It seems like every company nowadays is pontificating about the importance of customer experience (CX). But how well do we walk the talk? At Contact Center Week in Austin, I heard ESPN, Sleep Number, Comcast, Weight Watchers and others share what they are doing to make it real.

At this conference, three common themes stood out: customer experience, agent enablement, and the infusion of artificial intelligence/machine learning into the contact center.

Customer Experience Reigns

In the words of Sleep Number Customer Experience analyst Rob Solfest, “Customer experience is the differentiator.” Rob and his team realized customer effort had a direct correlation to net promoter score (NPS), and leveraged CX metrics to drive significant business improvements.

Solfest started by creating a customer effort dashboard and defined their customer effort metric as the number of times a customer contacted them between the date of order and 45 days after delivery. Their target was “zero-effort” (meaning the customer made zero post-purchase contacts). By creating and analyzing customer journey maps, they found common threads:

  1. Pre-delivery, they received numerous inquiries about the date and time of delivery.
  2. Post-delivery, customers who contacted them usually did so within seven days and asked many common questions.

With this valuable insight, Sleep Number made changes that had a big impact:

  • For delivery dates, customers were given a path to effortlessly opt-in for text messages in addition to emails; this proved more effective than automated phone messages. Then two days before delivery, customers received a reminder text.
  • To preempt post-delivery contacts, Sleep Number sent an email within seven days after delivery that addressed common questions. Although they previously sent post-sale emails, analysis of their metrics made it clear the email needed to be sent sooner.

The results were dramatic. Validation of their success:

  • Customers with a zero-effort score grew by more than 40%.
  • For customers with a zero-effort score:
    • NPS grew by 15 points.
    • Exchange/return rates dropped by half.
  • 50% fewer customers contacted them about delivery timeframes.

And, as Sleep Number continues to grow, they’ve been able to serve more customers without adding agents, saving additional costs.

Agent Care = Customer Care

ESPN customer service operations manager Micah Citti says “without the fan, we are out of business.” In his session “Tales of Agent Care and Customer Care Success”, Citti says of his company and his agents: we thrive together, or we fail together.

Citti recommends several keys to success:

Treat agents like partners.

Rather than using Quality Management (QM) as “a stick to hit you with”, Citti says QM is about “catching what you got right and what we can help you do better.” Citti believes in focusing on the future; if an agent makes a mistake, Citti takes responsibility and offers help. He says “It’s my fault – where did I go wrong, and how can I make it go better?”

Communicate honestly, directly, and openly.

When ESPN implemented “FanBot”, they had to get past agents’ fear that they would be replaced. ESPN let agents know the bots were targeted at handling only some types of inquiries. Agents became eager participants in testing FanBot and ironing out the bugs, strengthening the application. As we just discussed – treat agents like partners!

Walk your talk.

ESPN tells agents they are important and they show it. They bring in wings on game days. A hangout room has an Xbox, comfy chairs, and a stocked mini-fridge. Agents earn “Karma points” for their work, and can buy ESPN-branded merchandise with their points.

Be willing to change.

Quality Management isn’t once and done. At ESPN, the quality forms have changed 24 times in the past few years. When an agent says “This isn’t fair”, the QM manager asks “How can I make it fair?” and then makes any needed modifications. In the words of CX thought leader Jeremy Watkin, “Quality management is a process that never ends.”

Empowerment requires vigilance.

ESPN focuses on empowering agents, but that doesn’t mean their interactions are error-free. With empowerment comes responsibility. Rather than berating an agent who makes a mistake, Citti asks “if you could do it over, what would you do differently?”

Agents are publicly acknowledged for stellar results. ESPN uses an app that sends a survey asking customers to rate them and explain their scores. Each agent sees their own results. And, ESPN sends some of these ratings and the customer’s supporting comments to the whole company, creating a sense of pride for the agent whose example is shared.

Bots are Big

Companies are rapidly embracing the use of bots to assist with customer service.

In the session “Learnings from 100 Million (and growing) Bot Interactions” led by

Brian Cantor, principal analyst for Customer Contact Week, and Erik Ashby, engineering and product director for Helpshift, we heard how companies are seeing some startling results with bots:

  • Some brands have been able to automate >80% of interactions.
  • Companies are realizing a fast ROI (less than 1 month at times).
  • Work is shifting for support center staff.
  • Customers are seeing a 50% decrease in time to resolution.

Helpshift finds the best strategy for highest customer satisfaction is to mix agents with bots – i.e. to always provide a “ripcord” to get to an agent.

Ashby suggests starting small to gain experience, and then apply those learnings to the next use case. This approach aligns with the composite wisdom of companies who participated in chatbot-focused panel discussions I led. Recommended starter use cases include areas where you can give customers quick answers, or where you can collect information to save agent time.

A few final tips from Cantor and Ashby as you start your bot journey:

  • Display options rather than allowing free-form text.
  • Assess efficiency – how many back-and-forth interactions were needed?
  • Measure the impact – ask if the problem was resolved.

Get buy-in at the top level

Understanding the criticality of boosting CX in the public eye, Comcast VP of CX Personalization Luke Hagstrand spoke about their efforts to drive personalization. For example, Comcast is working hard to bolster identity so they can proactively communicate with personalized interactions whether via home phone, email or mobile numbers.

Comcast leadership has identified CX as a top priority, and are funding initiatives to drive CX transformation. They’re working to eliminate silos, bolster privacy and security, assess (and acting on) channel delivery modes and persona-based messaging, and are investing in data intelligence and AI/ML.

Hagstrand says to drive CX transformation, you do have to sweat the details. Every leader in the company personally calls at least two customers per month and then acts on what they’ve heard. As Hagstrand says, “We have to excel in the moments that matter.”

Every contact center executive can benefit from these experiences. Click here to learn more about how you can use tools such as customer experience analytics and journey maps, intelligent IVR and agent enablement tools that will enable you to excel in delivering customer experiences that set your company apart