I started my career in the Apple contact center before working my way up to being a technology executive, and I understand the grind that customer care agents endure, and it’s an occupational category employing 2% of the American workforce. Since I have been on the front lines at contact centers, I naturally think of the contact center managers and workers having to deal with overwhelming call volume whenever I see brands run into customer service issues. As a consumer, I also think of some people's frustrating customer experience (CX).
It doesn’t have to be that way for anyone involved. Brands need to keep their tech stacks up to date, creating instead the CX and employee experience (EX) that everyone deserves. With consumer spending down and a persistent labor shortage afoot, digital tools will often be the difference between winning and losing this year.
Brands that make the right tech investments differentiate themselves from competitors. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Albertson’s was forced to digitally transform so grocery shoppers could stay home and order food and household items. But the supermarket chain wanted more than basic e-commerce functionality; it wanted differentiation. So, Albertson’s purchased recipe and menu-planning software to allow online shoppers to select a recipe, add the needed ingredients to their order, and instantly create shopping lists while planning menus.
The example shows the right tech investment can improve CX. Tech can also lift ROI due to improved operational efficiency and improve EX when employee retention is incredibly important. And these ideas ring true across industries for the customer service function.
Leading over lagging
Brand executives might be considering cutting back on technology due to 2023’s economic headwinds. Yet these times call for a CX and an EX that not only work but outpace the competition for new customers and new hires. For EX, cashiers, store associates, clerks, servers and contact center pros want to work for employers with the latest tools. With today’s labor shortage—global executives’ number one concern heading into this year, according to accounting giant KPMG—companies need that edge for their talent brands.
Consider what restaurants and retailers went through in the pandemic’s first year, 2020. Most were not prepared, but they nimbly adopted new technologies to make it to the other side of that winter and spring. For example, First Watch had been a bit of a restaurant-business Luddite, with its waitstaff using pen and paper to take orders going into March that year. In just four days, the 300-unit breakfast chain set up a multi-channel online ordering system, built a mobile app, added third-party delivery, implemented waitlist software, and integrated credit-card processing.
First Watch represents how restaurants and retailers couldn’t rest on their laurels, and now those surviving eateries, clothing, jewelry, and furniture shops are digitally transformed and well-positioned against competitors, especially versus those who chose to lag behind with their tech investments. The winners did not “wait and see.”
This is not a time to lag but to lead. In 2021, JetBlue needed to update its tech stack, so the airline adopted AI and algorithmic capabilities, bringing all of its data together to transform customer service while capturing the entire CX through speech recognition, natural language processing and machine learning. This move provided contact center agents with actions and words for an improved experience. The JetBlue example shows that companies need to move from outdated tech stacks to systems that meet today’s customer and employee expectations. The business world’s cloud-based, digital transformation is happening, but is it occurring quickly enough? Per a Harvard Business Review study, major companies are looking to move about 60% of their IT to the cloud by 2025. And more than 50% of them report they’ve adopted AI in at least one function in their business. The laggards represented by those statistics will likely fall behind in the near future as leaders are setting themselves up for CX and EX success.
Doing jobs better
Eight in ten decision-makers believe their software tools and processes need improvement. If you were to drill down to front-line staffers working as cashiers, store associates, clerks, servers, and contact center pros, I’d bet that that number would be even higher because folks in those roles feel the operational pain of inefficiency day in, day out while doing their jobs.
Too often in the CX space, tech stacks are thought of as monolithic software that permeates the business. Our industry uses aggressive phrases like “rip and replace” when talking about fixing tech issues because of the stress it induces: expensive software, specialized employees, long timelines to implementation, and training or employee reassignment. Modern software is meant to ease the burden of steering the monolith by providing tools and services that pinpoint weaknesses, bolster uniqueness, and automate busy work. So new technologies should always include the tools to help brands provide better services, versus trying to sell a silver bullet.
Tech should always raise the level of the CX and EX. Chief marketing officers and ad agency pros may not like this idea, but it’s true: Customer service staffers are consistently the face of the brand—not fancy logos or catchy taglines—whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or an upholstery store down the street. At the same time, service jobs can be grueling without today’s best tech. These staffers are tasked with patiently fielding every kind of emotion known to humankind, and they often must do so with multiple customers at once.
That’s why brands need to continue improving their CX and EX in the coming months. Making customer-facing tools easier and more seamless to use will benefit the customer and the employee. Making EX tools stronger will help improve the employees’ performance, which will, in turn, bolster the CX. It’s the circular quality of a winning tech stack in 2023.
Empowering brands with their people
Twenty years ago, when I got my start at the Apple contact center, and because I worked at a burgeoning tech giant, I could sense we’d get to a place like today where companies have an amazing opportunity to improve the CX and EX. Now, it’s up to those companies to embrace a customer-centric mindset by empowering the faces of their brands—cashiers, store associates, clerks, servers and contact center pros.
Investing in tech this year—not next year—should be an easy choice for any company with the budget. It will be the difference between winning and losing hundreds of CX and EX moments that, over time, will determine which brands win the market.
Mike Lawder is Chief Experience Officer at ASAPP, a contact center platform.