Executive need to listen

ARTICLE | September 8, 2022 | 5 min read

The persistently unsatisfied customer

Despite adopting cutting-edge digital CX, companies still struggle to make their customers happy

By Evan Ramzipoor, Workflow contributor

Dissatisfied customers have more ways to make themselves heard than ever before. Some of these communication channels offer a direct line to the company, but others, thanks to the internet, are not only public but potentially viral. The result is that businesses are struggling to keep up. The added headache of managing it all drives yet more complaints when companies don’t reply fast enough.

“You have one person monitoring the emails, while another person manages the Twitter or Facebook pages,” says Forrest Morgeson, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business who focuses on customer experience (CX). Because the channels are siloed, service agents don’t necessarily have insight into the complaining customer’s problem and history.

Companies are under incredible and constant pressure to respond to customers as quickly as possible on whatever channel those customers are using to air their dissatisfaction. If they don’t, they face immediate and public outcry. Yet when they do resolve complaints quickly, it’s good for business, according to Morgeson.

“If you can resolve a customer’s problem on their first contact with the company, they’ll actually become more loyal than before they experienced the problem,” he says.

Companies have turned to digitization to improve CX across the board, deploying chatbots to automate manual, repetitive tasks and AI to deliver tailored recommendations based on customers’ browsing history. And generally, digitization is good for companies.

Executives who invest in digital transformation report gaining deeper insights into what customers need, greater customer loyalty and retention, and better security and privacy, according to a recent ServiceNow and ThoughtLab global survey of 1,000 C-level executives across five industries.

Yet those same executives also admit these new technologies haven’t cut down on complaints. Only a quarter of respondents saw any improvement, while the vast majority saw little to no impact.

Part of the problem is that decision makers haven’t caught up with their customers, says Jim Van Over, an innovation officer at ServiceNow. “Leadership teams are using problem-solving approaches that were effective five or ten years ago,” he says, when they could simply add another tool to their tech stack.

Indeed, while business leaders may have a lot of tools at their disposal, they don’t always work well together. One system might triage social media complaints while another system manages the deluge of emails, for example. “It’s not integrated or seamless,” says Morgeson. This further increases the time it takes for companies to respond and solve customers’ issues in a timely manner, a source of further ire.

If you can resolve a customer’s problem on their first contact with the company, they’ll actually become more loyal than before they experienced the problem.

Customers also generally don’t like interacting with customer service technologies like chatbots, which are intended—with limited success—to replace or supplement human customer service staff. “[Customers] want to talk to a real person,” Morgeson says, because they crave intimacy and personalization. Yet reaching a human customer service rep has become increasingly difficult in these times of chronic staff shortages. “Until the labor market bounces back, a lot of people are going to be complaining that nobody served them,” he says.

As Gen Z and even younger Gen Alpha consumers gain more purchasing power, complaints will only intensify. “Apps like TikTok are conditioning these generations to have certain expectations of what a user experience will be like: instantaneous, customized, and wherever they want it,” says Van Over. If businesses can’t quickly respond to customer feedback, they simply won’t exist a decade or two in the future, he says.

Technology can help move the needle on customer complaints, as long as the tools are designed and deployed with customers in mind, says Van Over. A host of emerging technologies are set to augment human customer service reps rather than replace them, combining the personal touch that customers prefer with the speed and intelligence of AI.

For example, XM Discover, owned by customer-experience-focused software company Qualtrics, monitors incoming customer feedback across various channels including surveys, emails, contact centers, social media, review sites, and WhatsApp.

The platform uses natural language processing and natural language understanding to get a quick read on what customers are feeling and what they want, says Fabrice Martin, chief product officer at XM Discover. Natural language processing enables AI and machine learning to read the content of a sentence or phrase, while natural language understanding interprets the feelings and intentions behind that text.

Martin recalls that one customer, an insurance company, saw a sudden spike in complaints. The platform traced the spike back to an insurance policy change the company had recently made. The provider adjusted their strategy in response to this finding: Every time they made a similar policy change in the future, they emailed customers to explain the adjustment in advance.

Other platforms, like Zenarate and MonkeyLearn, use AI to teach customer service reps how to improve their performance. AI platforms monitor conversations and provide suggestions in real time to staff. In the case of XM Discover, the platform can make sure employees follow company guidelines when talking to a customer, like greeting them by name and thanking them for their business, says Martin.

If businesses can’t quickly respond to customer feedback, they simply won’t exist a decade or two in the future.

More critically, AI can provide a more equitable view of an employee’s performance, taking some of the bias out of hiring, firing, and promotion, he says.

Businesses already have the data they need to improve customer service and the products customers are complaining about, says ServiceNow’s Van Over. Instead of simply waiting to receive complaints on social media or through surveys like net promoter scores (NPS), Van Over says businesses should proactively mine data at every step in a customer’s journey. “Businesses have data on who is using a product or service, how they’re using it, and where they’re getting stuck,” he says.

Companies can then feed that data to an AI platform, which would then recommend solutions to customers who complain—or anticipate problems before they come up, he says. “This would far out-scale any customer service office you could build,” he says. Crucially, companies wouldn’t have to do away with their existing tools like surveys, chatbots, or customer service teams. Rather, AI provides a means to augment these methods.

Most companies already have the technology to deploy human-centric solutions. They’re just missing budget and foresight, says Van Over.

“You want to achieve a business model that is a cyclical engine of customer feedback and innovation,” he says. “That is the engine for success.”

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Evan Ramzipoor is a writer based in California.

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