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How the best Customer Experience Brands balance Technology with Humanity: MIT Tech Review

AvatarSarah Blackstock | July 26, 2018

What better way is there to learn about delivering an amazing customer experience than examining how the best in the business do it? The MIT Technology Review: Getting To Iconic report is based on surveys conducted with over 550 business executives at global firms—including retail, IT, logistics, healthcare, IT, and more— in over 30 countries between May and July 2017. Respondents were asked a series of questions on topics including their customer experience programs, introducing new technology, and optimizing human capital. Over 60% of them managed relatively large operations with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

Read on for our summary of the report, including key takeaways to consider when developing a plan for improving your organization’s customer experience, use of technology, and operational strategies.

The report focuses on “Iconic firms” and contrasts them to those that are not iconic. For their purposes, an Iconic firm is one that maintains “the highest levels of customer experience and have world-leading brand recognition” and also possess other key distinctions from their counterparts, such as:

Being omnichannel leaders. “Nearly 90% of respondents from Iconic firms felt they were adept at managing customer experience from an omnichannel perspective ; this figure drops to 75% for all responses, and 66% among the poor performers.”

Optimizing technology. 60% of Iconic firms believe they have the right mix of automated and live support channels, while only 26% of poor performers feel the same.

Likelihood to use leading-edge technology solutions. Iconic firms often deploy “next-generation self-service, loyalty program management, and ‘voice of the customer’ survey analytics.”

Ahead in using Artificial Intelligence. “91% of respondents from Iconic firms indicate that they use AI solutions to some degree to increase customer satisfaction, as compared with 42% of overall respondents.”

Using automation to extend capabilities. Iconic firms are not likely to see technology as a primary solution for challenges faced in customer experience. They most often work to find a balance between using technology and investing in the human side of support.

Focus on customer satisfaction over efficiency. “Iconic firms are 20% more likely to have a customer experience strategy driven by customer satisfaction objectives rather than efficiency, particularly during delivery and customer service—the later stages of the customer journey.”

Maintaining customer experience across an ecosystem. They’re twice as likely to require partners to adhere to their standards, and three times as likely to have their customer experience systems integrated with partners directly.

Social responsibility. “75% feel it is one of the most important components of their brand value, compared with 46% on average and 21% among low-performing firms.”

Improving Customer Relationships with Technology, Ecosystems, and Culture

When engaging with customers, the core growth strategies for global firms are: 1) optimizing tools and applications, and 2) improving operational processes.

Iconic firms manage these strategies in the following ways:

-They are “driven more by customer satisfaction than by efficiency management.”

-They “do not let technology overshadow their CX strategies” but they are also technology leaders.

-They’ve mastered omnichannel support. “Nearly 90% of respondents from leading firms felt they were adept at managing customer experience from an omnichannel perspective—that is, they have the ability to carry each customer’s context seamlessly from one channel to another and personalize interactions across each, allowing customers to easily find and utilize their preferred channel.”

-They prioritize being responsible global citizens. “A majority of 75% ranked their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives among the most important components of their brand value—compared with 46% on average, and 21% among low-performing firms.”

However, Iconic firms do not excel at everything. While they recognize the importance of maintaining customer experience across an ecosystem, the resistance for opening up and sharing data with partners is highest among Iconic firms. They tend to have the resources for setting it up, but not the will, while smaller firms may underestimate the need and also are not able to enforce these best practices with their partners.

Customer Experience and Operational Strategies

Survey respondents were asked if customer satisfaction or efficiency was most important for their operations in four stages of the customer experience journey: discovery, purchase, delivery, and customer service. According to the report, “most respondents see these two pressures as being equal for each stage, with the exception of customer service itself (where, understandably, customer satisfaction is seen as most important).”

