For almost all of human existence, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have faced similar competitors: other local businesses selling the same products and services. But the internet changed that. Today, those same companies face the stiffest competition from an unlikely source: technology-enabled giants.
Local mom and pop stores compete with the vast product catalogs at Rakuten. Family-owned chains chase faster deliveries to keep up with Amazon. Local companies add communication channels and availability to match Apple’s customer service. But there’s a key difference between SMBs and the companies they’re striving to match: resources.
The Apples and Alibabas of the world have far deeper pockets than SMBs. Try as they might, it’s impossible for SMBs to match their enterprise rivals point for point. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Indeed, Ben Segal, Senior Director of CX at Pair Eyewear, argues that SMBs can achieve success by pursuing CX along carefully selected dimensions.
We recently caught up with Segal to talk about his work at disruptive glasses brand Pair Eyewear. He revealed how his background in face-to-face customer service informs his current CX philosophy and how other organizations can emulate in-person interactions via digital channels. He explained why SMBs don’t need to compete on raw speed—but they do need to practice honesty and transparency. Additionally, he explored what effective personalization looks like in the SMB space.
#1 Service: “Make someone feel like they were in your home”
Segal is a sports guy. He majored in sports management and worked during his college years in all sorts of sporting gigs: game night staff for the Boston Bruins, a fan greeter for the New York Mets, an ambassador for the New York Mets. Those frontline experiences gave him a unique perspective on customer experience.
“I have never worked in a call center,” he explains. “I’d never used a ticketing system—that wasn’t my world. But I know how to welcome customers to a venue and make it feel like they’re in my home. I see no difference between the experience companies try to provide at an in-person venue and what brands are trying to do on calls, chats, emails, SMS, and so on.”
The difference between in-person and distance interactions might seem minor, but they aren’t. Frontline agents can’t “pause” in-person conversations. They can’t hang up the call and claim the connection dropped. It’s a harder experience for the agent but a more rewarding one for the customer, says Segal.
At Pair Eyewear, he’s implemented guardrails to emulate the feel of in-person via digital channels.
“I’ve driven home that my teams should treat every interaction as if they have a human being standing in front of them,” he says. “You cannot leave them. You have to be here to help. You need to solve their problem. If we do it every time, we’ll create a best-in-class customer experience because we’re not just seeing everybody as numbers.”
But equipping every agent to answer complex customer queries and solve intricate problems is difficult. That’s where Segal’s second CX dimension comes into play: role elevation.
#2 Role Elevation: “CX agents need to be higher-level thinkers.”
For years, businesses have treated customer support and service as low-impact cost centers. Agents were there to answer basic customer questions: Where’s my order? Can I cancel my subscription? Can I add a channel to my cable package? With such a simple function, organizations de-skilled their service and support roles. Operating from rigid scripts and workflows, they didn’t need to be creative, autonomous, or adept. But there’s a paradigm shift happening in customer experience right now and it promises to upend the status quo.
“There are two generally accepted truths in today’s CX world: AI is taking over and there are more ways to self-serve,” says Segal. “There’s better robots available and more interactive IVR. Chatbots are better and more conversational. The low-level jobs that drove CX are being taken away by AI.”
Segal isn’t saying SMBs should fire all their human agents and replace them with bots. Quite the opposite, in fact. “CX agents need to be higher-level thinkers,” he says. With technology deflecting simple and straightforward requests, human agents are free to tackle the most challenging interactions.
The role evolution is like the difference between a theater and Disney World. Theaters have frontline staff. They’re probably entry-level and likely lowly paid. They’re there to perform functional duties: selling tickets, pouring drinks, checking bags, and so on. Disney World doesn’t have retail assistants, cashiers, and cleaners. They have cast members.
“The difference is obvious as soon as you walk into the park,” says Segal. “Everyone you see is not just doing their job. They feel like they’re on stage. They’re putting on a show and creating an amazing experience.”
Freeing support and service agents from the drudgery of basic order-taking and information-finding allows them to step into these more experiential roles. Suddenly, support and service aren’t processes to be endured. Rather, they’re something to be enjoyed.
Operationalizing this shift doesn’t have to be a colossal transformation. At Pair Eyewear, Segal asks his agents to dig into customer accounts during calls and check for three or four things while they’re talking. If something isn’t checked off—say a customer hasn’t logged into their account in the last 30 days or a customer hasn’t opened the last 12 marketing emails sent their way—they’ll mention it in the conversation. It changes a transactional conversation into a higher-level one. The impact of that is huge.
“The customer thinks, ‘Whoa! You actually looked into my situation. You’ve told me something that I didn’t know and I didn’t ask for. You helped me,’” he says. “That’s what drives a great experience.”
#3 Speed: “Customers expect honesty and transparency. Don’t fake speed.”
When Segal joined Pair Eyewear, the company had a tremendous customer communication backlog. It ran up to the thousands and people were commonly waiting more than 48 hours for a response to their email. Because they didn’t have a huge support team, phone calls were going straight to voicemail and they had deactivated live chat. In a world of instant gratification, it wasn’t good enough.
Segal spent his first few months rebuilding the company’s CX technology stack: a new ticketing system, new CRM, new inbound platform, and so on. Once everything was up and running, response times began to fall. Better self-serve technology shouldered some of the burden. Chatbots deflected a little more. Human agents answer what’s left in about 13 seconds.
The improvement put Pair Eyewear on par with enterprise companies when it comes to response rates. But Segal says that wasn’t the most important thing.
“Of course, look to see how you can improve speed,” he says. “But you’re not going to become Amazon tomorrow. Generally speaking, customers understand that SMBs aren’t Amazon. Customers expect honesty and transparency. Don’t fake speed.”
A Multidimensional Opportunity
Much ink has been spilled on the digital transformations of enterprise companies. But the past two years have proved that customer experience innovation is not just for enterprise players. In the early stages of the pandemic, amid incredible economic and social disruption, SMBs were able to achieve ambitious digital transformations. Offline restaurants built curbside collection systems. Local retailers launched eCommerce stores. Healthcare providers rolled out telehealth provisions. It proved that SMBs can replace their staid practices with diversification and agile strategies.
Segal’s experience at Pair Eyewear illustrates how one company can excel by prioritizing dimensions like service quality, role elevation, and speed—but customer experience is a broad church and the opportunity is multidimensional.
Dimensions like convenience, product, pricing, and others remain untapped. If SMBs are brave enough to seize them, they represent an opportunity for product or service differentiation, enhanced customer loyalty, and business growth.