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How To Deliver Better Customer Interactions During Difficult Times: A CCW Digital Analysis

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Matt Wujciak


You don’t have to be a customer experience savant to know that one of the hardest-hit departments in business right now is customer service. To better understand the impact of this crisis on customer service departments at every angle, the CCW Digital team has been working to provide you with the resources you need to make sure your customer experience strategies remain optimally efficient and profitable during, and after the pandmeic. 

With our online event taking place May 19-22, a number of special reports and case studies published each week (featured by WSJ and NYT bestselling authors, as well as a number of Forbes contributors), and our latest market study recently released, we want to provide you with need-to-know trends and analysis during, and after the pandemic. So let’s dive into today’s topic, agent to customer interactions amid the coronavirus. 

According to our latest market study, a staggeringly low 39% of contact center and customer experience leaders surveyed reported paying more attention to conversation quality and accuracy amid the pandemic. This is a very problematic stat, and I’ll explain why. While the vast majority of us are paying close attention to digital transformation, closer to 80 percent, (omnichannel strategies, cloud capabilities, remote communication, and the “we’re here for you” digital marketing campaigns that don’t help you sleep better at night), it’s important not to forget the basis of customer service that each component complements, human connection. 

Yes digital transformation is arguably the most important area of focus for business continuity planning (BCP) right now. But it shouldn’t be the only one. In fact, it’s supposed to complement human connection.

What effort level tells us about customer satisfaction

Tethr (an AI and machine learning venture) recently completed a study of roughly 1 million customer service calls involving more than 20 companies representing a broad cross-section of industries. All of these calls took place during the beginning of the pandemic, March 11 (when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO) and March 26. Their study used a proprietary 250-variable algorithm that allowed the team to score the effort level of a customer’s interaction — ranging from “difficult” to “easy” for the customer to accomplish their goal — as well as the underlying drivers behind those scores.

While digital transformation and work-from-home capabilities are imperative, taking up most of our time, there’s an irrefutable, troubling theme that many customer experience and customer service leaders aren’t paying close enough attention to.

In just two weeks, the average company in this study saw the percentage of calls scored as “difficult,” more than double from a typical level of 10% to more than 20%. Issues related to the pandemic — from unexpected travel cancellations to appeals for bill payment extensions and disputes over insurance coverage — dramatically increased the level of customer emotion and anxiety in service calls, making a job that is hard for agents on a normal day far more challenging in today’s siloed environment of pandemonium and consumer chaos.

One company in the study saw financial hardship-related calls, among the most difficult for reps to handle, increase 2.5 times in the span of a single week. 

Individual agent responsibility increases customer satisfaction scores

So what does the study tell us? What your agents are saying in the “key moments of truth” determines whether they come back or switch to a competitor. Are they equipped to handle inquiries or are they sending customers through an endless loop of transfers? A dramatic increase in customer effort is bad news for managers, as high-effort interactions are far more likely to lead to churn and far less likely to result in any sort of new sale, acquisition, or satisfying interaction. 

A pandemic is reminding us of something we already knew. Customers want frictionless experiences. 

My favorite finding - low-performing reps were 27% more likely to hide behind policy on COVID-19 related calls than their higher-performing peers. For this reason, now more than ever, it’s critical for managers to update their contact center policies to reflect a new reality, and reduce opportunities for their agents to use outdated policy to avoid solving customers’ problems, ultimately increasing the customer effort, decreasing their CSAT scores and retention rates. 

To give you a personal example, it recently came to my attention that I had an outdated bill that needed to be paid. Rather than sorting through mail and online resources finding the most efficient way to pay it immediately (for the sake of my credit score), I called the customer service provider on the number given, to find out the details. After informing me of the details I needed to know, this particular agent immediately requested and gained permission from her manager to take my credit card information over the phone, gave me her name and contact information, and sent a confirmation email receipt within 24 hours, rather than redirecting me through a never ending loop of transfers and online payment options.  

The most common customer service rep behaviors that increase customer effort include conveying uncertainty, using negative language and thoughtlessly routing customers elsewhere (like this particular agent could have resorted to). Unnecessary transfers require customers to wait and then explain their problem again, a result of poor consumer data aggregation tools and work-from-home infrastructures that cause consumer pain-points. In this study, low-performing reps were 38% more likely to use “redirect” language on COVID-19 related calls than high performers were. Now more than ever, it’s important for customer service departments to instill the right policies and tools to help agents handle inquiries and increase productive customer interactions. 

There’s no I in team, but there’s an I in win

Whether you’re Michael Jordan or a customer service agent, taking personal responsibility can lead to better outcomes. There’s a common misconception when it comes to talking to customers. Many companies teach their employees to refer to themselves as “we” when closing deals or answering customer service inquiries. (It’s easier to pass responsibility and hide behind policies rather than taking personal responsibility). According to one controlled HBR study on the topic, where company representatives who referred to themselves in the singular voice (I, me, my, etc.) were perceived to be acting and feeling more on behalf of customers than those who adopted less personal plural pronouns (we or our). 

For example, “How can I help you?” outperforms “How can we help you?” “For one company, an analysis of over a thousand email interactions with customers found that switching to first person singular pronouns could lead to a potential sales increase of over 7%.” Consumers want to work with a human being who personalizes interactions and takes responsibility for handling problems, not agents that hide behind company scripts or policies. 

Conversation and personalization over policy

According to one CCW Digital special report, customer contact leaders identify personal connections as the #1 sign of customer centricity. Researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman collected data from MBA students, couples in therapy, caregivers, and brain scans, and published their groundbreaking research in Words Can Change Your Brain. They too found that using and hearing positive words and psychological personalization tactics alter how we perceive communication and how consumers experience a service. 

In a world where consumers have more purchasing power than ever, 95% of customers have abandoned a business or complained about it to others because of a negative customer experience. Adding positive personalization to your interactions can combat that stat.

Mimicking the customer

People who mimic the language of the person they’re interacting with are trusted and liked more. According to a study in the University of Chicago Press Journals, mimicry is a key performance indicator in relating to other people and creating quality consumer experiences. For example, a customer calling a restaurant delivery service might ask an employee “Will my food be here within an hour?” The server is more likely to get a better reaction from the customer, as well as deliver a better perceived experience if he or she says “Yes, your food will arrive in about x minutes,” rather than “Yes, it’s being prepared” or “Yes, we put in the order.” 

Harmony between employee and consumer can also be built by asking employees to imagine the customer as a similar person to themselves (like shared background or personal interests), even when they may be thousands of miles apart. When an employee creates affiliation with the customer through these linguistic strategies, they’re not only more deliberate and effective in delivering quality experiences, but they are using the lost art of personal communication to create meaningful relationships.