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Customer Experience Measurement in the Coronavirus Age

Earlier in this three-part series we discussed the mechanism and risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and the implications of the pandemic on the customer experience.

For many brands, this pandemic represents a moment of truth with their customers.  Moments of truth are specific experiences of high importance, where a customer either forms or changes their opinion of a brand in meaningful and lasting ways.  Customers are stressed.  They feel uncertainty, fear and, frankly, exhaustion.   This uncertainty and fear drives customers to seek shelter from resources they trust.  Brands which become a trusted resource, which provide comfort, true comfort, in the face of this crisis have an opportunity to not only do the right thing, but cement their customers’ relationship with the brand.  On the other hand, brands which fail to do so, risk destruction of their customer relationships.

Perhaps the most important way brands can respond to the moment of truth presented by this crisis is showing true care for: customers, employees, and the community.

Additionally, it is imperative that customers feel safe.  Based on current science, in-person interactions can be relatively safe if followed within CDC and public health guidance including risk mitigation efforts such as: physical distancing, masks, ventilation, length of exposure, and hand washing & sanitizer.

Using these previous posts as a foundation, we can now address the implications of the pandemic on customer experience measurement.

So…. what does all this mean in terms of customer experience measurement?

First, I like to think of the customer experience measurement in terms of the brand-customer interface where customers interact with the brand.  At the center of the customer experience are the various channels which form the interface between the customer and institution. Together, these channels define the brand more than any external messaging. Best-in-class customer experience research programs monitor this interface from multiple directions across all channels to form a comprehensive view of the customer experience.

Customers and front-line employees are the two stakeholders who interact most commonly with each other in the customer-institution interface. As a result, a best practice in understanding this interface is to monitor it directly from each direction: surveying customers from one side, gathering observations from employees on the brand side, and testing for the presence and timing of customer experience attributes through observational research such as mystery shopping.

Measure Customer Comfort and Confidence

First, fundamentally, the American economy is a consumer confidence driven economy.   Consumers need to feel confident in public spaces to participate in public commerce.  Customer experience researchers would be well served by testing for consumer confidence with respect to safety and mitigation strategies.  These mitigation strategies are quickly becoming consumer requirements in terms of confidence in public commerce.

The American economy is

driven by consumer confidence.

Along the same lines, given the centrality of consumer confidence in our economy, measuring how customers feel about the mitigation strategies put in place by the brand is extremely important.  Such measurements would include measures of appropriateness, effectiveness, and confidence in the mitigation strategies employed.  We recommend two measurements: how customers feel about the safety of the brand’s in-person channel in general, and how they feel about the safety relative to other brands they interact with during the pandemic.  The first is an absolute measure of comfort, the other attempts to isolate the variable of the pandemic, just measuring the brand’s response.

The pandemic is changing consumer behavior. This much is clear.  As such customer experience researchers should endeavor to identify and understand how consumer behavior is changing so they can adjust the customer experience delivery mix to align with these changes.

Testing Mitigation Strategies

Drilling down from broader research issues to mystery shopping specifically, there are several research design issues that should be continued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Measure Customer Confidence in Post-Transaction Surveys with Alerts to Failures:  First, as economic activity waxes and wanes through this coronavirus mitigation effort, consumer confidence will drive economic activity both on a macro and micro-economic level.  Broadly, consumers as a whole will not participate in the in-person economy until they are confident the risk of infection is contained.  Pointedly, at the individual business level, customers will not return to a business if they feel unsafe.  Therefore, market researchers should build measures of comfort or confidence into the post-transaction surveys to measure how the customer felt as a result of the experience.   This will alert managers to potential unsafe practices which must be addressed.  It will also serve as a means of directly measuring the return on investment (ROI) of customer confidence and safety initiatives in terms of the customer experience.

Measure Customer Perception of Mitigation Strategies:  Coronavirus mitigation strategies will become typical attributes of the customer experience.   Beyond simply testing for the presence of these mitigation strategies, customer experience managers should determine customer perceptions of their appropriateness, efficacy, and perhaps most importantly, their confidence in these mitigation strategies.

