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“We’re in an experience economy, consumers are very fickle,” said Tony Bates, chairman and CEO of contact center software provider Genesys. “They want great experiences. They want them handy, they want them digital, and they want them made the way they want them to be, not the way companies serve them.”

The pandemic has only accelerated these forces, setting in motion lasting effects that will forever change the future of customer experience technology. But how do companies really deliver good customer experiences?

According to experts, product managers, and customers themselves, the answer involves more than just migrating to the cloud and updating tech stacks. It requires a new way of thinking and a complete organizational rethink.

Great expectations

About 10-15 years ago, many customers interacted with sellers primarily through support agents located in huge contact centers overseas. The focus at the time was to increase efficiency, reduce call times and get customers through the door.

“It wasn’t about the end person to think about. It was more about the internal systems and capacity and how quickly I could get you in and out of a queue,” Bates said.

Customer experience was also viewed as a costly back-office function rather than a core tenet of business strategy.

“I think we often underestimated the importance of [customer experience] shared with companies and treated as a cost center or otherwise,” said Adrian McDermott, chief technology officer at Zendesk. But that’s changing as more companies realize that customer experience is “an important pillar of your brand presence and something you need to invest in.”

“We’re in an experience economy, consumers are very fickle.”

In many ways, the rise of subscription-based business models has slowly forced this shift. As “switching costs approach zero for both customers and employees,” vendors need to have good experiences to drive repeat business, said Brad Anderson, president of products and services at Qualtrics.

But recent years have only exacerbated this shift.

“What probably would have taken another 20 years has certainly been accelerated by the pandemic,” said Simonetta Turek, general manager at Twilio Flex. “Rethinking how you sell, how you deliver services, how you support customers is now on the table.”

When the pandemic struck, businesses were suddenly only able to interact with their customers virtually—over phone, video, the web, social media, and other digital channels. However, companies have struggled to keep up with a deluge of requests and demands, especially as they have had to transition their own operations to a work-from-home model.

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Their websites were outdated, their contact centers were still using outdated on-premises software, their call center agents were overwhelmed, and their sales teams were struggling to run highly personalized sales processes virtually. These challenges not only increased the pressure to migrate to the cloud to move faster, but also increased the expectations of their customers, especially those companies that are competing with more modern technologies against younger upstarts.

Today’s customers expect a good, consistent experience no matter where and when they interact with a business, and they also want those experiences to be intuitive, personalized, and instantly available from anywhere in the world through any channel. For example, customers don’t want to explain their problem to a call center agent over and over again, but want the agents to already have their history on file and consider all of their previous interactions with the company.

“I think CX is now much more about data and using data to define a very personalized experience for each interaction,” said Rob Tarkoff, executive vice president and general manager at Oracle CX.

It is also becoming increasingly important for customers to find answers themselves if possible. “Self-service too [customers] is where it needs to happen. It could be Google, it could be YouTube, it could be a bot,” said Laura Bassett, vice president of product marketing at NICE CXone.

Likewise, customers want to be able to choose how they interact with a company, rather than having that channel dictate them. Customers expect to be able to choose between phone, SMS, or even social media to contact a business, and they don’t want to wait until business hours to do so. “People want to be in control of travel,” says Zendesk’s McDermott.

satisfy customers

With such high expectations, companies have work to do if they want to unlock world-class customer experiences. Not only do companies need to update their tech stacks to address the need for faster, more efficient customer interactions, but they may also need to re-engineer their entire customer-centric operations.

“Unfortunately, until now, most end users have resigned themselves to these fairly fragmented interactions,” said Genesys’ Bates. This is partly because of disparate technologies, but partly because customer-centric teams like marketing, customer service, and sales are often themselves fragmented.

Customer expectations are “a huge wake-up call” for companies not only to invest in new technology, but also to break down silos within their organization and to rethink the way they develop products and services, Bates said.

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In order to respond to customers quickly and efficiently in the digital age, most experts believe that providers must be in the cloud.

The advantage of cloud-native providers such as helpdesk provider Zendesk or communications platform Twilio is that their software is easily scalable, more reliable and integrates more seamlessly with the latest technologies than on-premises software. “If digital channels [are] an addition to what they have today, it’s very expensive to manufacture, very expensive to maintain and in fact the experience is still below par,” said Turek of Twilio.

During the pandemic, long waits and missed calls have drawn customer ire. With the cloud making it easier to enable technologies like AI, machine learning, and automation, businesses can increase speed and efficiency by automatically answering customer questions with a bot, routing calls faster to the appropriate agent, or uncovering customer data and context right in the middle -Phone call.

The demand for personalization also requires that customer-facing teams have a good underlying data infrastructure.

“One of the key trends happening right now is a consolidation where CX leaders are saying, ‘I need all my customer experience data in one place,'” said Qualtrics’ Anderson. Naturally, this has given rise to customer data platforms, or CDPs, that help collect and store customer data from across the organization.

As customer interactions become increasingly digital, a good user interface is also paramount. Customers should be able to easily navigate a company’s website, find support articles, or contact the sales team.

“It’s been proven time and time again that effort level actually predicts loyalty better than anything else,” said John Ball, senior vice president of customer workflows at ServiceNow. “So as your effort increases with your customer service request, you’re more likely to look for alternatives.”

However, technology alone will not solve these new customer experience challenges. This requires different ways of thinking, and sometimes even a complete overhaul of how a company engages with its customers and manages its customer support staff. “I actually think the technology parts are the simplest,” Turek said.

First, it’s incredibly important that the focus on customers comes from the top of an organization. “I actually think it has to be a CEO agenda item, and it has to be something that the C-suite owns cross-functionally,” said Lara Caimi, chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow.

“[I]If the effort involved in your customer service request increases, you should look for alternatives.”

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Similarly, every business function must adopt a customer-centric mindset, understanding that every interaction a customer has with a company is an opportunity to either improve or degrade their view of a company. “It has to be part of the mission of the whole company, every function, every person. They need to feel like they can make a difference from a customer experience perspective,” Caimi said.

To deliver truly great experiences, they also need to break down organizational silos between marketing, sales, and service, and that shift is already underway. “Gartner anticipates that sales and service will actually merge into one division over the next three years,” said Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and CEO of conversational intelligence company Uniphore.

Although customer experience was once primarily intended as providing pre- and post-sales support, it has now evolved “to be much more about understanding signals and data from customer interactions and incorporating that information into execution systems, be it marketing, To include sales, commerce, service, content management,” said Oracle’s Tarkoff.

For this reason, many organizations think that “all customer-facing services and activities should be aligned under one leader so that you have one organization that understands and drives the entire experience,” Anderson said. The rise of chief customer and chief experience officers reflects this as more organizations recognize the need for leaders tasked with focusing solely on the customer.

Businesses may also need to change the way they measure customer experiences. Beyond traditional data like Net Promoter Score (NPS) and Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), Customer Lifetime Value, Churn or Retention can also help measure how much overall value a customer derives from their experience with a company.

Equally important are qualitative data such as customer sentiment. As customer experiences become more long-term and relational, qualitative experience data collected through website reviews, tweets, customer calls, surveys, and more becomes even more important.

“I think the ability to collect very insightful qualitative data is an underrepresented and underappreciated tactic,” said Sameer Patel, chief marketing and solutions officer at SAP CX.

To be successful in the years to come, companies must really put their customers first. This means that forward-thinking companies are migrating to the cloud, adopting new technologies, and even restructuring business departments.

“The situation we’re talking about here isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a ‘roof on fire’ situation,” Patel said. Companies that cannot deliver are simply left behind by newer entrants based on nimble technology and an innate understanding of those customer needs.

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