THE GODFATHER OF: The Contact Center
Ashley Unitt Explains Why the Human Connection Will Make or Break Your Business
Colin Greenwood and Richard Ogley are here to help. Specifically, they’re here to help you; the customer. As Senior Experience Director at Wolff Olins and Senior Manager of Service Design at Whitbread, respectively, Greenwood and Ogley spend their days head-scratching, chin-stroking and, ultimately, problem-solving to ensure your journey through the end-to-end consumer experience is memorable for all the right reasons. From hotel chains to computer programs, banking brands to tech firms, the duo are experts in this field of ‘Customer Experience’ — or CX. But it’s an emerging industry, with many knots still left to untie and problems yet to be ironed out. So, to highlight the importance of the practice, identify the industry’s stumbling blocks and understand how to drive real change in a brand’s customer experience, we brought these two specialists together, with one instruction: Let’s talk about CX.
Customer experience is a relatively new concept. It's complicated, time-consuming, and crucial if brands want to succeed. These two men are determined to crack the CX puzzle. But it's tougher than it looks...
As with any new industry, CX is still trying to find its feet. With professionals the world over all vying to define its parameters, the practice has been left to grow somewhat organically. Greenwood and Ogley have identified just how diversely different companies are in their approach — but, despite knowing this lack of consensus is a problem. Can even they define the term?
G: I think I would define customer experience as, essentially, an outcome. It’s a sum total of all of the interactions between an individual person and an organization.
O: For me, I think it’s still a relatively new term - and one which has appeared as interactions have become more complicated. And, although it certainly used to exist more within a digital space, I think that’s changing too. Now, it’s more about customer interactions with the brand as a whole, and improving those customers’ end-to-end journeys across all touch-points, whether digital or physical.
G: And, although it’s new, there are already libraries of reports which will tell you how important customer experience is to business success. But, if it is this important, you’ve got to ask: Why are so few businesses doing it? Firstly, it’s bloody difficult to do - not impossibly so, obviously, but still difficult. And, secondly, to a certain extent you can fudge it with marketing spend. And I think that’s often what businesses reach for.
O: True. Businesses can always release a new version of their app, or update their website, and that may look like they’re making progress, but really they’re not addressing the underlying issues and problems. CX has become a massive point of difference between companies — and it’s our responsibility to show businesses how important it is.
G: We need to make it manageable. We need to turn it into something that doesn’t feel career-ruiningly terrifying. But that presents challenges, not least persuading leaders that it’s something worth investing in. It’s difficult, but every day we simply ask: How can we unravel this into something people can actually take on?
“We’re having to redefine what ‘good’ looks like.”
The main factor driving CX as an industry is us — the customer. With social scrutiny at an all-time high, and companies struggling with a level of transparency hitherto unexplored, we as consumers are demanding more from brands at every level; professionally, economically, ethically. So how did CX manifest as businesses’ first line of defence?
O: Customer expectations have changed. Over the past five years, the visibility of social media and other factors mean that people are no longer happy with the basics — they will no longer ‘make do’. Suddenly, expectations are a hell of a lot higher. The benchmarks are a lot higher. People expect more from companies, products and services. The benchmark of what ‘good’ looks like is now a lot higher.
"Customer expectations have changed. Over the past five years, the visibility of social media and other factors mean that people are no longer happy with the basics — they will no longer ‘make do’."
G: Spot on. And when we ask clients what they recognise as good, and what the business reveres and how they measure all of that, they’re never sure. So we’re having to redefine what ‘good’ looks like. Because some businesses might have been busy making apples, when they actually needed to be making oranges. Which means myriad projects charging off in different directions like over-excited kittens - projects we must unite under one common goal.
O: Because if people aren’t aligned around the same goal, they’ll end up pulling in different directions. And that’s one reason we need to use CX to change the way companies are engaging with their customers. Business tended to be sales-driven, but they now need to focus on other things, like retention. It’s no longer just about marketing, or driving customers into a sales funnel, and that means the customer interactions with your brand are much more complex.
G: And, on top of that, it’s not enough to just solve real world problems any more to be ‘good’. You also have to do it in a unique way. You have to build momentum. You have to be different. And you have to create something is unique and not easily stealable by your competition.
