The New Era of Customer Relationships: Are You Ready?

We are seeing the emergence of the greatest customer movement in history.  Is your organization ready?  Are you ready?

Studies reveal that the vast majority of consumers now use search engines, social communities and feedback sites to better understand a company’s commitment to service before making brand or product decisions.  Bad experiences (even if they are one in many thousands of interactions from an internal perspective) end up on blogs, tweets, video posts and rating sites – all readily found through search.  Good experiences also spread quickly, and organizations that consistently deliver great service can build phenomenal and resilient brand loyalty.

In short, customer service – and its central component, customer communication – has never been more important.  So, what will the next era of customer communication look like?  How will your organization need to evolve to remain competitive?

From the customer’s perspective, accessibility to information and service will continue to evolve dramatically.  Today’s smart phones, location-based services, video capabilities, social media, and similar developments, point to a future where resources are only a click (or voice prompt) away.  Mono-media (i.e., traditional telephone) interactions will fade, as emerging multi-media capabilities enable face-to-face dialog, seamless sharing of files and content, and new kinds of communities and interactions.

How will customers use these capabilities?  Who will they reach out to? A big part of the answer will be in communities of people who have similar interests: other customers of specific companies, products or services; those interested in similar issues (i.e., travel, political concerns, health matters, local interests); others who are facing similar opportunities or challenges.  In many cases, these communities will be formed dynamically and quickly through readily available search and collaboration capabilities.

These trends are requiring organizations to rethink services and to better understand customers. The meaning and focus of customer service is changing. For example, the call center’s role is changing significantly. The next generation call center will be the internal engine organizations depend on not only to handle interactions with customers, but also to listen to and engage in external communities.  It will take on more of a “level 2” role, handling interactions not resolved through self-service and communities.  And it will be integrated with other business functions at a much deeper level, e.g., to help operations pinpoint quality problems, marketing develop more focused campaigns, IT design better systems, and to be an early indicator of marketplace developments and changing customer needs.

The nature of customer-facing job roles will also change – they will require more complex analysis, know-how, and empowerment.  Interactions will increasingly involve multiple channels and serve customers that are well connected, informed about their options and diverse in their needs and expectations.

What does your organization need to do now to prepare for the changes ahead?  Important steps include:

  • Provide a full range of access choices to customers – enabling them to reach the information and service they need through the channels they want to use. This includes cultivating, supporting and helping to build communities that matter to your customers.  And it means updating your customer access strategy, so that you are “operationalizing” the good intentions you have to build strong customer relationships.
  • Tend to the essentials – manage workloads effectively so that as customer needs evolve, your organization is accessible and provides consistent high levels of service and quality.  This includes accurate forecasting and staffing, as well as establishing the right objectives and metrics at every level.
  • Take every opportunity during service delivery to build customer relationships and capture insight that can be used for innovation and product improvement.  You can’t leave it to chance – you have to bake this into tools, expectations and measures.
  • Build a strong organization (hire right, train well) with a cross-functional commitment to serving customers and building relationships.  This is a prerequisite to all of the above.

Organizations that rely on past practices will pay a heavy price.  But the returns for those who understand the trends and cultivate the right services will likely be significant and include benefits such as:

  • Extraordinary loyalty
  • Cost efficiencies (right channel for the right purpose)
  • Customer-driven innovation
  • Improved market share
  • Additional sales and revenue
  • Positive brand recognition and word of mouth

This is a time of great change.  There is enormous opportunity for any organization that takes the right steps to build strong customer relationships and differentiate through service.  There will be peril for those that do not.