• June 1, 2008
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

We Are What We Expect

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In February of this year, a brief flurry of news stories covered the second consecutive quarterly decline of something called the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The ACSI is an economic indicator, based on modeling of customer evaluations of the quality of goods and services purchased in the United States, developed by the National Quality Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Such stories are now commonplace -- it is almost as if the public's mood toward service (and the companies that provide it) can be covered as a horse race: "Poor customer service due to offshore outsourcing is ahead by a neck, but, rounding the far turn, personalized and relevant customer experiences based on integrated CRM efforts are gaining on the outside!"

Not only are stories like these commonplace, but they can also be a misleading way of looking at the data, since they tend to ignore one key point: The current ACSI scores, even with the declines, still remain significantly higher than they were in 1996 and 1997.

But in a larger sense, the problem with the surveys themselves is that they essentially ignore any shift in customer expectations -- and, as a culture, our expectations of the interactions between consumer and company are definitely shifting. Companies should be paying attention to those slippery shifts, and should be using technology to help bolster processes that support any new needs.

If that sounds like "analyst-speak," there's a way to make this more concrete: Fifteen years ago, an American consumer calling a large company's 800 number for customer service would not have thought it unusual to have the call answered directly by a native English speaker. Today, that same interaction might well be viewed as extraordinary. Consumers are now completely acclimated to self-service technology such as interactive voice response systems and to offshore agents with nearly impenetrable accents. This shift in expectations is even more pronounced among younger consumers who had little experience with the "good old days." One take on the shift in expectations is that we have all come to expect less.

But let's examine that notion of the good old days. Were they really that good? I can now call my bank at 11:30 p.m. and expect to reach an agent. Getting money out of a bank used to require standing in line between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., but I can now withdraw money from thousands of ATMs -- not just outside of banks, but also in convenience stores, supermarkets, bars, etc. I can even withdraw money while paying for my groceries. I can buy goods and services over the Internet at all hours of the day and the plethora of goods available is mind-blowing. My expectations as a consumer in that context have been greatly heightened, not reduced.

So consumer expectations have gone up in some ways and have decreased in others. Where does that leave a company trying to puzzle out technology-spending priorities and customer-interaction strategies? Clearly, companies need flexible technological systems that help them identify -- and then match -- the wax and wane of consumers' whims. But, more important, they need flexible processes that allow for differentiated experiences. The Beatles once sang, "I am he / as you are he / as you are me / and we are all together," but, Summer of Love optimism aside, consumers want individual experiences.

My grandfather, for example, would still prefer to do his banking as if it were 1972, while I require that "always on" nature of the modern experience. My expectations and my grandfather's have shifted -- but they have not converged. And companies need to recognize the difference between us. Vendors of CRM technologies certainly have some ideas of how companies can best accomplish this, but long before such conversations can have much utility, the companies themselves need to make differentiated consumer experience a priority.

Ian Jacobs is a senior analyst in Frost & Sullivan's contact center practice. Contact him at ian.jacobs@frost.com.

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