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Voice Activated

Less than one third of North American companies consider their customer experience (CX) programs “advanced,” according to Oracle‘s “Global Insights on Succeeding in the Customer Experience Era” survey of senior executives. The reason: They lack the money to do it right. CX experts think it stems from top management’s inability to assign value to customer experience the way they can to, say, profits.

Gael Lundeen differs with corporate boards on that score. The VP of customer experience at Pitney Bowes finds CX not only measurable, but also memorable. “I can do a Pareto of the top seven factors why customers are dissatisfied,” Lundeen says. “Some people are surprised by what they see, but customer voice cuts right through them.”

Customer centricity remains a work in progress, even at companies that claim to have embraced it, but the customer listening that enables it has become a full-blown movement. Comprehensive, enterprise-wide voice of the customer (VoC) programs that amplify customers’ recommendations and protestations via a chorus of input from call centers, marketing surveys, billing data, and social media chatter are proliferating. Two thirds of customer experience professionals surveyed last May by Forrester Research said their companies had VoC programs in place and a further 13% said they planned to establish them within a year.

Robust VoC programs are popular for good reason. They pay off. “Any company that implements strategies informed by voice of customer will achieve double-digit increases in response, revenue, satisfaction, and lifetime value,” says Ernan Roman, president of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing (ERDM), which provides VoC-driven relationship marketing consulting services.

That growth, however, often comes once customer centricity takes hold in an organization. “VoC is not a project,” says Karine DelMoro, senior director of VoC solutions provider Confirmit. “It’s about changing the way an entire company thinks. It doesn’t end.”

Thinking differently refers not just to customer centricity, but also to how companies—and marketers—listen to and act on the voice of the customer. “You can do a survey and get a negative response from a customer and say you’re sorry,” says Chris Cottle, CMO of Allegiance, a VoC solutions provider. “Or you can combine solicited input with unsolicited feedback and purchase data and respond immediately to the customer with a 50% coupon.”

It’s opportunities for those types of connections with customers that have the greatest potential, Cottle says. “Marketers spend too much time dropping new people in the top of the funnel,” he says. “They need to stop thinking about improving their outreach and start thinking about taking a lifetime purchase of $100 and making it $150. That’s what VoC can do.”

Barclaycard, Cross Country Home Services, and JetBlue are three companies that think differently about customer insight and understand the potential of a comprehensive VoC strategy linked to marketing.

Barclaycard feels the fire

Doug Villone got his start in the banking business some two decades ago as a customer service agent. For eight hours a day he would talk with customers and “feel the fire,” as he calls it. Villone worked his way to the top of the complaint department and now serves as head of customer experience at Barclaycard, Barclays Bank’s credit card unit, which is maneuvering for a foothold in the market in the United States.

“Barclaycard’s U.S. expansion in an already crowded and mature credit card market could only be possible if we reduced complaints, increased customer satisfaction, and reduced attrition,” Villone says. “The complaint trends uncovered in customer engagement programs held the answer to the company’s predicament.”

So, about two years ago, throwing all job security to the wind, Villone started playing recordings of customer calls at company meetings. “We would all listen and squirm a little,” he recalls, “and after you repeat the exercise a few times, it starts to change the dialogue at all levels in the organization.”

Management eventually decided the fire needed to be spread out to everybody in the company. Now, every day at Barclaycard, a customer call or letter is selected at random and sent to all employees’ email inboxes by 7:30 a.m. Villone wanted employees to hear an accurate reflection of customer experience—though there have been theme weeks of “top complaint drivers” or “bottom-box customer satisfaction calls.” At first, all the calls of the day were audio recorded by the customer service, fraud, and collections departments, but later included emails and social media comments.

“A lot of companies say they go to the front lines and hear the reactions of customers, but here we have 1,000 people hearing the same thing every day,” Villone says. “People begin to develop a shared understanding of the business. If you hear people consistently complaining about late fees, it’s going to have an effect on you.”

Before starting the daily listening program, Villone had instituted a tracking system that logged customer complaints, whether they came via the call center, mail, or email. But sharing samples of these on a companywide basis is when data started to turn into action. “It helped people internalize how maybe they helped create that bad experience,” he says. “And…they knew their boss and his boss had heard the same complaint.”

Villone emphasizes, however, that while listening to customers on a daily basis is valuable, companies need to synthesize their ideas and construct policies on how to react. Barclaycard instituted the “Customer Experience Roadmap Hopper” project that identified six areas of improvement and asked senior executives to volunteer to sponsor initiatives and form teams to pursue them. Processes investigated included hiring and training, frontline empowerment, and agent capabilities and led to changes in billing practices and hours of operation, among many others. One team delivered 200 improvements that resulted in a 70% decrease in complaints and saved Barclaycard an estimated $10 million a year, according to Forrester Research.

“It was a real cool thing,” Villone says. “Here you’d have a managing director working with a frontline agent shoulder-to-shoulder to solve problems.”

Shared customer experience plus senior management involvement turned out to be a formula that mobilized Barclaycard’s workforce, Villone notes, making them pay attention to the smallest details that might move the needle in the company’s business. “A suggestion a customer made about improving our website ended up saving us a lot of money,” Villone cites as an example. “The thing you learn in customer experience is that sometimes the simplest things are the most impactful.”

