The rise of the digital bookworm

I have always been an avid reader since the time my mom, for my 11th birthday, gave me a library card for a present. It was one of the best presents of my life.

In my youth I used to plan my holidays according to how many books I needed in my bags, and there was often a whole heavy piece of luggage dedicated to those papery things.

Fast forward to this summer, where I have totally embraced my e-reader and its entire philosophy.

Yes there is no “paper feeling”, and the old fashioned cover judgement is not really a viable option, but I¬†was able to read almost incessantly for my entire holiday, thanks to the kids being a bit more manageable on the beach, and the fact that I could hop onto any public WiFi and buy the next book in no time.

How is that for a digital transformation? ūüôā

Also, because I read books in English (it’s not my first language and it helps keeping up), in the past finding good paperback best sellers in English was something complicated in faraway seaside desolate lands, so it had to be solely planned in advance. If I finished my stack earlier I had to revert to Italian books from the local store, sometimes not even my genre.

In my rich three weeks’ vacation (the most I¬†had in 10 years) I was able to devour a total of 12 books, which is more than I was ever able to accomplish even in my own mother tongue, even in the university days.

What is the point I’m trying to make? That this is exactly the core of a digital transformation: when the experience gets so immensely better than the non-digital (analogue? I still have that thing) that it reaches a point of no return, and you are transformed not only as an actor but also as the end-user of what this transformation is all about.

Embrace your e-readers because they don’t mean paper books are dead. I still have a full library in my house, and although I am buying most e-books nowadays, sometimes I add to this library some piece that I want to leave for my kids to read, or books that brought¬†an important message or meaning to me, or just super-silly books that I find entertaining or with a precious cover that I want to touch and admire.

But the convenience of reading 12 books in my holiday is something worth every inch of this digital transformation.

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Out of curiosity, these are the 12 books:

  • Into thin air – Jon Krakauer
  • The Promise – Freda Lightfoot
  • Where’d you go, Bernadette – Maria Semple
  • About Grace – Anthony Doerr
  • The Uncoupling – Meg Wolitzer
  • The heart goes last – Margaret Atwood
  • All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr
  • The Vegetarian – Han Kang
  • The Other Child – Lucy Atkins
  • Sparrow – L.J.Shen
  • The danish girl -David Ebershoff
  • Transition – Iain M. banks
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AI and CX?

From Mobile World Congress 2016 to the recent F8 ten year roadmap speech, AI is definitely one of the hottest technology trends. And specifically, AI in the customer experience, which  is the front-line of any expectation towards a company has been buzzing for a while as an innovation topic.

News from the several AI experiments are not much reassuring: Tay’s Meltdown proved once again what my university professor would say of computer science, “garbage in- garbage out”.

So on one side we would love to have computers help us with our CX, but on the other it looks really risky as any AI exposed to the public can be manipulated to reflect bad, racist or inappropriate responses to apparently innocent questions, sometimes just for the sake of it, others because of a specific sabotage schemed to bring it down.

Within Customer Experience, the relationship with automation has always been controversial. Would a customer like to be served by a robot and to what extent? Why would a company want to invest significant amounts of time and money to expose its front-line and most visible asset to malpractice and gruesome attacks from trolls and hackers?

The problem of any AI is, obviously, the learning. So probably the mistake from Microsoft was to trust the public network to be truthful and honest when teaching conversational skills to its bot.

Having worked in the customer experience¬†realm for many years, I would never trust a bot to learn from public behaviour over social media: imagine your new hire agent sent to learn conversational skills and empathy…in the street?

but….on the other hand, I know that these guys (the CX teams) are literally sitting on a pile of interaction recordings that are rarely used, unless for some sparse quality management or compliance regulation. So why not use this big data to teach an AI, in a controlled, business-like though still real-life environment, how a conversation about your own brand or product should evolve?¬†This idea might not be new but I haven’t seen anyone even testing it yet. Probably the biggest refrain is that AI projects are still in an experimental phase, are very expensive and bring little certainty of results.

