“Customer Service will go digital, yet stay human”
Eveline Erkelens is an experienced Agile CX strategist and thought leader. She worked for two decades in the travel industry, and was responsible for transforming her CS team into working fully agile. In 2020, she founded Bright6 to help other CS teams transform and equip themselves for the future.
ultimate.ai: Did you pick your career or did the career pick you?
Eveline: The career picked me! It started off during my stint as a retail manager for TUI in the travel and tourism industry. In 2004, I noticed business was increasingly shifting to online channels as well as a shift in customer behavior. Social media was becoming hot and trendy and I strongly felt that there was a lot of value and opportunity for impact in channel management, though many others at the time did not see it the way I did.
I was almost 30 at that time, (I’m now 45), and I decided, what better time and opportunity to focus on online channels? I have never looked back since. I would link my initial success in customer service to my approach of dealing with online customers in the same way as retail customers – paying attention to and creating value for the customer. I skipped conventional metrics of customer service such as average handle times and shifted my attention from reducing cost to creating value for customers. In 2010, I expanded my skill sets further and implemented a multichannel environment.
What I also realized was to focus on my teams as much as I did for my customers! Your customers are only as satisfied as your employees, and I am proud to say both our customer and employee satisfaction have continued improving.
What were some challenges you faced and lessons learned throughout your career in customer service?
From a broader standpoint, I think the challenges back in customer service when I first started still affect a lot of organizations today. I still feel there is little focus on budgeting for customer service or investing in customer service channels such as AI or machine learning. Many customer service agents also feel they are not often recognized or appreciated by management and board members. Additionally, legacy IT systems not only affect the quality of customer service but also give customer service a bad reputation. Some customer service teams are also managed by marketers (without the input of the customer service team), which often leads to a mismatch of expectations between customer service and customers, and misalignment of processes between marketing and customer service.
In my own experience, in the last three years as a customer experience leader in northern Europe, I learned that giving strong intrinsic motivation for my customer service agents is key to grow as an organization. To achieve this aim, I created strategic roles within customer service as well as in our board. I encouraged independence within customer service teams by creating self-steering teams, replacing supervisory roles with ‘scrum masters’, rebranding ‘customer service agents’ to customer service experts (or Ninjas 😊). I also introduced multi-disciplinary teams to incorporate more ideas from a range of fields to our work. The underlying theme is to invest, invest, and invest into your people, and you and your teams will harvest the benefits later on.
My most important lesson, however, is that if you really want to change, you have to realize that the employee and leadership skills needed today are not the same as before; IT, big data and modern customer service departments will require different behaviors and practices.
How has customer service changed over the years, and what are the biggest trends in the industry moving forward?
80% of organizations still work in the traditional way’ where operations including customer service departments service, sales, complaints, and multi-channel environments operate in more or less eight separate systems. Over 70% of customers say connected processes — such as seamless handoffs or contextualized engagement based on earlier interactions — are very important to winning their business, according to Salesforce research.
Most organizations also still see CS management as a functional and not strategic role – management teams tend to see customer service as a cost center and don’t want to focus on the value aspect.
In the future, I foresee CS going digital, yet staying human. Technology, data, and innovation will force us to work in a different way: Responses to easy questions will be automated, whereas responses to difficult questions will be redirected to a CS officer. There will also be more focus on data retention of CS queries received. Voice and speech recognition, as well as contact analytics, will be available in apps. From a human standpoint, I foresee leadership skills in CS will be more empathy- and purpose-driven with emphasis to inspect current operations and adapt them accordingly.
At Bright6, we introduced Agile CX, embodied by our saying that “Agility is more than a mindset – it is a business practice”. Agile CX is intended to stretch the range of our capabilities in our organization, and allow different departments and teams collaborate at a high level to focus on continuous small improvements. With this approach, we can adjust our direction quickly when a problem occurs, or when there is a change in requirements. I believe this approach would allow CS organizations to tailor new products, services, methods, and training that continuously evolves to suit a customer’s current needs rather than meeting the needs of previous years.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue leadership roles in the industry?
I believe women are ideally poised for leadership roles in CS/CX, as they are naturally suited for empathetic leadership. The following traits below will serve you well in a career in CS/CX, whether you are considering entering the field or are pursuing leadership roles:
- Listen, be interested, and stay open - Not only to your customers but also your employees and teammates.
- Don’t break silos, connect them - The future of CS/CX is about collaborating and employing a multi-disciplinary approach to finding solutions.
- Understand, set goals, and adapt – You will create more value for your customers when you understand what your customers want and adapt solutions to meet the needs of varying customers. Ensuring that your employees understand what is needed is also crucial - that way you can demand transparency, and stay focused on objectives.
- Discipline and dedication are important - To stay true to your ‘North Star’ and not get distracted.
- Inspect, research, and invest in data – Examine how you collect data from customers today, research the data to discover insights, and invest in a proper data management system.
Bright6 prides itself greatly on a culture of encouraging risk-taking and accepting mistakes. What are some examples of ways you do this in practice?
If you let employees work in self-steering teams as I created with a great team, things start moving. People are ‘activated’ to think. They are happy we recognise them for their efforts.
If you focus on creating an open and agile environment, you create opportunities for innovation guided by a customer-driven purpose. For every five things that fail, two will succeed. We actually celebrate mistakes and f*ck ups and we make them visible. Because of our approach and openness, our employees feel safe to try new ideas of which our customers notice
As a result, our sales and CSAT NPS have gone up and achieved growth by 5X due to our approach. We had young students and millennials who wanted to continue working with us after their internship.
What are your personal aspirations for the future?
My mission is to unlock the value of CS and to make the world of work a little bit better every day. It is possible! I see that the majority of organizations that are still doing the same thing over and over again are inspired by what I do. They see how unhappy their staff is and they are inspired by the culture and environment of Bright6.
Eveline Erkelens will be speaking at our upcoming Customer Experience Webinar titled “Women Leading the Way: Customer Service Trends 2021” on 24 March 2021, 16:15 CET, alongside a panel of accomplished women leaders in the industry. Register for this FREE webinar to hear her talk on “Great Customer Service Eats Marketing For Breakfast”.
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