Technology Needs to Enable, Not Inhibit, Excellent Service


Share on LinkedIn

I was on business in Cambodia when I received a text message from First Direct, asking me to call back at my convenience. I called in the morning. As always, I immediately got through to a helpful First Direct agent, who sounded cheerful, alert and eager to help me, despite it being 3 a.m. in the United Kingdom, where she was.

The agent knew who I was and why the bank wished to speak to me. First Direct could tell from my credit car expenditure that I was in Cambodia, but it had received a request for payment from a gallery in Paris. I hadn’t bought anything in Paris, so I told the agent not to settle the bill, to cancel my card and to deliver a new one to me the day I got back to London.

The point is not that First Direct monitored my account and proactively picked up a fraudulent purchase or that the new card arrived promptly to me at my office exactly as promised. Rather, it is that the interaction with the contact center not only delivered on the First Direct promise of “the bank that is designed to fit around you” but also demonstrated how I believe contact centers need to evolve in the future: through unified agent desktops that integrate a single view of the customer with CEM methodology.

I hadn’t bought anything in Paris, so I told the agent not to settle the bill.

The fact is that without a clear understanding of what the First Direct brand stands for, and the technology that enabled her to deliver it, that agent would not have been able to make my interaction with her a memorable event and one that typifies the First Direct experience. Perhaps that is why First Direct attracts a new customer every eight seconds through referral from satisfied customers or that its Net Promoter Score® is one of the highest that we have seen.

If we look at how markets evolve over time, we see a shift from competing primarily on the basis of product functionality and efficiency of distribution to, intermediately, winning business through added-value services and marketing activity and to, finally, offering differentiated experiences that create an emotional pay-off for the customer and create “share of mind.” I suggest that contact centers and the technology that supports them are following a similar path.

Interaction to experience

We are seeing a shift from interaction management (handling inbound transactions) to CRM (managing outbound sales) to CEM (integrated call center experiences). Some organizations, and energy companies are the worst, remain stuck at Stage 1; many have made the transition to Stage 2 (many telcos use CRM primarily to poach customers from competitors), but First Direct is one of a few organizations that has made the transition to this final stage. I predict that this is the future for those organizations wishing to move their operation from being a cost center or marketing engine to one that is an integral and value-adding touch-point in the complete customer experience. Dimension Data concluded in its 2007 contact center benchmarking report, “The majority of contact centers are still run as cost centers, not as strategic business units.”

For organizations still at the interaction management stage, it is all about cost reduction and efficiency; the focus is on providing a minimum amount of sales support or service at the least cost. The strategy is often outsourcing to offshore call centers, despite the impact on the customer experience, and the metrics are all about call volumes and handling time.

CRM is usually thought to stand for “customer relationship management,” but in my view, customers believe it stands for “constantly receiving mail shots” because this is the nature of their experience. The metrics are about response rates and conversions, and the emphasis is on trying to win more sales, rather than delivering any kind of value to customers.

CEM has as its primary focus the extent to which the experience that customers receive is “on brand” and value adding. This requires that organizations treat the contact center as an important touch-point in the customer experience and a vital channel for delivering the brand. As such, the metrics are about customer advocacy, as measured by Net Promoter Scores or something similar, and while efficiency is important, it is not at the expense of effectiveness.

Such an approach requires not only a different philosophy but also a new approach to technology. Between 2001 and 2003, expenditure on CRM technology increased from $20 billion to $46 billion, yet one study found that 55 percent of CRM installations drove customers away and diluted earnings. A pan-European study by Oracle found that ineffective information systems are a primary cause of poor service experienced by customers.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Avoid the Four Perils of CRM (February, 2002), the authors, Frederick F. Reichheld, Phil Schefter and Darrell K. Rigby, suggest that the main reasons for this failure are:

  1. Implementing a CRM system before creating a customer strategy
  2. Installing CRM technology before creating a customer-focused organization
  3. Assuming that more CRM technology is better
  4. Stalking, not wooing, customers

The role of the technology is to support the delivery of it. Every touch in the contact center, whether inbound or outbound, represents a unique and immediate opportunity to extend and strengthen a customer relationship. Each interaction, whether it is a sale or a save situation, requires that your agents be prepared to respond quickly to the unique demands of the individual customer. Contact center agents need the best decision support available so that they are free to focus on the customer experience.

But what are the implications of this for management? I would argue that if the customer experience is a primary strategy for an organization, then the contact center experience is just too important to delegate to the CTO. It should not be technology-driven but technology-enabled. In other words, CEM comes first. The decision belongs with the executive team so that marketing, operations and human resources are working together to ensure that the contact center experience works harmoniously with the brand and delivers an experience that provides value to the customer and the organization.

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co the leading UK based Customer Experience consultancy. Shaun speaks and consults internationally on the subject of the brand purpose and customer experience. Shaun's latest book 'On Purpose- delivering a branded customer experience people love' was co-written with Andy Milligan.


  1. Shaun: You have offered some great ideas. Your discussion of The Four Perils of CRM is reminiscent of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system implementations in the early ’90’s. Companies were pressured to adopt systems that failed to produce useful results because . . . companies weren’t clear about what results they wanted in the first place.

    The hierarchy you describe (Interaction Management to CRM to CEM) appears analagous to the maturity model we use for evaluating Information Technology systems (Basic, Standardized, Advanced, or Dynamic). At the the Basic level, IT is considered a cost or overhead to the business, and not as a strategic asset as with the Dynamic level.

    The issue is not to move companies along the maturity model for the sake of “keeping up with technology,” but rather to compare capabilities (whether they be IT or Value Delivery Infrastructure) to corporate strategy. Would it be valuable to look at the gaps and then decide whether or where there are deficiencies?

    I suspect that in some cases, today’s view of the call center as a cost-to-be-minimized will become tomorrow’s limitation to achieving corporate objectives.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here