But think about this: if you could have your new hire listen to thousands of hours of work conversations to learn how to address issues, how to talk to customers, how to properly escalate, how to behave in the interaction realm, and all in the business language of your own brand and company! This would be impossible for any human being, but for a bot…well, no big deal.

And the result: a perfectly trained agent ready to respond to your most difficult inquiries like your best skilled agent. Also, because every contact centre is different from the other, their recordings will result in different and more accurate learning and behaviour of the same AI. Isn’t AI in such case a dream come true?

As consumers, we probably would not care that the responses come from a bot, especially with digital channels where there is no voice and tracking a bot might be really tricky, and in the end, what matters most is the CX perception, not the reality. ūüôā

 

 

 

 

social customer care: you’re doing it wrong!

In preparation for a customer meeting around social customer care, I am browsing through Twitter and Facebook looking for customer care requests: I can see a lot of variations of #badcx, so I thought it’d be interesting to put together a list of what NOT to do when your customers are complaining or asking help publicly via social media:

  1. If the rant is specific to a common issue that many other are experiencing, you don’t want to just respond but to show everyone how to fix the problem so that the same experience can be shared among peer customers.
  2. When a user is ranting about something that went bad with your company or product, this means that they probably already tried to contact you via phone or email and typically this is their last resort. So the ideal answer cannot be “please contact us at 800…”. The response should be immediate and in-channel. If personal information are involved, publicly switch to DM or Messenger and then try and contact the customer directly.
  3. If there is a help request that can be solved by providing technical or product information, by all means provide those info publicly! Not only the requester will be happy as cake, but the love will spread to other users that are maybe searching for the same info on your very website!
  4. When you are a large global company, sometimes issues can only be resolved at field level. This does not mean you can’t include them in the public social conversation! At minimum, you should¬†show the customer that you have passed on the information, and they will be contacted by the local branch. Responding to go to the local store…well…reads just #badcx.
  5. Again, even if you are a large corporation with lots of department and employees, if a customer resorted to public shaming you, responding that you are “just the social media team” does not help improving the perception of your company. Consumers don’t care about your internal organization: if the social media team has your official brand, then it is the company front page as your contact centre is the front door voice.
  6. If a user is¬†so frustrated that they posted the same comment on¬†your timeline over and over again, it’s not enough just to respond to one: every single message is potentially dangerous and searchable, and must be addressed with care. Wouldn’t it be the same if they took the time to make 10 complain calls at your contact centre? Or would you drop the line at the second call because you already answered?
  7. And last but not least…the language. If you are a global corporation in 20 countries it might be assumed you also support the local language of your operations. Responding to a public tweet or post in a different language is not considered polite, unless you offer an explanation and at least a tentative translation with any of the commonly offered free on-line tools. Also, there are lots of translators out there, in case of lack of skilled resources.

My overall impression is that you can immediately spot when social marketing teams are responding to customer care inquiries: the language is perfect and polished, the responses look pre-approved and are always politically correct, but the results?

Companies need to start providing decent social customer care, and they can make this decision easily by just browsing their own pages and accounts today.

 

 

 

Perspective (and the guy with flip flops)

Yesterday evening I was having a fine dinner with some colleagues. A very international and diverse bunch, all with several years of experience in the CX and contact centre and telephony realms.

This guy beside me was telling a story: when he was once visiting my country with his family, the company he worked for at the time begged him to go to a customer, to fix a huge problem. He gladly accepted to help, though remarking he did not have any business wear, and so he would go there with flip flops. And shorts. He was kind of ashamed telling this, as he would not consider it very nice to go to a customer in flip flops, but had no alternative as the issue was rapidly escalating, so off he went.

While he was telling the story I suddenly realized I had been¬†involved in that same story. Although I did not know his name at the time, he was a legend among the technical staff as “the¬†guru¬†in flip flops and shorts”. Everyone was in awe of how the guy presented himself, so sure of his technical skills to not need any business clothes (in a country that is mostly obsessed with clothes and appearance, sometimes even the washing machine technician is wearing a tie).

