Engaging with customers in whichever way they choose

As we share more data about ourselves, companies that use technology in a smarter way to engage with customers will be the ones to succeed

Companies want to get closer to their customers and find out as much as possible about their likes and dislikes in an effort to foster loyalty and stay ahead of competitors.

However, they have to get it right; there is a balance between knowing what your customer wants before they have even articulated their desires, and intrusiveness. 

It is essential that any information learned about customers is used in a positive way to improve service or deliver better products because the relationship between organisations and their customers has never been more volatile or offered so many new opportunities to interact.

Mark Langley, business intelligence specialist at consultancy DrPete Inc, says it is not so much customer relationship management (CRM) any more; it is CEM – customer experience management.

“CRM used to be a piece of technology where the customer was a record for contact management, but those days have long gone. Organisations are expected to know a lot more about individuals – their hobbies, likes, dislikes, opinions and friends – and be able to listen to them and react appropriately within the interests of the business,” says Langley.

If organisations do not respond quickly to engage with customers in whichever way those customers choose, it is easy to post negative comments on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Before you know it, 60 people have commented and the negative feedback can escalate. Customers expect to be treated like a king or queen today, and you need to personalise their experiences and make them feel special,” says Langley.

Choice is key

Offering a personalised experience to clients and alternative ways of accessing counsellors is a driver for charity Relate, which provides relationship support to more than 150,000 people annually.

“For us, client choice is key. People don’t fit into boxes and we want to provide support in different ways,” says Stephen Thorlby-Coy, head of Relate Response at Relate UK.

Relate may be a charity, but it operates in a mixed economy and while some of its services are free or subsidised, many people will pay for counselling services out of their own pocket, so it needs to remain competitive.

How and why customers complain

Social media is growing in influence, as customers engage with organisations through a variety of channels, but they still want to be able to have a real conversation.

Social reviews are becoming increasingly influential in buying decisions, according to a survey of more than 3,000 European consumers by eGain Communications.

Looking at how consumers engage with brands in different sectors, internet retailers scored highest at every stage of the customer engagement cycle, while utilities scored lowest.

The top reasons for abandoning a purchase are unclear or confusing expectation of service (26%), payment or sign-up processes were lengthy or complicated (21%) and negative social reviews (20%). In the UK, negative social reviews and ratings were an even more important 
factor than in other European countries for preventing a sale (30%) – and this became even more critical for the 18-34 year age group.

“It’s a brave business who would ignore social media as a legitimate channel of engagement. Customers are proven to use social media as a springboard for publicly airing their grievances about a product, service or brand experience,” says Dennis Fois, director UK and northern Europe, eGain.

Consumers like to use multiple channels and two out of five will begin a service transaction with phone or email, while a fifth will choose to help themselves via web self-service.

Email (48%) and phone (32%) are still the top channels for complaints, while 17% use web chat or social media as their first-choice channel to complain.

“It’s within your power to turn a negative social media mention around. Taking the engagement offline and speaking to the customer directly and offering a valuable response can be a great way to deal with disgruntled customers airing their complaints online,” says Fois.

Consumers are empowered and impatient – they want the right answer and they want it fast, often in the way they choose. No matter what the starting point for the consumer, whether phone, chat or FAQs (frequently asked questions), the tendency to channel-hop means they expect consistency and context on whatever platform they’re interacting on, says Fois.

Although consumers don’t like spam, if the timing and offer is right, they don’t object to promotional material, with 59% saying they would consider a loyalty reward offer sent through email.

Price might seal a deal, but customers still expect good service – consumers strongly disagreed with the statement, ‘When I pay a bargain price for a product or service, I’m willing to accept a lower level of customer support.’ However, 50% of respondents expect an even higher level of customer support when they demonstrate loyalty or pay a premium for service.

The charity added Moxie LiveChat software to its website to complement what it does nationally, says Thorlby-Coy, and this focus on adapting customer services to developments in technology and changes in lifestyle will continue.

“For a lot of people, walking into their local Relate centre is a big step. We are the ‘Dr Google’ generation – people are used to looking up their problems online and LiveChat recognises people online approach help in a different way,” he says.

The service is free, and may lead to a client choosing one-to-one counselling, but the crucial part is offering choice.

“People may go on to make an appointment at the end of LiveChat, but the blended approach is important for the future of customer service; whether services are accessed via phone, online or face to face. We have to fit in with modern lifestyles, and flexibility is the future,” says Thorlby-Coy.

Flexibility and agility

Flexibility and agility is at the crux of successful CRM strategies, but many organisations have invested in technologies which are buckling under the strain.

“Over the past five years, many companies have invested heavily in data warehouses, but it is difficult to say what return they’ve got because the world is changing so quickly. Smartphones have revolutionised CRM because customers have something in their hands which is as powerful as a PC was a few years ago, and that’s a game-changer,” says Jay Patel, chief executive officer (CEO) of mobile specialist IMImobile.

