If you don’t understand how COVID is fundamentally reshaping customer habits and preferences, then nothing else will really matter.
Nobody would argue that the shift in nomenclature from “call center” to “contact center” in recent years is misleading. Telephony remains the preferred channel for many customer interactions, but we’re in a multichannel world now, and contact center technologies are still evolving to keep pace with ever-changing customer habits and expectations.
By Jon Arnold
Customer experience (CX) is one driving force shaping these technologies, and as if that wasn’t enough to keep contact center vendors in innovate-or-die mode, along comes COVID-19. Prior to that, delivering a great CX was very much about having omnichannel support, along with analytics, chatbots, and other AI capabilities to map out the customer journey. Every contact center vendor now offers all this to varying degrees, and the promise of these emerging technologies is alluring for buyers and sellers alike.
We Have the Technology – What Could Go Wrong Here?
There’s nothing wrong with this picture if you believe technology is the panacea for all ills. Contact center technologies continue to improve, and with that, the bar for CX seems to keep moving higher. This really isn’t surprising, given how everything in our lives is being filtered through the lens of “technology,” especially among digital natives who know no other form of existence.
To some extent, better technologies do lead to better outcomes — including CX — but that’s no guarantee of success, and conventional wisdom says customer satisfaction levels are generally getting worse, not better. So, what’s the problem here? Have instant gratification expectations gotten so high that most CX initiatives are doomed to fail? Is the margin of error really that slim that the slightest disappointment will lead long-time customers to bolt for a competitor in droves?
COVID-19 may be the scourge of the new decade, but unlike other curve balls that only disrupt one industry or demographic or region, this one is universal. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink everything, especially on a societal level where underlying economic inequities expose some very weak safety nets.
In that context, investing in technology to improve agent KPIs seems trivial, and I would contend reflects too much focus on the wrong things. Technology will remain a core driver of CX in the new decade, but this could also be a case of having the ladder up against the wrong wall. In the course of recent interactions with contact center vendors, channel partners, and end customers, a common theme has been the need to rethink or reframe CX, and this isn’t just about technology.
In COVID Times, There’s More to CX Than Technology
Even with all the great technology today, and more companies getting religion about becoming customer-first, a lot of businesses still haven’t made the fundamental connection between CX and outcomes that really matter — customer satisfaction, retention, Net Promoter Score, loyalty, mind share, wallet share, etc. Ironically, as much as the “contact center” drives CX, we’re shifting to a “contactless” CX, and while these are two different uses of the same word, this is a pretty strong clue as to what I’m getting at in this post.
Whereas technology would be the trees, the forest is how COVID-19 has impacted CX. In this environment, customers are far more concerned about staying healthy and doing business with companies safely than faster delivery times or getting the lowest price possible. Conversely, for the sellers, the concerns are equally fundamental — business continuity, revenue generation, maintaining supply chains, etc. We’ve all come down a level or two on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, leaving contact centers to manage a higher volume of inquiries that may seem quite mundane, but are hugely important to customers.
More importantly, our buying habits and preferences have changed due to the pandemic, and at this point, those changes could well be permanent. At face value, contact centers have adopted as best they can to support these changes, but there’s a danger to viewing them as a blip, where things will return to “normal” once the pandemic passes. The longer we stay in the current mode, the less likely we’ll revert to that time, and that means contact centers need to move on from pre-pandemic models for CX.
While it’s easier for IT decision-makers to stay in their comfort zone, that’s not going work when it comes to understanding what those changes with customers really mean. Technology can go a long way to identify what habits and preferences have changed, as well as how they have changed, but to re-invent CX for COVID times, contact centers must also understand why things have changed. AI-driven analytics provide great value here, since customers leave such a rich trail of digital crumbs when buying online.
The real clues for CX, however, come from why customers are changing, as new customer habits will come with new pain points that contact centers must learn how to address. Pre-pandemic pain points will persist, but contact centers already know how to deal with those. When customers are changing behaviors based on being safe and healthy rather than getting faster service or lower prices, focusing on the latter won’t relieve their pain points today.
What Contact Centers Can Learn from the NBA
Every line of business and sector of the economy is going through this, and this brings both risk and opportunity. The risk comes from learning how to adapt your business to a touchless, socially-distanced experience, but with that comes opportunity to support new habits and preferences. Nobody knows what changes will stick, and the real risk comes from standing still and not trying to adapt at all. Consider social experiences like sporting events, movies, performing arts, and of course our industry conferences.
Pre-pandemic, going cold turkey for any of these would have been unthinkable, but now we’re reimagining them in creative ways that strike a balance between safety and serving our human cravings to be social. In terms of why habits have changed here, it’s important to recognize that it’s not because the movies are terrible — which they are — or your team is a loser, or theater tickets are too expensive. We still want to do all these things, but we simply can’t now — at least in the way we always have.
By accepting our pandemic realities, these experiences are now being adapted, and with that comes a new CX. Take the NBA, for example, where the bubble environment for return to play has been successful, and serves as a pretty palatable alternative to cancelling the season outright. New habits and preferences for fans are forming about this, and those are the CX drivers that need to be supported. Given how Enterprise Connect would have been held in the host city for the NBA playoffs – Orlando – I thought this would be a relatable example, but the underlying ideas here apply to every business and every contact center.
Seeing the Forest from the Trees
For contact centers, the takeaway here is that it’s not enough to say your business is customer-centric, or that you’re using the latest technologies to deliver a great CX. Those are just table stakes, but COVID is reshaping customer habits and preferences in fundamental ways, and if you don’t fully understand them, the rest won’t really matter. This may sound like Marketing 101, but many of these changes with customers are now hardened, and with that comes a different CX from the one contact centers were trying to deliver at the start of 2020.
In Economics, COVID would be called an exogenous event, one that is beyond our control and impacts everybody. Since all contact centers must adapt, this levels the playing field for everyone. With CCaaS, the same technology is now available for all contact centers, so that alone provides little competitive advantage for differentiating on CX. The real success comes from getting a deeper understanding of changing habits and preferences due to COVID, and building CX around that.
This post originally appeared in NoJitter and is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.