Click, swipe, kerching. That’s what commerce looks and sounds like in 2018, with few steps to major and minor purchases alike.
Technology advances embraced by companies such as Amazon, Google, and IBM have transformed how people across the globe buy things they need and want, with consumers demanding easier purchasing processes, faster deliveries, and instantaneous responses to their questions.
Consumers today want the buying experience to be seamless, with emphasis on speed and quality, as seen in a recent PwC survey of 15,000 people around the world.
Convenience and ease of transactions are major drivers of consumer preference, the survey found, with 73% of those surveyed saying that customer service was a major factor in whether they do business with a company.
Not only that, but significant numbers of respondents said they’d pay more for better interactions, whether convenience (43%) or friendlier service (42%).
The emphasis on customer service is not breaking new ground, but corporate leaders don’t always understand how imperative efficient service is to their consumers. Only 10% of businesses in another PwC survey listed better customer experiences as a digital priority in 2017.
Overcoming that gap, between what consumers expect in terms of fast and friendly online service and what companies actually deliver, will determine a company’s future success, said Mitul Makadia, the founder of Maruti Techlabs, a technology company with offices in India and California that specialises in artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted customer service experiences.
“Existing companies should always be studying and assessing how their customers prefer to communicate,” he said. “Customers are impatient and need their answers fast.”
Cost of getting it right
Bad experiences can cost businesses dearly. Overall, 32% of customers indicated they’d stop doing business with a company after a single negative experience, the PwC survey found.
Americans apparently have a bit more tolerance for subpar customer service than most, with 17% indicating they’d cut ties after a bad interaction. Consumers in Latin America were on the other end of the spectrum, with 49% saying they’d move on after receiving bad customer service, according to PwC.
Companies need to make sure that the automated fixes, whether through scripted chatbot conversations or airline automatic rebooking systems, don’t lead to increased frustration when things don’t go right.
Makadia suggested companies make sure customers always have a way to communicate directly with a person. He cautioned against designs that leave customers navigating convoluted systems on their own.
“Customers have [a] linear set of expectations when it comes to support, to get what they are looking for instantly,” he said.
Systems that require customers to go through multiple layers of screening, or direct customers to lengthy FAQs, end up hurting companies more than helping them, Makadia said.
For example, Millennials, defined as the generation born approximately between 1977 and 1995, are tech-savvy and would rather solve their problems without getting on the phone for lengthy periods of time, Makadia said. That’s something companies should be considering, as things like voice-recognition capabilities increase, it’s important to keep ease of the customer experience as a top goal, he said.
The abundance of mobile phones means near-constant opportunities for consumers to connect, Sara Kleinberg, the head of ads research and insight at tech giant Google, wrote in a recent essay. Waits in doctor offices are now prime opportunities to maximise productivity by answering work email, researching holiday travel options, or completing online grocery purchases.
“[I]t’s important to consider how your brand is creating mobile experiences that cater to people’s desire for efficiency,” Kleinberg wrote. “A seamless mobile experience goes a long way in tapping into that desire and building a stronger relationship.”
That means companies need to make sure their mobile platforms are responsive to their increasingly mobile consumer base and attractive to people whether they’re glancing at a website briefly or using it for more in-depth research.
Some of the biggest mistakes related to technology and customer service occur when companies launch new capabilities too quickly to too many people, Makadia said.
He suggested corporate leaders emphasise the need to move slowly, with trials and by phasing in changes over time. If implementing AI-boosted technologies on FAQ and customer help pages, start small by implementing a section at a time. When installing e-commerce capability, he said, use it for particular areas or lines of products, instead of going across the entire company from the outset.
Not a human replacement
AI and machine learning, though they require significant investments, can help ensure that customers have a better experience, by using technology to tailor responses and services, Makadia said.
His firm has seen savings as high as 30% in the hospitality industry, with technology taking over some of the more mundane duties of concierges and room service attendants. Makadia has found that the e-commerce, insurance, finance, and real estate industries tend to benefit the most from applying advanced technologies to their customer-relations processes.
His firm worked with a large, US-based accounting firm to develop an AI-powered chatbot to help answer questions related to accounting software QuickBooks after the firm found that customers were calling with basic questions because the firm’s existing help sections were so unhelpful. The chatbot, once implemented, was able to streamline more than 300 questions and ended up saving the company more than 9,000 staff hours by offering customers quick results to their queries.
Makadia is quick to say that advanced technology isn’t here to replace the people who sit in customer-related jobs. Rather, it’s here to supplement and take some of the more tedious aspects off their hands.
“AI is not here to take away customer support jobs. It is here to assist us and, in turn, let us focus on the customer in a more personalised manner making for a great experience,” he said.
— Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.