MT Expert - Innovation: Use technology to keep customers happy

Technology is crucial to creating an engaging customer experience. And it doesn't even have to cost you.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Most of my conversations with small businesses about their strategy in the last 18 months have revealed similar priorities, writes Cisco's David Critchley – cut costs, tighten up processes, batten the hatches, make it through. What’s interesting, and if you’re me, encouraging, is that in spite of a tougher economic climate, technology use has been on the rise within SMEs over the past twelve months.

According to Cisco’s recent Customer Kings research, on average, small businesses spent 15% of their available budget on new technology during 2009. And this has obviously been a smart decision, as those who invested more than 20% of their budget on technology during the year were also more likely (37%) to have increased their customer base than those spending less (33%). In fact, technology is now fundamental to creating a personalised and engaging customer experience, according to 91% of the 1,000 small businesses surveyed.

All of which paints a heartening picture of businesses that are taking firm control of how they keep their customers interested – rather than simply entering into price wars to keep afloat during a tough time. While it can be a bit of a basic assumption to suggest that good customer service translates directly to a good bottom line, there are certainly strong links between the two. The same applies to the relationship between technology use and improved customer service.

As with any business challenge, technology can be helpful but only if used in a way that makes sense for your organisation. So the first thing to do is work out where the gap is in your business. There can be big differences between technology for customer attraction – a better website or SAAS marketing system for instance – and that which helps with customer retention, such as a CRM tools. What your business needs could be one or the other or possibly even both, but it’s important to work out what the priorities are, so you can make the right choices and purchases.

Once you’ve worked out what you need, there’s always the inevitable question of whether you can afford it. My advice to any business, regardless of size, is to put the price into perspective. Cost effectiveness tends to boil down to whether you can place a tangible benefit on the technology in question – can you measure customer satisfaction as a result of their deployment for example? Has said technology – something like video conferencing or collaboration – saved you money by making communication with your customers simpler or reducing travel costs? That’s the kind of rationale you need to apply to any technology purchase, rather than considering the price alone.

Nor does all technology have to come at a cost. Word of mouth, and specifically online word of mouth, has always been a huge part of how people think about your business. That’s never been truer in an age where your customers can connect to millions of other people in an instant. Social media has brought direct communication between companies and customers closer than ever, which carries both pros and cons. 46% of the businesses that we surveyed for our research said that they thought social media was a great way to get an insight into the customer, but at the same time, 44% said that it also increases customer service expectations. One thing is certain – online word of mouth has now made it easier than ever to communicate great customer service stories. But it’s also never been easier for others to know when you get it wrong, so be prepared for this sword to be double-edged.

Perhaps more than anything else any solution, to any business challenge, has to be sustainable in the long term. Although the recession may have jolted businesses into action in terms of prioritising customer service, and investing in the technology to do so, economic recovery is a beginning not an end. Satisfied customers remain at the heart of business success and they don’t want to be lured into a sense of security and appreciation by fair-weather efforts. If customer service becomes stagnant and irrelevant then you can be sure that customers will soon look elsewhere – economic crisis or no economic crisis. Just as customer demands and needs will evolve over time, so must the approach to customer service and the tools you use to address it.

David Critchley is head of SME and commercial at Cisco

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