Perspectives

Closer connections: how to maintain customer loyalty in a pandemic

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Emerge smarter

As the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic gives way to a period of reflection and rebuilding, we have an opportunity to reimagine how business works. To challenge long-held beliefs about what truly matters to the viability, competitiveness and health of our organisations and people. In this blog series, five IBM experts examine what has changed and envision a future in which smart technology and an empowered, adaptable workforce come together to unlock new potential as a Cognitive Enterprise. Now, more than ever, it’s time to put smart to work.

The ability to communicate fast and effectively with customers can be the difference between life and death for a business or public body. But the global COVID-19 pandemic has set two unfortunate chains of events into motion – either of which, alone, could be catastrophic for an organisation, but, taken together, demand a complete realignment of priorities.

Organisations are receiving a dramatic increase in contact volumes at precisely the time they are least able to respond to them. National lockdown rules have forced many to shut the doors on their contact centres, branches and stores. If it’s an option, employees are working from home, but they may be deprived of the infrastructure they need to handle customer queries. Meanwhile many – not least travel companies, financial services and government departments – are seeing an unprecedented surge in calls from customers seeking support and reassurance as their life plans go into freefall.

These organisations are having to rethink the way they engage with customers, moving away from traditional voice-based modes of communication towards a more asynchronous, omnichannel approach. They are asking themselves: how can we leverage new, data-driven technology to not only maintain customer loyalty and trust through lockdown, but to do better business as we emerge into an uncertain future?

Reimagining engagement

For many organisations, this is not new. They have long since recognised the value of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled technology to transform their contact centres and reimagine customer relationships, introducing virtual agents and chat options that free up human agents to focus on more complex, fulfilling work. For these organisations, the pandemic has merely solidified their strategy and accelerated their efforts.

But many have been caught off guard. They may have been part-way through their transformation, or just at the start. As they struggle to meet current demand, their customers are becoming frustrated and disillusioned by long waiting times – or even writing off the brand altogether. IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) research shows that customers are ready to abandon a brand after only three unsatisfactory interactions, and one banking survey found that when customers have to wait more than four minutes to speak to an agent, their satisfaction drops by a third.

Almost overnight, the incentive has crystallised. It’s not good enough to simply provide great – even essential – products or services. Businesses must reshape their support systems to fit seamlessly around their customers’ lives and expectations.

To do this, they must move away from on-premise, legacy contact centre systems to invest in more flexible, cloud-based platforms that enable them to integrate customer engagement across multiple channels – email, messaging, chat, phone and – when it’s available – face to face.

They must build automation into these platforms because, once new channels are open, their volumes of engagement will soar. IBV research predicts that AI’s importance to organisational strategy is likely to double in the next three years. The nature of the conversations will change, too, to encompass much more proactive and continuous dialogue, with opportunities to go beyond solving simple queries to nurturing brand loyalty.

In order to increase the quality of those omnichannel engagements, organisations will have to draw on high-quality, real-time data that gives them a 360-degree view of each individual customer. This will help them to anticipate not only what their customer needs, but also what they are thinking and feeling when they get in touch. Organisations that manage to provide ever more relevant, personalised and responsive communications will be the ones that emerge from lockdown with an edge over the competition. To do this, they will need a data platform that consolidates all customer information across CRM and other back-end systems, and feeds back the results of every single interaction to improve the knowledge base.

Empowering agents

Contact centre leaders are challenged to act quickly to meet customer demand. And of course, there are risks associated with such fast transformation of core business processes. Data privacy and regulatory compliance must be a serious consideration as they select cloud solutions. They must also approach automation in a way that reassures and protects the workforce. For employees to successfully adopt these new technologies, they must be clear on the wider goals and confident that they are here to augment their jobs, not replace them.

While cost reduction and efficiency has traditionally been top of mind when it comes to automation, this is just the start of the story. When contact centre employees have good data and smart tools in their hands, they can perform at their best, resolve problems in a fraction of the time and spot opportunities to do things better. Indeed, many organisations are building entirely new services and business models out of a new-found ability to curate customer data. In the long run, these organisations will thrive because they can provide better services to their customers.

Despite caution from some business leaders, customers of every age and demographic have proved to embrace digital, omnichannel communications. Now more than ever, people are becoming used to interacting with one another through slick apps and instant messaging, so they expect this in their interactions with businesses, too. But individual organisations must learn from their own audience, and keep phone and face-to-face options available as part of the mix where appropriate.

Regardless of the stage of digital transformation an organisation is at, it is not too late to make positive moves. In recent years, IBM has been working with clients across industries to build successful omnichannel engagement strategies at scale, with immediate results. An immediate, tactical step they can take is to provide an alternative channel for customers to get in touch, like a basic messaging service. This will reduce pressure on contact centre agents and make things easier for the customer. IBM built and delivered a chat system for TSB in just five days, giving customers instant access to the bank’s support measures and lightening the load for home-based employees. And when Italy’s WindTre faced a surge in call volumes, IBM implemented a voice-based virtual assistant that uses machine learning to predict the reason the client is calling and answer personalised questions.

IBM is involved in larger-scale transformation, too. When a global electronics firm wanted to change its business model to target the consumer, IBM set about building a solution that enhances its digital channels to serve customers digitally on any channel, at any time; empowers associates to address customers more efficiently; and uses deep insights to proactively anticipate customer needs.

For better or worse, we are facing a different normal in which many contact centres, branches and stores may never open again. Organisations must build omnichannel engagement into their digital strategy and leverage data to enable more personalised, proactive conversations. This is an opportunity to reimagine the way businesses engage with customers – for the long-term benefit of both sides.

However your business is experiencing the pandemic, IBM can help you make sense of the present and navigate the future. You can also learn more about IBMs approach to building resiliency through AI and automation.

Working smarter and adjusting to the new normal is no longer a want but a must-have for businesses. Tune in to the ‘IBM Talks: Emerge Smarter’ webinar series to learn more, and discover more about IBM AI Services here.

Vice President, Cognitive Business Decision Support, IBM Services Europe

Francesco Brenna

Executive Partner, AI & Analytics Leader, IBM Services Europe

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