Customer service is one of the biggest paradox of our times.
The more we move towards self-service, chatbots, the more we have to interact with humans. The more we interact with humans, the more it feels we are talking to machines.
It is a vicious circle all of us want to avoid.
Lately, I have been talking to a lot of customer service reps from different industries – retail, banking, visa processing services, e-commerce, over different channels – phone, email, chat.
I know it appears that I am on some sort of mission here, but it was just my (bad) luck!
There was one common thread across all these interactions, lack of human intelligence or empathy.
At one instance, I almost told the person at the other end to please behave like a human, because it seemed she wasn’t reading any of the messages I sent in the chat window.
In another instance, the rep of my telecom service provider was trying to up-sell when I made the call for the cancellation of connection.
To top it all, when I got a follow-up call to check why I gave a bad rating for my interaction, the person at the other was only interested to improve the rating of that particular call, rather than addressing the actual issue!
The only saving grace for me was the fact that someone is monitoring these ratings, whether it results in customer satisfaction or not that is a separate discussion.
Where did it go wrong?
How did customer care turn into customer unaware department?
Who trains these humans to mindlessly repeat sentences like “Surely, I will assist you”, even though they have no idea what is going on?
What happens to all those calls that are ‘recorded for quality and training’ purpose?
Standard operating procedures are required, protocols are necessary but why don’t they help the customer?
The bigger the brand the more frustrating is their customer’s experience, why?
What is so difficult about delivering these experiences that disgruntled customers are almost equal if not more than satisfied customers?
Is it the technology? Is it the process? Is it training? Is it the organization structure?
The customer experience is not only fragmented, but it is average at best.
Who in the organization is responsible to report on customer satisfaction? By customer satisfaction, I don’t mean the NPS or average of any kind of score, I mean ACTUAL satisfaction.
How many times a customer contacts us?
How many times they have to contact us to solve one issue?
If this information is easily accessible on the website, why are they calling us?
Is it wise for the agent to say please look for this information on our website when the customer has been waiting for ten minutes to speak?
Is someone smart enough to deduce that increase in waiting time for the customer is an indication that we need infrastructure upgrade or additional resources?
What is so difficult about the questions above that only a few organizations seem to have answers to them?
If I told you, to survive in this competitive world, you need to focus on your customers and meet all their expectations. Would that surprise you? Isn’t it Management 101?
Since the beginning of time, none of these fundamentals have changed.
It is still as simple as delivering something of value to your customers to become or remain profitable.
The most important aspect still, is whether your customers perceive it to be of any value?
All the content they read or watched to know you better, all the attention they showered you with, did it make them feel something? Different, exclusive, special, intelligent?
This, in a nutshell, is Customer Experience.
What is that you want your customer to feel about your brand and offering?
As a concept it is simple to understand and follow. But in reality it is complex.
Typical Customer Experience
My bank sends me seven e-mails in a week, one says “dear a/c no XXXX”, other says “Dear Charu”, another one says “Dear customer”.
Three interactions, three different experiences. Add to this the text promotions, calls with my relationship managers, a visit to the branch.
At all these touch points it doesn’t seem they are talking to me, it seems they are sending messages, which can be ignored, hence I ignore them.
Frankly, I do not expect to be treated like royalty.
I am fine receiving emails with “dear a/c no XXXX” however, I do have a problem when these interactions are shoving products in my face. Personal loans, car loans, two-wheeler loans etc just because I opened an email on their home loan offer.
This is one of the many problems we face as customers. There are organizations who think every interaction is about sales, then there are some who don’t realize when there is an actual sales opportunity. There are some who give us amazing buying experience but their customer support is abysmal.
Customer Experience in Digital World
Often customer experience is used in conjunction with digital. How is a website or app experience? Did your customer easily find what they were looking for?
No doubt, customer experience is important in the digital world, but your customer experience strategy should be holistic. It should factor that every microinteraction with the customer will cumulate to their experience.
Another important element to consider is that customer experience is industry agnostic now. I expect similar services from my internet service provider and home appliances company.
In an event of a service request, I want their customer support executive to understand my problems and suggest an appropriate solution. The visit from their representative should be at my convenience, etc.
Customer Experience Strategy and Business Strategy
Sales and Marketing are the face of a business. So, it is obvious to assume that onus lies on these two teams to manage it well. Otherwise, it is often confused with Customer Support function.
But, a Marketing team cannot expedite the process of a refund for a customer? Or the customer support cannot comment on implementation issues.
Therefore, it has to be an integral part of the business strategy to ensure that organizational silos do not hamper the customer experience. If a refund needs to be processed immediately, the finance team should change their process rather than asking the customer to wait.
How To Build Your Customer Experience Strategy?
Many organizations have a different function catering to the customer experience. In SaaS world, they are often called Customer Success Managers.
But, in most cases, their work starts after a prospect has become a customer. So, their influence in the earlier part of the pipeline is non-existent or minimal.
Since business pipeline or funnel is one of the most important metric for a business, it can be used to design your customer experience strategy.
