This article was originally published on The Telegraph and is reproduced with permission from The Telegraph.

 

In the days before digital, it was often said that the customer came first. Yet as businesses became bigger, more complicated and more digitised, something was lost. Processes happened because they were cheaper, easier to replicate at scale or captured lots of data.

Few observers paid heed to what it actually felt like to be a customer put through such a grinder. Thankfully, brands are putting their sales, marketing and delivery functions under the spotlight, and the quality of customer experience (CX) is setting the smart ones apart.

For many, the key lies in their use of technology to personalise the way that they treat and engage with customers.

“Customers are in the driving seat – they can and will switch brands so easily – and businesses are scrambling to catch up,” says Teakaau Piho, worldwide executive leader for CX services at DXC Technology. “Companies have the latest automation tools, AI [artificial intelligence] smart assistants and so on, but many fail to look at whether they are getting real value from these in terms of improving CX.”

Businesses need to understand what innovation in CX technology means to different customer audiences, says Mr Piho. What the enterprise audience may view as innovative – for example, self-service apps, portals and connected systems – is for end customers not innovative at all, given that they are already using the likes of Uber and Amazon through social apps and smart voice assistants daily.

Central to exceptional CX are the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), and the design-driven processes behind them.

“Technology is great but if it doesn’t look good and feel good, if it doesn’t have that UX sleekness, customers won’t use it,” says Mr Piho. He adds that some of the most successful companies take UX beyond marketing and into the very essence of their business. “Uber is the largest taxi company in the world, but they don’t own their vehicles. They focus purely on the interface. Airbnb doesn’t own its properties but does have a beautiful UX. That customer-facing design is crucial.”

Ultimately, “the real value lies in making sure that, from a customer perspective, what they were trying to achieve is simplified. That’s far more important than simply having a smart conversation with a chatbot.”

AI or automation, Mr Piho says, will never deliver meaningful value if deployed in isolation. Orchestration, not automation, is the real key – ensuring that the right decisions are made for every customer and that every touchpoint links seamlessly with the rest of the customer-facing machine. A coherent, enhanced CX demands an expansive view of the customer’s every interaction with a brand, he says. “That’s how you drive value.”

Welcome the chief customer officer

The rise of the chief customer officer role is a reflection of the increasing importance of CX. What was once the responsibility of the customer services team is now a boardroom matter, as swathes of customers can, and do, switch off brands for everything from a slow-loading webpage to fatigue from irrelevant marketing emails.

Thomas Dubaere, chief operating officer at Accor Northern Europe, says: “Technology is an intrinsically important part of our business, but only where it enhances the ability of staff to provide great service and create memorable experiences, which is what really matters.”

Employees are also core to CX. In the hospitality sector, the customer is acutely aware of competing brands. The hotelier uses technology to benefit guests and empower employees to effectively serve the guest. This can range from providing a facility for guests to communicate directly with the hotel staff through WhatsApp or checking in online without queueing at the front desk.

Insurer AXA takes a dual approach with its CX technology investment, aiming to both simplify processes and future-proof the business for changing customer expectations. It recently deployed AI bots to help staff with administrative tasks, for instance, blending the best of technology capability with the essential human element of good service.

Shali Vasudeva, chief customer officer for AXA UK & Ireland, says: “We’re using technology to free up our employees’ time so they can concentrate on delivering a service that exceeds expectations.”

Rival insurer Direct Line Group uses a suite of metrics to continuously check that CX expectations are being met. Marketing director Mark Evans says: “They are reported all the way up to the board every month and form part of everyone’s incentive plan. However, that stick is matched by the carrot of creating a belief that always putting customers first is the way to win, and the only sustainable path to commercial success.”