You have to get customer service right from day one. The first three months of a customer relationship are extremely important, but many service providers fail to make the most of this crucial onboarding phase, writes Brendan O’Rourke, Head of Design at BriteBill, an Amdocs company.
Just like any honeymoon period, the beginning of the relationship between a customer and provider should be a fun and exciting time.
What happens during the days and weeks after a contract has been signed sets the tone for the future. If it goes well, the onboarding phase is an opportunity to lay the foundations for a long-term, harmonious and trusting relationship that will naturally flourish and grow. But if the service provider gets it wrong, it risks losing or damaging a new customer’s trust – and this could lead to a swift and difficult break-up.
Users rely on their service providers for a wide range of products, from mobile phone lines and home broadband to TV, music and other content, but also increasingly look to them for additional value like security, cloud storage or smart home services – with this list continuing to grow. A customer who switches all of their services to a new provider will be extremely valuable, and the relationship has the potential to develop further as they may also add family members.
This is, obviously, good news for service providers as it brings immediate revenue opportunities. On the other hand, it also creates a significant risk as, in the US for example, the service provider bill is now often the third highest outgoing in the household, behind house and car payments.
Understandable, then, that customers who have committed to a considerable expense – and who have typically done so for 12 or even 24 months – will have high expectations of the service they receive.
The frustration caused by a bad experience will be exponentially worse: the honeymoon comes to a sudden end and all the time, effort and money put into the sales process go to waste.
Service providers are well advised to take a long term, strategic view of their business and their customers. According to research from Gartner, it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one. An early negative experience may stay with the customer throughout their contract, increasing their potential to churn when it ends. It will also prompt the customer to take a more cynical view to buying additional services or extending the contract.
The first bill is a critical moment
There are many things that can go wrong during the onboarding phase. Among the biggest headaches for many new customers are home installations – either having to book in appointments and taking time off work or trying and failing to install equipment themselves. When they inevitably make a call to the contact center for support, they may encounter long queues and an unhelpful experience, rather than the friendly handholding they expect. But even if the installation process and service activation run smoothly, receiving the first bill from their new service provider is a critical moment, as it may well be the first step in a customer’s decision to leave.
After wowing a new customer with a series of impressive promises during the sales phase, the bill can often undo all of this good work by delivering any number of unwelcome surprises. Often, it is higher than expected and seems not at all in line with what the customer was told. The service provider may have added one-off installation fees, may be charging for the next billing period in advance, or the bill may show unexplained pro-ration charges. Beyond this, second, third or later bills can see promotions and discounts coming to an end, resulting in higher payment demands and prompting the customer to pick up the phone looking for clarification.
However, it doesn’t end there as a poorly explained billing structure is not the only thing that frustrates new customers. Often, the tone of voice from the service provider also changes distinctly; from the polite and friendly tone of courtship to cold and impersonal after sales communications. Once the customer has decided to commit, it can feel like the service provider has simply lost interest.
This lack of continuity between acquisition and onboarding can manifest itself in other ways, too. Some customers receive disparate notifications from a variety of systems or platforms. These messages are perhaps duplicated across different channels such as SMS, email or post, but with a different style. Or they may be out of sync with the onboarding process and arrive after an event, such as scheduling the installation of a router that has already been installed. Worse still, there can be a lack of personalization, with the customer receiving
standardized content that is not applicable to his profile or subscription. The worst experience of all is a
complete lack of communication altogether.
All of these potential issues will create a negative first impression for the customer, making him prone to getting more impatient and irritated when any subsequent issues arise. Moreover, starting the relationship off on the wrong foot will likely cause the customer to be less likely to be purchase new products or services during their lifecycle. Where a contract covers other family members, service providers should bear in mind that every bad experience can have a domino effect.
A lack of integration
So, why do service providers find it so difficult to create a smooth, pleasant and frustration-free onboarding
experience for new customers?
While the majority of service providers will have invested in customer experience initiatives and some
recognize the importance of the onboarding phase, the lack of cohesion and insight between all the different
customer touch points, internal systems and processes poses a colossal challenge.
