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16 per cent of BT complaints sent directly to the chief executive…. And he replies

Sponsored by Genesys

Go back 75 years and the notion of customer service was radically different. That was the starting point for a breakfast meeting hosted by Business Technology in June. Paul Maguire, of Genesys, opened discussion by talking about the shop that his grandparents ran.

His grandfather knew his customers by name or at least by sight. Such one-to-one relationships between shopper and shopkeeper were common back then but rarely exist today, particularly as consumers move into e-commerce and mobile commerce.

Chris Dennett, from eBay, pointed out that technology further complicates matters; while companies are searching to present a human face, customers often feel that their data is in the hands of a faceless, monolithic organisation. How can businesses do a better job with customer relationships?

One challenge is the increased number of contact points for consumers. Paul Maguire’s grandfather would only ever have seen his customers when they came in through the door. Modern businesses might engage with customers face-to-face or by phone, email, on the web, by text, Twitter, Facebook or even new services like Snapchat.

A smart business will allow customers to contact them in whatever way they prefer but, said Susan Bastock from Ashtead Plant Hire, any company that does that must then be prepared to respond by all of those channels. That is particularly true when a customer has had a bad experience: very often customers will try once to complain and then immediately escalate their complaint to the chief executive or to social media.

Some don’t even wait to escalate: 16 per cent of BT complaints are sent directly to the chief executive, said Simon Fowles from BT. Amazingly, the chief exec then responds to each one personally. Soydan Nihat, from EasyLife, said that, because his company’s products are advertised in catalogues distributed with national newspapers, unhappy customers will often write to the editor.

At least the CEOs – and even editors – understand that customers are sometimes let down and those people can pass on the complaint to an appropriate person. When an upset customer takes to social media, the complaint is public and can often be magnified.

Jason Roberts from Dixons Carphone Group said that social media can often be a difficult area for managing customer experience because it covers two parts of the business. The company often sees it as a marketing channel but the customer sees it as a way to complain. However, Carol Hilsum from Net-a-Porter argued that when a customer takes to social media complain it is often the company’s fault because that is the easiest way to get a response. Her company had focused on reducing call centre waiting times as a result.

Providing comprehensive relevant information at the beginning of the process can ensure that things don’t go wrong later. Jason Roberts said that Dixons Carphone Group was improving pre-sales information on cookers, for example, because customers often ordered them and only realised at the installation stage that they did not have the necessary fittings to connect them.

He said that customers are now researching products about five months before purchasing so there is a good opportunity to ensure that the necessary information is explained in time.

However, getting good information is an area where technology can be smarter and more helpful. Sophie Crosby, of Ticketmaster, said that ideally call centre agents at her company would be able to see a customer’s entire purchase history when they call with a problem, allowing them to identify high value customers quickly. Unfortunately, the technology they use does not yet allow them to do that.

Similarly, Yasmin Da Rocha, of Not On The High Street.com, said that she would like to be able to offer proactive chat online, contacting visitors to the website when they run into a problem and hopefully improving conversion rates, rather than relying on them to make contact or – more likely – seeing them leave altogether. Again, the company does not yet have the technology to do that.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of scope for experimentation and most attendees had conducted A/B testing of some kind with different options for customer journeys and made improvements as a result. Interestingly, Fleur Hicks-Duarte, of The Wellbeing Network, said that her company’s A/B testing of proactive chat had found that it made little difference to whether or not a customer would abandon their website visit with products still in their basket – a problem that all online retailers are concerned with solving.

Businesses should prepare for the worst, said Carol Hilsum, because no system will be perfect for every customer but the key is to monitor everything closely and learn from what works. We can’t return to the days of the grocer who knows every customer. Retailers can do better, though, and all those at the round table agreed that they were optimistic about future progress.