Focus on the Front Office to Get Customers Back... Again and Again

In some ways, modernizing customer experience processes is “the story of digital” so far. It has been a powerful catalyst for redesigning and re-imagining sales and the customer experience in general. And brand experience has been a huge motivator for customers – liking Netflix, crafting your own Starbucks signature drink, feeling the cool verve of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire of products and services. The more customers like the experience, the more they want to engage, give feedback and collaborate with it. For many products and services, co-creation with favorite brands is the name of the B2C or B2B game.

So, why are so many of us at our wit’s end when we experience bad customer care? Have we grown too blasé at the amazing potential of digital technologies? As customers, it’s frustrating when we see the obvious blind spots our favorite, trusted brands have failed to address when we interact with them – whether it’s the bad self-checkout robot at the grocery store, or the automated kiosk at the airline you’ve used for 20 years asking you to “Press 1 for English,” or robo-calls from your favorite charity asking for a donation, even though you made a PayPal contribution last week.

Our new research from the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work entitled “The Work Ahead: Soaring Out of the Process Silo” highlights data-based insights and tactical advice on applying new digital technologies to front-, middle- and back-office work processes to realize new levels of business performance.

We analyzed the responses from 136 senior sales and customer service executives in our dataset on how they think digital will transform work between now and 2020.

With killer apps, beautifully designed websites or even sensor-enabled soda bottles, many companies are already moving in this direction, Still, much more can be done to drive digital at the heart of the value chains surrounding customer-facing and front-office functions. Based on the responses from sales and customer service executives , it’s clear that many levers connected to data will be critical to improving processes over the next decade. Approximately 61% cited cybersecurity as pre-eminent by 2025, followed closely by big data (60%) and sensors/IoT (48%). However, for many, some basic foundational engagement technologies (such as telepresence, nanotechnologies and wearables) are perceived as being far from promising in the long term.

The more customers like the experience, the
more they want to engage, give feedback and
collaborate with it. For many products and
services, co-creation with favorite brands is
the name of the B2C or B2B game.

SaaS platforms like Salesforce have proved the concept for sales enablement software. Already, cloud-based platforms such as Cognizant’s Onvida are powering next-generation, omnichannel BPaaS solutions and digital customer experience processes. Case in point: Onvida is helping a leading global food and beverage company drive $37 million in cost savings and over $150 million in revenue uplift. Other companies, such as Zendesk, are turning reviews, comments and messages into two-way customer service conversations. Still others, such as Afiniti, are using AI to optimize interpersonal behavior with “super agents” when nothing less than a top-flight, human-to-human call is called for.

Keep Confronting the Front Office Digitally

Practice makes perfect. Even if your customer-facing functions have been on the vanguard of your organization’s digital process change efforts, your team needs to keep refining them. The days of forcing customers to align with your company’s (often bad) processes are numbered, so it’s high time to re-imagine all front-, middle and back-office processes to support your customers.

Here are some steps to anticipate and accelerate change:

TODAY: Get a mirror – see the ugliness (your customers already do).

If your company’s customer experience processes are ugly, there’s never been a better time (and better digital process tools) to fix them. Take a good, long look. Acceptance is half the battle. And even if your processes aren’t exactly ugly, but could stand to be even more beautiful, don’t stop! What’s “perfect” is always in a state of change, so keep looking, keep changing and keep perfecting. Your customers will reward you.

TOMORROW: Beauty is more than skin-deep – customer-facing process change needs to be outside and inside.

Digital allows opportunities to be unlocked in real time. By having meaningful data about how customers have interacted with customer support in the past, sales people can be made “smart,” and can proactively serve customers. Processes found in customer experience centers will need to re-calibrate around “handling sessions,” using the digital fingerprint (or “Code Halo” ) that is generated by every customer click, like, swipe, comment, call, inquiry and so on. Chat-bots especially are starting to emerge as a useful plumb-bob in the digital world to cohere these interactions. Patterns will emerge, such as the types of interventions and clarifications conducted, yielding a powerful lever for customer service, speed, efficiency and effectiveness. Gone is the need to complete the typical 15-step process to ascertain things like, “Why’d you call? What do you want? Where are you located?” Instead, a tangible sense of efficiency and experience is substituted – to get business moving faster and smarter.

ONE TO TWO YEARS: Turn the mirror on customers – watch them watching you.

Imagine the richness of process data – known and unknown – and how you could unlock it using digital technologies or new process platforms. Imagine crafting an algorithm for 10, 100 or 1,000 of the top 1% of your customers, all of whom share certain common characteristics. Like digital stalwarts Amazon, Apple and many others, you need to use new technologies such as sensors or big data analytics to gauge how customers may be interacting with your sales or customer service processes differently. Laser-focus on aspects of your best customers’ digital interactions and transpose them, either by demographic, region or sectors of your sales force, to drive outsized results for the business.

Disrupting Disruption at Davos

For those of us in the futurology business the concept of disruption has long been a central organizing principle of how we look at the world and the people and organizations that try to navigate it.

In white paper after white paper, and in presentation after presentation, we’ve told those that care to read or listen that “technology x is going to be disruptive”; that “company y has the potential to disrupt the market”; that “the fat margins that vendor z is currently enjoying leaves it open to disruption from lower cost alternatives emerging in the market”.