For example, even when looking at something relatively simple like a new home broadband order, there are a
multitude of channels that the service provider must try to coordinate. The sales pitch and subsequent signup
process often take place over the phone, online or sometimes in-store. The welcome communication is
then sent by email, SMS or in a letter, while delivery of equipment requires a courier or mail service and
home installation means an all-important face-to-face interaction with one of the service provider’s
representatives. Finally comes the bill, which arrives from another, entirely different part of the business.
To get all of this right, no component, no step must be neglected; if there is one failing throughout the
onboarding experience, this will be what the customer remembers. To create a consistent impression,
seamless sharing of data and information between all departments and systems is required – at all times.
The task becomes even more complex as customers sign up to bundled offers that combine a number of different
services into one single subscription. These services are likely to be managed by different departments, which often operate in silos. There is little communication and no direct connection between them, and certainly no 360-degree view of the customer. To make matters worse, cost considerations may mean that the service provider expects the new customer to self-serve as much as possible, saving costs at the wrong time in the relationship.
It is due to the disconnection between departments that some new customers don’t receive any follow-up
communication at all. Having signed a contract, their next touchpoint with the service provider is a bill. A
dull, confusing communication that communicates charges without helping them understand what value
they are receiving.
Within the bill, pro-ration is one common source of confusion. The majority of service providers have always billed their customers one month in advance, but most customers will automatically assume that they are only paying for services they have already received. Why the service is billed in this way is difficult for the customer to comprehend and challenging for the service provider to explain – and it causes particular frustration when the service provider has not drawn the customer’s attention to this issue prior to signing him up.
Unfortunately, many legacy billing systems do not allow service providers to implement changes to alleviate this
problem. Starting the customer’s billing cycle on the exact day their service starts, so there are no pro-rated
charges, seems logical and straightforward, but is not easily achieved with most billing solutions. Similarly,
sending a partial period or interim bill before the first full monthly bill would remove any complexity, yet service
providers’ legacy systems don’t allow this adaptation.
The key point is that customers, especially at the beginning of a new relationship, want to see a bill that is easy to understand, well explained and with any partial or extra charges clearly highlighted. They expect continuity all the way from the sales process through to their first bill, so service providers must align the bill with the brand promise made during the acquisition phase.
This starts with the right brand aesthetics and tone of voice, but also requires transparency about any unexpected items that may cause bill shock.
For a positive customer experience, the bill should not only include personalized messaging based on the customer’s usage or preferences, it should also reinforce the value of the services they have signed up for.
Finally, including helpful tips such as ‘how to sign up to auto-pay’ or informing the customer about additional
benefits they may not be aware of will turn the bill into a welcome and valuable tool that strengthens the
customer relationship, rather than damaging it.
Of course, the bill is not the only communication channel. To build a positive customer experience throughout the onboarding phase and beyond, every customer interaction should be meticulously thought out and connected: from clear pricing structures displayed on the website to simple online sign-up forms to welcome messages and updates that are easy to digest. The service provider should keep the customer informed step by step, while not overloading him with unnecessary detail.
Every message must be consistent, personal and relevant. Nothing is worse than over-promising and not delivering. It sounds simple, but if a customer can get exactly what they purchased via an easy, personal and casual process, then their goal has been achieved. It is also important to show the customer that the service provider continues to care, even once the initial honeymoon phase is over. Follow-up support with a 90-day heck-in to ensure a customer is happy would go a long way in building more trust. Creating a dedicated onboarding team that continuously improves and reviews the onboarding process would ensure a better focus on this key phase of the customer relationship.
The good news for service providers is that the onboarding phase also sees customers at their most receptive. They have selected their preferred brand, chosen the ideal price bundle and, often, also a new device they love.
They are excited about accessing and enjoying the new services they have bought into. So, it is a perfect time to create a positive experience and to build that all-important trust – in the first 10, 30 and 90 days of the contract, and long-term.
If this is successfully done, customers will have a lasting positive impression that takes them beyond contract renewal time and sees them advocate their service provider even beyond their time as a customer. Service providers that have a valuable service to offer and can deliver this through a positive, consistent experience will establish customer confidence that can lead to a long, positive and very profitable relationship – and a honeymoon feeling that lasts.