The customer back then was _delighted_ not so much from the casual wear, but from the fact that the problem was fixed in seconds and all was back to normal again. Thanks to the guy in flip flops, who then became this legendary, quirky technical guru.

Fast forward a few (many) years and now the guy in flip flops may represent your best CX experience.

When we are offered any customer experience, are we ready to skip formality in order to receive a better service? do we perceive CX quality or also its form? Do we care more about form, appearance or substance, actuality?

I personally think the times would be¬†ready now for the guy in flip flops. ūüôā

Instant CX gratification?

As users, in engaging with companies, are we more focused on the result, or on the instant gratification?

If I have to reply, I would definitely say that I’d rather have my problem fixed than a very quick, yet inconclusive, answer that will force me to prolong my CX journey.

But, on the other hand, when I contact a company and have immediate feedback – of any sort – my internal personal rating of that company raises immediately, even if the problem that prompted me to engage them is not _really_ fixed. I can hear my inner conscience mutter a lazy “yeah but..”, but cannot deny the thrill of having some sort of instant gratification, albeit¬†for different purposes.

As companies try and find new ways of assessing their CX quality and strategy, it should be imperative that consumer expectations match the company’s offering, while often this is not the case. Consumer expectations are freight and volatile, mixed with brand awareness and the constant time constraints, so that sometimes we give a high score to a specific interaction only because of its speed and type of channel, not with the final quality of the experience. But as complexity arises, we’re no longer measuring a “first call resolution” but an entire journey that could span several channels and that is directly linked to a company KPI. The speed of answer is as important as the answer itself, mostly because we are now used to fast-everything and do not accept any sort of delay.

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What are your thoughts on this? Would you rather have instant gratification or effective resolution  from your providers? And how should CX quality be measured then?

 

The “Mobile First” dilemma

I often have customer meetings where we talk about the web part of a customer experience,¬†and how to present information to the user. One of my first questions, once we have talked about the strategy and how the experience would flow through the CX journey is: “how is this experienced through a smartphone?”, or “what if the journey starts from a smartphone rather than a land line or a computer?”

Random Statistics:  1.2 Billion mobile web users are estimated worldwide, with some 25% of the overall web traffic being mobile.

In my experience as a user, I realize there are applications that I have never opened in my laptop browser: Uber, Instagram, Waze, Facebook messenger. The whole social media folder is now 99% of times accessed only via smartphone. I have tried the Whatsapp web extension but then thought “what the heck? I don’t really need another distraction on my screen, I already have the mobile beeping and blinking”.

There are, though, applications that I rarely or never use on a smartphone: writing this blog only happens with a proper keyboard a large screen and a huge cup of coffee, the same goes when choosing a holiday location, as I want to see large and detailed pictures of the houses I am renting, and even a Google maps tab to calculate the distance from airports and stations.

The on-line shopping is trickier: obviously, being a woman, I like buying clothes and accessories and doing it on a large screen helps with details of fabric and textures….but if I need quick shopping, as in Amazon-prime-misc-stuff-that-I-happen-to-remember-only-when-bathing-kids-or-cooking-dinner shopping, then the smartphone is my friend as it only takes a couple of clicks to get through an order and I can then forget about it until the package arrives. Blissful!

Developers who make smartphone apps spend their work day staring at a large screen and fighting with the constraints of a smaller mobile screen, so I totally understand that there might be frustration around this. There is some online discussion around mobile first design and the impression I got is that yes, you need to adapt to this new way of using the web, but large screens are still there and offer so much more¬†features and context that sometimes it’s really tough¬†to start with mobile all the way up. On the other hand, designing with a mobile first approach has the advantage of forcing you to disrupt, to see things differently and to (sometimes over-)simplify the experience.

A company’s¬†customer experience does not always start from a smartphone, but typically will somehow pass through one at some point. If defining a CX journey is also helping the company to drive their customers to their preferred method, then it should be mandatory to step back and see the big picture, trying to understand if a mobile first approach will help or stop the user in their journey.