However, there are few important factors to note:
Often Sales and Marketing teams have different data in their respective funnels. It makes sense because both teams have different goals.
But, for designing the customer experience strategy it is beneficial to refer to one funnel.
Retention is often not considered as part of the funnel. Somehow it is assumed that once a customer has converted, we need not engage anymore.
However, the times of today demand retention be an integral part of the funnel and the strategy.
Lead are nurtured to move them from one stage to another. An exceptional customer experience would mean that teams collaborate on this aspect.
If Sales is leading the conversation, then Marketing should provide relevant material or events to enhance the experience.
Constituents of Customer Experience Strategy
There are three main constituents of the customer experience strategy:
Business Goal – What are you trying to achieve for your business? Are you trying to increase revenue or expanding into new markets?
Customer Persona – Before you can improve the customer experience, you need to know who your customer is and what are their preferences.
The number of customer personas vary on the size of your organization. A DIY home decor blog may be targeted at people interested in crafts or an on-budget homemaker.
Customer Experience Map – is the simplest way to visualize your customer experience strategy.
For each stage of the funnel, identify the interactions you will have with your customer to move them to next stage or for retention.
Define the value you want to deliver to a customer at each of these interactions and what would be the best channel/medium to do so.
Define the milestones for their journey. There might be more than one way to reach to the destination, you need to ensure that your customer takes the path you design for them.
Like all strategy exercises, this is an iterative process. Unlike all strategy exercises, it will be more dynamic in nature because a lot is dependent on the customer’s reaction and acceptance. There have been times when customers don’t appreciate change.
The simplest way to get it right is by asking the customers themselves.
Have thoughts on Customer Experience Strategy? Share them in comments.
I get visuals of a band singing Stand By Me in the busy town square in Thimpu
I get the visuals of the picturesque road to the Dzong in Paro
I get the visuals of greenery outside my homestay in Haa Valley.
Whenever I think of my trip to Bhutan
I feel the comfort of my host Rinchen Om’s voice when she said pray to goddess Taraand you will get everything you want;
I feel the warmth of my host Samten Om’s smile when she had no common words to communicate with me;
I feel the excitement of my host Eden’s conduct when she was sharing stories of Bhutanese culture;
I feel the enthusiasm of little Tenzin’s laughter; I feel the calm of Tenzin Om’s demeanor.
Tony Perrottet is not wrong when he states you will suspend your disbeliefs gladly because of the people of Bhutan.
Their earnest beliefs will touch your heart in a way few experiences can.
Journey to Bhutan
If I say I got intrigued with Bhutan when I heard of Gross National Happiness, I am sure it won’t be a surprise. The intrigue factor just increased when I discovered that tourism is controlled.
A nation in sync with nature, right in my neighborhood. It was always on my travel list. Therefore, when I planned to spend time in Sikkim for my sabbatical, I decided to visit Bhutan too.
I traveled in June 2017 just before the monsoon season in July and August.
It is advisable to avoid the monsoon season because of landslides, continuous rains etc. But, I am sure if you plan meticulously, it should not be a problem.
The easiest way for me was to take a bus to Bhutan from Siliguri. The buses ply from 7:00 AM to 12:00 noon. I took a normal bus which costed me Rs.140, the cheapest I have ever paid for an international destination.
Bhutan Visa Rules for Indians
When I was researching for permissions I would need for as an Indian, I got confused with contradictory information.
Some said confirmed accommodation bookings are compulsory, some said you need it only for the first destination after Phunstonling. Some said solo travelers are not given permissions easily etc.
Let me debunk some of these myths based on my experience.
Citizens of India, Bangladesh or Maldives, don’t need a visa to enter Bhutan. However, one does need permissions for the further destinations.
Citizens of these countries are also exempted from $250 package rule. Tourists of other nationalities need a government certified tour operator to organize their trip.
Permissions at Phunstonling
If you enter Bhutan via Punstonling, you need to visit the Visa office and get your permissions for the journey ahead.
The business hours of the office are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (local time). If you arrive after 5:00 PM, you can either stay at Phunstonling or Jaigaon, the border town on the Indian side.
The popular opinion on the web is that getting accommodation in Phunstonling is difficult. I came across a lot of options for all budgets. Some of them were within walking distance from the Visa office.
However, the starting price for a decent room is Rs/Nu 1000. Which reminds me, Indian currency is revered in Bhutan and all merchants, hotel owners are more than happy to be paid in INR.
Documents Required for Bhutan Visa
A passport with a minimum validity of 6 months or a Voter Identity Card is acceptable as a proof of identity. Aadhar Card is not considered as a valid proof by Bhutan government.
To get permissions, you need to submit following documents:
One copy of id document (self-attested)
Booking confirmation from hotels at each place
Photographs (I think two!)
Visa form available at the office. A wise idea will be to collect the copy of the form beforehand if possible.
