. Another is to use automated tools that push the most frequently accessed content to the top of FAQ lists. TurboTax software maker Intuit took this approach to contextualize the massive amounts of tax code information for its customers.

8. Harness your customer community with Web 2.0 tools. Another common strategy is to make forums available for peer-to-peer communication, letting customers help themselves and deflecting inquiries from the contact center. Unresolved issues can be escalated to customer service agents, and discussion threads can be recommended for addition to the knowledge base.

Computer maker Lenovo exemplifies best practices in tying forums to customer service. As a result of the information contained in its forums, Lenovo saw a 20 percent reduction in laptop support call rates and shortened problem-resolution cycles.

9. Listen to your customers. Gather customer feedback after every interaction and ask open-ended questions to solicit honest opinions. Append feedback forms to all user-viewable knowledge base content. Let users rate solutions and use this collected feedback to optimize the service experience.

In addition, monitor customers’ sentiments over social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. Then use their opinions to see if you can improve your products, services and processes. Comcast, with its ComcastCares Twitter presence, has shown that this approach leads to real differentiation in the market.

These innovative strategies can help you engage in a winning customer service relationship. But it’s essential to monitor your success and have an ongoing dialogue with your customers. And be sure to recraft your offering to stay true to your brand and your customers’ changing needs.

Kate Leggett is a senior analyst at Forrester Research, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.