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Cues, Signals and Understanding

The intersection of, Customer Service and Social CRM is about being human, listening for signals and watching for cues. The secret sauce is understanding what you have observed and acting accordingly. On the one hand, you could call this a lesson in Social CRM, while on the other hand, you could call this being human 101.

It is a bit like being married – as any man will tell you, the spousal response  “I am fine” means anything but that! It is not the words, but the context, which supports my key point, cues; verbal and non-verbal add context. The ability to understand the cues and act upon them is the difference between a good and poor experience (or sleeping on the sofa). In the world of contact centers and customer service, it is the difference between good and bad customer experience.  As an aside, ‘acting’ upon something can easily be doing nothing.

The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article that illustrated the point quite well. The setting is a restaurant, the ‘Agents’ are waiters and waitresses and the patrons are, well, customers. There are some spot on reflections of a service experience, which serve as examples examples:

  • Timing: The time of dining and/or dress might suggest that dining is not the main event.
  • Guests: Kids at the table might suggest that speed up the service and give the dessert menu to mom.
  • Drinks: A request for the wine menu suggests, not only that a drink is in order, but that the dining experience is might be more relaxed and casual.

Are these meant to be rules? No, guidelines maybe, things to think about which can lead to a better overall experience. How does this, or can this help in the contact center? Is this only for small businesses, or large ones as well?

“Some restaurants still employ waiter scripts, but now they are being used to dig for guest information. At Romano’s Macaroni Grill, an Italian-themed chain, waiters are taught to use their scripted offer of house wine to find out if the table will want a fast, leisurely, or lively meal.”

Scripts, scripts, hmmm…

Rigid process versus guide and adapt, sounds familiar doesn’t it. Table dynamics suggests how the waiter should act, or react. In other words, how or how not to Engage the people at the table is a critical lesson to learn, quickly as well.  Given all of the talk of engagement, it is important to point out that choosing NOT to engage is an equally important possibility.

“We changed ‘suggestive selling’ to ‘situational selling,’ ” says Rene Zimmerman, senior director of training and development for Bob Evans Farms Inc., a family-style restaurant and food maker. Instead of offering every breakfast guest one additional item, say biscuits and gravy, waiters are taught to adjust their offer depending upon the guest. For a diner who places a lighter order, like a bagel and fruit, the waiter might suggest a cup of coffee or tea.”

Here are the lessons, from a restaurant we can learn:

  • Service is a differentiator
  • Scripts need to be dynamic
  • Upsell or Cross-Sell (or nothing) needs to depend up the cues
  • Value is more than just product, it is the whole of the experience

Why do I believe that this could be considered Social CRM? If we believe that Social CRM is the company’s response to the customer’s control of the conversation, then it makes perfect sense. As I suggested recently, engagement is really at the behest of the customer. Choosing not to engage is an acceptable outcome, they just want a meal and to move on to their next activity. This is not a Marketing activity, this is mostly service, with a bit of sales.

One point I would like to leave you with is this: Until technology can truly simulate/accurately represent looking someone in the eye when you are talking to them, technology will be just that, technology. Physical cues are lost on the phone, we can only do our best to interpret. Verbal cues are lost through Email and Social Media (excluding YouTube of course).

What can else can we learn here?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • grahamrhill February 29, 2012, 5:23 AM

    Hi Mitch

    Another interesting post. But I am wondering whether you are missing the brace of elephants standing in the middle of the room.

    Let’s start by putting aside Paul Greenberg’s ridiculous notion that Social CRM is the ‘companies response to the customer’s control of the conversation’. This sounds nice and many apparently want to believe it, but a sobering look at the hard facts show that it is simply rubbish. How can customers possibly control any kind of meaningful conversation if only 1% of the customer touchpoints with a brand are social, as research cited by Mark Tamis in a recent blog post pointed out. The proportion of social touchpoints will have to hugely increase before customers even start to significantly influence others’ conversations.

