Only half of the organizations around the world feel prepared to support customer engagement post-COVID.
When I read that headline from Verint, an organization specializing in the Voice of Customer, it struck a chord with me—a minor one with lots of extra dissonance. Could we face a big gap between what customers expect and what organizations are prepared to deliver when we emerge from this past year?
We invited Nancy Porte, Vice president of Global Customer Experience Verint and vice-chair of the Customer Experience Professional Association (CXPA) board, to discuss this research on a recent podcast. Porte shared some of her insight on Verint’s recent study about supporting customer engagement efforts in the post-COVID era.
Porte says that Verint researched this topic for several reasons. Porte says they were hearing from their clients worldwide that 2021 was posing challenges for them. The COVID shutdown escalated issues with customer expectations, an area that was already a challenge pre-pandemic. Also, the customer demand for digital transformations was disrupting the workplace. In addition, several workforce changes occurred concurrently, including generational changes (that had also begun before the pandemic) and the move to working virtually. All these factors together—the changes in customer expectations and behaviors, the digital transformation disruption, and workforce changes—accelerated the intensity of challenges facing businesses this year. Verint wanted more than anecdotal stories about the challenges, so they surveyed organizations from 12 different countries and ten different industries to assess what was going on out there.
Porte said the numbers were surprising. For starters, 50 percent of businesses don’t feel prepared. However, beyond that, 82 percent of respondents said that the challenges of managing customer engagement in 2021 were growing. Moreover, Porte says 74 percent of respondents said they did not pursue any planned new hires in 2021 due to uncertainty about the economy. To summarize, Porte says expectations are growing, and resources are shrinking.
It reminds me of what happened just after the Second World War. Winston Churchill ran for re-election after the war. Everyone thought he would win, but the Labor party won. In retrospect, the prevailing theory of why Churchill lost was that everybody, having lived through the horrors of war, wanted a new normal after it. They voted for something different rather than a reversion to the “good old days.”
Customers are in a similar place post-COVID. They have experienced good and bad things during the pandemic, and now they want something different after it.
Finding Their Way After the Pandemic
Do organizations have a clear articulation of what that new experience looks like in the post-pandemic world? Per Verint’s research, I think not.
Porte says that the research supports my theory. Three out of five of the top priorities of organizations were related to customer engagement, which is great for organizations. However, the challenges in meeting customer expectations and changes in the workforce confuse organizations. So, they know how to make small, incremental changes for the customers, usually related to complaints. However, when it comes to creating differentiated experiences that encompass the entire customer journey, many organizations do not know what to do. As a result, Porte says, companies go to their safe place: operational efficiency. Unfortunately, she says, making a bad experience go quicker or more efficiently does not engage customers.
Moreover, in my reading of Verint’s research, I saw change clues, but not enough of it related to Customer Experience improvement. Nobody says in the report, “we need to improve our Customer Experience.” Instead, they say the usual, like “we need new customers,” or “we need to increase revenues.” I fear that we are stuck in these pre-pandemic mindsets when new priorities are essential post-pandemic.
Porte says that some companies do get a sense of urgency on new priorities. Some are improving Customer Experiences via a combination of technology and the human workforce in new ways to accomplish it. These forward-thinking companies will close the engagement capacity gap through customer experience exponentially rather than incrementally. She says those are the ones that will increase the chasm between successful companies and those that struggle.
Porte notices in the research results that there is no one top concern amongst the respondents. For example, 94 percent said their most significant concern was understanding and acting on these changing customer behaviors. But 88 percent say managing growth was also a critical concern. Then, Porte says, almost 80 percent of respondents said they still needed a unified view of customer engagement that uses customer feedback. Porte said that the last statistic hit her hard because that is the core of what Verint does. Unfortunately, she says, it also means organizations are not building those enduring customer relationships, which create loyalty and stickiness to an organization.
Business leaders are feeling the stress, too. Porte says when Verint asks business leaders to select all of the things they were concerned about personally regarding their jobs, Verint learned these individuals were exhausted, stretched thin, and stressed out. They are worried about everything. Porte says it feels like a perfect storm of change with the post-COVID world of new customer expectations, workforce adjustments, economic uncertainty, and lack of experience managing all this at once that keeps these individuals up at night.
Technology Can Help
However, all the news wasn’t bad. Porte says the technology to close the forming gap is available. By planning how to use the technology available and an empowered workforce and including analytics, leaders can address these concerns. Organizations can understand the customer better and react faster to what they need. Porte was most excited to find in the research that 78 percent of business leaders reported investments in artificial intelligence (AI). Porte thinks AI is the key to rapid innovation to serve the customer better and transform the way organizations do business. AI done well has the potential to drive better engagement and reduce costs for the organization.
My worry is organizations invest in areas to save costs as opposed to improving the Customer Experience. Also, it is essential to invest in areas that drive value for your customers. It’s a garbage-in, garbage-out situation if you invest in the wrong things. Investments in technology should be part of a Customer Experience improvement strategy.
