Thursday, October 28, 2021

Service With a Smile: Empathy is Paramount to Customer Interactions

Stephanie Bannos, Head of Customer Experience Strategic Solutions
Strategy / Innovation

Today’s customers want to interact with individuals, not businesses, when engaging with brands. It sounds like an impossible task—brands are businesses, after all—but by taking the time to understand your customers and where they might be on their journey, you can better calibrate how your employees speak to them and what information will be at the ready for these service encounters. Make them feel special and understood, and customers will return for more.

To better understand how to provide customers with personalized communications, check out our chat between Rightpoint’s Stephanie Bannos, Global Head of CX Strategic Solutions, and Nik Njegovan, Salesforce Practice Lead, as they discuss empathy, how EX ladders up to CX and how the pandemic changed the calculus.

Full transcript is below:

Stephanie Bannos: Hey, I'm Stephanie Bannos, and I lead our customer experience practice at Rightpoint. With me today is Nik Njegovan. We're going to talk about trends and customer expectations around intimate and empathetic relationships with brands and the role that technology can play. Nik, why don't you start off with a bit about you?

Nik Njegovan: Thanks, Stephanie. It's great to be here. As you said, my name is Nik Njegovan. I lead the Salesforce practice here at Rightpoint. We've been here for the last 15 years or so, and what we do is design, build and deliver digital solutions on the Salesforce ecosystem.

SB: One of the things that I'm really interested in understanding is how COVID has changed customer expectations around service levels and if some of those adjustments to expectations are going to be here to stay.

NN: I think everybody's been affected by the pandemic in various ways. You're in a scenario where having real-time updates to [customer] requests and constant abilities to review where they are in a customer journey has been a huge change. We've become more reliant on digital devices, too, and having less in-person interactions means that people want to see progress for any service, basically, at all hours of the day. Organizations need to be able to enable their service pipelines to meet this challenge—and really use it as an opportunity to cultivate trust with their customers.

SB: How important do you feel it is for brands to provide customers with more transparency and, perhaps, more frequent and proactive updates on what's going on with their service interactions or sales interactions?

NN: I think the key is to be sure that you're getting enough feedback to customers but not being overly stimulating so as to be annoying. Companies really need to think that it's not just you as an organization, but every other service that your customer interacts with on a regular basis that are communicating with them. Really, a company needs to lay out very simple and straightforward customer journeys and really align their expectations to the times when they expect feedback. It comes down to creating a service journey rooted in the conversation rather than a transaction.

SB: We're talking a bit about when companies can be proactive, but you're making me wonder if that's also an indication that there needs to be more investment in self-service tools just to relieve some of that guesswork on an organization and just put some more of the power into the customer's hands.

NN: I think companies need to have a strategy around how they implement and deploy those service tools. It's kind of like going to a restaurant and being handed the menu. In that scenario, you're getting a set of choices that you can make as a customer, but the experience can be pleasant or not depending on a number of factors: Does the menu have 150 items that I have to choose between? Is anybody going to walk me through the best choices, like a server? Is the menu laid out clearly so that I know exactly how much I'm going to have to pay for each item or how much I'm getting when I actually order something? The best type of self-service is the one that can really outline expectations as a customer, but gives guidance on the path for the experience. So, really understanding where the future lies with my conversation with that company.

SB: All right. Switching gears a bit… When a customer interacts with an employee, what do you feel like an empathetic service relationship looks like?

NN: Humans want to have a human-to-human experience that's founded in trust and reliability. There's a lot of push that organizations try to build out a cognitive view of their customer—their past interactions, aligning those past interactions with offerings and communications channels, that the customer is most comfortable being able to meet them on any platform, customer 360-degree view usually comes into discussion. I think that companies need to empower employees to not only be able to have that cognitive understanding, but also give them the opportunity to have those one-on-one conversations on as many digital channels that their customers want to interact with—and to find their customers where they want to interact. On top of that, I think automation around this is really important because that's where long-lasting customer journeys and business processes really come together. There's an interrelationship between the employee experience and the customer experience where neither of them want the service process or the service technology to get in the way of their conversation. And there are a number of accelerated platforms that actually allow us to do this: Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, a lot of different services and vendor offerings… but being able to implement those systems to surface that service journey rather than forcing people to interact with the technology is what's important. The empathic service relationship really comes when the technology gets out of the way and the customer interaction becomes seamless with either the human interaction or the human experience that they're expecting.

SB: So, if a company is making a decision to invest in more empathetic and more intimate customer relationships, whether it's through self-service or assisted service or a full-service interaction, what would you say it takes for a company to deliver on that vision or that promise to its customers?

NN: I would probably rely on the company's culture—and within that culture, I think reliability and trust really needs to be paramount, not just trust and reliability between the customer and that service-oriented company. I've seen the best service journeys come from companies who've spent the time to fine tune their relationships between people, process and technology, not focusing on a single person or a single process or a single technology, but really focusing on the interrelationships between all three of those things. It really comes down to that foundation as being a seed that grows into a great customer experience, and it's a foundation that is rooted in a great employee experience. I look at this as if you build a foundation within your company, you're, by proxy, actually influencing the customer journey. People inside are happy. They're going to express that and manifest that in all of the ways that they're interacting with customers.

SB: When rolling out a new technology or new process in the interest of improving the customer experience, is there any guidance you would give around thinking about training and incentives so that employees can quickly adopt those tools and be part of that change and that new vision for the experience?

NN: Let's go into the idea of surfacing the fact that employees are really part of the platform: Rolling out the customer experience to an individual… you're really taking those groups of individuals and saying, "You're part of this journey"—the technology is really just there as a guide in that journey. And the business processes are really just, let's say, the language around which that human-to-human interaction ultimately is governed. You need to prepare for the change in mindset that employees aren't really just coming to work. You're part of a system that is interacting the same way that that a customer would be part of that system. Technology is just a foundation for it. The change that leadership needs to make [is to] make a plan for managing and reinforcing those changes across the entire system. The leadership needs to be able to say, "This is the direction we're going," and reinforcing the fact that this is the direction that they're going. I don't think that a customer journey is implemented until the people in the organization are aligned with that journey, as well. I think making sure that the leadership has that sponsorship around around what the platform is about how we're going to be moving forward with any type of change that's paramount, and then making sure that the employee experience is really governed with the same amount of thoughtfulness that we're applying to the customer experience.

SB: One last question I have for you, especially as we've all been living in a highly virtual year… As you look to the future, how important do you think empathy is going to be in these fully digital relationships and the digitally dominated landscape that we live in today?

NN: It's more so that we, as tech leaders, need to have a clear definition of what it means to be empathic and how to create that empathic journey for our customers. Most businesses that are creating a service journey in a digital space shouldn't forget that all their competitors and partners are doing the same thing. Customers are already being inundated with information, and that information is being created exponentially over the past three decades. And it's not going to stop being mindful of that and creating a journey from your customers perspective that's going to separate the mediocre service from truly remarkable service.

SB: I really appreciate you sharing all of this perspective with us today. It's been incredibly insightful.

NN: Thank you so much, Stephanie. It's my pleasure to be here. I really enjoyed the talk.