So my suggestion during the discussion is to try and picture a mobile everywhere in the journey, and see how it fits, then pick the moments where it was most useful because of its strengths (mobility, proximity, quick and easy access) compared to having a user open their laptop or computer or use different channels. Then try and make the customer’s life easier by reflecting those strengths to the wider picture and the mid-long term strategy of the business. The result is obviously never the same, but hey, have I mentioned the need to experiment? ūüôā

Digital Transformation as an Experiment

There is much talk over the concept of digital transformation lately.

I have now met several companies, from large enterprises to mid and small businesses across EMEA, who are working towards it in many different ways. And this is the common thread: that every company is different and their path to digital must, therefore, be unique and tailored according to their business processes. The first question I get is usually: what are the others doing? And obviously the examples help, but are not the solution to the imagination issue.

There is no such thing as a common procedure to go digital: so far the most successful (and intriguing) customers I met have set up a “digital experimentation team“, which consists of a bunch of technology savvy enthusiasts, who like to try new stuff (incidentally this would be the dream job of any geek, including myself): they are connected and socially active, they like to attend virtual and real events and meetings, even if just for the sake of mixing up ideas and new technologies; they are passionate about innovation of any sort.

This approach of the “dream team”, in my opinion and experience, works well in many¬†ways:

  • If the company has no idea of how to get digital, this would be the team that will experiment and drive all the new stuff. They will be the salmons, swimming upstream while the rest of the company would typically try and resist change, until something beautiful happens, and then they become¬†the praised heroes of the above mentioned transformation. This might take a while, though, and requires tough people who are willing to resist all the retortion of ¬†the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. It might be wise to rotate people so that they are not burnt by the job, and in the end it might also take a while to get some result. But what are the other options when there is no clear path? The only way is really to experiment off the beaten track of the company and enter the realm of digital sleepwalking.
  • If the company is already ahead of the game and wants to keep the pace, then this would really be the dream-team, as there is budget, willingness to change and an open mentality to drive changes. So the only danger here is to over-think the transformation and do too much of it. These people would be bringing new ideas to the table almost daily, and some of them might get to project approval, and some of them might succeed, thus keeping the company again one step beyond its¬†digital track. It takes courage to do and view things with a new perspective.
  • If a¬†company is in the middle, meaning that¬†there are¬†some ideas and some digital presence has¬†already started, but they’re not ahead of the game yet, there’s a lot of grey shades here to fill: an experimentation team would still do good, as they would be at least responsible for identifying and trying the new stuff (and the inevitable scapegoats when something goes wrong), plus they can liberally and quickly test new strategies that would take months to scale up the standard complex processes. A small dedicated team can give a¬†company the required flexibility to try and fail, without compromising much, while allowing the successful projects to be then scaled to the whole company.

Have you appointed your digital experimentation team yet? ūüôā

 

Should companies develop their own CX solutions?

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Very often I have meetings and discussions with customers who have developed their own flavour of CX software and ask if and why should they change to a vendor’s standard solution. Depending on the size of the company, I see a trend with moving to standardized software rather than keeping the customized developments. Developing a home-grown application has the initial and great advantage of starting with few targeted capabilities that are critical and specific to the company; also, it bears a smaller commercial footprint, and last but not least the ability to add features as the business users ask, step by step and independently from any product market trend.

So my answer to those customer is: it depends. What is as good as a tailored suit today, may not fit tomorrow.

What happens when the company evolves and increases in complexity, typically leads to many issues with the home-grown application:

  • Maintenance: as the application was originally based on functionality requests coming from the internal users, at some point of the complexity curve it may become very difficult to keep up with the pace of the new requests, so when the deployment cycle has just finished for one set of features, the developers’ team is already late for the new batch.
  • Features: when the new application has a very basic set of capabilities, it’s kind of difficult to realize what would be needed and what can be achieved outside the narrow targeted scope, which makes it difficult to plan upgrades and developments.
  • Timing: in order to reach 100% of feature availability, this could really take months of development, moving the return of investment to a wider time-frame.
  • Trust¬†in the software algorithm: if the developed solution at some point starts to seem weak, this risks mining the entire project and any future evolution: better having less safe features than risk the users trust.
  • Scalability and¬†¬†performance: tools that were originally intended for a specific number of users sometimes cannot simply scale or provide adequate performances when running on larger users groups.

