What Kind of Enterprise Are You?

We are experiencing a great deal of change in the customer contact field. The most visible shift has been in the way customers engage with businesses. An array of new tools, primarily mobile devices, has given consumers many more options for communication, information gathering, and self-service.

With new options come new challenges, though. Customers are often confused about what approach to take: Make a phone call? Send an email? Fire up an app? Some or all of these? From the consumer point of view, mobility and choice sometimes results in added friction, because businesses haven't put in place systems to preserve the context of an issue and continuity of experience as the customer weaves from one mode to another. In contrast to the old school voice-centric contact center model of service, enterprises now have to cope with customers motivated by conflicting demands and impulses. Some people prioritize satisfaction and resolution; others prize speed; still others demand personalization.

Enterprise responses to these shifts in customer behavior depend on how well the culture adapts to change in general. More specifically, enterprises tend to make a gut-level assessment of the costs and benefits of adapting and adopt one of three attitudes to the problems of customer interaction.

First is the "reactive stance," which is arguably the most conservative and risk-averse mode. It is also the one that a lot of companies fall into before they have a chance to concoct a more advantageous strategy. Companies that adopt a reactive stance toward customers are typically trying to maximize the efficiency of their operations to control costs. Yes, all companies try to control costs, but for reactive ones, this is the dominant priority. Reactive companies are those that see customer interactions as a form of triage to be managed rather than as opportunities to grow or enhance the relationship.

In the face of new forms of contact, reactive companies will often try to minimize their brand exposure to negative influences. Many of the first generation of social media interaction tools that were implemented about five years ago were aimed at this problem. They were deployed by marketing departments desperate to understand what people were saying in the social sphere, but unprepared with connections to self-service or interaction platforms to resolve problems publicly, at scale.

The second mode is the "accommodationist stance." Enterprises adopting this posture are less resistant to change and more aware of its inevitability, but are often handcuffed by resource or cultural constraints from rolling headlong into wholly new ways of architecting service platforms.

Accommodationists know that their customers are moving to new contact modes faster than the business can roll out new channels. They grapple with tensions that emerge when different departments have a stake in managing customer communications. Companies in this mode often have marketing departments planning combined outbound and inbound campaigns, using analytics to understand customer sentiment, and that are at cross-purposes with customer care groups that are a bit less flexible.

Inside these companies you see efforts to spread those analytic resources around and harmonize their findings, but again, because of resource constraints, they are learning to segment customers based on their value to maximize revenue opportunities. These businesses acknowledge the operational need for more customer contact channels, but are implementing solutions based on urgency and potential value. An accommodationist approach is one that knows the business needs a broad new customer strategy, but has to attend to the squeakiest wheels first.

Finally, there are some businesses out there that are tackling the broad spectrum of changes and problems head-on, often via collaborative decision-making involving IT, operations, marketing and c-level strategists. This "activist stance" is rarer than the others, but it's where the industry is finding its laboratories of innovation.

These activist businesses are trying to identify, through metrics and testing, the overall optimal response to customer behavior across a wide range of situations and contact channels. Journey mapping is an example of how companies with this stance look deeply into the causes and effects of specific actions taken by both customers and companies. The activists are willing to find problems and (sometimes) hear bad news if it means they can use them as opportunities to fine tune processes and improve outcomes.

Another characteristic of companies taking the activist stance is that they often apply the expertise gained in one realm (traditional voice contact centering, for example) to other domains (like digital channels). There is a lot of experimentation going on in the field, looking for best practices from areas like workforce optimization and self-service (or call deflection) that can be applied in new contexts, albeit with a little twisting.

Activist companies try to get two things right: first, they use analytics to identify the best places to solve problems or handle contacts. For high-value customers, that might be live agents in a call center; for busy millennials it might be in social media posts or customer communities, The key is understanding context.

These businesses also try to acquire visibility into the real relative costs of using different channels. That often means intensive study and data manipulation to understand how it breaks down by customer type, by timing, geography, or assumptions about future revenue.

There is merit in all three stances (though it's hard to argue that you should stay reactive for much longer than necessary to get one's bearings). Your company might not have formally declared its strategy to be one of these three, but by default these stances describe most businesses. Knowing where you are on the continuum will help you make the case for more (or better) resources, and help you reach out to colleagues in other departments to justify new processes and tools.

The technology implications are clear for vendors as well. Enterprises need, and vendors must provide, better clarity in to the time horizons for technology development, especially when it comes to new ways of using data to understand behavior and influence interactions. They also need vendors to guide them in making investment decisions that now involve multiple stakeholders and have broader business impact than old-style call center purchasing did.

Keith Dawson is a principal analyst in Ovum's customer engagement practice.