Striking a Balance – Keeping the Customer Center Stage While Shifting Cost Strategies
By: Execs In The Know
The impact of COVID-19 on organizations is unparalleled in modern times. As leaders, you make seemingly impossible decisions at a rapid pace to protect your organization’s financial viability and your employees’ security. At the same time, you have customers’ interests to protect and serve. We all know how important customer experience (CX) is to our future success, but in times like these, protecting the company while attempting to keep customers center stage can sometimes seem at odds with each other. How do you balance the need to minimize costs, maximize revenue, and deliver on the customer experience, all while also managing through the current impact of COVID-19 and preparing for life beyond it?
The truth is, we should always be focused on balancing costs, revenue, and customer experience. It is achievable but can seem daunting at times. The global pandemic has shone a bright light on this challenge in an unprecedented way. Many of us were forced to make difficult decisions to ensure that as we emerge from this situation our companies, teams, and customers are poised for success.
As customers ourselves, we have all experienced some of these necessary, but difficult, decisions by many brands in the last few months. For example:
- Banking – Some individuals are experiencing long wait times for even simple issues that cannot be solved online. What would typically take a few minutes to solve via a live interaction can take up to several hours.
- Travel – Those canceling flights or trips due to the pandemic may find they are only able to receive a credit, versus a refund. To ask for an exception, it can sometimes be a lengthy, difficult, and not a guaranteed process.
- Online shopping – We are all fortunate to be able to leverage online shopping more than ever during this time, but shipping, delivery times, and product availability continue to present challenges. Even estimated delivery times are not always accurate and trying to get a revised date is not always easy.
These are just a few examples, but it is safe to say that every industry has been impacted and have been forced to make some difficult decisions. These decisions may not necessarily align with customer needs, but these decisions and actions are needed based on the situation. It’s inevitable to not encounter friction when you pair anxious and frustrated customers with organizations that had to throw their current business plans out the window. While some decisions made by a company will be less than satisfying to a customer, you still have an opportunity to retain that customer based on how the issue is handled and how your brand adjusts.
So how do organizations best navigate this push/pull between controlling costs but also delivering on the customer experience?
Understanding Friction Points to Identify Service Gaps and Opportunities
First, it is important to recognize where companies’ processes and policies conflict with customer needs. Now is a good time to reflect, given that many decisions were made quickly to respond to the pandemic. For example:
- Companies are making tough policy decisions, such as only allowing credits vs refunds for cancellations. This may be understandable from a business perspective – but from the customer’s perspective, it can appear tone-deaf, especially if the message is not delivered well.
- Staff reductions have taken place for many. While these cutbacks may be understandable, customers with a need to talk to someone immediately are feeling the effects of additional wait times when they are already emotionally charged.
- Similarly, given the shift to Work-at-Home (WAH) coupled with reduced staff, customers in need of a live agent to solve a complex or dire situation may have a hard time reaching real-time help in their channel of choice.
- Front line employees are also under pressure and are often delivering bad news, or being on the receiving end of very frustrated, and sometimes verbally abusive, customers. These are possibly very different interactions from what they are accustomed to handling, requiring advanced problem-solving and an increased need for using soft skills.
Bottom Line: Even if your organization has had to make some tough, but necessary decisions, now is a good time to look at the impact of those decisions and understand the friction points with your customers. Once you have a solid handle on that, you can re-evaluate and take further action to minimize the impact to the customer.
Making Fact-Based Decisions, Giving Your Customers a Seat at the Table
Again, you may have been put in a situation where you made some fast decisions with limited data during the early stages of COVID-19. We all know it is always better to make intentional decisions versus knee jerk reactions, but it’s not always possible. Even under pressure, here are a few things to consider to ensure decisions are based on data rather than emotion, thus minimizing negative customer impact.
- When evaluating a potential (or current) shift in policy or process to address business or cost needs, assess the potential impact of the decisions to customers and the company’s bottom line, using both customer and operational data. As referenced in our recent blog, leverage multiple data sources to understand what your customers expect and how they are experiencing any changes you have made.
- Re-assess your current metrics and implement the right measurements to give you a balanced view of efficiencies, service levels, customer experience, and agent effort/experience. Although you may be tasked with driving greater efficiency, identify efficiency metrics that are tied directly to positive customer experiences.
- If you have shifted more transaction types to digital channels, your agents are likely now handling more complex issues. Assess the types of issues agents are handling now and ensure you have appropriate training, tools, and listening posts (i.e. quality processes, customer-facing metrics, etc.) to drive maximum productivity and issue resolution.