So there is, in my experience, a sweet spot when a customer is tired of maintaining the home-grown solution and eager for more standardized products, but at the same time with a fully expert team of developers who can really use the new solution at 100%. Swapping to a vendor’s solution at the right time will have the effect of letting the internal team specialize on customizations and small developments, while focusing on the company’s core business. Precious and high skilled resources can then be used to focus on new ways of using the technology, rather than spend lot of time with Q&A and application maintenance.

When digital gives you privacy

The other day I was on public transportation and obviously everyone was tapping on their smartphone, included myself, when I realized someone was loudly talking on their phone. In a place packed with people, a middle aged lady, presumably a psychologist, was discussing a clynic case with lots of detailed information about some poor guy. Then after a few moments, a young lady was making a couple of private appointments, with loads of information we really did not want to hear.

The reaction of the whole audience was:

1. heads up from the smartphone

2. show indifferent/annoyed/amused stare to the loud-talking people

3. a guy actually swapped place fuming as evidently realized he really did not want to hear the conversation.

This made me think that I usually tend to make my phone conversations with sensitive information very private, as in “home-office-when-nobody-else-is-at-home” privacy, and otherwise any other information exchange with other people happens on other media. And I kind of like that so much, that I was in the annoyed/amused reaction while listening to stuff that now I cannot un-hear.

Whenever you need to communicate you often have the choice to define the context, and based on this, to decide what channel best suits the interaction. Digital helps people keep their privacy, sometimes. (yes I know that it defies privacy in other ways, but still) Companies should be able to understand the psychology that is behind every channel choice and this kind of information is highly useful to plan the CX journey, as you are able to get the most out of every media, for what the media is actually and beneficially used for.

Context is key to correctly mapping the journey and the business drivers related to it, and should be considered first when planning a CX optimization process.

You! Yes you! What is your social care strategy?

I now¬†use on a daily basis LinkedIn, Twitter, FB, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine: I know there’s a lot more but there is also some work, family time and personal taste involved here.

Sometimes I read posts and responses from companies and brands that are simply amazing: witty and competent and sarcastic and smart. These are the kind of interactions that will make me love (or at a minimum, deeply respect) a brand or a company or a person in the social space. Not only they responded, but the person behind the keyboard went the extra mile and put some brain in the response, and the result is sometimes really awesome.

This happens maybe once or twice a month, often with big corporations, sometimes with smaller businesses, often with public figures, sometimes with a single individual who is simply being him/herself.

Should it happen more? Hell, Yes!

We have passed the stage where companies needed to be out there and respond promptly to just survive; now they need to be out there and present and smartand amazing. This is how it’s done and once someone breaks a threshold, the new level instantly becomes the norm (or so my kids teach me every day).

So back to the contact centre (or CX centre, or CE pod or any new cool name you might want to call it), if training your agents to handle responses in the fastest and most proficient way was a challenge, and typically the main one, now you need to up the notch and think that the people who are out there, publicly responding to your customers, not only need to be trained for excellence: they need to be amazing no matter what. The so called dedicated team, which typically is a small team of interns who are passionate about social, now needs to become a centre of excellence of your contact centre, in order to provide jaw-dropping awe-inspiring posts and tweets and interactions that can bring your brand to the next level.¬†The “social experiment” team should be one¬†of amazing people (incidentally, that also reflect¬†your company’s view and mission) selected by¬†checking their public profiles, challenging and engaging them with the best results, finally¬†spotting the social excellence and bringing it into your strategy.

Figuring out how to use well all the social channels is the hard part, and largely depends on the type of brand, business and target customers. But it’s not impossible if you have the right people working on it. I remember how many years ago, working as a contact centre engineer, I used to tell my customers that the overall strategy must always start with people, and while technology and channels and rules of engagement drastically changed with time, this bit of wisdom thankfully did not.