In a Customer Experience Dominated World, Context is King
Image credit: stylized portrait by phlearn
Forrester’s research shows that respecting and valuing their time is what customers expect first from a good service experience. In particular, they hate having to repeat themselves or be directed to the wrong person or destination. The availability of the full context of an interaction has become a key enabler of great support experiences. While the expectation of a business having at hand the comprehensive profile and history of a customer reaching out for service seems obvious, it remains hard to fulfill for most companies. Today, agents still have to juggle multiple applications to get a complete view of an inquiry, having often to put the customer on hold while looking for information.
Context is not only for customer support agents. It is also important for self-service, to know when to offer it or when an interaction should be escalated to a person. It is eventually the cornerstone of omnichannel experiences. Context provides the memory of interactions that took place previously in other touch points. It is hard to understand why businesses struggle to access your context when we discover every day so much information available about us on the Internet! Let’s explore the issue and options to tackle it.
What’s in an interaction context?
One may wonder why accessing the context for a customer inquiry is not as simple as pulling someone’s record out of a CRM application. Alas, many businesses have more than one CRM. I recently discussed with a large bank having 13 CRM systems across its different business lines. It is not just CRM fragmentation that plagues context assembly. Critical information also lives in other, non-CRM, applications. It can be frequent flyer information for airlines, shipping information for retail, or outage issues for utilities.
Assembling context requires pulling information from different applications and also correlating it. Many systems use their own customer identification that needs to be connected. Correlation goes beyond identification matching. A purchase may have been made using an email address not on record. Outage information is only relevant to people living in the impacted area. And the situation is not getting better: the cloud is adding to the proliferation of applications. Just think of the new categories created in the last 10 years such as marketing automation, customer success management, or sales engagement that each holds important elements of a 360-view of customers.
Can CRM deliver on its promise?
In 2018, Salesforce acquired Mulesoft. Founded in 2006, Mulesoft had created a powerful software allowing the building of real-time feeds to access data from a myriad of back-end applications. The purchase was the recognition by the market leader that CRM alone wasn’t enough to provide a unified customer database. At its Dreamforce event, the company introduced Customer 360, a platform that can create a single customer data model across multiple systems and reconcile profiles across apps.
A few months later, Zendesk introduced Sunshine. Introduced as an open CRM, the platform is said to leverage open source software to connect customer data that lives in different systems. It will let you build data models to enable specific customer workflows. These developments are promising but recent and I am not yet aware of significant deployments.
Low-code platforms and RPA to the rescue?
Low-code platform providers with roots in Business Process Management have been confronted with the issue of context for many years. They have become an alternate way to build a unified contact center agent desktop and enable integrated workflows. This approach enjoys traction for digital transformation and has led providers such as Appian or Pega to introduce contact center solutions. These platforms let you create your own case management, integrating with several applications. They give you access to data from multiple systems and put together a comprehensive view of the customer. Appian Records is an example of such a product.
Low-code platforms are often used together with Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Application integration is an often overlooked capability of the RPA. Because it integrates with applications using a bot mimicking what a human would do, it requires no code. These bots can run in the background of an agent desktop, assisting her by getting the customer context or augmenting self-service.
What about Contact Center software?
Contact Center software providers were actually the first to try to tackle the problem using CTI and its ability to attach data to an interaction. The mechanism lets you “tag” a call with information about the caller, interaction steps that occurred previously, and information looked-up in other applications. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t structure the information, thus limiting its use.
Some of the newest contact center providers have built into their platform the ability to create data objects tailored to customer service processes. These can be easily linked to customer conversations, customized to specific service scenarios. For example, a retail business will have objects for orders, shipments, or returns. Having a flexible data model lets you ingest all relevant data about a customer, her interactions and transactions. Kustomer, which just raised $40M in funding, provides an example of this new breed of contact center platform.
Don’t forget proactive engagement
The massive increase of self-service leaves businesses with fewer opportunities for in-person conversations. A growing number of companies are turning to proactive engagement software to stay in touch with their customers. These applications are also key enablers of proactive support, informing customers about the progress of their issue resolution. Proactive engagement is delicate with modern consumers ultra sensitive to the respect of their privacy and tired of robocalls. These solutions hinge on rich customer context to identify the best time to connect or the best channel to use. Acqueon* illustrates what you should expect from them.
The importance of context is not specific to customer service. In an adjacent segment, marketing, a new category of software—Customer Data Platforms (CDP)—is emerging to assemble a unified view of consumers for serving relevant ads. Customer support needs something equivalent to it that can drive the right service actions. Meanwhile, context should be a key design consideration for your contact center and digital customer service stack.
*Disclosure: I am the CMO of Acqueon mentioned above.