Could Augmented Experience be the next big opportunity for Retail customer service?

Almost every organisation today is putting customer experience at the core of its strategy, aiming to provide products and services that meet customers at every touch point. In a crowded omnichannel marketplace, companies realise that a great customer experience - consistently delivering what customers want, when they want it, in a way that is personalised to them - is a powerful differentiator. However, according to recent research by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services (HBR-AS), many companies fail to deliver. Even though 80% of surveyed business leaders say CX is a top-two differentiator for their business, just half of them said they perform well in it.

What customers want, and are coming to expect, is a seamless experience. One that is uninterrupted, allowing them to meet their mission needs on their own terms; with convenience, speed and ease being the main key drivers of satisfaction. For many today, a great customer experience would be one where they don’t interact with another human unless they choose to. To some, this principal applies even in a physical store environment.

The future is of retail is clearly omnichannel, with digital providing the greatest potential for service innovation. Driving consumption trends are the much-maligned millennials. Like it or not, this generation of digital natives, are the future. As they grow to become 50% of the workforce by 2020 and will hold the largest disposable income, retailers are feeling the pressure to shift service up a gear, meeting their customers where they want to be served, as demand increases for self-service and speedy issue resolution.                                    

It’s no wonder that the most `customer centric organisation in the world’ is taking over. Amazon, with its consistent delivery service, bringing almost anything you could ask for, as quickly as you opt to receive it, this behemoth of retail is shaping consumer expectations of CX in a broader sense. Driven by data analytics, their ability to offer a joined up seamless experience across multiple platforms, with features like one swipe purchase and super relevant recommendations is leaving customers far less impressed by other vendors. Furthermore, their approach to customer self-service and no quibble attitude to resolving complaints is making them by far one of the easiest retailers to shop with. Whatever your opinion of Amazon, it is undeniable that their approach to innovation is reducing customer effort and friction.

When it comes to contacting ‘Customer Services’, from an end user point of view, this interaction is usually an unwanted one that has arisen because something went wrong, with what should have been a seamless purchase experience. According to the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), customer satisfaction is declining, due to growing levels of reported customer effort. So, the business objective should be one that fixes problems in the fastest possible way, with the least effort for the customer. Right? Ideally yes! But in reality, it’s not that simple.

Most retailers are not new business with the agility to design their service starting with the customer as newer entrants have. They are often burdened by legacy systems and technology with the majority of contact falling into traditional channels like voice and email. In these channels, providing great service to increasingly demanding customers is invariably difficult, mainly because of the labour cost and time constraints of call and email handling. It’s simply no longer a commercially viable proposition to deliver the high service levels and fast response times customers want, when every interaction has to be resolved by a human agent.

If high numbers of customers have to make contact to do simple things (that are also frustrating for agents) and could be better handled through more innovative methods (and, deliver a better experience at a lower cost) why wouldn’t we want to unclog the system for those customers who really need to speak to a person quickly, to resolve a complex issue or complaint? Especially given the fact that that poor service recovery will not only lose customers permanently, but also has the potential to expose your brand to massive risk. There must be a better way?

We are all aware that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is available, but in some cases where it has been employed, it has been done so unsuccessfully. Mainly due to the fact it has been seen as something standalone, rather than complimentary, in a way that serves to alienate humans. The hype and negative stories have resulted in a distrust of AI by contact centre operators and customers alike. As such, the potential of AI has yet to be fully realised.

Rather than focus on the technology and it’s benefits as most articles in this space do, let’s think about this topic as an opportunity to do better for the people at both ends of the phone, email, social media handle, webchat or whatever fancy new channel is available in the future. Let’s think about how we can do better for the Customer and the Call Centre Agent. Imagine, if across all of your channels, you could respond instantly to customers as they make contact and acknowledge them. You could assess the contact, and prioritise it. You could deal with the queries and questions without taking up precious call centre agent’s time and reduce queues and backlogs. That agents felt that they were being fully utilised for their skills. The serious issues could be flagged immediately and routed to the right, qualified, highly trained individual. And ultimately your KPI’s satisfaction and agent engagement are high, costs are low and loyalty is maintained.

Well this vision is achievable now. Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly in the form of Virtual Customer Assistants (VCA’s) and Machine Learning (ML). Both are a major opportunity and win-win for retailers to deliver the best possible customer experience efficiently. The ICS 2018 Trends report, stated that businesses that go on to lead the field, will have the most compelling blend of automation and a human touch. But the key to success (and the challenge) is how to integrate helpful technology holistically, as part of your overall offer, using it to your agents and customers advantage. Rather than Artificial Intelligence, Augmented intelligence has the potential to transform your service experience.

Most businesses are already on the journey of enhancing their CX through technology, as evidenced by a 2017 Gartner survey finding that 84% of organizations expected to increase investment in customer experience tech in the year ahead. The subject was a matter for great debate at the Gartner Customer Experience Summit in Tokyo last month and their analysts’ predictions provide useful context for developing your overall CX strategy:

By 2019, 20% of brands will abandon their mobile apps.

Many brands are finding that mobile apps are not delivering the level of adoption and customer engagement they expected. Original return-on-investment (ROI) calculations are missing the mark due to the cost of support, maintenance, upgrades, customer care and marketing to drive downloads. Brands are now investing to build presence in consumer messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat, to reach customers where they spend a high percentage of their time.

By 2022, two-thirds of all customer experience projects will make use of IT, up from 50% in 2017.

As the number of digital channels expands, self-service or digital commerce interactions are increasing, as well as the move away from human face-to-face or voice-based interactions. The proportion of projects using IT to improve the customer experience will steadily rise. Those not using technology tend to be projects related to recruiting, training, governing and managing customer-facing employees. 

By 2020, more than 40% of all data analytics projects will relate to an aspect of customer experience

Data analytics are already prominent across marketing, sales, digital commerce, customer service, social media management and field service departments. However, an understanding of the overall condition of the customer's attitude toward the enterprise is lacking for the majority. What matters is not the customer's attitude about a store, department, process or product, but the level of trust they have in the organisation as a whole and their likely intent to remain loyal.

By 2020, augmented, virtual and mixed reality immersive solutions will be evaluated and adopted in 20% of large enterprises as part of their digital transformation strategy.

Organisations will have the ability to provide employees, customers and suppliers with a means to obtain real-time information, experience virtual environments and engage in social collaboration without a small, limited display and a limited point of view. Consumers already experience some form of immersive technology, such as Snapchat filters and 360-degree video and photos on Facebook.

In summary, without helpful technology, due to increasing operating costs, the current state of play for customers will mean effort continues to increase. Increasingly longer queues on the phone, slower response times to email and social contacts will continue to be ignored. Businesses will lose customers to competitors; due to poor experience and not being as easy to shop with as others. And, agent engagement will continue to go down. Achieving the right blend of automation and a human touch isn’t easy to do, so the key to success is to create a clear, customer needs-led, omnichannel CX strategy. This needs to include the right mix of channels, meeting customers whenever and wherever they want to be served, with self-service options that allow customers to do simple things, however they choose to, with as little effort as possible. Integrated channels that are helpful, and driven by data to provide a personalised, seamless experience. This coupled with a crack team of highly trained, super engaged customer service experts that are dedicated to service recovery will deliver the differentiated experience we are all striving for. And the greatest commercial benefit.

Clare MuscuttComment