The Customer is Changing… Are You?

Jamie Lancaster, Vice President, Contact Center of Excellence, Kroger
Jamie Lancaster, Vice President, Contact Center of Excellence, Kroger

Jamie Lancaster, Vice President, Contact Center of Excellence, Kroger

I’m relatively new to direct customer service. After spending the bulk of my career in technology and cost management roles, I found myself last year thrust straight into the realm of direct customer engagement. I had done what some would call foolish, some would call courageous and some would call naïve.I had volunteered to lead the contact center for a Fortune 20 company with over 60 million customers.

Here I am less than a year later, and I don’t regret a second of it. I’ve never been this close to the customer and the lessons that has taught me are priceless.

Why is that?  Some of the reasons are obvious; it has grounded me by forcing me to interact directly with people of all walks of life who depend on my company to provide for them. It has also opened my eyes to the struggles that our customers face in their lives and made me realize that our role should be to help make things easier for them. 

The less obvious reason that I love this experience is that is has allowed me to bring a different perspective to my team, many of whom have spent the bulk of their career in contact centers..

Customer focus has always been important in business, but it is even more vital today. The new economy calls for a much higher level of transparency and partnership with customers. 

The world is shrinking. That shrinking world means that whatever you do today can probably be done by someone else and they can be in your backyard tomorrow.  So, you must make yourself irreplaceable.  You must make your customer choose you rather than tolerate you. This is done by setting yourself apart, which in turn is accomplished by having a laser focus on your customer and making sure they are the only thing that matters.

This is not to say that the customer wants grandiose service, quite the contrary, what they want is good service and to not have to put out a lot of effort.  If you think back to 30 years ago, it wasn’t nearly as common to have to remotely connect to a company as a customer. You mostly dealt face to face and on rare occasion called into a “Call Center.” Because of their infrequent nature, those experiences themselves were differentiators.  So as a result, the contact usually required that you state the customer’s name 3 times, that you opened and closed with the standard messages and tried to cross sell the new whiz bang product.  Basically, it was a big production, focused more on the companythan the customer.

  Customer focus has always been important in business, but it is even more vital today  

Today, we as consumers interact with brands remotely all the time.  That interaction in and of itself is no longer a differentiator. So, what should you do? Make it as easy as you can on the customer. Help them through your service, attention and brevity.  No one wants to have a long interaction any more if that’s not what’s needed. 

Here’s an example that we can probably all relate to. Remember back in the day when an airline flight was a big deal? Just flying was an event. People dressed up; there was excitement in the air. They served food, drinks, and tended to your every need.  Just watch the loading of a plane in a movie from the 1970s. Let’s be honest, there is less prep that goes into a modern space launch than went into loading and boarding a flight from Chicago to New York in a 1970s film.

However, today what do we want? To wear comfortable clothes, to feel safe, a nice “Welcome Aboard” and a glass of water with some peanuts in flight.  We bring our own differentiators in the form of books, tablets, phones and travel pillows. Now imagine today’s customer on a 1970s flight?  Someone coming by every few minutes to check on them, offer them champagne, a pillow or a blanket? All this while they just want to watch the Netflix shows they downloaded at home on their tablet.  It would be totally out of sync because airline travel has become more of a commodity.  Now the way airlines differentiate is in execution (get me there), courtesy (a nice greeting and a friendly face) and beingavailable if I need you. Otherwise, let’s not make a big production out of it; I just want to binge watch before a day of meetings tomorrow.

So, if you are running a centralized customer service function, don’t be an anachronism. Get with the times. Make sure the customer is your focus, but do it by meeting their needs as quickly, friendly and efficiently as you can. Make sure that is what you are measuring as well.  The days of quality being entirely objective are gone and will require a level of subjectivity. Today you must enable your teams with the tools to make the right decisions to as easily as possible get that customer satisfied and onto the rest of their day.

If you use technology to measure your contacts, then that technology should be used from the customer’s perspective, not entirely from your business perspective.  A call may take longer or require a different type of interaction to meet the customer’s needs. Focus on the customer and you will like your results, but they may look different than before, just be ready for that.

I’ve learned much of this in the past year, and love bringing this perspective to my team. Make sure that you are looking at your customer service and make sure you are focusing on how the customers wishes to be served, rather than how you prefer to serve them. If you fail to do that, there is someone right around the corner ready to take over for you.

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