Gather Employee Observations of Mitigation Strategies:  Frontline employees spend nearly all their time in the brand customer interface.  As such, they have always been a wealth of information about the customer experience, and can be surveyed very efficiently.  The post-pandemic customer experience is no exception. 

First, as we discussed previously, employees have the same personal safety concerns as customers.   Surveys of employees should endeavor to evaluate employees’ confidence in and comfort with coronavirus mitigation strategies. 

Secondly, frontline employees being placed in the middle of the brand-customer interface are in perfect position to give feedback regarding the efficacy of mitigation strategies and the extent to which it fits into the desired customer experience – providing managers with valuable insight into adjustments which may make mitigation strategies fit more precisely into overall the customer experience objectives.

Independently Test for the Presence of Mitigation Strategies:  All in-person channels across all industries will require the adoption of coronavirus mitigation strategies.  Mystery shopping is the perfect tool to test for the presence of mitigation strategies – evaluating such strategies as: designed physical distancing, physical barriers between POS personnel and customers, mask compliance, sanitization, and duration of contact.

Alternative Research Sources for Behavioral Observations:  Some customer experience managers may not want unnecessary people within their in-person channel.  So the question arises, how can employee behaviors be measured without the use of mystery shoppers?  One solution is to solicit behavioral observations directly from actual customers shortly after the in-person service interaction.  Customers can be recruited onsite to provide their observations through the use of QR codes, or in certain industries after the event via e-mail.  The purpose of these surveys is behavioral – asking the customers to recall if a specific behavior or service attribute was present during the encounter.  From a research design standpoint, this practice is a little suspect, as asking people to recall the specifics about an event after the fact, without prior knowledge, is problematic.  Customers are not prepared or prompted to look for and recall specific events.  However, given the unique nature of the circumstances we are under, in some cases there is an argument that the benefits of this approach outweigh the research limitations.

Test Channel Performance and Alignment

The instantaneous need for alternative delivery channels has significantly raised the stakes in cross-channel alignment.  As sales volume shifts to these alternative channels, customer experience researchers need to monitor the customer experience within all channels to measure the efficacy of the experience, as well as alignment of each channel to both each other and the overall brand objectives.

Finally, as more customers migrate to less in-person channels, customer experience researchers should endeavor to measure the customer experience within each channel.  As more late adopters are forced by the pandemic to migrate to these channels, they may bring with them a completely different set of expectations relative to early adopters, therefore managers would be well served to understand the expectations of these newcomers to the alternative channels so they can adjust the customer experience to meet these new customers’ expectations.

As commerce migrates away from conventional in-person channels to alternative delivery channels, the importance of these channels will increase.  As a result, the quality and consistency of delivery in these channels will need to be measured through the use of mystery shoppers.  Some industries are going to be problematic, as their current economics do not currently support alternative delivery.  With time however, economic models will evolve to support alternative channels.

Conclusion

This is a difficult time.  It will be the defining event of our generation.

The pandemic, and our reaction to it, is dramatically changing how humans interact with each other, and the customer experience is no exception.  There is reason to suggests this difficult time could become a new normal.  Managers of the customer experience need to understand the implications of the customer experience in the post-Covid environment, as the implications of the pandemic may never fully subside.  Customer experience managers must consider the implications of this new normal, not only on the customer experience, but on customer experience measurement.

Customer Experience Measurement in the Coronavirus Age: Implications for Customer Experience

Earlier in this three-part series we discussed the mechanism of infection and risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. 

In summary, the most common cause of spread is believed to be airborne by inhaling virus particles exhaled into the environment.  The infectious dose of a virus is the amount of virus a person needs to be exposed to in order to establish an infection.  We currently do not know the infectious dose for SARS-CoV-2.  Estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand virus particles.[1]  One virus particle will not cause an infection.  To be infected one must exceed the infectious dose by either being exposed to a cough or a sneeze.  Absent coughs or sneezes, under normal activity one must be exposed to the virus over time to exceed the infectious dose.

This post draws ocorn the foundation of the first to discuss the implications of the pandemic on the customer experience.

Modern day customer experiences exist in a finely tuned ecosystem, where the dramatic changes as a result of the pandemic have off set the delicate balance, causing problems from supply chain disruptions to an immediate shift away from in-person channels.

