As You Like It

As You Like It

Consistency is not the hobgoblin of little minds; it is the essence of the multi-channel customer interface.

Little Britain, the cult British comedy series, features a character too many people have met in real life. It is the middle-ranking bank officer who produces, then enthuses over, marketing material selling a personal loan or a mortgage. However, when the banker inputs the would-be clients' details into the information system she turns and tells them: "The computer says no."

Thirty years ago it would not have been like that. The bank manager would have known you and your banking history intimately, he would have been able to make a value rather than arbitrary judgment. He would probably have said yes. That is customer service.

Delivering not only good but consistent customer service is easy to do when you live in a village where everyone knows one another. In the global village it is much harder. But it can and is being achieved by forward-thinking enterprises.

These are the enterprises that have realized their branch managers need technology to support (not replace) their decision making; that their organizations also interact with customers online, through call centres, via interactive voice response systems, at vending machines and through franchise operations. At each one of those points these smart enterprises know they need to delight the customer to keep them. They know that even if the customer is generally happy online, in the branch or speaking to a call centre operator one bad experience in voicemail hell and the customer may walk.

Delivering good customer service demands a rich, systemic approach to managing all the touch points between company and customer.

Jeffrey Rayport and Bernard Jaworski, founding members of consulting group Marketspace Global, are the authors of Best Face Forward, a book published in January that looks at how technology is both revolutionizing and humanizing service. However, they warn readers that this requires sensitive management.

"[The] cost and complexity of interface proliferation can create unmanageable collections of touch points for companies while resulting in confusion for customers. That's why we see this as an issue that must be subjected to systems thinking. Unless companies operate their interfaces as a system, the interfaces can become a liability," Rayport says. "Every interface, no matter how seemingly trivial, now represents the expression of the firm's brand and reputation. Managed well they allow companies to lower costs while increasing value to customers; managed poorly they can do the opposite a true double-edged sword."

The whole thing can topple as "an interface system is only as good as its weakest link". This is not a place to cut corners. Rayport says that most weak links seem to occur in the hand-offs from one type of interface to another human to machine, branch office to online, Web site to call centre. It is not so much a dodgy interactive voice response system that wrecks things but a failure to take a systemic view of the interface mesh. This throws up a challenge for CIOs who have to install and manage the technology infrastructure because IT cannot hope to secure a systemic vantage point on its own.

"The kind of changes we recommend to the way companies manage the customer experience requires an overall alignment of strategy and execution that touches all faces of the organization," Rayport says. "It's because it's so major that our sense is that it must be driven from the C-level across the entire firm not relegated to particular silos in the marketing and sales organization as is often the case in many organizations. Indeed considering all interfaces with customers as important empowers the entire organization to deliver at the highest quality and helps bring the culture together."

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