Becoming Strategic or Becoming Extinct: Insights From the NTT 2021 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report

Robbert Dijkstra, CEO

The pandemic boosted digitization, but most organizations were not at all prepared for how the pandemic would impact them. So, they acted, but not strategically. It is about time to rethink your digital customer service. Otherwise, the next wave of hyper-automation may become your extinction event, according to the NTT 2021 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report. Here is my take on the report and a critical remark.

Let’s be honest about business reports: sleep-inducing reads often, building up to a dull and predictable conclusion. But sometimes a report makes you jump off your seat, shouting, ‘yes indeed’ or ‘well said.’ And then you want to quote the entire report to your readers because it is so profound and awesome. The NTT report is of the latter kind.

How you automate is more important than what you automate

The rapid shift to automation wasn’t strategic; it was pragmatic. It was survival. Digital channels were added as a simple and effective way to handle the load until the customer could talk to an agent. Fair enough, but to continue on this path is harmful in the long term. Of course, automation is the way forward, but how you automate is more important than what you automate. Organizations have to become more strategic. Here are my three bullets on how to do so, inspired by the NTT report.

1. First, get the simple things right (and don’t add channels)

According to the Twilio State of Customer Engagement Report, 2021 companies plan to add a whopping 3.4 extra channels on average.

That might be a terrible idea.

I say this for two reasons: (1) Implementing new channels is a complicated undertaking. It usually makes customer service as a whole more complex (2) Customers are not yet happy with what companies offer with their existing channels. The NTT report is pretty clear on the last statement.

If your current channels are not great, why would you add more channels? Industry leaders focus on making the customer experience effortless, not on giving their customers as many options as possible.

Instead of adding more channels, a better approach would be choosing a few and excelling in them. Or, as the NTT report states: “This means getting the simple things right: treating customers as people, not reference numbers, ensuring they don’t have to repeat information when they contact you, and providing channels that work for them.”

2. Be serious about artificial intelligence

Deploying artificial intelligence only makes it tenth on the average company’s short and medium-term priority list. Yet artificial intelligence is the only strategic way forward. Rules-based automation can manage only a small portion of customer interactions. To go further, you need AI. To knit together all the information from different channels, analyze automated conversations, and improve on them, you need machine learning. Otherwise, adding more channels - see above - will only fragment and complicate the customer experience. Only 4 in 10 (43.1%) organizations combine data from all channels through big data analytics (39.7% in 2020). Less than half (46.4%) have customer analytics in place (up from 36.6% in 2020).

The good news is that both companies and customers are more realistic about what AI can accomplish. Companies tended to over-promise here, but customers soon realized that AI-based automation often did not understand their queries or instructions. The truth is that AI is as limited as it is indispensable. The NTT report summarises the place of AI nicely: “automation is going down the path where it belongs – a must-have that’s hidden, seamless, and gives customers what they want.” This brings us to our next point.

3. Don’t show off when it comes to automation

It must have been a cutlery designer who said: “If you think about the shape of the spoon while having your soup, something is wrong with its design.” The same goes for automation. Beautifully designed as it may be, automation should be hidden and functional to please the customer optimally. There is nothing fancy about your algorithms. So don’t bother even mentioning it. After all, customers don’t care about your chatbot or your AI. Nor should they. Customers want your service to be fast, personal, and easy. If automation helps with that, sure, why not. If talking to a human agent is faster, more personal, and easier, let’s do that.

And yes, customers do still prefer to talk to human agents. It’s interesting to read the report about why this is. Of course, some - mainly older - people are still unfamiliar with automated options, so they prefer human agents anyway. But in general, the public rapidly gets accustomed to automation. The problem is that automated solutions often don’t deliver. If you do it right, your automation should offer a hidden and seamless experience. Seamless means thatthere always should be an easy escalation path to a human agent.

Final thought: the non-traumatic escalation path to a human agent

Did you ever hear the story of MetLife deploying a robot voice to express sincere (sic!) condolences to customers who lost a beloved one? Though I fully agree with the report about the human escalation path, I want to stress that this has to be a non-traumatic experience. I say non-traumatic because often, the conversation is only redirected to an agent when fully automated solutions no longer work. And often, then it’s already too late.

That is why I would disagree with the report where it indicates that talking to a human agent is the last resort. We are slowly growing toward a situation where human beings can interfere at any time and can redirect the conversation to a (virtually assisted) human and from there back to the fully automated solution.

For this reason, speaking of an ‘escalation path’ might be an old-fashioned approach. But more on this in a separate blog.

You can download the NTT 2021 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report here.

In the meantime, feel free to read my blog on why you should rethink your current approach to automation.

Photo by: NicoElNino on Unsplash

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