Furthermore, the pandemic represents what I call a moment of truth regarding the relationship with customers.  Moments of truth are specific experiences of high importance, where a customer either forms or changes their opinion of a brand in meaningful and lasting ways.  How brands respond to moments of truth, particularly in this time of global crisis, will strengthen or weaken the customers’ relationship to the brand.

Moments of truth are specific experiences of high

importance, where a customer either forms or changes

their opinion of a brand in meaningful or lasting ways.

Customers are stressed.  They feel uncertainty, fear and, frankly, exhaustion.   Ongoing concern for personal safety, education of children, and the well being of loved ones is exhausting.  This uncertainty and fear drives customers to seek shelter from resources they trust.  Brands which become a trusted resource, which provide comfort, true comfort, in the face of this crisis have an opportunity to not only do the right thing, but cement their customers’ relationship with the brand.  On the other hand, brands which fail to do so, risk destruction of their customer relationships.

Care for all Stakeholders

Perhaps the most important way brands can respond to the moment of truth presented by this crisis is showing true care for stakeholders in the brand: customers, employees, and the community.

Care for Customers

Brands must communicate care for customers.  Drawing on a personal example, March of 2020 was a particularly worrisome time for me.   At that time, the Seattle area was considered one of the epicenters of the outbreak, mandatory stay at home orders where being introduced – fear ruled – fear driven by uncertainty; uncertainty with respect to the safety of myself and loved ones; uncertainty with respect to the financial future; uncertainty with respect to the state of the entire globe.

Amidst all this uncertainty and fear I received an email from Citigroup entitled “Covid-19.  Let us know if we can help.”  It communicated personal care for me, encouraged alternative channel use: online, mobile and 24/7 contact center assistance, and contained links to CDC guidance.

A week later the campaign continued with an update on the actions Citigroup was implementing based on the pandemic; again, educating me to digital tools available, offering personal assistance if needed.

Two and a half months later, in June, I received an email expressing “heartfelt thanks” for adapting to changes and remaining loyal.  It described ways Citigroup was assisting with a variety of COVID-19 relief, specifically introducing a partnership with celebrity chef Jose Anres’ World Central Kitchen Campaign distributing meals in low-income neighborhoods in big cities like New York, and monitoring the globe for food shortages elsewhere. This not only demonstrated care for me personally, but care for the community.

Care for Communities

Citigroup’s donations to the World Central Kitchen campaign is one example of care for our communities.   There are countless examples of brands offering community support. 

  • A beer brewery, Brewdog, shifted production away from beer to hand sanitizer.
  • A Spanish sports retailer donated scuba masks to hospitals.
  • EBay offered free services to small business forced to switch from brick-and-mortar to ecommerce to keep their small business afloat – pledging $100 million in support of this endeavor.

Care for Employees

Employees are important.  They animate the brand and drive customer loyalty – particularly in moments of truth like these.  Research has determined that in many retail and service environments, there is a positive correlation between employee satisfaction and employee retention as well as customer loyalty.  They are not immune from the fear and the stress of this crisis.  Additionally, frontline employees spend all their time in the brand-customer interface.  They are the personal representatives of the brand.

Additionally, given these front-line employees spend the majority of their time in the brand-customer interface, they tend to have a level of understanding about the customer experience that management often misses.

As a result, it is incumbent on brands to attend to the stresses employees are under, demonstrate concern, and develop communication channels for employees to feed customer experience intelligence to management.

Delivery Channels

I’ve always been an advocate of meeting customers in their preferred channel; meeting them where they are today and delivering a seamless experience.   Obviously, over the recent decades there has been a migration from in-person channels to increasing self-directed, alternative channels.  The pandemic has immediately accelerated this shift.  Be it telehealth, online banking, in-home instruction of our children, or a restaurant delivering through UberEats, providers of all types now face increasing pressure to bring their business to their customers’ homes.

Emotional Well Being

As observed earlier, this pandemic is a moment of truth between many brands and their customers.  In our experience, customers primarily want three things from a provider: 1) empathy, 2) care/concern for their needs, and 3) competence.  We see this constantly.  Customers want to do business with brands that empathize with them, care about their needs, and are capable of satisfying those needs in a competent manner.  Brands that seek to attend to the emotional needs of their customers during this moment of truth will earn the loyalty and positive word-of-mouth of their customers.