- More than ever, service journey mapping using data should be conducted often to identify customer pain points and opportunities for driving efficiencies.
- Determine the estimated timeframe for these changes/decisions and re-assess in appropriate intervals. In other words, avoid the risk of implementing a policy meant to bridge a short-term cost containment issue without recognizing when to reverse it based on the data.
Last, but not least, in every virtual or in-person meeting, ensure your customer is represented. When in-person meetings were the norm, one organization we spoke with had an empty chair in a specific color that represented the customer. It was symbolic, but it ensured the customer was always first in mind, even when making tough decisions.
Bottom Line: Even under pressure to make quick decisions in the face of a chaotic environment, use data to guide you to the right decision. Also, if you were forced to make decisions before data was available, ensure you reassess the impact when the time is right and use it to pivot as appropriate.
Be Creative and Aggressive with Workflow and Automation Alternatives to Reduce Agent and Customer Effort
Many organizations were already on the path to digital transformation, and the impact of COVID-19 has accelerated this effort. As you continue to assess impact to customers and agents alike, continue to challenge yourself and your organization to find more efficient and customer-friendly alternatives to responding to customer needs. This includes your agent tools and workflow as well as the need to support the vision and reduce effort on the part of both customers and agents. For example:
- Integrated agent desktops – In a recent study, almost 40% of companies said their agents struggle due to lack of an integrated desktop. Agents need to find answers and solutions quickly, so how you serve up content to them affects how quickly and effectively they can support customers.
- 360-view of customers – In a perfect world, agents should be able to quickly view the customers’ journey, identify their issue, and what actions they have taken to that point to solve it.
- Smart workflow – Now, more than ever, you want your most valuable resources (your agents) handling the most complex and sensitive issues. This most likely means adjustments not only to agent workflow, but more aggressive efforts to push customers to self-help capabilities for simple issues.
- Intentional digital channel strategy – Assess your channel strategy. It has likely shifted as you try to direct more volume to digital channels. However, ensure your strategy is right and its accomplishing the objective of avoiding repeat contacts and less customer frustration when customers do get to an agent. To know if your strategy is the right one, leverage your data and processes to ensure you (a) understand what your customers want; (b) journey map to understand pain points and direct to the channel most able to solve; (c) measure and analyze metrics (by channel and contact type) such as issue resolution, customer effort, agent effort, repeat/number of contacts to resolve.
- AI-powered tools – Getting customers to answers quickly is the goal. Although AI and bot technology may not be in every organization’s roadmap yet, consider use of bots to support the agents, and the use of AI to get customers the answers they need faster.
- Creative scheduling – given the environment and WAH, you may have more flexibility than you did in the past with split-shifts or other scheduling options. Look carefully at your arrival patterns and how you can leverage your staff to meet customers where they are.
- Operational metrics and processes – Again, ensure your metrics, processes, and focuses are balanced to drive desired results. Quality processes, coaching, training, and metrics should be aligned with the goal of reducing customer and agent effort.
Bottom Line: In understanding the friction points, continue to look for and implement creative ways to reduce effort; driving efficiency while also solving more issues. This comes in the form of some “low tech” solutions such as creative scheduling and operational processes. The biggest gains will of course be realized with automation. Although these tools and solutions may be an upfront cost you weren’t expecting, the medium to long term gains are significant.
Don’t Stop at the Decision
When you’re frantically trying to respond to market and economic challenges, the details sometimes get lost along the way. A robust change management process, with a dedicated “tiger team,” is essential to ensure decisions are implemented and executed well. These are often critical and cross-functional decisions which need careful coordination – from technology, to process, communication, training, and measurement. You need an agile team with a structured process for implementing change quickly, effectively, and has the ability to pivot as needed. If you didn’t have time to do this early during the pandemic, it isn’t too late!
It goes without saying that the goal of any business decision is to ensure it is (a) achieving your stated goal; and (b) not creating an opposite or unintended impact due to loss of customer loyalty. Part of the change management process is to not stop at the decision or even the implementation. You have to measure the impact and understand the cost (or cost savings) of the decision being made, and the potentially far-reaching cost of a negative experience. Conversely, you also need to know the positive impact of any of your actions so you can either expand on those ideas or continue them while they are successful.
Bottom Line: Change management is crucial to ensuring measures taken are executed thoughtfully and measured for effectiveness so you can adjust as needed.
