47% of CX leaders believe it’s only getting harder to please customers. One potential reason for this is that organizations don’t see the same version of the customer experience that their customers see. CX organizations are working harder than ever to build offerings and processes that reflect the actual customer experience rather than their assumptions. However, this is easier said than done.
We discussed this dynamic with a panel of Customer Experience and Success leaders to understand what it takes to build for the real customer experience. Our panel featured Sarah Bierenbaum, Founder of Sarah B Consulting, Chad Horenfeldt, Director of Customer Success at Kustomer, and Leslie Reyes, Founder of Road Warriors Consulting. Here are three key takeaways from the discussion:
1. Internal and External Factors Signal Broken Processes
Customers tend to be vocal about what they most dislike about doing business with you — understanding why, the impact of the reaction, and how to fix it is critical. From mismatches between customer expectations and product performance to billing discrepancies and beyond, negative customer experiences often stem from broken processes. Weak communication patterns, data siloes, and insight gaps are often the root cause of broken processes. To improve customer experience, organizations need an efficient way to quickly identify broken processes to fix them as soon as possible. Our panelists shared some insight on the hallmarks of broken processes.
Leslie cautioned that it can be difficult to tell the difference between a truly broken process and a one-off. CX organizations must confidently distinguish between the two so that they don’t spend valuable resources on unnecessarily reinventing the wheel, or worse, overinvest in the wrong direction. Leslie emphasized the importance of paying close attention to emerging trends. “When I was leading Support at GE Healthcare, we experienced a breakdown in communication with our clients about delivery dates. From a technology readiness perspective, we understood that we were in good shape, but ultimately, we were the ones on the receiving end of complaints from clients who were kept waiting. At first, the complaints seemed like one-offs, but we realized that this was a huge problem as we paid more attention to trends in our interactions. So we had to take ownership of that client communication process going forward, and things improved.”
Observing internal trends, such as a dip in productivity, can also signal a broken process. Sarah added that “signs of burnout on your team are a clear sign that there’s a process or lack thereof that is making everything harder than it needs to be. When you have a team of high performers who seem overstretched and start making mistakes, it’s time to look at doing things differently.” CX organizations with a strong grasp of resource requirements across different projects and customer inquiries can manage those resources much more effectively. The ability to understand resource allocation across the top drivers of support tickets, for example, can help organizations anticipate negative customer experiences before they happen so that there’s a chance to rectify flawed processes before customers notice. Sarah explained that, especially for growing companies, it is often a lack of process instead of existing broken processes that can have the most negative impact on CX. “Bandaids and rubber bands don’t scale."
Chad pointed out that in many organizations of all sizes, the term “process” is too loosely defined. “It’s not a process unless it’s written down,” said Chad. Chad also added that processes are sometimes intentionally not followed internally. “Sometimes, it’s a leadership thing where processes simply need to be more effectively enforced, but sometimes there’s also a really good reason why an employee didn’t follow the process.” CX team members may have observed a process failure that needs acknowledgment — this is another reason that internal signals can be as indicative of broken processes as external signals.
Organizations can make external and internal hints of broken processes more addressable by improving communication, breaking down data siloes, and closing cross-functional insight gaps. With tighter feedback loops and high-quality CX data everyone can access, CX organizations can iterate faster, more confidently, and with more flexibility, leading to fewer broken processes and a better customer experience as a result.
2. Active Listening, in the Moment and at Scale, Fuels Customer Trust
Customer experience is not one-size-fits-all, and active listening reveals important nuances across the collective customer experience. Active listening means embracing channels where different customers communicate and empathizing with customers’ individual circumstances. Chad highlighted the importance of multiple listening posts as part of active listening. “After we launched specialized best practice webinars, we noticed that customers were raving about how much they enjoyed them in our customer community.”
