How to Make your Customer Experience Flourish in 2015

Companies turn to advanced analytics, collaborative tools, and more to move from good to great customer experiences.
Customer Experience

As we welcome a new year, customer experiences are poised to play a decisive role in driving business strategies and revenue growth. The role of the chief customer officer is expanding as companies make greater investments in the customer experience. To serve the empowered customer, 2015 offers a fresh opportunity for businesses to better understand consumers and meet their expectations.So to kick off the new year, here's a glimpse at the strategies companies have in place to make their customer experiences flourish.

Keeping the customer experience at the forefront of business processes and decisions is critical, notes Michal Krasnodebski, general manager of Bigstock, a subsidiary of stock photography company Shutterstock. "Everything we do starts with and serves the customer's needs," Krasnodebski says. "Every member of my team knows that if you're not thinking about the problems our customers have, you're not doing your job."

Founded in 2004, Bigstock was acquired by Shutterstock in 2009 and offers more than 22 million royalty-free photographs and videos. Bigstock and Shutterstock operate as separate brands and target different customers: Bigstock is aimed at freelancers and small businesses whereas Shutterstock serves high volume image users.

To impart the idea that an excellent customer experience is everyone's job, Bigstock's customer support team joins the company's engineers in a daily 15-minute discussion about what they are working on each day and feedback they've received from customers. "We expanded our stand-up to include our customer support team who highlight feedback, issues or things we should have just done better," Krasnodebski explains. "We believe a great customer experience is everyone's responsibility and we reinforce that daily."

As an example, Krasnodebski pointed to a situation in which a customer informed an agent via live chat that Bigstock's search results appeared to be broken. Based on the conversation, the agent realized there was an issue with a browser update, which was affecting other customers as well. The rep contacted the lead engineer who resolved the issue within minutes. By listening to the customer, "matched with know-how and quick action, the site rendered right in very short order," Krasnodebski notes. Feeling a shared sense of responsibility towards the customer is also important, he adds. "Ultimately, I'm the chief customer officer," Krasnodebski notes, "but I want all of my team members to think the same thing."

Appointing a chief customer officer can help drive improvements, but all employees should be responsible for the customer experience, maintains Bruce Temkin, managing partner at the consulting firm Temkin Group. "I'm not a fan of using the title 'chief customer officer' since people tend to think that the rest of the company isn't responsible for the customer," he says. "But whatever the role is called, whoever leads customer experience transformation efforts needs executive level support." Additionally, many companies still operate in silos, Temkin notes, but "we're seeing a lot of companies that are starting to break away from that approach and look at things horizontally so it's a start."

Megan Heuer, vice president and group director at advisory firm Sirius Decisions, agrees that organizations should operate "by alignment, not ownership" of customer experiences. "The sales department might say, 'we own the customer relationship' while the service side says they talk to the customers every day," Heuer observes. "Many areas contribute to the customer experience, but you need a customer experience function that works across those different departments." Heuer also agrees that the person overseeing customer experience efforts needs the support of upper level executives.

"Sometimes the customer experience officer will have the same clout as a C-level position and in other cases, it's a narrow role focused on customer feedback," she says. "More companies recognize the importance of having someone champion the customer experience, but we'd like to see more support for this role since otherwise it's hard for a chief customer officer to orchestrate collaboration across an organization."

Driving collaboration across an organization is complicated, even when employees agree it is necessary, notes Seth Hall, vice president of customer service at Philadelphia Insurance Companies, which provides commercial property/casualty and professional liability insurance products. Given that the products are similar in the insurance industry, Philadelphia Insurance Companies focuses on the customer experience to differentiate itself from its competitors. "We want to provide an unexpected level of service and to do that, we need better tools and analytics to understand what customers are asking for and exceed that," Hall says.

By 2017, 50 percent of consumer product investments will be spent on customer experience innovations, according to Gartner. Philadelphia Insurance Companies is one such organization that plans to invest in new technology and IT infrastructure to improve the customer experience, according to Hall.

Those investments include a social collaboration tool. In 2014, the company's customer service department successfully ran a pilot using Jive's social collaboration software and is planning to roll it out to the rest of the company this year. However, convincing employees to use the software "took some coaxing," acknowledges Hall.

"We're a property and casualty insurance company, so something like this [Jive's software] was new to many people," he says. But employees warmed up to the tool's ability to help them crowdsource answers, collaborate on projects, and share best practices. "It's been great for getting answers to people faster and we're also looking at how this could help agents communicate in a more fluid manner," Hall adds.

Additionally, the company is investing in self-service capabilities for its billing and claims systems as well as more powerful voice-of-the-customer analytics solutions. Confirmit's VoC platform "has done a lot to help us better understand our customers," Hall notes, "and we'll be using more analytics to be even more responsive to our customers."

Leveraging analytic insights to enhance the customer experience continues to be a burgeoning practice, Temkin notes. "Text analytics is flourishing and we're starting to see investments in predictive analytics catch up to text analytics," he says. "We're also seeing significant growth in speech analytics." IBM's Watson is an "exciting" example of what natural language processing can accomplish, Temkin adds, as IBM applies Watson's NLP and other algorithmic capabilities to the service industry, as well as healthcare, finance, and other areas.

On the other hand, omnichannel experiences are "still largely aspirational," Heuer says. Streamlining various data sets and channels is a challenge for businesses. "Omnichannel experiences require strong data management and some companies are getting ahead and taking a holistic view of their data, but we're still several years away from seeing this become the norm," she notes.

While it hasn't achieved a true omnichannel experience yet, the women's clothing brand Nic+Zoe is moving closer to providing a seamless shopping experience across the online and offline landscape. Launched in 2006, Nic+Zoe specializes in knitware for women that's available online and through distributors like Nordstrom. In December, the company opened a pop-up store in Boston to increase its engagement with customers, explains Stephanie Mollison, vice president of marketing and e-commerce.

"We already had a vast online footprint and we knew in-store retail was our next adventure," Mollison says. Maintaining a brick-and-mortar store includes enormous overhead costs, however, and so the company opened a temporary store in a trial run while building stronger relationships with its customers.

The company chose Springboard Retail's Cloud POS solution to help it manage transactions, inventory and reporting. Cashiers can also record customer data such as email addresses, phone numbers, and zip codes to help the company understand the demographics of their customer base to help it further personalize its interactions with customers.

"For our retailers, success comes from knowing their customers," says Gordon Russell, founder and chief executive officer of Springboard. "And data is at the heart of it by helping retailers learn what customers bought, how often they bought it, etc., to provide better products and services."