In-Person Precautions and Mitigation Strategies

While the pandemic has accelerated an ongoing transition to alternative channels, some industries require an in-person experience.  Based on current science, in-person interactions can be relatively safe if followed within CDC and public health guidance outlined in the first part of this series:

  • Physical Distancing:  Estimates of exposure time all assume close personal contact.  Physical distancing decreases the likelihood of receiving an infectious dose by putting space between ourselves and others – current recommendations are 6 feet.

Furthermore, many in-person transactions can now be done touch free.  I recently had to rent a car, and was pleased to meet the rental attendant outside holding a tablet.  The attendant took down all my information, I never had to touch or sign anything.  In a different transaction, requiring a signature, I was offered a single use pen to keep.

  • Masks:  Masks are a core tool to provide physical distancing between individuals. Masks do not primarily act as a filter for the wearer, but suppress the amount of droplets an infected person can spread into the space around them. This reduces the risk that others will exceed the infectious dose of the virus.
  • Ventilation:  Well ventilated areas disperse virus particles making it less likely a dose exceeds the infectious limits.  Like my car rental agency, brands should endeavor to provide well ventilated spaces for employees and customers to interact – not only to protect customers but employees as well.
  • Length of Exposure:  Finally, brands should design service encounters to be as time efficient as possible.  Again, the CDC advises a 15-minute exposure limit for close personal contact.  Social distancing through physical distance, masks, and ventilation should increase this safe exposure limit.  However, strategies should be implemented to make service encounters as brief as possible.  For example, if you require information from your customers as part of the service interaction, collect this required information online or over the phone prior to an appointment.  This could help to make customers and employees safer and more comfortable.
  • Hand Washing & Sanitizer:  Hand washing and sanitization is the primary defense against transfer infections.

Putting it All Together

Putting all this together, let’s look at an industry Kinesis has the most experience with.  Kinesis’ largest practice is in the banking and financial services industry.  Recently the American Bankers Association (ABA) released the results of an industry survey regarding publically announced responses of US banks to the pandemic. [2] 

Many banks are applying some of the concepts discussed above in creative ways.  A review of a random selection of banks reveals the following responses ranked from most common to least common:

  1. Enhanced deep cleaning and disinfecting of work spaces;
  2. Implementing social distancing in work spaces, including branches;
  3. Encouraging use of alternative delivery channels, such as mobile and internet banking;
  4. Personalized assistance to customers negatively impacted by the pandemic;
  5. Increased donations to charity/ partnering with the local community to mitigate the effects of the pandemic;
  6. Allowing employees to work remotely if possible;
  7. Limiting access to branches (closing branch lobbies, limiting hours, appointment only banking);
  8. Paid time off for employees to self-quarantine or to care of school age children;
  9. Rotating schedules of customer-facing staff to reduce risk (one institution has applied a 10 days on 10 days off policy); and
  10. Educating customers of pandemic related fraud/scams.

In the next post, we will build off the foundation of the previous two posts to address the implications of the pandemic on customer experience measurement.


[1] Geddes, Linda. “Does a high viral load or infectious dose make covid-19 worse?”  newscientist.com, March 27, 2020.  Web May 14, 2020.

[2] “America’s Banks Are Here to Help: The Industry Responds to the Coronavirus.”  ABA.com, April 29, 2020.  Web.  May 19 2020.

Implications of CX Consistency for Researchers – Part 1 – Inter-Channel Consistency

Previously, we discussed the business case and implications for customer experience mangers for inter-channel consistency.

This post considers the implications of cross-channel consistency for customer experience researchers.  The first research implication of inter-channel consistency is to understand that researchers must investigate service delivery consistency at its cause.

The range of choices available to customers here in the 21-st century is incredible.  Gone are the Henry Ford days when you, as he put it, “could have any color you want as long as it’s black.”  Modern customers have an array of choices available to them not only in the brands but in delivery channels.   Modern brands must serve channels in the channel of the customer’s choice, be it on-line, mobile, contact center, or in-person.   As customer choice expands cross-channel consistency has become more and more important.