The payoff hits home

In the home warranty business, renewal rates are fairly static and profit margins are thin, according to Sandi Finn, president of Cross Country Home Services, which markets more than 20 home warranty products and maintenance plans through business partners and direct-to-consumer channels. Four years ago Finn was approached by ERDM to help her company better understand how to improve customer experience. ERDM proffered the possibility of increasing renewal rates by double digits, but Finn was skeptical, especially since the real estate business was in a downward spiral.

“But we did the first project and it changed the way we think,” Finn says. “We learned that it’s more about how we treat people when they file a claim, whether we pay it or not.”

In-depth listening to current and former customers, whether through ongoing surveys or intensive phone interviews, are the crux of Cross Country’s VoC program. After tallying results, the company prioritizes ideas for addressing issues and tests them with small pilot programs.

One common complaint from claim filers was the several-day’s wait for replacement parts to arrive. Cross Country reacted with a pilot program focused on air conditioner parts. They trained frontline employees in sourcing techniques, freeing them to pay higher prices to get parts quickly, and instructed individual agents to stay with customers through to the conclusion of the process. Finn had her second surprise: The cost of securing replacement parts decreased by $300,000 in the first year thanks to decreased processing costs.

In that same time frame Cross Country’s renewal rates shot up 25%. As more listening and analysis has led to more reaction to both customer and partner needs, says Finn, renewals are trending at 50%.

Drilling deep into the renewal process was the sole purpose of the initial interviews ERDM conducted for Cross Country: What was the efficacy of direct mail efforts? How many touches with the customer were too many or too few? How many weeks before expiration did they want to be contacted? Yet, the company found that sensitivity to customer’s anxieties was more important than claims approvals and quality repairs.

“The listening skills of our call center reps had to be dramatically improved. People are calling in stressed. Their heat is out for a long time. They have kids,” Finn says. “We taught our associates to take the time to listen and establish a human relationship.” That resulted in increased talk time in the call centers, but within a year, as agents got more proficient, it dropped by 4%. Finn also budgeted for an increase in claims, which did increase slightly at the outset, but have since leveled out.

What changes has VoC brought to Cross Country Home Services in four years? Finn has a long list. Pilot programs fueled by feedback now accompany every new initiative. Real estate agents who sell its policies are energized by the changes. Employees aren’t missing any annual bonuses. “They get the new mission, which now includes customer service excellence. We used to have the classic mission statement that basically said, ‘We’re going to be the best because we’re great,” Finn explains. “It didn’t mention the customer at all.”

In recovery mode

In the game of customer experience, the airline business has to be the major leagues. The journey from reservations to check-in to the gate to takeoff is a minefield of potential customer dissatisfaction. JetBlue’s management is so sure that it could lose frequent fliers along that godforsaken gauntlet that they’ve institutionalized “customer recovery.”

“At our very core, we consider ourselves a customer service company that just happens to have airplanes,” says Justin Thompson, the airline’s director of customer insights and recovery.

All JetBlue crews from inflight to airports to flight ops to customer support march to the beat of the company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS), and for good reason. Thompson says that every one-point change up or down in JetBlue’s overall company score means  between $5 million and $8 million in business to the airline each year. (NPS is determined by asking customers to rate their likelihood to recommend on a scale from zero to 10. The percentage of promoters—9s and 10s— are subtracted from the percentage of detractors—zeros to 6s—to calculate the score.)

JetBlue assiduously courts feedback from customers, poring through 900,000 post-flight surveys, 350,000 customer emails, and close to the same volume in social media comments each year. The company sends out five different versions of surveys to passengers and overlays the responses with some 150 attributes of a passenger’s journey: where customers sat, where they booked the flight, the flight crew on board, etc.

Using a VoC platform from Allegiance, the company aggregates and serves up customer feedback and related data to several hundred leaders across the airline. “Departments across the airline, from commercial to operations, are able to measure the Net Promoter contribution of their functions,” Thompson says. “A crew member can literally access over two million survey responses and filter down to feedback provided by customers on flights they served.”

JetBlue employees are eager to track their individual NPS because the score plays a large part in determining their quarterly bonus. The airline introduced a new pay-for-performance program this year called “Percent Wow,” which is based on the percentage of 10s they score on customer surveys.

The airline’s current VoC program traces its roots back to February 14, 2007, when an ice storm at its JFK Airport hub trapped some passengers on planes for hours and caused the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights during the week. The huge amount of immediate customer feedback quickly caused JetBlue’s Net Promoter Score to plummet from the 70s to near zero. Ever since, the airline’s managers have been monitoring their NPS scores like intensive care unit nurses watching EKG machines.

“That event put the wheels in motion to measure and learn more about Net Promoter [in greater depth], which has in turn, grown into huge amounts of data, much better insight, and incredible support for what we do,” Thompson says.

Thompson has a long list for improving JetBlue’s VoC operations beyond surveying recent passengers. He’d like to install speech analytics in the contact center and get more feedback on reservations operations. More than anything, however, he longs for a system that will allow him to process customer feedback in real time.

“We’re not in a position where we can, in real time automated fashion, apply predictive NPS to a customer who didn’t provide feedback, using feedback from others with like-for-like travel experiences. Our measurement today is heavily transactional and not yet connected to the overall relationship. We are getting much closer,” Thompson says.

Thompson is a fitting advocate for airline customers, because he doesn’t please easily. He feels that he can’t dissect the ideal customer experience until he puts together all the components that comprise it. He observes that if your data sits in a vacuum, so do your decisions. But on the good side, marketers stay gainfully employed. “Marketing,” Thompson says, “is the payment for bad word of mouth.”


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