Two Ways to Look at the Automated Customer Experience

Don Peppers, Founding Partner, Peppers & Rogers Group | Tuesday, 12 July 2016, 06:07 IST

In 1906, British physicist J.J. Thomson was awarded the Nobel  Prize for his discovery that the electron is a particle. In 1937, J.J.  Thomson’s son George Thomson, also a physicist, was awarded  the Nobel Prize for showing that the electron is a wave. So which  is it, a particle or a wave? 

The correct answer, of course, is “both.” Wave-particle  duality is one of the bedrock principles of quantum physics,  and quantum physics explains how transistors work, making  it possible to have computers and iPhones, word processing, GPS, and  Facebook. Quantum physics, in fact, is the only reason CIO Review  Magazine even exists.

 I only bring this up because it reminds me of a conversation I had more  than 15 years ago with executives at Australia’s St. George Bank, now  part of the WestPac Group. At the time, St. George had just reprogrammed  its cash machines so that when you inserted your card and entered your  PIN code, the ATM would ask, “Would you like your usual $100 cash  withdrawal, no receipt?” The bank’s marketing executives loved this  innovation and considered it to be a much improved customer experience.  But when I met later with the bank’s senior IT executive, he scoffed  at the very notion that it had anything to do with improving service.  He said the real reason they’d done it was that real estate for ATMs in Sydney was costly and difficult to come by, but with this innovation  each ATM could serve more customers in the same amount of time.  So which is it? A better customer experience or increased business  efficiency? 

The correct answer, of course, is "both." When you automate the  customer experience, not only will your customers be happier, but  you’ll waste less time and effort yourself, as well. It might mean  better asset utilization (as St. George Bank found), or perhaps  reduced inventory carrying costs (if, for instance, you were mass  customizing a manufactured product). But in most situations, by  automating more of the customer experience you can both  improve your customer service and reduce your costs. 

The problem, however, is that many IT projects that  involve automating some aspect of the customer experience  are actually planned and justified almost entirely in terms  of cost reduction and efficiency, with the result that new  technologies are often introduced in ways that actually  erode the level of customer service. But research shows that  when automation doesn’t work flawlessly for the customer,  even though there might be a slight reduction in costs, the  overall quality of the customer experience can actually  plummet. 

"When you automate the customer  experience, not only will your  customers be happier, but you’ll  waste less time and effort yourself,  as well"

“Customer experience” is somewhat of a business  buzzword these days. Everyone wants to deliver a better  experience for their customers, but for the vast majority  of businesses, the customer doesn’t buy in order to  “experience” the process at all. From the customer’s point of  view, the ideal experience would be completely frictionless.  The customer shouldn’t have to go to any extra trouble shouldn’t have to fix anything, and shouldn’t need to repeat  anything already communicated. In an increasingly automated  world no one has time for friction.  When I talk with clients about how to deliver a more  frictionless, automated customer experience, I suggest that this  kind of experience should have four basic attributes: 

► It should be reliable. Your product or service should work  as advertised, your website should work, service should be  performed on time, and so forth. In other words, your production  and service processes must be straightforward and competent.  The truth is customers actually prefer to deal with automated  systems, because well designed self-service channels provide a  nearly frictionless experience. Unfortunately, automation that is  designed entirely by software engineers, with little input from  customer experience experts, is usually not so frictionless for the  customer. And any automation that requires human intervention  is not reliable.

 ► A frictionless customer experience  should also be valuable,  which means the value-formoney  relationship  should be appropriate.  Often, however,  this value-for-money  equation is tilted  in the company’s  favor. When automation  reduces  your company’s costs,  it makes no sense to the  customer that you should  charge them more for the experience.  Customers aren’t stupid.  They know, for instance, that it costs a  bank considerably less to process a transaction at an ATM than  it does to process it at a teller window. So why do banks charge  customers for the “privilege” of doing something that is far less  costly to the bank? 

► A frictionless experience must be relevant to the customer.  Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of companies operating  today simply don’t go to the trouble of ensuring that the customer  experience is relevant to each customer. For instance, more than  half of inbound customer phone calls to a business in the US are  preceded by the customer having visited the company’s website  to find the answer or solve the problem that they’re now calling  in about. But in the vast majority of cases, when the customer  finally talks with an associate, they have to start by explaining  all over again what they just spent the last 20 minutes trying to  do on the website. There are several readily available solutions to  this problem, from online chat windows to “call me” buttons or  temporal phone numbers, but the problem persists because while  the money saved by automation can easily be counted, the value  created by delivering a more relevant experience to individual  customers is not so easily quantified. 

► And finally, a frictionless experience must be trustable. In  today’s hyper-interactive world, mere trustworthiness–that is,  doing what you say you’re going to do and not violating the law–is  no longer sufficient to deliver a frictionless customer experience.  Increasingly, customers expect you to be proactively trustworthy,  or “trustable.” So use your automation to anticipate customer  needs and to act in the customer’s interest. Consider how Amazon  processes refunds and credits, for example. It used to be that  a customer would call in if their video didn’t stream well, or if  the product wasn’t sold at the lowest price, and the first thing the  associate would do is check the computer. The computer would  know that the video didn’t stream well, so the associate  would confirm it and issue a refund. But in 2013, Amazon  changed its policy, reasoning that if the  computer knows a refund is due, then  why wait for the customer to call in?  So today they email the credit  to the customer, proactively.  Increasingly, the information  technology leaders  at a business are playing  roles that involve strategic  planning and resource allocation.  We need to ensure  that these decisions aren’t  based simply on short-term  cost-benefit analyses, but take into account  the long-term value of delivering  a better customer experience, as well.