Communicating with Your Customers

Embrace the Rapidly Changing Customer Communication Model

By Gary E. Barnett

A phrase often used to describe rapid acceleration of a business model is Change2 (change squared). Change2 is easily observed in segments such as transportation (Uber and Lyft), consumer goods (Amazon and eBay), financial institutions (PayPal and Bitcoin) and even the automobile (Tesla) and space (SpaceX) industries. And although it is subtle to some, if not most, customer communication has also been evolving at a Change2 pace.

For anyone older than a millennial, the traditional form of customer communication—other than the brick-and-mortar, face-to-face variety—was limited to the contact center, where the customer could call to conduct business or be called when appropriate. Even today most contact centers are still based on voice (telephone calls), although new forms of communications (chat, SMS, video, and email) are creeping into the traditional contact center.

Contact centers are increasingly labor-heavy. They’re typically a burden on most company’s net promoter scores and often a sore point with customers. And let’s face it, many people dread calling a contact center. Just my mention of being in the contact center industry provokes a stranger’s long-winded rendition of their worst contact center experience. In many cases, what starts as a mundane request for information turns into a more-than-required complex (and many times frustrating) experience.

Reflecting on my own recent contact center interactions, most of the frustration was driven by the fact that I knew more about my issue than the agent. Now, I don’t mean this in a derogatory manner. I simply mean that there’s a myriad of information to communicate to the agent before that person has enough detail to provide meaningful assistance.

In fact, I now approach virtually every contact center call I make as a mission to get the agent as educated as quickly as possible so they can get to the task of solving my issue or selling me their latest whiz-bang product or service. An outbound contact center has an advantage because the agent can be “educated” before placing the outbound call.

Fast-forward at Change2 speed. During my last ride-share experience, I was kept informed through various forms of communication, providing a rather pleasant overall experience. Anytime I wanted to see the location of my driver and her anticipated arrival, I simply had to glance at my smartphone app.

Because of my pickup location, I needed to speak directly with the driver while she was in route. With a single tap in the app, I could immediately speak with my driver. The driver’s mobile number was not exposed to me, and more importantly, my mobile number was not exposed to her. My smartphone lit up with an SMS message when my driver arrived, and my credit card company sent me a notification the moment my credit card was charged.

This is not to say that contact centers will disappear or even become less relevant. They’re going through their own Change2 and will be absorbed by a broader comprehensive customer communication experience. The recent advancement of some contact centers to move from being limited to telephone calls to adding new channels of communication such as chat, email, SMS, and even video is just the beginning.

While these new channels add new choices for the customer, they typically mimic the capabilities of telephone calls. BPOs (business process outsourcers) will see these changes as challenging, but such changes will also provide new opportunities to add valuable services to their portfolios and provide these services to new organizations or business units within their existing customer base. For example, BPOs who primarily handle outbound teleservices will need to consider how outbound notifications through SMS or mobile applications can enhance the services they offer their customers.

Let’s take a closer look at some of my own personal experiences with some of these Change2 companies. They have fundamentally altered the models of their market segments. In the past year I have transacted many thousands of dollars with these companies. My experiences have been highly satisfactory. Their ability to communicate with me, as their customer, in a highly comprehensive manner impresses me. And to my recollection, I never communicated with these companies via their contact centers.

Through a variety of communication mechanisms, I stayed informed throughout my transactions. These channels included SMS, email, websites, and mobile apps. Each of these companies has a clear strategy on when to communicate with their customers, but also how and what to communicate. BPOs who are already skilled in outbound dialing should add these new forms of outbound communications to their portfolio of solutions.

Another attribute of a comprehensive communication strategy is that it must be a corporate strategy rather than a contact center strategy. Otherwise the outcome will appear disjointed and confusing to the customer. In my ride-sharing example, the communication experience would not have been as effective if I had been routed to a contact center, who would have relayed my message to the driver. Even though there was a telephone call between me and my driver, I didn’t have to search for a number; it was integrated into the mobile app. It also gave me a choice between a call or texting.

Traditional customer communication shifts the burden to the contact center, while in a comprehensive model, the burden is lifted (and often eliminated) from the contact center. I have yet to even interact with a contact center provided by Amazon, Uber, Lyft, PayPal, and eBay. Yet I have the perception that my communication level with these companies is high. By shifting the communication burden from the contact center through automation, there is an increased communication, enabled by the appropriate applications throughout the enterprise.

What customer communication applications, and their automation, are dependent upon a specific strategy? Application “hooks” for embedding communications are a must, generally accessing centralized preferences for customization down to the individual customer. Maintaining flexible customer communications preferences will be key, as preferences will certainly differ from customer to customer. They also likely will change for any given customer over time, especially as new communication channels become accessible.

Some enterprises have already created positions to plan, coordinate, and implement these initiatives. This makes sense where applications span multiple organizations and a comprehensive customer communication strategy is of high value. BPOs must monitor their customers changing organizations, which will impact contact center decisions.

Notwithstanding proactive notifications, workflows and other technologies are becoming the significant difference in the evolution to a comprehensive customer communication strategy. In most instances the contact center will no longer be the “center” for customer communication. Customers will view unsolicited proactive updates as highly informative and valuable, especially when using their specific preferences for when, what, and how.

Additionally, customers will expect all contact points be communication-enabled, including websites, mobile apps, and kiosks—and each will offer multiple channels of communication. Contact centers will not survive as islands, but rather they will participate in the overall customer communication strategy.

In summary, new business models incorporate comprehensive customer communication strategies, and these strategies play a significant role in those new models. Contact centers will continue to be necessary and expected by customers, but they won’t necessarily remain the primary customer contact point. Additionally, proactive outbound notifications will become the norm, as will communication-enabled mobile apps.

BPOs have a real opportunity to add new capabilities to their portfolios to help their customers adopt new forms of communication outside of the traditional contact center. Customer communication requirements will not be successful as silos, but instead will be shared across the enterprise. Finally, this will all occur at a Change2 pace. Is your company ready?

Gary E. Barnett is the former president and CEO of Aspect Communications, former president and CEO of Prospect Software, and most recently the former senior vice president and general manager at Avaya. In his thirty-five-year career, Mr. Barnett is known for his technical innovations in the contact center, unified communication, and CTI industries.