How to get (and stay) ahead of customer expectations

by Justin Robbins
Date Published October 26, 2015 - Last Updated May 11, 2016

“Online purchases will be delivered faster than a pizza!”

“Automated vending machines will replace humans, everywhere!”

“Immediate responses won’t be fast enough; customers will expect us to contact them first!”

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by sensationalism when one considers the predictions, assumptions, and ideas of the future. There is no question that customer expectations of service have heightened, their availability of channel options has increased, and the sophistication of technology has enabled organizations to gather insights that were never before possible. The question that is plaguing customer service leaders is, “What can I rule out as hype, and on what do I need to act?”

Over the past year, International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) sought to better understand these questions and conducted in-depth research on the customer experience, contact center challenges, and consumer expectations to provide actionable insight on how customer service leaders can meet the needs of today’s consumer and stay ahead of them in the future. In this article, I’ll explore these findings and share best practices that your organization can use to effectively deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Organizations Must Shift to an Omnichannel Approach

As an increasing number of digital natives grow into adulthood and become active consumers, the impact of technology and channel availability has become impossible to ignore.  While many organizations still struggle to successfully adopt and integrate a multichannel approach to their service environment, the term omnichannel emerged in 2014 as a means to identify organizations that are effectively providing cross-channel support. The omnichannel approach best aligns with a successful customer experience management program as it provides a seamless experience as customers channel hop. According to the 2014 State of Multichannel Customer Service Survey, “channel hoppers” accounts for the majority of customers as 52 percent of consumers utilize three or four channels when seeking customer care, while 25 percent utilize one to two channels.

Organizations are increasingly aware of the importance of providing their customers with channels of choice, and the emerging channels indicated significant gains from previous ICMI research. While the traditional live-agent channels of inbound voice (97.1%) and email (92.4%) continue to reign supreme in regard to number of organizations that support them, the average percentage of volume going to them is starting to diminish (50.6% and 17.6%, respectively).

The percentage of organizations that support self-help options continues to grow steadily.
Tweet: The percentage of organizations that support self-help options continue to grow steadily.@ThinkHDI

The percentage of organizations that support self-help options continue to grow steadily. Web (58.5%), self-service phone IVR (48.8%), and self-service portal/knowledgebase (45.3%) indicated strong usage by customers; with the number of organizations supporting both self-service portal/knowledgebase and community forums (24.6%) having the greatest momentum (both saw a 10% increase from Q4 2013).

The Frontline Needs Greater Tools, Resources, and Authority

“Customers are increasingly frustrated with the level of services they experience: 91% because they have to contact a company multiple times for the same reason, 90% by being put on hold for a long time, and 89% by having to repeat their issue to multiple representatives.” Accenture 2013 Global Consumer Pulse Survey

In an environment that is experiencing a period of significant change, there is one thing that hasn’t appeared to change: the perception that frontline customer service representatives are at the bottom of the ladder in a majority of organizations. As awareness of this trend grows, one question is rising to the forefront of customer service conversations: Has this traditional methodology run its course and are organizations primed for a change? One might assume yes, as a majority of organizations cite that the customer experience is a key focus and that they place a critical emphasis on ensuring customer satisfaction. Customers want representatives who are empowered, informed, and interested in helping them resolve their concerns. They expect to reach the right person for their specific need on their first contact in whatever channel they prefer. 

Despite 100 percent of 2015 ICMI research survey respondents stating that they believe agent morale and satisfaction directly affect the customer experience and more than 99 percent recognizing the correlation between high agent engagement and improved job performance, the truth remains that a majority of them (74 percent according to ICMI’s research) acknowledge knowing about something that prevents the frontline from providing the best experience possible. ICMI’s findings would indicate that the “something” is most often tool or technology related, as 92 percent of contact center leaders state that their agent applications could be more effective.

92 percent of contact center leaders state that their agent applications could be more effective.

By the very nature of the job, being a contact center agent is stressful. In fact, ICMI’s research indicates that 87 percent of agents experience a moderate to high level of stress during their workday. The discouraging part of this statistic is that the top contributor to an agent’s workday stress is system and tool inefficiencies/difficulties (71%). Additional top stressors include job demands and complexity (65%) and high contact volumes (63%). As if handling difficult and complex interactions was not enough, contact center leaders are actively compounding the issue by neglecting to provide the appropriate tools and resources.

The tools and resources available to an agent are critical components to their success and providing inefficient or difficult-to-use tools causes damage far beyond agent stress. When ICMI asked about what has the greatest positive and negative impact on agent performance, being equipped with the necessary tools to effectively perform in the position rose to the top for greatest positive impact and was second to only poor leadership for greatest negative impact.

