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The report on the recent Comotion breakfast briefing on the impact of technology on brand and customer interactions, and the subsequent questions and issues raised by attendees shows that in a world of rapidly changing technology some things don’t change. In particular the need for a genuinely customer-focused strategy and the challenges facing its adoption in many organisations are constants whether we are talking about the increased take up of mobile devices, chatbots or simply answering the phones on time.

A shared approach?

Not that long ago, but long enough for the internet to still be a brand new thing rather than an integral part of how we think about customer interaction, I was responsible for strategy in the customer service function of a major consumer telco. The strategy was clear, ambitious and had already delivered plenty of results, mostly through rationalising a contact centre organisation that had grown like crazy over a number of years. I recognised that we needed to shift from a strategy driven by cost rationalisation to one that was much more customer-centric. Achieving this was a challenge as we were under pressure from the internal clients – the customer-facing sales and marketing units – to continue to reduce operating costs. To get around this I invited the key stakeholders from these units to the next strategy definition workshop in an attempt to get buy in to what we were trying to achieve. This worked up to a point but the cost pressure didn’t go away.

With the benefit of hindsight and 15 or so years’ further experience, I would certainly do this differently if I could do it again: rather than ‘sell’ our strategy to the other units I would seek to create one strategy for the whole organisation. However, doing this effectively would have required a fundamental commitment to gaining a shared understanding of what the customer wanted and how good we were at meeting those needs.

Threats and opportunities

Changing technology creates both an opportunity and a threat to those who are seeking to create a customer-driven organisation. The opportunity presented by new technology is in the ability to do such things as analyse customer interactions in a more sophisticated way, channel help and non-sales inquiries to automated pathways and give customers the power to interact with you ‘on the go’.

Great though these things are it’s easy to be seduced by these opportunities and to forget about the customer’s real needs. This results in fragmented or limited improvements to customer journeys. For example, a mortgage provider could streamline their online service to sell a mortgage but if they did nothing to meet their customers’ broader needs, which might be articulated as ‘I need a home and financial security’ they might lose out to competitors who are prepared to include additional services in their proposition.

Keeping it simple

A number of attendees reported a frustration with the drive towards a customer first approach and raising questions about customers’ wants and needs can be uncomfortable as senior executives may be preoccupied with other issues that are seen as equally important to company performance. In approaching this conundrum, I have recently been inspired by the designer John Maeda whose classic book ‘The Laws of Simplicity’ contains a rule that summarises his whole approach:

‘Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful’

This works well in the construction of strategy where we can take this law to mean that ‘obvious’ goals include the areas that senior executives traditionally worry about: revenue, costs, share price and so on. The meaningful stuff is what makes companies unique and therefore in a customer-focused company is about customers.

Viewing the strategy in this way may, however, cause the uncomfortable truth to emerge that the meaningful part of a company’s strategy could be something other than customers: this could legitimately include strategies such as being a low-cost provider, restless innovator or attracting the brightest and best people. Heads of Customer Experience may come to the realisation at this point that customer experience improvement initiatives will always take second place behind those that serve the primary strategy.

Building on Maeda’s work I have developed my own One Rule for strategy that states that in a customer-driven organisation…

everything relates to delighting customers

where delight means not just providing great experiences but helping customers achieve their desired outcomes. And everything means everything – including technology: only those technologies that can help delight customers should form part of the strategy. Comments from attendees at the breakfast that

We’re not really thinking about the customer, instead we’re responding to what we think people want or what competitors are doing.

and

We focus on the implementation of new tech but don’t always look at it through the customer lens.

only serve to emphasise the work that needs to be done to orient technology towards serving customers. And the development of a genuinely customer-centric strategy is a good place to start.

A tech-driven story

A friend recently related an experience he’d had when ordering a eBook – a biography of the singer John Oates which, according to Amazon, included a free EP. When the promised EP didn’t show up a lengthy text chat with Amazon ensued resulting in a suggestion to contact the publisher, which he did via the link in the eBook. Publishers don’t have customer service departments but a randomly chosen contact elicited an apology from the Head of eBooks explaining that the EP only came with the hardback version. A second email arrived with an offer to provide the hardback copy for free, proving that even in a technology-mediated world – up to this point everything has been digital – some ‘old school’ values of customer service still apply.


bush

Nick Bush is an independent management consultant and Comotion Associate who specialises in helping organisations deliver strategies that improve their customers’ experience. He has many years’ experience of implementing change across a range of industries, with extended periods in banking and telecoms. He writes on customer experience and related topics at knittingfog.blog.