The First Mile of the Exceptional Customer Experience

I recently attended the CXPA Members Insight Exchange in San Diego.  It was an excellent conference with well over 100 customer experience professionals in attendance.  The presentations about creating the right customer experience culture and programs were refreshing and insightful.

The journey toward becoming a customer-centric organization is not an easy one.  To the contrary, it is difficult and must be totally and constantly supported from the very top of the organization.  When an organization takes serious steps toward becoming customer-centric, however, the transformation can be magical, and the payoff is well worth the effort and investment.

There were many vendors at the CXPA conference touting enterprise customer management software.  Each vendor presented various forms of technology designed to listen and learn from the customer and to gain a better understanding of the customer’s needs.
This is all very well and good but what about the behaviors and actions of the front-line employee?  Where does that come in?  When I asked these kinds of questions, the response was usually something along these lines: “Well, we measure that, and we are able to determine how that is affecting the customer.  The company can then take that information and act to make things better.”

Okay, but HOW?  What should front-line customer service agents say and do to create an exceptional customer experience?

Companies can then take action to make things better?  That is like saying your vehicle’s automatic transmission has gone out, and all you have to do is to have it fixed.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  Well, as any good mechanic knows, repairing a transmission is a very complex task requiring a great deal of expertise, skill and time.

The point I’m driving at here is this: Front-line customer service agent behavior is often treated as the last mile of designing the exceptional customer experience.

Why do organizations with customer experience challenges almost always look first to technology for solutions?  I believe the thinking is that if we just have the ideal technology, we can generate the ideal customer experience.  I would submit that this is a very expensive way to attempt to solve what is often a much basic problem.

That problem is front-line behavior.  Far too many front-line customer service agents do not have the proper skills, techniques and methods to effectively guide the customer through an interaction and create loyalty.  Some agents have these skills, but the call quality sheet with which they are forced to comply doesn’t incentivize or even permit them to use those skills.

The skills I’m referring to here go beyond soft skills (how to be nice to the customer, demonstrate empathy, etc.) and technical/functional proficiency.  I’m talking about specific strategies for proactively constructing, leading and guiding an interaction, techniques to lower the customers’ perception of the amount of effort they are required to expend in getting their problem resolved, and verbal and psychological skills that add value to the interaction.

Regardless of the particular technology in place, front-line customer agent behaviors and actions toward the customer reign supreme in designing and creating a superior customer experience and generating sales and customer loyalty.

In my many years of navigating the corporate layers of bureaucracy, I have found that managers and leaders often shun their individual leadership responsibilities for an all-encompassing technology solution.  Why?  Because technology implementation and compliance is far easier to manage than individual behavior.

In lieu of individual coaching, these so-called leaders and managers prefer to implement sweeping rules and policies in an effort to manage everyone exactly the same way.  They tighten down the interaction, sometimes employing generic scripts, as if they don’t trust their own customer service professionals to efficiently and effectively service the customers.

Tightening down the customer interaction rarely works.  Not only is this strategy ineffective, but also it drives costs up and performance down and ultimately harms the customer experience.  As long as the focus remains centered on individual agent compliance and not on the quality of service the customer receives, the company, the agent and the customer will lose.

My observations and contentions are based on years of experience working in and with large company call center environments, including the perennially customer service-challenged cable/telecom industry, working with the C-Suite, front-line agents and every level in between to design and implement optimal customer experiences and outcomes.

The bottom line is that transforming agent behaviors should be the first mile of designing the exceptional customer experience, since it is agent behaviors primarily that drive customer interactions and outcomes.  Once agents learn how to drive the right outcomes, customer experiences and customer loyalty drastically improve.  In addition to having the technical skills to effectively resolve the customer’s practical problem, they must be able to proactively and purposefully address and satisfy the customer’s emotional need related to their practical problem and provide a real, or at least perceived, low-effort experience for the customer.

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