Lacking the necessary tools and resources to effectively perform in the position decreases employee performance, which directly affects and decreases employee engagement. As their performance and engagement fall, the customer experience suffers. In other words, poor customer experiences happen when frontline representatives use ineffective tools and resources.

Why is this happening and, perhaps more importantly, how has it become commonplace for a majority of organizations? Does customer satisfaction really matter and, if so, are organizations willing to be realistic about what it will require of them?

Align Metrics with Organizational and Customer Priorities

A clear divide exists between customer service leaders’ thoughts and actions when it comes to what they consider most important. This contradiction exposes an underlying truth as to why most organizations fail to achieve the best customer experience possible.

When asked about their most utilized metrics and what they considered to be important, there was a clear front runner. Customer service was ranked at the top when asked what was most important to contact center leaders, agents, and customers alike. 

Despite customer satisfaction being cited as an organizational priority and being the most important metric to contact center leaders, agents, and customers, it is measured by just over half of contact centers. More concerning is that average handle time (AHT) is at the bottom of the list of metrics considered as important but is measured by significantly more contact centers. While AHT is an important measure in forecasting contact center volume, it is concerning to see such a large percentage of centers not measuring customer satisfaction. 

In addition to the opportunities that exist for organizations to better obtain and leverage customer satisfaction data, the inefficiencies of agent-facing applications present a tremendous opportunity to not only affect agent engagement, stress levels, and overall satisfaction, but also drive improvements in customer satisfaction. Considering the fact that so many organizations find their current applications ineffective to some degree, we sought to understand what would drive their decision to invest in a new agent-facing application.

While an overwhelming percentage find their systems inefficient, and acknowledge that it’s preventing the frontline from providing the best customer experience, those concerns don’t seem to be reflected in what would actually motivate organizations to invest in a new agent-facing application. The primary motivator there is lowered costs. It would seem that agent loyalty and customer satisfaction is only a priority for the right price. 

Customer Service Won’t Be Less Complicated Anytime Soon

If contact centers operated in a vacuum, it might be possible to ignore the challenges faced by organizations in providing the tools and resources necessary for agents to provide the best customer experience possible. The reality, as we all know, is that isn’t the case. The customer landscape is shifting in ways like never before and with the rise of customer expectations, the rise of customer service significance is inevitable.

As if rising customer expectations isn’t enough, the evolutions in technology and channel variety have painted a clear picture of what contact centers face today and what can be expected in the coming years. While 48 percent of contact center agents today support multiple channels, this number is expected in increase exponentially; 75 percent of contact center leaders plan to increase their total number of agents that support multiple channels.

On top of the additional channel work, it would appear as though the actual complexities of the contacts coming into organizations are increasing. While a variety of factors are driving this change, the most significant are:

  • The percentage of customers who have interacted with more than one channel of service
  • The limited visibility an agent has into the customer experience
  • The excessive number of applications that an agent is required to navigate in the fulfillment of their duties 

These systems and technologies are so complicated that the average agent receives approximately 90 hours of training that is specifically focused on the tools and technologies that they need to do their job.

If the tools and resources that agents have today don’t allow them to effectively do their job, what is going to happen as the environment only continues to increase in complexity?

Are You Ready to Take the Next Steps?

The reality is that providing customer service is not going to get any less complicated and that the role of the frontline employee is only going to increase in importance as technology, service channels, and customer expectations evolve. While traditional approaches to metrics, employee performance, and customer expectations have been sufficient for organizations to date, they are increasingly becoming a detriment to providing the best customer experience possible.

The frontline is the most important touch point of the customer journey, and it is simply not sustainable for a majority of organizations to actively prevent them from providing the best customer experience possible. At the root of this organizational obstruction to service is a lack of tools and resources necessary to even meet some basic customer expectations. The focus on direct costs of technological investments and lack of consideration to employee engagement, job performance, and customer satisfaction is slowly, but surely costing organizations far more that the savings that they assume by neglecting to invest in effective tools and resources.

This short-sighted approach to operating customer service organizations is destroying employee engagement, disrupting customer satisfaction, and detrimentally affecting costs, and those adopting that approach might discover that they’ve passed the point of redemption. Is it worth the risk, or are you willing to do what it takes to become a true front-runner in a customer-centric world?


Justin Robbins is a customer experience and talent development expert with more than a decade of experience leading customer service organizations. He's worked in and with inbound and outbound centers ranging in size from 5 to more than 2500 employees and has personally trained thousands of individuals around the globe on contact center best practices.

As ICMI’s Community Services Manager, Justin leads their research programs, content strategy, and customer engagement initiatives. His infectious enthusiasm for the customer service industry has led him to be a writer, social enthusiast, and sought-after speaker on topics such as employee engagement, key performance indicators, and motivational business leadership.

Tag(s): best practice, customer experience, customer satisfaction, customer service, supportworld, tools, training, metrics and measurements


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