O: Just look at Uber with taxis, or AirBnB with places to stay. They're disrupting their own markets to stand out, and that means people’s expectations of what is ‘good’ or acceptable have become significantly higher as a result. As a result, even though businesses may have a loose strategy and roadmap of what they want to deliver, without having a key understanding of problems they're trying to solve from a customer experience perspective, they are at risk of launching a new product or service that doesn’t deliver against the customers expectations.
The very nature of CX is a complicated one. To push companies forward, professionals such as Greenwood and Ogley are tasked with stripping them back and putting in place new strategies and expectations. And, once the initial decision to push for a better customer experience has been made, the key is to have lasting impact. But how does a long-term endeavour sit alongside the need to return quick value?
G: The next challenge is accepting that it is not something you can rush and push live, or quickly fix overnight. Instead, it takes time. You need a lot of things to line up, and a lot of things in the business to change. So that’s an especially difficult challenge — getting people to buy into doing things differently and accept something in which they’re not going to see immediate change.
O: Which can be hard. I don’t like quick wins. Quick wins always lead to slow losses, in my experience. It’s the wrong mindset: yes you need to give value back to the business, but reaching for ‘quick wins’ often prioritizes things that are do-able instead of those which are a genuine little bit of the future. Improving CX is a long-term project, and businesses are quite often working on very short time scales. Even businesses that are big and ‘grown-up’ are often owned by private equity funds or investors who are essentially fattening their pigs for slaughter. They certainly aren’t thinking of the next ten years.
G: That’s why, to ensure companies buy into the idea of delivering a better customer experience, we have to make sure they understand the realities of what that actually means. It could mean changing the operating models, changing the internal structures, changing the business model. It’s a journey that cuts across many different parts of the company, and that can be incredibly difficult to understand and implement.
O: But maybe in recognising the complexity of doing this, we’re forced to let go of the illusion of control that we might once have had. The reality is that, designing digital products and end-to-end customer experiences comes with an unavoidable complexity. And we’ve just got to find ways of navigating that for the client. So they must give us flexibility and, as you said, time.
Finding the time to iron out logistics is one thing, but finding the influence to change internal culture is another. With many companies built on traditional hierarchical structures, it can be difficult to convince workers to shake years of established methods and approaches. But what is so wrong with these structures to begin with, and why is it so pivotal to the success of CX to challenge them?
O: Businesses tend to operate around organizational structures — and customers don’t engage with those individual silos. Instead, they’re going across the business and touching individual touchpoints in that structure. And that’s where the journeys tend to fall apart — because businesses aren’t focusing on end-to-end customer journey experiences. They’re focusing on creating particular products or experiences within those individual silos.
G: That’s right. But everyone understands that silos aren’t helpful — it’s just that businesses are still structured around professional disciplines. As a result, the customer is like a human battering ram pushed through those silos. And what we’re trying to do is flip those silos on their side, and get people thinking about their roles differently.
O: At times, there are also a clash of operating models and cultures within business. You’ve got technology teams, who are running agile development methodologies and looking to deliver incremental changes, and this can conflict with the traditional up-down hierarchy that deals with budgeting and marketing spend. So it’s hard to cut across different silos, because they all fundamentally work in a different way.
G: So that’s silos. But there’s also a problem with internal culture and reverting to type. The other thing that always strikes me about why CX is such a difficult thing is internal culture. So much of the customer service experience is based on a can-do attitude, so the first thing you have to tackle is internal culture.
O: Because of these cultures and patterns, people, at times, can present work that they know their boss will buy into — basically stuff they’ve done before or feel comfortable with. And that can end up with things built that aren’t right for the customer. That’s also when things naturally fall back into their own silos — and the end-to-end customer experience is challenged as a result.
G: You’ve just got to be optimistic. Recognizing that it’s difficult, and that it’s going to take some time, is no reason not to do it. Because there’s no end point to CX. We’ll be doing this for the rest of our careers. We just have to take it on and acknowledge its importance.
To drive lasting change in a brand’s customer experience, Greenwood and Ogley must start at the top of the hierarchy. It may not be the easiest place to exercise influence, but senior-level staff need to be on board to set an example for the rest of the company, either in one senior role championing CX or, as is more realistic, a coalition of the committed.
