DELIVERING SERVICES BY EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY

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Technology is said to be a powerful enabler for businesses to fully exploit their potential.  Nevertheless, it is not a business end in itself. As a critical enabler, technology forms the backbone for: corporate teams to communicate effectively for interdepartmental success, processes to accrue more efficiencies to deliver on customer demands as well as adjustments and tweaks to products and services to respond to customers’ needs.   These very customer centric sounding core uses of technology render it a subject for consideration by every leader charged with the responsibility to deliver customer experience excellence.  The question on whether to invest heavily in technology for service delivery or not is therefore a major subject for deliberation.

Humanistic angle
By virtue of the fact that Africans in general are more highly relational than citizens of the Western world, means that their desire to have service delivery from a humanistic angle is a subject for consideration when designing customer experience excellence strategies. The pros and cons to invest in technology or otherwise would therefore need to be evaluated. With the loose definition of technology in business being the creation and use of technical means for application to enhance and integrate applications, processes, and work outputs, it is an important subject in this context. That this should be an area of focus that customer experience professionals are ready to embrace in totality, would seem rather obvious especially from a solutions perspective, and in the light of increasing efficiency and accessibility for customer comfort. However, there is more to technology for service excellence delivery than meets the eye and quite a number of considerations would need to be debated ahead of implementation.
Taking into consideration the current uptake of call centre management software, often integrated with automated customer relationship management solutions, organizations have reported reduced manpower costs and increased customer contact traffic. The robust nature of the multi-channel help desk solutions that provide the entire spectrum of voice, chat, email, text and social media options, render the investment worthwhile with increased customer reach in comparison to previous voice based call centre solutions. Turnaround time for customer enquiries and complaints has seen a dramatic shift, especially through well manned customer focused social media platforms that allow for simultaneous engagement of several customers per customer service officer within a given period. This technology on its own though is not the only contributor to customer experience success. There are rising expectations from customers world over, especially on the social media engagement front, where customers expect an almost instant response to their complaints. This is in line with the online culture of real time engagements.

Ceiling
Research findings on customer expectations for social media responses indicate that 42% of customers who raise issues via social media channels have sixty minutes as the uppermost ceiling against which they expect a comprehensive response. On the Twitter platform, users’ expectations are heightened, and the upper ceiling for response is within two hours of tweeting the organization with their needs. These turnaround times are indeed extremely steep to enable adequate and comprehensive resolutions, especially in cases where background investigation and collaboration behind the scenes is required. What needs to be carefully managed to adequately run an effective social media helpdesk is to ensure that all the requirements from a support perspective are in place. The interdepartmental liaison towards resolving customer issues is of key importance, and to have SLAs for internal delivery towards ultimately ensuring efficient external delivery. Gone are the days when organizations would indicate response times as a week or thereabout. Customers trust that the use of technology is in their favour and will deliver speedy responses to their needs.
Call centres  are also faced with the challenge that arises from written communication. Email, text, chat, and social media platforms as channels for customer expression, are left to the mercy of the call centre officers’ interpretation and understanding of the customer needs. Whereas face to face and often telephone calls, have the advantage of the non-verbal communication cues coming through, to enable better assessment of customer needs, written communication is limiting for both the initiator and recipient in that way. The actual customer is often constrained in their expression, with some portals requiring specific parameters to be maintained. The respondents are also limited to their personal understanding of the communication coming through, to best provide a response. Listening is the biggest customer complaints handling and resolution tool, as it allows proper understanding of the customer’s needs and expectations. “Listening” to written communication has its own set of challenges. Unless the customer is requested to provide follow up contact details for offline communication, or several messages are shared back and forth on social media, the complaint resolution process may not be effective. To adequately listen, be discerning enough to sort through what is perceived or real, establish the facts and propose a workable way forward. This requires more intimate engagement with the customer. Social media may not quite provide the best channel for this.
The risk of brand disrepute also looms large in the social care space, with the ratio of 1:23,000 noted as the viral reach dissatisfied customers have, to propagate their dissatisfaction online. The urgency therefore for brands to ensure that they are responsive to customer needs and maintain utmost professionalism and decorum when dealing with customers is high. It is said that the internet never forgets and that the power of a disgruntled customer to dredge up historical facts to back up their current claims is noteworthy. The possibility of an entire brand crashing and being crushed through irresponsible online engagement by customer service agents is high, with various disastrous incidents recorded globally. The responsibility for customer service handled through technological systems must be taken very seriously and the systems and processes in place to generate success must be well monitored. Where training is required to generate more customer centric results, then this must be done without hesitation. The teams on the ground charged with the responsibility of handling customers online, must be well selected and casted for their roles as both the customer and institution advocates. The positive impact or negative consequences of their online activities must be well expressed to ensure clear understanding from the onset.
Technology also promotes quite a bit of self-care, with Interactive voice response (IVR) systems routing customers towards self-service for enquiry or complaint resolution. Whereas for simple enquiries this formula works well to enhance response rates and decongest call centre  traffic, it has proven quite tricky for complaints handling. The self-care options need to be continuously updated to respond to the nature of enquiries received, to ensure that the system serves to enhance resolution and not to frustrate customers who need to wait a little longer to speak to the customer service agent, after being put through a series of automated questions. It is important also  for every brand to fully understand their customer dynamics to ensure that the voice recordings and interactive voice engagements have a pleasant and friendly voice that appeals to the specific customers
Whether to take up technological solutions to enhance customer experience excellence or not is at the discretion of each individual organization and their desire for service delivery. Corporates may be at different stages in the development and implementation of their customer service strategies, and should use this to determine what direction to take. Peer pressure to jump into the ‘tech’ space currently touted as being the done thing in the corporate sphere, needs to be tempered. It is however, important for organizations to ensure that whatever choices they are making to embrace technology for change, should be anchored on a solidly documented customer service strategy. Technology proponents within the business must also be clued in to the strategic direction the company is taking to enable adequately informed customer engagements, as well as to rally up back up support to handle customer needs. When well thought through, and with a proper strategy in place, technology can be a powerful enabler for customer access and customer convenience, to enhance the overall customer experience. Technology allows for new and innovative ways of doing things that stands to transform how customers are handled. Call centers in themselves are rapidly transiting from enquiry and complaint centers to business intelligence units, from which rich information on new and emerging industry trends, competitor information, new product and service demands, and customer satisfaction levels are harvested.

Collaboration
Embracing technology for customer experience excellence can only be a successful mission if it is well planned and executed as part of the overall customer service strategy, and not in isolation. The ICT department and customer experience department need to collaborate. Technological interventions are becoming brand differentiators only in so much as they improve the customer’s overall perception and experience of the brand. Where technology solves customers’ problems and provides an enhanced gateway for customer communication, then the marriage of customer experience and technology is a winner. The ultimate winner though is  the customer.
Carolyne Gathuru is the founder and director of strategy at Lifeskills Consulting. She has over 17 years experience in customer service strategy development and training. Email: cgathuru@life-skills.co.ke

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