Sankara “Vishi” Viswanathan, SVP and CIO, Day & Zimmermann
CIOs of B2B companies today are eager to seek out and implement new technologies that automate processes, increase employee efficiency and improve business functions. However, these professionals must be mindful when building technology into customer-facing operations, especially in a customer service and sales environment that still covets person-to-person interactions.
The powers of automation have been well documented and the development of artificial intelligence and robotics is beginning to infiltrate industries of all shapes and sizes. Under the right conditions, automation can cut costs, increase employee productivity and lift the firm’s bottom line. But automation can sometimes be taken too far by company leadership.
Particularly in the last few years, an increasing number of B2B companies have attempted to automate aspects of their sales process. But some efforts have been more successful than others. It’s one thing to automate customer onboarding or invoicing, but what about at the front-end of the sales process? Some B2B companies have begun using automated chat bots on their websites to try and generate leads and drive sales.
But what is rarely considered when implementing these services is their effect on the customer experience. We’ve all found ourselves agitated by questions asked by a computerized bot that don’t exactly fit our specific request. In complex B2B sales, the AI on chat bots just doesn’t seem smart enough to get the job done (not yet anyway).
This is one instance of automation that might not fully fit the situation, and where too much human interaction has been removed from the equation. The personal touch is still important in the B2B customer service and sales process. Recent research from McKinsey indicates that the majority of B2B buyers desire a mix of human and digital interactions throughout the buying experience.
Striking this balance has become increasingly important to CIOs. What might look like a cost-cutting measure on a balance sheet can easily become a profit-losing measure if it begins to impact service and customer experiences. Technology must complement and enhance the existing service offering, not necessarily replace it entirely unless companies are looking into a completely new service offering.
The key to successfully striking this balance is to always keep the customer in mind when making technology decisions. For companies, that means developing technology that enhances their experiences and elevates personal interactions.
Building meaningful customer relationships with convenience
Digital customer service capabilities have become the norm. Gone are the days when the customer’s only option was to call an individual during business hours to get support.
Whether it be automated chat functions in the bottom-right-hand corner of a company website or an automatic email reply to a customer request, these functions have become ubiquitous in customer relations. These capabilities add convenience to the customer experience, allowing them to interact with the company, whenever they want, wherever they want, and on their own specific terms.
At Day & Zimmermann, we have used automation to speed-up the onboarding process for employees that work for our staffing company, Yoh. Since a lot of the onboarding process is about filling out documentation, our online portal allows employees to easily fill out the necessary paperwork and get to work, without waiting for a person to walk them through it. This helps both the employees and our customers.
A compassionate staff and a thoughtful follow up response is still key to providing exceptional customer service
New customer and employee demands make an investment in technology imperative. It is simply too expensive to keep a team on duty around the clock to answer every need. However, these initial automated touch points cannot serve as the crux of the customer service offering. A compassionate staff and a thoughtful follow up response is still key to providing exceptional customer service. A study from PwC found that a phone call with a real person is still by far the most preferred channel to resolve customer issues.
Above all else, customers want their experience to be quick and easy, whether it be through digital or traditional means, the study also found. This underscores the need for companies to offer a healthy mix of both. Organizations must be able to respond nimbly to customers and possess the digital capabilities and human touch required to do so.
Enhancing human interactions with advanced technology
Former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt may have said it best back in 2013 during his message to shareholders when he wrote, “We believe that every industrial company will become a software company.” Immelt was signaling that the transition to becoming a large digital industrial company was taking place. As the digital evolution continues, the best part of developing technology tools for clients is that if done correctly,they enhance those still important human interactions. Armed with data and intelligence that advanced technology can provide, customer service representatives and sales professionals can have more meaningful conversations with clients and prospects.
The challenge with implementing new technologies in addition to cost is the risk involved if a technology implementation fails. Leveraging the agile development methodologies, we can overcome this issue by testing new technologies more rapidly during the development process on individual projects/processes, rather than trying to immediately roll out and scale the technology across the entire enterprise. The analogy Jim Collins utilizes in Great by Choice regarding firing bullets first and then cannonballs really epitomizes how to balance risk with adding advanced technology. Designing something to first meet a client-specific need may be the first step in ultimately scaling a solution for the rest of the organization.
Testing new technology solutions for a very specific need first has been an effective strategy at Day & Zimmermann. We recently developed a safety tool for one of our divisions designed for a very specific need. But over time, and after showcasing the solution, we found that it was something that could be used across the entire organization. By starting small, we were able to realize big results and eliminated the risk of potential change management challenges and poor adoption. This tool gave our people new information and data which enabled them to alert clients to trouble spots and opportunities creating an enhanced overall customer experience.
While new and advanced technology is an investment, it can be high impact, opening doors to new opportunities and sources of revenue. Most importantly, it can make human interactions with clients more powerful.
Avoiding technology for technology’s sake
New technologies that promise cost savings, streamlined processes and a boost to your organization’s bottom line emerge seemingly every day. But CIOs must resist the temptation to make decisions on these shiny new objects based on technology alone.Instead, technology leaders must strategically balance their investments in both technology that can provide an increased measure of intelligence for customers, with that need for a human touch needed to optimize the customer experience. The human touch is still essential to effectively serving clients in today’s B2B world.