Self Declaration (for solo travellers)
The detailed itinerary should mention the places you want to visit, number of days at each place along with the confirmation of booking from the hotel/homestay/guest house you’d be staying at.
If you don’t like paying for hotels in advance, you can try the no credit card option on booking.com. The confirmation receipt from booking.com suffices as a proof or you can ask your hotel/host to email the confirmation to you.
Soft copies are not accepted, therefore ensure you have hard copies ready.
Solo Traveling in Bhutan
Solo traveling is not common in Bhutan. A solo traveler is a surprise, an Indian solo traveler more so and a female Indian solo traveler is apparently a rare sight. So, one gets all kinds of advice from hotel staff, visa office personnel, even the visa officer.
The hotel staff at one place told me you won’t get permission, the visa office personnel said it looks difficult, the visa officer told me the world is a cruel place, we all should be safe!
Well, they all had good intentions with these comments. They were commenting on the basis of their past experience. As for me, I was already in Phunstonling, I could have returned without trying or I could have returned after trying for permissions. In that situation, returning after trying made more sense.
So, I went ahead with my request of solo travel for 10 days in Bhutan.
A solo traveler has to provide additional declaration (on plainn A4 sheet) that he/she is traveling alone and will be responsible for his/her own well being.
As for the world is a cruel place? The well-meaning Visa officer was only checking if I have traveled alone earlier and if I have it in me to experience his country alone.
After, sharing few friendly suggestions and warning me not to work at all, he signed off my permission request smilingly saying, you guys should teach us IT.
Capital City of Thimpu
My first destination was the capital city of Thimpu.
The journey from Phunstonling to Thimpu was a reminder of treacherous slopes of Sikkim I traversed a day before. The mist on long winding roads felt familiar and comfortable. The little bus which could seat 30 people was full of locals and their newly acquired possessions for business and personal use.
At each checkpoint, from my last seat, I had to hop on various baskets and buckets to go out and get the permissions checked. It was the only way I got reminded that I am not in my own country.
Otherwise, the friendly chats with locals in Hindi, their experience with Jabong and Myntra hardly made me feel that I am beyond the borders of my homeland.
After 6 hours of the slow ride, I reached my destination 5 Km outside of Thimpu city.
A kind fellow passenger from bus offered to drop me at my Airbnb host’s house because the walk would have been difficult. The lady took a detour, dropped me at the location, ensured I was picked up safe and then left.
At that time, I wanted to tell that visa officer, the world may be a cruel place but kindness is trying and that matters.
My Airbnb host in Thimpu is vivacious and charming, to say the least. She is one of those people who can brighten a room with her stories and anecdotes. Her effervescence was matched by her husband’s grace.
Being at their home for three days felt like visiting old friends, where time was spent in sharing stories, drinking wine and enjoying the food. And that gave me an idea why my fellow Airbnb-er from India, seemed totally smitten by the couple.
Thimpu: City with Music As Its Language
My most important to-do task in Thimpu the next day was to get permissions for Punakha and Haa valley. The process at the Thimpu visa office was much smoother and faster than Phunstonling.
I only had to submit another declaration about solo travel along with the permission document from Phunstonling. Once that was done, I did not visit any other government office in Bhutan again.
I had no set agenda or plan to explore Thimpu. I was not aware of must-visit destinations. Being a non-city person, I usually miss researching about these things.
I just walked around the city and went to museums, markets, gardens, at my fancy.
After lunch, I stumbled into the launch of indigenous potato chips at the Clock Tower.
Sitting in the crowd, not understanding a word of local jokes, watching groups gather and disperse, I felt I was watching a movie.
Stories were playing all around me and I was just sitting there and watching them. There was a quaint familiarity about Thimpu. The cafes, markets, people seemed all familiar to me.
My host at the Airbnb surprised me with a dinner when I reached back. She made traditional Bhutanese cuisine for us (my fellow Airbnber and me) which was scrumptious.
On my host’s recommendation, both I & the fellow Airbnber went to a popular club in the city later.
At 1.30 A.M, in a foreign land, I was quizzing a Bhutanese guy on Kishore Kumar songs and he was getting every word of the song right! The crowd went berserk when Channa Mereya was played.
The place was small and crowded. But, not once I felt uncomfortable or unsafe. It just seemed like one big celebration where everyone wanted to enjoy and have a good time.
The experience was similar when I attended the concert on South Korea and Bhutan friendship the next day.
It was the most awaited event for the Bhutanese; Someone suggested that I should attend it because I will be in Thimpu that day. My host’s husband told me I won’t regret attending it for sure.
The tickets were free for citizens but the tourists had to pay. Though, the guard at the entry gate was kind enough to allow me to enter the venue without one.
The energy at the venue was electric, girls swooning over popular boy band from Korea (pardon my memory for not remembering the name), standing at the gantry I was enjoying the cheer that music brings to our lives, even if words make no sense.
I think I will always remember Thimpu as a vibrant city with music as its language.
Coming up in part 2 – A visit to the land of fertility temple, new friends and the tranquility of belief.