    If customers aren’t really the influence on others conversations that some would have us believe, then what is? When it comes to customer service the answer is pretty clear; the customer-facing agent is the key influencer. As Justice Theory shows, they control a large part of what the customer gets from the contact (the outcome), they control the process the customer has to go through to get it (the process) and as you point out, they control at least half of the interaction with the customer (the interaction).

    If you look at most service organisations you usually find a mixture of three types of service process in operation. At one end of the spectrum are totally scripted processes, where what has to be done and how it is to be done is set out clearly. These are usually for highly standardised service interactions where best practices have been developed through trial and error, and where the agent needs little discretion in either the process or the outcome. That doesn’t mean the agent has to behave like an uncaring automaton; they are still responsible for the all important interaction part of the contact.

    At the other end are entirely new contacts where there is no process and where agents need to use a discovery approach to understand what the customer really wants, the customer’s situation (the context in your post) and to co-create a mutually acceptable solution together with the customer. This requires highly-trained, highly-empowered agents with access to powerful decision support tools if the contact is to be resolved successfully. But training and tools can only take you so far.

    The first elephant in the room is that agents need to have a high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) if they are to be any good at really understanding the customer and co-creating a successful outcome with the customer. I would go so far as to say that selection processes should be used to weed out all potential agents whose EQ is too low to be effective at relating to customers. If an agent’s EQ is too low, they should not have contact with customers at all. For their sake as much as for the customer’s and the company’s.

    Inevitably, most service processes sit somewhere between these two extremes. The same challenges around understanding the customer’s needs and the situation behind the contact, and co-creating a successful outcome with the customer are there. But there is less likely to be a highly standardised process that the agents must follow. This also requires well-trained agents with a degree of empowerment and decision support tools, if the contact is to be resolved successfully. It also requires additional training and tools to know when and how to deviate from the process; to avoid agents making decisions that produce worse outcomes for the customer and the company. But that is not always enough for a successful outcome in what are the most ambiguous of contacts.

    The second elephant in the room is that customers also need to have the right knowledge, skills and experience (training) and decision support tools if they are to co-create the best possible solution together with the agent. But how many companies spend time thinking about how to provide the customer with the knowledge and skills to help them set their expectations about the outcomes they can reasonably expect at the right level, and the tools to ensure that they get them?

    It is said that people almost invariably overestimate the impact of new technology at the beginning of its introduction and underestimate its impact at the end. So it is with Social CRM in general and Social Service in particular. The challenge most companies face right now is finding out with what works through a process of managed trial and error. Putting high EQ agents in charge of contacts with customers is a sure fire way of getting the most out of these experiments. But that is not enough. Using new frameworks like Vargo & Lusch’s Service Dominant Logic to radically rethink the role of the customer as another type of ‘resource’ to be integrated into social contacts, and giving them the training and tools to get the most out of each contact, is another.

    As Social CRM matures we must leave the pundit’s hype behind and look at what really works. Sometimes that means doing what we already know works better. But sometimes it means doing completely different things too.

    You know it makes sense.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    @grahamhill

  • Sameer Patel February 29, 2012, 8:18 AM

    Nice piece, Mitch.
    Re: “I am fine” means anything but that! It is not the words, but the context, which supports my key point, cues; verbal and non-verbal add context.

    Great analogy. The “Like” button is about as insightful as “I am fine”.

    • grahamrhill February 29, 2012, 12:56 PM

      Hi Sameer

      Like can mean many things. It can mean I like to take part in games and competitions to win prizes. It can mean I like to be given free stuff (so give some to me!). Occasionally it can even mean I genuinely like your company.

      But none of these mean I am going to buy more stuff from you. Or I am going to be more loyal to you. And it doesn’t mean I am going to tell others how wonderful you are either.

      It is a sad state of affairs when words get changed to mean something completely different from their original meaning. Just like the old buzzword; relationship, and and the new one; engagement.

      Graham Hill
      Customer-centric Innovator
      @grahamhill

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