There is continuous pressure on businesses to improve their customer service and end-to-end customer experience – and it’s driven by customers themselves. Customer service experiences from a single company can set the bar for the rest, and we all know it’s getting easier by the day for us, as customers, to take our business elsewhere.

This means the pace at which companies need to optimise their customer-facing operations is much faster than historical transformations, and businesses will suffer the consequences if they can’t keep up. Challenger brands can drive mature businesses to run before they walk when it comes to transforming customer service – and consequently they may rush to digitally transform and miss focusing on what the customer really wants. Vodafone, for example, has been criticised for its target of a transition to 60% of customer service interactions to chatbots by 2021 – and the consequent impact the may have on the customer experience as well as human job losses it could cause.

The expectations customers have for a more responsive, personalised and seamless experience has never been higher. This has led to a huge amount of change within the customer service sector; however, businesses need to be wary. Rushing a digital customer experience transformation can end leading to an overall failure to meet the basic needs of customers.

Digital touchpoints

Challenger businesses are increasingly favoured when it comes to customer service and rank higher in satisfaction than their legacy counterparts. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK recently analysed customer service in the retail banking sector: legacy supplier RBS was ranked last in a list of customer satisfaction ratings, and challenger Metro Bank came first. Metro Bank has set new standards for others to follow, and it wasn’t by being digital-first.

While it is generally accepted that many customer service and support issues for a consumer-facing company can be resolved online, it’s pertinent to note that an ONS statistic shows that a staggering one in ten people in the UK are not yet online.

Unfortunately, some businesses take shortcuts to keep up the appearance of innovation – adding social buttons, chatbots and hiding the phone number, overlooking the vital importance of addressing customers real needs. In doing so, they can fall into the trap of offering what they think is needed, but not actually innovating to deliver an effective multi-channel customer strategy. Shortcuts can end up causing more issues than benefits.

One of the greatest challenges faced by legacy brands is managing the scale and pace of the shift to online customer experiences. The newer challenger companies have the advantage of building their customer service and support operations as digital-first and this is a gap that will not be closed any time soon. But, crucially, there are multiple ways that strategic tech investments and organisational tweaks from legacy companies can have a very positive impact on keeping pace with customers’ digital expectations.

Fundamental changes that can help

Companies must take a step back and put their customer first before embarking on major changes to their customer service operations, and ground discussions in what customers truly want and not what you think they want.

There’s a general lesson to be learned here about mapping out the end-to-end customer journey and all its supporting touchpoints: think about what works for your customers, rather than implementing change for change sake. Marks and Spencer, for example, started implementing AI in its call centres last year. As more British retail brands crumble, there are calls for retailers to improve digital strategies, so this is an important and interesting move: it allows AI to handle the re-routing of calls and access to departments, and ensures employees are moved from call centres to customer-facing jobs, so they can effectively represent the British high street stalwart. It means M&S can handle more than a million more inbound calls a month, and deliver better in-store, in-person experiences, improving the customer experience overall and perhaps helping to secure its future.

Improving employees’ training improves customer experience

Technological advances do need to be made by most customer service functions, but digital innovation is not the only way to improve customer service. There is a lot to be said for improved employee engagement in customer support and service sectors.

BA has introduced new training for staff who deal with customers at airports. They will be trained on a range of different areas including ticketing and finding delayed luggage. Even though this is not revolutionary, it shows that the business understands when a customer asks a question, they want the answer to come from the first person they speak to. We all know how much we hate being ‘bounced around’. It is through these small, human-oriented changes and investment in training that businesses can succeed in improving their customer service offering.

Businesses need to walk before they run when looking to improve their customer service experience. Some companies feeling under pressure from challenger brands are rushing to digitally transform aspects of their customer experience, without looking first at how they fundamentally need to redesign the end to end customer experience.

We should not forget the human factor – increased focus on the front-line employees who represent the brand, in terms of training, empowerment and well-being can do wonders for the customer experience and become a true differentiator for a business. Think about it: you and your competitors can all have a clever bot, but only you have your unique frontline customer service team.

When it comes to customer service and support, the start-up mantra of ‘fail fast’ does not apply, but there is also something to be said for ‘do or die’ when it comes to transformation. Getting the right balance is key.