Porte agrees, adding that AI has done amazing things in the customer-facing areas of experiences. However, she sees that AI has a significant opportunity in workforce management. She thinks using it to ensure the right people are available for customers when they need them is an excellent way to serve customers and the organizations’ need for operational efficiency. Moreover, it is vital that an organization uses a partner with expertise in customer engagement and that the data is from real interactions, not simulations. Porte says the methodologies should use predictive modeling to identify what’s coming and where your opportunities are. AI and predictive modeling create a much better world for customers, which is the point, after all.
Customer science plays a role in the post-pandemic world also, and it’s not a supporting one. The fusion inherent here between AI and data is powerful, but when you add behavioral science or understand why people do things, the discipline is even more so. Moreover, predictive analytics should take into account customers’ motivators to predict what customers are doing accurately. Verint’s platform can look across those channels in silos and start to put all that data together.
Many characteristics of technology facilitate an effective deployment for engaging with customers. Porte says one of the foundational principles that businesses should have is knowing what they want to accomplish, understanding their customers and what motivates them, and using an enterprise approach rather than a small implementation in a single department.
There are some other significant considerations organizations should have when working with AI. Porte says Verint looks for partners who have expertise in providing scalable and usable architecture.
Also, the architecture should be flexible. For example, one of Verint’s customers is one of the largest hardware computer companies in the world, and they use an online interactive virtual assistant system. The developers designed flexibility into the system so they can adjust what behavioral traits the assistant has. There are times when they want the assistant to be knowledgeable, and other times where they want it to be assertive. Porte likes how that flexibility makes the technology able to accommodate customer (and the company’s) needs.
Finally, Porte says that machine learning capabilities are crucial. Machine learning helps improve business processes in general.
I would add that having a customer-focused partner is also essential. During deployment, it is necessary to look at the technology through how it affects the customers. Without that singular focus, the danger is that an organization can be more interested in the technology than the technology’s output. Experience is a more significant contributing factor to customer engagement than technology is, so organizations should avoid the shiny-object inclination. You need to use technology to improve things for customers, not just because you really want to use it. Porte adds that you should also know the Customer Experience performance of your partners.
A customer-centric DNA in the organization you work with will ultimately improve your partnership’s productivity. When I used to buy systems as part of my role in corporate life, you could choose a partner excellent at the technology or one amazing with technology and customer-focused. The latter made the conversations between us easier and gave me confidence that we would get the right product from them.
Finally, Porte recognizes that the Verint research revealed that data silos exist. Operational silos, you might remember, are departments that don’t work with other departments and do things “their way.” These silos are detrimental to Customer Experience. Data silos can be a threat, too, in a different way. As analytics efforts and capabilities improve and data amounts increase, analysts realize that it is crucial to have a complete customer view. Data analysts want all the analytics across the journey, and beyond, so they need all the organizations’ data. Many respondents said that the threat to this effort was trying to wrestle that data out of data silos.
Another data issue is the lack of emotional data. Many organizations have massive amounts of data, but very little of it reveals how customers feel. Without that data, which is a clear driver of why people do what they do, data analysts will need to supplement that data somehow or implement it as it accrues later.
We see managers stretched thin with a ton of priorities and organizations figuring out how to meet customer needs, but the good news is they are not just sitting on their hands. Porte says 88 percent of respondents invested in cloud-based customer engagement solutions for workforce management, compliance, security, and fraud solutions. Also, AI was high on the lists, as well as chatbots and intelligent virtual assistants. Voice of the customer continues to be a hot investment, too. Porte says businesses are not looking for a survey tool but a deep customer analytics feedback system that adds that extra dimension of predictive modeling.
Applying These Insights To Your Experience
All of this is exciting stuff, but what does it mean that we go away and do? We came up with the following five things:
- Remember that technology is a tool. We talk about technology solutions, but technologies are never the solution. Technologies are tools that allow us to solve problems. Firms sometimes jump into new technologies expecting that the latest software, hardware, or cloud-based system will solve the problem for them. It won’t. Identifying the problem, identifying your plan for solving the problem, and utilizing the appropriate technology tools to solve it will deliver better results in customer engagement post-pandemic.
- Don’t wait out the engagement capacity gap. This whole engagement capacity gap isn’t going to disappear when the pandemic ends. In many ways, it escalated, and it is going to continue regardless of the health crisis.
- When things get complex, go back to basics. The companies that were the most successful understand their customers and what the customer needs. These companies also had a strategy around workforce management, meaning how they serve customers using technology and human assets together. Also, they had an overall plan with a C-level executive (i.e., Chief Customer Officer) that guided the organization to the solution.
- Remember that integrated technology is essential. Technology doesn’t solve the problem by existing. Technology is a tool to help you solve the problem. If you consider the technology as an integrated part of the experience that empowers the employee to serve the customer, you are putting the tool to good use.
- Define what the future experience looks like. The future of Customer Experience is the proactive experience. You should be able to predict what customers will do and respond to that before they even know what they want. For me, the future experience is also a hybrid between what we were doing pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. When you have a clear direction and the technology to support it, you are in an excellent position to engage with customers.
I have mentioned several times that things have changed during the pandemic, and organizations need to prepare for it when we return to the new normal. My worry is they haven’t, and this report by Verint confirms that concern. There is a massive gap between what customers want and what organizations can deliver.
Don’t let your success this year fall into it and disappear.