An automated customer experience doesn’t mean a better one

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Customer experience is a lovely subject on which to wax lyrical, but nothing brings home what it actually means like having some of your own.

We all salute customer experience and dutifully recognize its importance in keeping the customer loyal, happy, spending and so on. Some, myself included, have gone so far as to say that customer experience is the final frontier in telecoms competition. If your product is largely commoditized, if there’s very little differentiation in products and pricing, then what else is going to make the customer choose you, rather than head down the road to Telco B? It might not be love, it might stop (thankfully) short of ‘intimacy’, but still, it’s an experience you like. It’s cool, it’s easy, it’s not totally awful. This is what keeps us choosing Starbucks over Costa (or vice-versa), Waitrose over Tesco (likewise) and so on… the beans from Waitrose might taste the same, but the experience just speaks differently to many customers. Yes, I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Lately, digitalization and automation of all kinds have been creeping into telco CRM. So far this doesn’t seem drastically different in principle from the IVR technology that we’ve grown to love so much all these years, but the end game is pretty clear: to have the customer interface run itself, without the need for messy, costly human intervention– somewhat like Amazon, say, where finding a way to communicate with an actual breathing person is like taking on a challenge from the Crystal Maze.

Lots of businesses seem to share this vision now – in the UK, for example, news vendor WH Smith runs its airport outlets entirely as self-scanning, person-free zones (they haven’t been bold enough to try this trick on the high street yet, but you can bet they’re thinking about it). Amazon is going a step further with checkout-free stores and Tesco in the UK seems set to follow.

The advantages to the organizations are clear, and they’re all about operating costs – the advantages to customers (and shopworkers) are a little more ambiguous. Right now, there seems little question that, other things being equal, if you want a good customer experience, it still helps to have a person involved.

Case study: BT Openreach

I had personal experience of this recently, in a way which seemed to indicate where we are with automated CRM in telco.

My engagement was with BT, as I tried to get a fiber connection to our rural smallholding. A neighbor had clued me in that Openreach had been through and, though they weren’t advertising the fact (because why would they?), if you talked to BT nicely, they would give you a fiber-to-the-home connection.

Needless to say, I was straight on the case. I went online, I entered my postcode and yes – FTTH could be mine! Farewell to ‘spinning wheel’ perma-buffering misery! Cost to install was reasonable, the service was discounted for 12 months – all looked good … until I clicked through to payment and the price suddenly went up 50%, for no apparent reason.

What to do? I picked up the phone and called BT. Call handling was fine, and I was soon through to a helpful lady who asked me to “bear with” while she looked into the problem. Turned out that the offer I’d chosen was only open to new customers (though this had been far from evident), but never fear – she was sure she had another that would be just as good. There followed an interesting few minutes while she searched through screens of tariffs and packages, looking for one that would meet my requirements, periodically exclaiming, “I know there’s one here somewhere…” and yes indeed, eventually a tariff was located, with the same terms and conditions that I’d been promised.

This in itself came as a bit of a surprise. The telco with hundreds of live tariffs in its billing system was something I thought we must have said goodbye to years ago, but it would seem not.

Anyway, I accepted. I paid. I was asked to choose a day for the final install and we agreed on a date a couple of weeks later. I was offered morning or afternoon. I went for afternoon. We parted friends. I marked up the calendar.

And then …

And then the trouble began.

Almost immediately, texts started arriving on my phone, confirming the date, congratulating me on my purchase, stoking up my excitement and keen anticipation of my new superfast life. These went on daily for ten days or more in one form or another.

Then the texts changed to reminders that the engineer would soon be here, what I should to prepare (stay at home, check the milk & hobnob situation…), what to do should unforeseen eventualities arise and I wasn’t able to make our date, and more besides.

The date duly arrived. We stayed in, pacing the floor with excitement… till six o’clock had been and gone and it was clear we had been stood up. After all that sweet talk and all those texts, no show. Our door remained resolutely un-knocked, our latch unraised. If tumbleweed existed on the Welsh borders, it would have been rolling past our gate.

Classic. Still this?

On the upside, the texts stopped. They didn’t write, they didn’t call. We were dead to them.

The following day I phoned BT again. I’ll spare you the IVR hell. Eventually I reached someone in engineering who pronounced himself amazed that such a date could be promised, given the amount of external surveying and work that would be required before anything could be hooked up inside the house.

“And none of that work has been done yet,” he confirmed, in a tone which suggested that I must be a bit cracked if I thought my new fiber lifestyle would be underway by now.

So what about this date? Oh, they should have explained that that date was provisional till someone had been out to take a look.

And all these lovely matey texts? Oh, that? That’s just ‘the system’. As soon as that date goes in, there’s an electronic process that kicks off.  OK, so nothing personal…

We fixed a new date. I sensed that this one was being entered into an old-style ledger, very likely with a stubby pencil pulled from behind a slightly hairy ear. Somehow, it gave me more confidence, and indeed, three weeks later, as promised, a nice young man came round and within the hour, we were all fibered up and flying. Boy, is our lifestyle digital now!

Humans 1, Automation nil

Point is, in terms of customer experience, while I was talking to a living breathing human, it couldn’t have been better – helpful, informed, empathetic… it was only when the conversation stopped and the machines (and in particular the dimwit auto-scheduler and the hyperactive textbot) stepped up to take over that it all went to hell.

Yet I’m pretty sure that somewhere in BT this whole automated process will be celebrated as an example of BT’s ‘relentless focus on the customer’. Was the customer satisfied with the tariff? Tick. Was a date set and agreed for the install on that first call? Tick. Was communication maintained with the customer? Absolutely. And was the customer kept informed of progress? Oh, very much so. And in fairness, in terms of all those things, the experience was quite good (if you like that kind of thing).

The snag was, as a person might have observed, none of it came even within shouting distance of the reality on the ground.

Fulfillment always was the toughest part of the whole order-to-service cycle, and it would appear that that remains so. And automation? It’s such a great idea in theory. Obviously this will all be sorted by AI … but I’m not holding my breath.”

Written by Robert Machin, an independent telecoms analyst and communicator who can proudly boast over 25 years of service with many of the industry’s leading software vendors and integrators

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