Communicate Clearly and Often
Honesty. Transparency. Consistency.
We could almost leave it at that. These characteristics must be the centerpiece of your communications strategy now and as you prepare for the future. Tone and genuine caring matters to both customers and staff, so don’t be afraid to be human – you can be open about the challenges the company is facing and the measures you are taking. Customers will appreciate it in the long run and reward you for it, and your staff will be better able to serve customers. How you communicate decisions impacting customers will have a lasting effect on your relationship with them, and this includes how you communicate to both customers and staff.
- Customers: Communicate clearly and up front, avoiding the element of surprise. Make the information available where they are likely to see it. In other words, do not hide the fine print. Some organizations have created pages on their websites or social channels with updates or have a consistent drumbeat of updates that are proactively sent when appropriate.
- Agents: Do not bombard agents with changes, but be methodical and clear. Agents have one of the toughest jobs, especially in emotionally charged times like this, so it is not realistic to expect them to remember all changes they are tasked with understanding. Instead, incorporate changes into knowledgebases and systems while serving up information and changes in a timely manner.
Bottom Line: Put yourself in your customer’s and employee’s shoes. Honestly assess if your communication is hitting the mark with honesty, transparency, and consistency. Communication is always critical, but especially when making rapid-fire decisions. What you communicate is important, but how you communicate will dictate how the message is received and have a long-term impact. Your agents are a critical component of your communications strategy and it has a direct impact on how the customer perceives your brand.
Training, Training, Training
Due to the changes and the sources of friction mentioned above, more than likely, your agents need some training refreshers. Empathy (the willingness to fix) and sympathy (the ability to share a common feeling) is more important than ever. While you may have a necessary policy in place that is not very customer-friendly, it is incredibly important for the message to be delivered in a way that conveys a genuine desire to help the customer solve their problem or get the information they need. Even if the resolution is not exactly what the customer wanted, if it is delivered with empathy and sympathy, it can be a positive game changer for your brand.
Depending on your industry and channel strategy, customers that get to a live agent may have very complex issues, requiring more advanced problem-solving skills. Ensure the agents handling these transactions are equipped with the knowledge, tools, skills, and empowerment to navigate these issues to resolution.
You may also have shifted various agents from one channel to another, but all channels are not created equal, so you may need to provide some extra training to help agents bridge that gap. For example, if you have switched agents from email to chat, you will need to arm the agents with some additional knowledge and skills to best support customers in that channel.
Bottom Line: What your agents are being asked to do today is likely very different than it was three months ago. Continuously assess the minimum skills required based on their new reality and provide them with the training and tools they need to be successful and deliver the best customer experience possible. Lastly, ensure they are empowered to do what they need to do.
Stand Out from the Crowd
Although everyone is in the trenches, it is important to also use this time to build your brand and be the one company that stands out. Connect with your customers in ways you have not before. The smart brands are finding ways to connect with customers and staff, meeting them where they are now.
One example comes from Zappos, the online retailer – they implemented a separate phone line offering the ability for customers to just “talk.” The company realized that many of their customers just needed someone to talk to or were having trouble locating hard-to-find items or local services unrelated to Zappos. This is not a luxury all brands have due to cost constraints, but this is an example of how Zappos extended their brand to helping others during this crisis.
Another example comes from Rothys, the sustainable shoemaker. The company collaborated with other brands to create the Open Innovation Coalition which channels their joint resources to personal protective equipment (PPE) relief efforts.
For others, it might be as simple as posting ideas on social media that could help your customers – in other words, “be of service.” How can you help them succeed? And realize that “success” to your customers may mean something very different today than it did three months ago. What does that look like and how can you be of service to your customers in creative ways? Perhaps that is a resource page on your website or social channels that provides useful information, or even fun ideas for summer at home.
Bottom Line: Although many organizations are working hard to contain costs, you can be creative in how you also connect with customers (and the public) to shine a positive light on your brand. Look for unique ways to be a brand that customers talk about in a positive way during this challenging time.
It’s Always Been About The Customer and It Still Is
When in doubt, put yourself in the customer’s shoes. After all, you are experiencing the same challenges they are experiencing. You can still the be hero in your organization’s story. It may look and feel different right now as you work to balance cost and CX, and those “wins” may not feel as frequent or obvious…but if you ensure your customer has a seat at the table of every decision you make and how you implement it, they will recognize and reward you for it later.