The uphill climb to an effortless customer journey

Published December 9, 2014
Last modified December 9, 2014

Companies have never had more ways to engage customers in conversation, thanks to startling advances in technology. But in this new world, chockablock with blogs, social media, tablets, smartphones, and smartwatches, it’s no longer a one-way street and that creates new challenges—and not a few headaches—for customer service departments.

“We’ve had to go through the experience of thinking about who we were and then learning what our customers thought we were,” said Annie Woo, who runs customer service at Mindbody, which makes software applications focused on the health and wellness market. While it was a “painful” discovery, she nonetheless found it to be an altogether useful experience.

“We used it to communicate to the rest of our team members who we want to be and communicated that to our agents on the front line,” she recalled.

Woo was speaking to dozens of support professionals who gathered for "Illuminate" last week at Zendesk’s San Francisco headquarters to hear war stories from the front lines and swap notes with colleagues about customer engagement strategies. Attendees heard from panelists from companies including Zendesk, Mindbody, GREE International, Pivotal, Skullcandy, and New Relic.

A little elbow grease goes a long way
If there was a common theme to the roundtable discussions, it was the pursuit of an answer to age-old question of what makes for a good customer service interaction. Even while there was no one-size-fits-all answer, the various anecdotes did underscore the need for speed.

“The customer wants a low-effort experience,” said Sam Boonin, Zendesk’s VP of product marketing, who said there was increased urgency to resolve problems without forcing customers to needlessly hurdle obstacles.

“The perception is that if I can exceed customer expectations, then I can drive more loyalty,” Boonin said. But he offered survey data compiled by Zendesk challenging that argument. Fact is, he said, “there’s not a lot incremental gain in loyalty from exceeding customer expectations.

“Customer loyalty’s not something that comes for free. It cannot be bought with a loyalty program,” he said. “Customers must enjoy dealing with you. Customers must relate to your brand and you need to build relationships.”

This was not just a touchy-feely call to arms. Boonin said that research found that more than half the people who report having good customer experiences are likely to promote a company’s brand. The flip side? Angry or dissatisfied customers have a greater than 60 percent chance of turning into a brand’s detractors.

“The more work I have to do to solve a problem, the more I despise you,” he said.

Sweeter with swag?
Woo, whose business card carries the moniker of “customer love goddess,” recounted how Mindbody took a hard look at feedback revealing that customers received anything but an effortless experience when calling the company to resolve problems. In response, Mindbody formed an internal task force, pulling in numbers from every department and, going ‘old school’, using sticky notes and whiteboards to map out the customer journey.

This led to a completely different way of onboarding customers, though over time the effort petered out and Mindbody mainly used swag in the form of balloons and discount coupons to sweeten customer interactions.

“We wasted thousands and thousands of dollars, said Woo. “It was a big flop and we had to start over again.”

“Fear is a good motivator,” she said, recounting how the company’s executives saw trends that they didn’t like “and it scared us.”

So it was back to the drawing board, but eventually they got it right and, incrementally, the customer experience climbed to the levels that Mindbody wanted to achieve.

Going through that time and effort was not inconsiderable but the Illuminate panelists noted that changes in the historical role of customer service merited that sort of attention. Consumers have “louder voices” than ever before, said Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane.

“We are so much more informed and that changes the relationship with companies,” he said. “Customers today expect much, much more from organizations and organizations can turn that interaction into true opportunities to grow their businesses.”

Self-service, please
That challenge and opportunity often turns on a company’s ability to support a sometimes varied assortment of customers. Consider the experience of New Relic, which develops software analytics. The company supports everything from one-person operations to enterprise-size corporations—and obviously each set of customers is going to be very different. Some want just to talk with the company while others want to get a support team onto the premises ASAP—and everything in between.

That’s not always feasible. About 250,000 people use New Relic’s software around the world every day, so the company will never have enough support staff to offer corresponding one-on-one service. So for Bill Lapcevic, the VP of customer success, the company’s goal is to be proactive and find ways to bubble up the customers who are starting to show warning signs before they become “unhealthy.”

“I want to know which ones have high blood pressure so I can give them medication,” he said, borrowing upon a medical analogy. New Relic awards customers various scores to measure their maturity of expertise in using its products so that support departments know what to do when they encounter that kind of customer. “Measuring customers in that way helps you know how to engage with them and at a scale of understanding those who are starting to get sick.”

At the same time, the company has put in place what it calls “Project Bearhug,” an internal project to incent its support teams to lavish more attention on customers.

“We’re looking to treat customers really, really well and envelope them in our culture, which we think is one of the most important things about our company,” he said. “It can be a differentiator.”

New Relic even awards tiny Teddy Bears with the written emblem “data nerds” if an employee does something truly spectacular to help a customer.

“You have to keep doing this to remind people of the importance of customer engagement,” he said.

Here’s where Lapcevic offered a counter-intuitive bit of advice about the likes and dislikes of customers, especially on the enterprise side. New Relic once thought that big corporations would recoil at the suggestion they use self-service, that they instead want to call and speak with a live human. While that’s sometimes true, he said that New Relic’s earlier assumption was wrong.

“It’s situational,” he said. “When they don’t have a critical problem, they will go online. They love having that access. But when there’s a critical problem, a service interruption or something’s not working right, they need to pick up the phone and call 24/7….enterprise customers are paying tens of millions of dollars and they tend to be less patient—and for good reason.”

He said the company wants to take its cue from Sacagawea, the Native American woman who is known for acting as an interpreter and guide for Lewis and Clark’s early 19th century trek across North America.

“They wouldn’t have made it without her, and we want to be Sacagawea for our customers. We want to guide them to our best practices and using our experience with thousands of customers,” he said. “If we do, they will stay with us for a long time and get more value than they ever expected from our company.”

That may turn out to be a trend for 2015. Indeed, Svane pointed out that the move to self-service speaks to the growing desire among customers for the “most convenient way of doing things—and most of the time, that doesn’t involve other people.

“How many people have used a travel agent in the last year to buy a ticket?” he said.

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Charles Cooper is a technology blogger, tech media strategist, and former executive editor at CNET News.