O: The biggest step is businesses acknowledging that they need to be on that journey and taking the first step. The problem is, roles that could action those steps still don’t exist in many businesses at a senior level. The only person that controls the levers to change things significantly is the CEO. Fortunately, within my role at [British budget hotel chain] Premier Inn, they’ve realised that they need to do things differently and brought a group of people in. Not just me, but people in different teams as well, to get some advocacy across the business in various disciplines.
G: And that’s an important point, about the group of people who will come in and drive change. People at a senior level need to acknowledge that it’s going to be hard and messy, but then form a coalition of like-minded people. That way, there’ll be enough people across the business with their hands on enough of the levers that the business will be able to begin to drive essential, substantial change.
O: The challenge then, of course, is to keep on driving that change. It might involve a completely different way of working, or breaking down silos or changes in structure within the business. Overall, it’s acknowledging from the top in a business that customer experience is a mindset, an ongoing approach to doing something. It’s not a product, it’s not something with a deadline and something you can put on a shelf. It’s different, and that idea must be first acknowledged at a senior level.
"Businesses tend to operate around organisational structures — and customers Don’t engage with those individual silos."
Even if the internal cultures are sufficiently changed, and senior level CX roles are created to push through any new strategies and methods, there is still the enduring issue of market saturation to contend with. CX may be a new practice, but the problems it faces are age-old. However, armed with the understanding of CX, can brands more easily rise above their competitors, and use it to offer customers something brand new?
G: Another reason why it’s such a difficult idea to get right is that businesses often end up swirling around in the same space as their competitors. But you need to find creative insights, things about the customer which no one else has spotted, things which help lead you off in new and exciting directions.
For me, the work we did with [consumer electrical retailer] Dixons Carphone around their new services business, Team Knowhow, is something that both exemplifies this and that I’m really proud of.
The starting point was that we had this killer customer insight and huge commercial opportunity. We all have all this kit in our lives — Fitbits, fridges and all the rest — and our ability to manage it all is falling behind our need. And even though the company already had two services businesses, we wanted to realise this opportunity by putting them together and creating something new and better.
Thankfully, they were very far-sighted. They realized that this couldn’t just be a new tagline and fresh wallpaper on an old business. They really had to re-engineer the business from the inside-out. So I led a track of work around the new customer experience. We created three future-state customer journeys with leaders, frontline and customers to explore what this new business would be like. Journey mapping is tricky – there are infinite journeys to map, you can get seriously bogged down – we were just trying to get to archetypes which would show us the shape of the overall customer experience.
From that creative exercise, we abstracted out a toolkit to help the business realize the new customer experience at speed and scale. To explain, if those individual journeys are the prose, our aim was to find the grammar behind it. For Team Knowhow this meant a set of experience principles which captured how we wanted someone to feel after a Team Knowhow experience, it meant a common flow to every service experience, and it meant a set of moments of experience, what we called ‘core moments’, brilliant basics that reduce anxiety and build trust, and ‘signature moments’ that drive differentiation and brand love, which formed the basis of their roadmap.
Ultimately, it is people who make a company work, or not work. The people who run the company, the people who work there, and the people the company serves. So how can this new, potentially frightening way of doing things be softened and made appealing in the eyes of all? What is the ‘key’ to the success of CX?
O: So how would you say we actually go about making things better?
G: We have to help that disparate group of people who make up a business. Despite their different agendas and professional backgrounds, we have to help them keep their eyes on the prize. And that means giving them something, a really compelling vision. And it doesn’t have to be set in stone and presented as something everyone has to grind their way towards for the next three years.
Instead, it just needs to take all those journey maps and the indigestible stuff and turn it into something that’s visual and compelling, emotional and impactful. Take Skype, for example. The work we did for them all coalesced around the idea of being ‘closer to the people who matter to you, even when you’re far apart’. And that shifted this dry product culture to something that was much more emotionally led, and spoke to the value that it actually offered people.
It seems like such a simple thing, but suddenly all the energy of the business crystalized around the idea. The most important factor in articulating a possible future, one that is still just out of reach, is to find — or create — a lightning rod. Something immediate to show the business — not a firework, but something that’s a true little bit of the future. But that’s the thing about a vision — you can’t underestimate its power. And it’s been fascinating at Wolff Olins seeing just how powerful a compelling vision can be in terms of galvanizing a business and, finally, getting everyone pulling in the same direction.
Ashley Unitt Explains Why the Human Connection Will Make or Break Your Business
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