How can your company become truly customer centric - not as a slogan, but as a strategy? That’s the big question we will be tackling during our customer-centric culture tour in Las Vegas. I sat down with Davy Kestens, CEO of Sparkcentral, who will be joining us on this tour. His company is working to create the future of customer experience through innovative software applications. Let’s see what he’s doing today to shape the customer’s future of tomorrow.
Customer-centric? Don’t be so sure of yourself
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most companies believe they are customer-centric, but most of them are not being honest with themselves. A lot of companies still fail to meet the expectations of today’s customers. Research has shown us that “80% of US companies claim they offer a superior customer experience”, Davy tells me, but only “8% of their customers agree, which is a huge gap. We can’t just let that happen.”
Interestingly, this gap is the result of changes in the way companies communicate, and the way consumers expect to able to interact with brands. Explaining the gap, Davy points out that anyone born “after the year 2000 has grown up completely in a fast-paced digital environment. They’ve known nothing but being connected at anytime and anyplace. More importantly, they’ve formed new habits …. They tend to be very impatient, in conversation with 5 or more friends, always online and would rather text than pick up the phone. This kind of person will, sooner or later become YOUR customer, so you need to think about the way you are going to communicate with them.”
Davy even believes that this future customer might not even have his or her own email address. This will require new business processes and customer experiences. Laughing, Davy points out that, “Some companies will even have autoresponders set up to tell customers, ‘You can contact us through other channels, too’ for [their] email communications. You can’t blame them for something like this, phone and email communications are really expensive, and the vast majority simply doesn’t like them anymore.”
Customer service is the Key differentiator
I’ve already spoken with a lot of professionals who say they don’t have to change their customer communications practices. But Davy agrees when I say they have no time to waste, because - as Steven Van Belleghem puts it - ‘convenience is the new loyalty’.
“Let’s be honest, customer service is running the show, and there will be no such thing as ‘product differentiation’ anymore in the near future”, Davy declares. “I think we’re reaching the point where we are no longer loyal to a certain product or a brand. Let’s take a look at the airline industry - they’re all offering similar flights and apart from the occasional unique route, there’s not much of a difference from a product point of view. Product differentiation will be harder and harder to achieve as markets saturate. The way brands can truly make a difference [to their customers], is the level of service they offer.”
Think about it: when products are mostly interchangeable, customer service is how a company will stand out from the crowd. A customer who has a bad encounter with a company might never go back because they have so many other almost-identical choices. Davy expands on the idea, “To avoid these kinds of mistakes as well as deliver an impeccable customer experience, we need to proactively engage with these customers. The shift that we’re currently experiencing, is that we no longer need to experience a problem first, before we get in touch with a company. We’re starting to move away from that, and I’m glad. Before you’ve even had so much as a chance to experience a problem, a company should already contact you with a tailored solution, straight to your mobile device. Imagine receiving a message from your favorite hotel letting you know you have been checked in, right as soon as you enter the hotel? That’s the kind of differentiators we need!”
Delivering ‘wow’ experiences through automation
Great customer experiences obviously aren’t going to deliver themselves. Some of us aim to be the next Zappos, the online retailer that is famous for its ‘wow’ experiences. It also happens to be one of Sparkcentral’s many customers. What you have to know about ‘wow’-experiences, is that “they’re very hard, maybe even impossible to scale”, Davy explains. These kinds of great experiences lead to lots of attention, press buzz, and emotional connections with customers. Today, you are forced to hire linearly to support these interactions. That’s why we at Sparkcentral are automating a lot of standardized processes, enabling brands to handle bigger customer volumes. We really believe that by supporting companies’ ability to communicate with their customers proactively, a company’s customer service team has more time to focus on the emotional, personalized aspect of customer communications. Just think of how much time you can save by automating the repetitive conversations that take place with your customers everyday. I believe the human aspect remains important in customer service. At Sparkcentral, one account manager might work with only 5 customers to ensure they won’t lose their personal approach. It’s all about combining technology with humanity.”
And now... You!
The big question is: how can companies truly become more customer-centric? The key is to track communications and interactions for every customer individually, no matter through what channel they take place. Davy is quite certain that customers more regularly remember real conversations rather than touch points or channels where they once interacted with your brand.
Davy starts, “At Sparkcentral, we make sure to include customer feedback in every part of our product development process. Whenever we build a new product or feature, we take a look at a list of the biggest value-adds that would impact our customers, in order of procedural importance. …. Don’t focus on money, but focus on what your customers need. That’s why every company should have a customer advisory board to communicate with their most active customers. Remember, the cost of client retention is much lower than the cost of client acquisition.”