Differentiated customer experience is the new mantra for business leaders. As products and services get commoditized, smart businesses are seeking customer loyalty (and profits) through customer experience. In the past decade, businesses have increasingly outsourced their customer contact centers. They enjoyed the short-term cost-reduction benefit, but then realized in many cases that their customers voted with their feet: In response to the indifferent customer experience, customers left. In this article, we discuss the powerful link between customer experience and agent experience, and the impact of that link on business performance.
Traditionally, contact centers have invested in making agents more efficient. Not only do the hapless agents have ever-changing facts and processes in their head at all times, they are also subject to micro-measurement at every step. Not to mention the increased customer expectations that they have to deal with day after day. No wonder the average annual agent attrition in contact centers is over 40 percent! The single-minded focus on measurement, training, and efficiency enhancement has all but destroyed comfortable conversations between the customer and agent. The agents are always selling hard or rushing customer interactions so that they can meet their performance quotas. In the efficiency rush, intimacy, experience, and innovation are sacrificed.
Agents in the service-centric economy are like associates on a shop floor in the manufacturing economy. In the early 20th century, the U.S. manufacturing sector adopted the results of Frederick Taylor's time-and-motion studies and focused on efficiency-driven improvement. While this effort yielded benefits, this single-minded focus on efficiency created opportunities for Japanese manufacturers to create a foothold in the U.S. market. The Japanese did this by focusing on worker empowerment, job rotation, and job enrichment --- essentially delivering a better customer experience through better employee experience.
The situation today is similar: Most customer service organizations rely too much on efficiency improvement. These efficiency initiatives have run their course, judging from the well-chronicled decline in customer experience across industries. To add fuel to the fire, the Web generation is mercilessly efficient at sharing bad service experiences. Data suggests that customers who have a bad experience are likely to tell five times the number of people about it, compared to those who have a good customer experience. Sprint's recent experience provides a good example: A few poorly serviced customers were able to inflict untold damage to the Sprint brand through online communities.
Many leading consumer brands are working to deliver differentiated customer experience within a holistic model of customer interactions -- a model that balances efficiency, intimacy, and innovation based on customer attributes and the specific needs of the business. The United Kingdom's Virgin Mobile (VM), for example, developed a knowledge-base solution for its agents, a system to guide them through customer conversations in a flexible and comfortable manner -- without relying on extensive training or resorting to metallic scripting. What was most impressive about VM was its primary focus through the process on keeping employees happy and enthused.
In developing the knowledge-base tool, Virgin Mobile listened as much to its agents as it did to its customers. VM believes that a happy agent would go out of his way to delight a customer!
VM put its philosophy into action as the company launched its guided help tool for agents. Leveraging the right tools and VM agents' advanced skills, the company won the prestigious award based on a mystery-shopping exercise conducted by Mobile News magazine. In the magazine's words, "The whole Virgin experience was in a class of its own.... The empathy was there in spades as well the determination to help me out -- very hard to fault!"
Virgin's approach to delivering the "Right Virgin Experience" is to ensure Fantastic Agent Skills and Right Tools. It seems simple enough. And it mirrors the findings of behavioral researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's famous grid where he charts People Skills and Work Challenge on a two-dimensional graph. His research finding is insightful:
1. low challenge + low skills = apathy
2. high challenge + low skills = anxiety
3. high challenge + high skills = boredom
4. appropriate challenge + strong skills = optimal state of flow
Of course, better customer experience directly leads to better business performance for Virgin Mobile. The focus on agent experience also helps VM profitably offer attractive pay-to-talk cellphone services because the company is confident of retaining its customers through service, rather than using long-term, fine-print contracts.
As a senior executive, you should not ignore the importance of better agent experience in your front-line service staff. Richard Branson, the charismatic founder of the Virgin Group, says it best: "The only purpose of front-line staff is if the customer experiences service excellence. Otherwise, why not use machines?"
About the Author
Ashutosh Roy is chairman and chief executive officer for eGain Communications Corp. Prior to eGain, he cofounded and served as chairman of WhoWhere? Inc., which is now part of Lycos. Mr. Roy also cofounded Parsec Technologies and worked at Digital Equipment Corporation. For additional information, visit www.eGain.com.