The problem for customer experience researchers is that this channel expansion requires a broad tool box of research techniques, as different channels require unique systems and processes appropriate to the channel.  Systems and processes for on-line channels are different than those for in-person channels.  These different systems and processes often lead to the siloing of channels, which may help make individual channels more efficient, but run the risk in inconsistencies in the customer experience from one channel to the other.

Customers, however, don’t look at a brand as a collection of siloed channels.  Customers do not care about organizational charts.  They expect a consistent customer experience regardless of channels.  Customers expect cross-channel consistency.

If senior management has defined the customer experience organization-wide, the researcher’s role in coordinating research tools is much easier.  If management has not defined the customer experience organization-wide, the researcher’s role is nearly impossible.

The first step in defining the customer experience organization-wide is writing a clear customer experience mission statement which clearly communicates how customers should experience the brand, and how management wants customers to feel as a result of the experience.  Next, the customer experience should be defined in terms of broad dimensions and specific attributes which constitute the desired customer experience and emotional reaction to the brand.

For illustration, let’s consider the following example:

A bank may define their customer experience with four broad dimensions, which can be described as:

  1. Relationship Building
  2. Sales Process
  3. Product Knowledge
  4. Customer Knowledge

Next, the customer experience leadership of this bank must define each of these broad dimensions in terms of specific attributes which combine to make up the dimensions.  For example, each of the above four dimensions may be defined by the following attributes:

Dimension Attributes
Relationship Building Establish trust

Commitment to customer needs

Perceived as trusted advisor

Sales Process Referral to appropriate partner
Product Knowledge Understanding of a range of products

Understand features and benefits

Explain benefits in ways that are meaningful to customers

Customer Knowledge Needs analysis

Once each of the above dimensions has been defined in terms of specific attributes, the next step in translating the customer experience definition to action is to define a set of empirical behaviors which support each attribute.

For example, establishing trust is an attribute of relationship building.

Relationship Building –> Establish Trust

Under this example, a set of behaviors is defined which are designed to establish trust.  For example, these behaviors may be:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Speak clearly
  • Maintain smile
  • Thank for business
  • Ask “What else may we assist you with today?”
  • Encourage future business

Now, each of these six behaviors is mapped across each channel.  So, for example, this bank may map these behaviors across channels as follows:

Behaviors Which Support Establishing Trust:

New Accounts Teller Contact Center
Maintain eye contact Maintain eye contact
Speak clearly Speak clearly Speak clearly
Maintain smile Maintain smile Sound as if they were smiling through the phone
Thank for business Thank for business Thank for business
Ask “What else may we assist you with today?” Ask “What else may we assist you with today?” Ask “What else they could do to assist you today?”
Encourage future business Encourage future business Encourage future business

Repeating this process of mapping behaviors to each of the attributes will produce a complete list of employee behaviors appropriate to each channel in support of management’s broader customer experience objectives.

Business Case and Implications for Consistency – Part 5 – Inter-Channel Consistency

Previously we explored the business case for consistency by considering the influence of poor experiences.

The modern customer experience environment is constituted of an ever expanding variety of delivery channels, with no evidence of the slowing of the pace of channel expansion.  As channel expansion continues, customer empowerment is increasing with customer choice.  Customer relationships with brands are not derived from individuals’ discrete interactions.  Rather, customer relationships are defined by clusters of interactions, clusters of interactions across the entire life cycle of the relationships, and across all channels.  Inter-channel consistency defines the customer relationship.

McKinsey and Company concluded in their 2014 report, The Three Cs of Customer Satisfaction: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency, demonstrated, in a retail banking context, a link between cross-channel consistency and bank performance.

In customers’ minds, all channels belong to the same brand.  Customers do not consider management silos or organizational charts – to them all channels are the same.  Customers expect consistent experiences regardless of channel.  In their minds, an agent at a call center should have the same information and training as in-person agents.

What are the implications for managers of the customer experience?