He says by focusing on the science of mobile engagement and how it has changed people’s behaviour, organisations are better placed to understand their customers and adjust how they interact with them.

“When do customers respond to emails – as they come in, or in a batch on the bus on the way home, for example? A richer profile of each customer is available compared to a few years ago, and analysing individual behaviours will become more critical over the next five years, as organisations find the best times and ways to engage with their customers,” says Patel.

Tien Tzuo, CEO at software provider Zuora, says offering subscription services for many digital products offers long-term opportunities and regular contact with consumers.

“This intimacy means that every company is going to have to manage a direct, complex, responsive, multi-channel relationship with its customers. Contrast companies such as Netflix against traditional video rental companies, ZipCar against traditional car rentals, and so on,” he says.

It is imperative to know how many customers you can address, how many customers you acquired, how many customers you can retain, and how much revenue you can get per customer. “You have to know all of this in great detail and in real time. Rather than putting the focus of the business on the product or the transaction, subscription companies live and die by their ability to focus on the customer,” says Tzuo.

Integration is one area that many organisations are getting to grips with. Those that manage to integrate their CRM technology with social media platforms are in a good position to succeed, says Langley. He cites the example of a retailer that picked up a distressed Tweet by a customer who had bought one of its coats and left it in the airport shop – the retailer delivered it to his hotel room.

“If you can deliver a customer experience which is second to none, you will nail down the loyalty piece, because with that level of service, why would you shop elsewhere?” he says.

The internet and online shopping means competition is not just on the high street.

“Competition is global, and you have a global audience, which intensifies the need for responsive CRM,” says Langley.

Cross-channel consistency

Cross-channel consistency is important and feeds into the precept of integration.

“The brand and message has to be consistent from back to front – on the website, the social media platform, etc – you must give the same experience,” says Langley.

He says there is no longer a “traditional customer”. Employees are also customers and it is no longer safe to assume everything about the organisation stays within its walls.

“You must be consistent with your message throughout, because employees and partners are also customers and there is complete transparency. For example, a fish supplier to a restaurant who is told to leave his delivery on the doorstep in the sun might Tweet, ‘Don’t have the fish today.’ The walls have disappeared and there is complete transparency,” he says.

Organisations must understand that the future of CRM means their customer is not just a customer, they are an individual with likes and dislikes

Mark Langley, DrPete Inc

The other challenge facing organisations and their CIOs is the concept of one-size-fits-all has gone – they must cater for the multiple devices used by customers and for diverse methods of engagement.

“A customer may use Android, an iPad or Microsoft Surface. The challenge is they all behave differently and if a company goes down the app route, it requires multiple apps which become a cost and resource issue,” says Langley.

One approach organisations might take is the “agnostic app”. “It looks like an app and behaves like an app, but it’s actually a web page because it is more consistent,” he says.

Langley says Google is pushing for its Chrome software to be the dominant browser in the tablet and mobile market, and this will accelerate the drive towards web page technology rather than specific app technology.

“You get a richer user experience with a tailored app, but there are limited resources in keeping up with the variety of operating systems,” he says.

The biggest game-changer for CRM over the next five years and beyond is the growth of big data. “Every single touch of someone’s socially enabled life will be known, from the food they buy to where they go on holiday; and individuals will have a social aggregated score used by organisations to target them more effectively,” says Langley.

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More social responsibility

Organisations will have to take more social responsibility around privacy issues, or risk alienating their customers. Langley foresees new rules might be brought in to enforce responsibilities.

“There may be some sort of social responsibility charter as the government recognises the importance of respecting privacy,” he says.

Proactive engagement with customers will be critical over the next five years.

“There is the worry that if you haven’t got a social media channel, you’re doomed. If you don’t proactively engage with customers, they will post comments about you and you can’t take appropriate steps to address any problems,” says Langley.

The technologies suited to CRM in the world of big data are cloud-based, he believes.

“Cloud is the obvious solution because it is scalable and cost-effective. The data has to reside somewhere and organisations will need answers to questions about customers in real time,” he says.

As 4G mobile services develop, IMImobile’s Patel says this will magnify the multi-channel approach.

“Some people will have very high bandwidth and may want to video call an organisation, or they may want to interact with you on social media, for example. The very high bandwidth will fragment audiences and the channels they choose even further, so it will be critical to have a multi-channel approach, based not just on blunt demographics such as old versus young, but based on the personality traits of individual customers,” he says.

Langley agrees that over the next five years, the norm will be to treat each customer as an individual and tailor services accordingly.

“Newsletters, for example, will die out – we will see the growth of personalised engagement material. The actual content will be unique to you and not just personalised by name. Organisations must understand that the future of CRM means their customer is not just a customer, they are an individual with likes and dislikes and there will be no excuse for not getting it right as the technology is there,” he says.

“If you get it wrong, people are becoming less tolerant of poor service and will go to a rival who understands them as an individual.”

This was last published in July 2013

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