Sarah added that an essential difference between active listening and passive listening is “not simply answering a question, but demonstrating that you understood the question and that you’re going to help the person who asked.” For example, Sarah cited a billing snafu as having the potential for a markedly different impact on different customers. “Whereas a billing snafu for some customers may be a routine, non-urgent matter, for customers in the restaurant industry, it can be the difference between the ability to pay their staff or not.” Furthermore, Sarah continued, “Often, especially less experienced Support folks, are very focused on churning through tickets and closing as many as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s easy to forget that there’s a human on the other side of that interaction and recognize that this person has someone breathing down their neck and is worried about getting fired. The consequences that person may face may be much scarier than your boss being mad at you for writing the wrong response in a Support exchange.” Understanding unique circumstances at scale can help your organization respond most effectively so that you can deliver a winning experience for all customers.
Another key differentiator between passive vs. active listening is that active listening commits CX leaders to action based on what they learn. Leslie emphasized that to take action and make the active listening effort worthwhile, CX organizations must embrace knowledge sharing. If two employees are actively listening to customers but do not share their learnings, the organization won’t be able to address those learnings in action. Leslie recalled, “At GE, we underwent a huge ERP implementation that caused a great deal of chaos. We needed to learn really quickly how to respond to a lot of issues. Aggressively documenting these issues and accelerating the knowledge transfer as much as possible ensured that everyone was consistently conveying the same information to clients, and was empowered to respond to the issues we encountered.”
Without the right tools and technology, this kind of rigor can be very challenging to implement at scale. Leslie explained that it’s critical to be open-minded about new measurement methods as alternatives and complements to traditional surveys since many customers don’t engage with surveys. Many organizations are turning to AI to help facilitate more actively listening to the customer voice. Chad noted that AI can remove subjectivity in support ticket classification and the customer-facing follow-up process. Sarah recommended leveraging AI to automate as much recurring work as possible so that humans have more capacity for more complex tasks and for empathizing with customers in the moment. Sarah noted that “the best AI tools are closely woven in with human interaction. When you allow humans to iterate on repetitive tasks, you see what works and what doesn’t when you interact with your customers.” Sarah also offered some advice for CX leaders considering adopting AI — “if you are advocating for using AI, or in an early adoption stage, you can track how much time and energy it takes for your team to do the tasks you are proposing to automate, manually. It’s hard to argue with a clear ROI story where you can demonstrate the cost savings and efficacy of an AI tool.”
3. Trust is the Foundation of Customer Success
Actively listening to the customer voice is a critical avenue to trust, and customer success depends on trust. Chad explained that “when your clients are moving through different phases of their engagement with you, from the sales process to implementation and forward, their value expectations of your product evolve. You build trust by demonstrating that you are listening and understand their priorities.” Trust across other teams internally, too, is critical, Chad continued — “throwing out accusations to Product, for example, about why they did or did not build something, is not going to get you very far.”
Alongside the importance of actively listening to the customer voice at scale, our panelists also emphasized that front-line customer-facing teams can engender trust by demonstrating active listening during live customer communications. Leslie explained that active listening is about two-way communication; CX teams are responsible for communicating back to the customer their understanding of the situation and how they will solve it. Sarah echoed that “active listening comes down to the impact on the speaker and whether or not they feel heard.”
Chad recommended two ways to demonstrate active listening in the moment — “The first is playback. When a customer tells you something, be sure to repeat back what they said. The second is split track. A lot of times, a customer will give you 20 things at once. You can respond to this by telling the customer you want to take a moment to understand the scope of the ask, and then suggest taking things one at a time.”
Two-way communication also means that organizations cannot afford to accept survey results as the sole barometer of CX quality. Organizations that only listen to customers who engage with surveys leave many customer relationships at stake by ignoring valuable feedback that can reduce churn and improve market positioning. This unsolicited feedback may or may not be directly related to the questions asked.
Active listening, both in-the-moment and at scale, to the customer voice is key to identifying, fixing, and avoiding breakdowns in processes and strengthening relationships with internal and external customers. A big thank you to Sarah, Chad, and Leslie for contributing your experience and insights to the discussion. Check out the recording below for more.