30 Years On, We Still Don’t Put the Customer First

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Many people trace the birth of the consumer Internet to about 1994. Soon marketers saw ‘digital’ as the key to transforming customer relationships. It was supposed to provide an inexpensive, magical way to deliver personalized experiences and continuous interactions and relationships.

Today, most people can’t imagine life without digital because we spend and manage so much of our lives on it. Email, messaging, and entertainment, of course, but arguably even more importantly, as the primary way we interact with essential businesses and services. In a recent survey of American banking customers, for example, we found that 81% of consumers do most or all of their banking via digital. For most people, a great customer service comes down to the quality of our digital experiences.

Most businesses are thrilled when a customer chooses digital over real-world interactions. But do customers choose our digital channels because they like them or despite how much they dislike them? The American Customer Satisfaction Index reports that from late 2018 until mid-2022, US customer satisfaction dropped almost every quarter. While scores have shown a slight uptick since, satisfaction levels remain at near 20-year lows.

Global spending on customer experience, or CX, is set to reach $641 billion this year — up f more than $130 billion since 2019. Yet, for all the money invested, customer satisfaction is nowhere near where we want it. Forty-three percent of customers yelled or raised their voices at customer service personnel last year, up from 35% in 2015. How are so many companies going wrong?

First, too many rely on those ubiquitous and annoying customer-satisfaction surveys. Consumers who deal with an even slightly friendly customer service person can feel like the company has put a gun to their head: “Give this person five stars, or they’ll be fired — and it’ll be your fault.”

If the service actually warranted four stars, or even three, consumers with a conscience give a five anyway. And if this doesn’t automatically occur to the consumer, sometimes the employee will let them know: “If you don’t give me a good score, I won’t get a commission,” and my kids won’t eat, etc. Like principals pressuring teachers at underperforming schools, too many companies have pressured consumers to inflate their workers’ grades. The principals may not have set out to do that, and the companies probably didn’t, either. But these are the incentives they put in place.

Second, many companies still rely on antiquated support options when digital channels fail customers. After offering consumers a terrible digital experience, companies require their precious customers to find their way through a complex and jargony phone tree.
Most customers don’t actually need to talk with anyone, most of the time: 86% expect a self-service option. That fact can save a business a lot of money — if it’s willing to enable customers to easily serve themselves. At the moment, though, very few companies are. Oh, they say they are. Some companies have automated the most frequent customer requests — a good start! — but have left open dozens of use cases where live human support remains the only way to get an answer. That’s a real missed opportunity.

Third, even companies that do offer digital options often provide them in only one or two channels, like a customer portal or mobile app. But few people rely on one channel. Harvard Business Review found — six years ago! — that 73% of consumers prefer multiple channel options.

So what’s a company to do? How can a company be sure that it’s putting the customer first?

Three concepts hold the key.

(1) Commit to really understanding the customer satisfaction with the experiences you’re providing. That means taking a hard look at the methodology of any surveys you may be conducting — and, most importantly, asking whether your company may be incentivizing customer dishonesty. The ‘mystery shopper’ approach may work better than chasing meager response rates with relentless surveys. At the very least, end policies and processes that require five-star ratings – or this puppy gets it!

(2) Take a comprehensive approach to your customers’ digital experience. Offer them all the channels you can. Provide portable experiences that are easy to use. Give agents training and technology to accelerate outcomes — because the faster your customers get what they want, the more they’ll trust you next time.

(3) Keep your digital operation nimble. Continue to innovate as your customers’ expectations change. Don’t wait for Artificial Intelligence to improve everything — focus on what you can improve right now. Clarify your goals with your dev team, and work with them to develop robust customer experiences. Keep asking, “If I were the customer, would this make sense to me? Would it be easy to navigate? Would I be able to get what I want quickly?”

Ask every member of your team to call customer service or visit your site as if they were prospective customers — and pay one or two outsiders to do the same.

It’s much easier and cheaper to keep existing customers than to win new ones. Making sure your existing customers are happy is the best investment you can make.

This column appeared first on Forbes.com.

Ori Faran, Ph.D.
After serving as an engineer and professional services manager at Cosmocom and Enghouse Interactive, Dr. Ori Faran in 2012 founded Callvu to help companies build easy-to-use digital experiences that automate customer service through seamless self-serve and agent-led interactions. He continues to serve Callvu as CEO. (For a time he ran the company under the name 'FICX,' but he brought back the original name.) In 2023 Dr. Faran earned a Ph.D. in Management and Business Administration from the Swiss Management Center, formerly known as SMC University.

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