However, Iconic firms were much more likely to consider customer satisfaction as a primary driver in every case, while low-performing firms most often defined each stage by the need for efficiency. Putting the customer ahead of maximizing efficiency is a common trend for Iconic firms.

efficiency vs customer satisfaction

Managing Customer Experience Across Channels

The survey found customer-centric firms—and especially Iconic firms—see the value in ecosystem management. The report found “nearly 85% of respondents from top-performing firms feel able to hold their partners to a common customer experience standard, and 56% felt their CX systems were well integrated across their ecosystem (compared with 62% and 37% overall, respectively).”

According to the respondents, “60% of Iconic firm respondents also felt they had the right mix of ‘live’ and automated channels, compared with only 26% of the poor performers and 40% for all respondents.”

Most Iconic firms feel they have mastered omnichannel customer support and are able to maintain quality across multiple channels. Beyond providing support across channels, Iconic firms also leverage the data they can collect across channels too.

Firms finding success in managing an omnichannel set up tend to be those able to blend technology with their human support team. Customers want things to be easy and are willing to switch channels to the one that gets them the best result.

While a common perception is that customers, particularly older ones, prefer live operators to chatbots, Millard says the reality is that “customers mainly like things to be easy.”

Dr. Nicola Millard, Head of Customer Insights & Futures at BT Global Services, categorizes customers into three “intention categories” as follows:

-Positives: they “have a ‘vision’ and a willingness to do significant online research.

-Neutrals: they’re “looking for the most efficient way to pay a bill or complete another transaction.

-Negatives: They “are customers in crisis…their attention span goes down…and long FAQs don’t work. They want to speak to someone to solve a problem—and if they get very angry, they will vent on social media.”

Iconic Firms lead the way in technology adoption

More respondents from Iconic firms indicated they’re already deploying ‘industry-leading’ solutions in contrast to low-performing firms, which have mostly not deployed any form of CX technology at all. Although Iconic firms are leaders in deploying technology, they don’t let it drive their CX strategies. Their focus is on strategic plans for high-quality customer experience.

One area most Iconic firms are limited is in the use of artificial intelligence, although 80% have used AI in some capacity. While Iconic firms believe in the promise of AI, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Monika Schulze, Global Head of Customer & Digital Experience at Zurich Insurance, explains: “Putting technology decisions before customer needs is a common mistake firms make. We need to establish emotional connections to our customers, and more often than not we need humans—not AI—to do this.” However, Schulze notes, “every customer expects Amazon-level completion times,” and that makes them more willing to choose automated options, like chatbots, to speed things up. She further explains, “technology cannot be looked at as the solution to customer experience challenges, but as an enabler.”

For example, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, has a customer experience team of 3,000, while also utilizing chatbots to assist. Felix Liu, their Head of the Customer Experience Business Group, estimates that AI currently resolves 50% of their incoming tickets. Their team collects data to find low-hanging fruit to help reduce the burden of issues requiring an answer from a human.

Top Characteristics of Iconic Firms

The report found that Iconic firms “understand the challenges they face in clearly grasp the challenges they face in achieving excellent customer experience levels, and they understand how they can deploy technology and talent to sustain them.”

The following is a checklist of the top strategies Iconic firms tend to utilize better than non-Iconic firms:  

Technology leadership: Iconic firms tend to deploy leading solutions, including a focus on collecting customer analytics and omnichannel coverage.

Investing in AI: While it’s not their main focus, they do use AI “to support human agents in making complex decisions that will improve customer experience even further.”

Omnichannel mastery: Iconic firms combine tools and analytics to work across channels. They tend to invest in the human members of their team, while adding technology to the mix when it will support their team.

Ecosystem sharing: Iconic firms don’t necessarily want to share their private customer analytics, but they do tend to try to work with partners to make sure the customer experience is optimized across the board.

Supporting brand values: They see the value in corporate social responsibility and aim to share values with their customers.

After surveying over 550 senior executives, the study concluded that global businesses hoping to deliver high level customer experience must find a balance between technology solutions and human-focused service. Success won’t be in implementing AI all over, but rather in finding ways to combine it with the people powering customer support already.