Each time we’ve bandied the D word around we’ve done it with relish and zeal; disruption – our unquestioned assumption has been – is a good thing. Don’t agree? Well, dear reader, dear audience member, you’re a dodo, you’re a Luddite, you’re not with the program. You’re toast.

This semi-mystical belief in the power – and inherent goodness – of disruption has, over the last 30 years, seeped from the pages of technology journals into the zeitgeist of modern business. As software has increasingly eaten business, business has increasingly adopted tech-centric mantras. Now even the humblest widget manufacturer is attuned to the notion of being disruptive – or being disrupted.

But a funny thing has happened recently. A funny thing that was on full-display along the snowy Promenade in Davos last week.

The disruption we’ve practiced and preached has itself been disrupted. Disruption has taken a new shape, a new form factor, a new guise. Disruption has a new name.

No prizes for guessing who I’m talking about.

Now Davos man and woman – the archetypal proselytizers of disruption – are being disrupted. And guess what? They don’t like it.

Disrupting is great fun. Being disrupted is absolutely horrible.

An unintended consequence of the ever broadening accommodation with disruption over the last generation or two has been the emergence of a new complacency. Having read every book about tech-based market disruption we’ve thought that a rose is a rose is a rose. With our tech-centric hammer to hand, every problem has become a tech-centric nail to bash home.

But that’s the great (or awful) thing about disruption (depending on where you stand and what the view looks like); real disruption is always new. Always different. Always unexpected. Unforecastable.

To paraphrase (and mangle) one of the high priests of disruption, Clayton Christensen, there are two types of disruption; sustaining disruption, and disruptive disruption. Davos (wo)man (btw; that includes you, even if you weren’t actually in Switzerland – remember in the big businesses within which the majority of us work, we are all “Spartacus”) has been operating within a framework of sustaining disruption these last few decades. Though Instagram disrupted Kodak and Netflix disrupted Blockbuster these disruptions occurred within well understood market rules. As we move further into the first hundred days we don’t really know what the rules of the game are anymore. Or even what the game we’re playing is.

Real disruption is always lurking on the edge of the radar; always there. Someone on your team has told you this is coming. Someone has said, quietly from the back of the room, we better take this seriously. Surprises only happen when you’re not paying attention. And when you simply don’t want that type of disruption to occur.

So what we can take away from Davos 2017? What can we learn from this uncomfortable period in which so many of the orthodoxies that have underpinned standard operating procedure are challenged and, perhaps, overturned?

I think two things; firstly, that disruption is an ever morphing thing, which if you think you’ve got it nailed down, is probably going to slip away and fool you just when you think you’re home and dry. The unknown unknowns really are unknown.

And secondly, that, even as go about our daily work of evangelizing Blockchain, and Virtual Reality, and Quantum Computing, and Machine Learning, and Fog Computing, there are companies and people that are going to be on the wrong side of the coming disruption whose futures are not so bright. Whose better days are behind them. Who will not write the history of their great adventure. Who will not be the heroes of their story. Who will be the proverbial third spear carrier from the left when Hollywood comes to town.

Knowing that the people that we’re presenting to, who are reading our reports, who we’re consulting to, are months (or minutes) away from losing their place on the totem pole should give us all a sense of humility and humbleness, as we hand down our commandments from on high. There but for the grace of God go I.

Davos 2017 was a community trying to come to terms with the disruption ahead. Anxious at best, fearful at worst, that those who live by disruption die by disruption.

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The Future of "the Room" in a Flat World

As someone who’s worked remotely for the last 17 years at companies leveraging “flat world” principles it may surprise you that I’m about to extol the virtues of the “face to face”; but here goes!

There are a ton of elements of most jobs that can be done anywhere; if you write code to a spec you can do it in the office, in your bedroom, in Starbucks, in the bath. Nowadays, nobody really cares. As long as it’s good and on time, anything goes. If you handle customer service calls you can do it on the massive floor of a call center or at your kitchen table in Lebanon, Kansas, as long as your turn-around times and customers’ satisfaction ratings are up to snuff. If, like me, your job mainly consists of the three R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ruminatin’ – a “clean, well-lighted place” is about all you need.

Except... when you need the heat, and energy, and frustration, and excitement, and drama, of intellectual hand-to-hand combat to find, build – and winthe future of your work. Then there is no substitute – still no substitute – for being in the room.

The phone, Skype, email, Slack, video conferences, Jabber, FaceTime, Hangouts, are all great and serve their purposes well, but when you want a group of people to come together to really talk, really focus, really energize each other, really be creative and innovative, really sell ideas to each other, and really dig deep, then being in the same physical space at the same time really still takes some beating.

In our Collaboratory in midtown Manhattan we see the truth of this every day. Our customers are energized by being in the room with their peers (some of whom they hardly ever see in person), and our consultants, and engineers, and designers, and strategists. Building off the vibe and energy of the world’s ultimate 24-hour city and a We Work building full of entrepreneurs and creative millennials (“is one of these guys the next Zuckerberg?” you catch yourself thinking in the elevator), they step outside of their Q by Q, day by day, minute by minute concerns and give themselves the time and the space to think differently about what comes next, and what they should do about it. As we develop more Collaboratorys around the world (in Amsterdam and London already, coming soon to Australia and Singapore as well as India and California), we’re finding a new “hybrid” model emerging in which we meld the still amazing upsides of working wherever and whenever with the catalytic heat that “the room” generates. In 2016 the world is flatter than ever but, paradoxically because of that, the “room” matters more than ever, too.