The primary management issue in aligning disparate channels is to manage inconsistency at its cause.  The most common cause of inconsistencies across channels is the result of siloed management, where managers’ jurisdiction is limited to their channel. Inter-channel consistency is increasingly important as advances in technology expand customer choice.  Brands need to serve customers in the channel of their choice.   Therefore, the cause of inter-channel inconsistency must be managed higher up in the organization at the lowest level where lines of authority across channels converge, or through some kind of cross-functional authority.

The implications for management are not limited to senior management and cross-functional teams. Customer experience managers should be aware that top-line averages can mislead.  Improvement opportunities are rarely found in top-line averages, but at the local level.  Again, the key is to manage inconsistency at the cause.  Inconsistency at the local level almost always has a local cause; as a result, variability in performance must be managed at the local level as well.

In a previous post from 2014, we discussed aligning cross channel service behaviors and attributes.

In the next blog post in this series, we will explore intra-channel consistency.

Business Case and Implications for Consistency – Part 1: Why We Value Consistency

Humans value consistency – we are hard wired to do so – it’s in our DNA.

It is generally believed that modern humans originated on the Savanna Plain. Life was difficult for our distant forefathers. Sources of water, food, shelter were unreliable. Dangers existed at every turn. Evolving in this unreliable and hostile environment, evolutionary forces selected in modern humans a value for consistency – in effect hard wiring us to value consistency. We seek security in an insecure world.

In this context, it is not surprising we evolved to value consistency. While our modern world is a far more reliable environment, our brains are still hard wired to value consistency.

The implication for managers of the customer experience is obvious – customers want and value consistency in the customer experience. We’ve all felt it. When a car fails to start, when the power goes out, when software crashes we all feel uncomfortable. A lack of reliability and consistency creates confusion and frustration. We want to have confidence that reliable events like starting the car, turning on the lights or using software will work consistently. In the customer experience realm, we want to have confidence that the brands we have relationships with will deliver consistently on their brand promise each time without variation in quality.

Customers expect consistent delivery on the brand promise. They base their expectations on prior experience. Thus customers are in a self-reinforcing cycle where expectations are set based on prior experiences continually reinforcing the importance of consistency. This is the foundation of customer loyalty. We are creates of habit. The foundation of customer loyalty is built on the foundation of dependable, consistent, quality service delivery.

While we evolved in a difficult and unreliable environment, our modern society is much more reliable. Our modern society offers a much more consistent existent. Again, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Product quality and consistency of our mass production economy has reinforced our expectations of consistency.

Today’s information technology continues to reinforce our desire for consistency. However, it adds an additional element of customization. Henry Ford, the father of mass production, famously said of the Model-T, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.” Those days are gone. Today, we expect both consistency and customization.

In the next post, we will explore the business case for consistency.

The Ultimate Balancing Act

Reprinted from Call Center Magazine

May 6, 2002

Companies must keep tight control of budgets but not spending enough on agent training could cost them more in the long run. Here’s how to balance training dollars…

Click here for complete article

Cross-Channel Training

Imagine: You have call centers, print catalogs, an e-commerce Web site and retail outlets. And you just invested in a mega-million dollar CRM package.

But do agents know what is on your Web site, in your catalogs, and what sales are happening in your stores? Do agents and support reps know the contents and have access to your Web site’s FAQ?

If they don’t, then they should be brought up to speed. So says Peter Gurney, managing partner with Kinesis (Seattle, WA), who recommends that you train agents about your channels, how they interrelate and how they affect the total customer experience.

Too many companies do not train agents on other channels, resulting in a disjointed image of the company, missed sales opportunities and frustrated customers.

Sometimes customers call asking about a Web offer or a store sale, but the agents have no clue what they are talking about. And that will annoy customers and embarrass agents.

If customers go to a store, chances are someone there will know about your company’s Web site, catalog and call center. Web sites will have store locations and telephone numbers.

Gurney’s former firm, Service Intelligence, performed a mystery audit of several leading companies’ support desks in 1997 (as cited in the October 1997 issue of Call Center Magazine, “Keeping Your Support Center Afloat”). The audit found that many reps did not have the right answers and could not answer questions even though the answers were in the employer’s on-line FAQ. Little has improved since then, he notes.

“Call centers are not taking the customer experience across the channels but customers are channel-independent,” Gurney explains.


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