The Never-Ending Customer Service Journey

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Customer service may seem like a never-ending process -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In the morning keynote at the RightNow Summit 2008 here yesterday, one speaker explained that, for consumers, a superior experience is never intended to be the ultimate destination, but rather like an ongoing journey.

Jim Ferron knows a thing or two about sending consumers on journeys. As senior director of customer operations for Expedia, the Bellevue, Wash.–based provider of travel products and services, Ferron had some real-world stories to share about the importance of creating a multichannel strategy. Only then, he told the audience, could individuals -- in his case, travelers -- have the best possible experience. "The real highlight here is customer centricity," he said.

Ferron went on to ask people in the crowd to raise their hands if, back in their daily worklives, they had responsibility for handling the customer experience. He seemed both surprised and pleased when virtually every hand in the room shot up. "I asked this question five years ago at a different conference, and less than half of the people [responded]," he recalled. "It absolutely amazed me because I think everyone is responsible [for the customer experience]. Your show of hands is an indication that we're evolving."

Along with that evolution, Ferron noted what he said was is a growing change in the customer service industry -- from measurement to action. "There's a shift from programs and projects that [solely] track interactions with customers, to actually engineering that experience."

And while that advance reflects a maturity within the customer service industry, what's really needed is a mix of both measurement and action. Even better than some amorphous mix would be measurement that can help produce actionable strategies to shape what Ferron called "the faultless customer journey." Joking that his role in the travel industry had nothing to do with his use of the word journey, he went on: "Interactions are not a series of disconnected events. They are part of the overall journey in moving from one place to the next."

To Ferron, this means being cognizant of the entire customer lifecycle, which includes need, browse, shop, buy, and consume. That knowledge, he explained, is essential if you want to have any hope of controlling the cycle to the best of your abilities. But it's important to realize, he warned, that you cannot be perfect every single time. "The faultless journey is rarely [so]," he admitted. "Much of what we've done is put work in place to make it 'as error-free as possible.' "

While the pursuit of perfection is always a goal of customer service organizations, it is how a company deals with hiccups that will determine its ultimate success. "We need to create escape hatches, so when faults occur we give the customer an opportunity to escape from that fault," he said.

The way to accomplish this, according to Fellon, is by creating a systematic multichannel strategy allowing customers to be able to find the information they need when and how they want it. However, before spreading out information across multiple channels, it's imperative to ensure that the information you have is accurate, and to realize that it must be continuously updated. "All knowledge expires," he matter-of-factly pointed out. "We need to be on the path of constantly learning, and imparting that to our customers."

Another point of emphasis for Ferron was that companies should look to implement one channel at a time -- whether it be chat, email, phone, or Web. "A lot of organizational change has to take place that's incremental to the actual technology implementation," he explained. "You need to make sure your processes are buttoned down. By doing it this way, it allows you to pace yourself and learn valuable lessons as you move forward."

Ultimately, Ferron said, companies must leave the choice to the consumers: How do they want to interact and pursue this journey of customer service? "I hate the term ‘call deflection,' " he declared. "We must increase the choice our consumers have in regard to how to contact us. You can't force customers into a [given] channel.... Give them knowledge that's dispensable in a way that they want to [access it]."

News relevant to the customer relationship management industry is posted several times a day on destinationCRM.com, in addition to the news section Insight that appears every month in the pages of CRM magazine. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top; to contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com.

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