• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

We want the future - and we want it now

"It must conjure up visions of a woman gazing into a crystal ball. I always say I have one but it's broken ... oh, and that the tea leaves don't work either!"

Dr Nicola Millard laughs. She is trying to describe her role as a futurologist for BT: with a degree in psychology and a PhD in computer science, her full-time job is to look ahead and examine how our lives are likely to change.

Loading article content

Before taking on the role, Dr Millard worked for BT for 23 years in research and customer service, helping to design effective systems for call-centre workers.

She says: "Actually, I now have one of the best jobs in BT. It's research-based and I like to think I am more a 'soonologist' rather than a futurologist. The time frame I work with can be from three weeks up to five years."

So if there is no crystal ball what does gazing into the future entail?

"It's all about trying to get data and identify trends," says Dr Millard. "As a trained psychologist I can look at human behaviour and analyse the way new technology influences that.

"Our use of social media, for example, is entirely normal human behaviour, it's simply communication, after all; however the advent of modern technology now provides us with platforms that are much more accessible and more far reaching. Our voices are heard louder and wider."

In a business sense, Dr Millard believes that use of social media can help both a company and its customers in several different ways.

"Organisations cannot hide any more," she points out. "If a group is not operating well, as customers we're going to know about it. The online feedback from clients is there in real time and that can be hugely beneficial to other current or potential customers.

"But it's also a very useful tool within an enterprise, helping employees to talk to one another. It can even be motivational: put it out there on social media and people will come to the idea."

Inevitably, there are downsides to effectively harnessing new communication. "It challenges a lot of organisations," admits Dr Millard, before offering an analogy for the most effective way to learn how to embrace the new.

"You can't control the dance floor but you can go on it and dance," she says. "I believe the best strategy is to stand at the side and watch what dancing is going on and who with, then be brave and step on yourself: that way you'll avoid embarrassing dad dancing or the potential for a slap!"

The method can also help shape a company's social media strategy."Here at BT we watch Twitter and Facebook," she says. "We also watch specialist forums, as these are very significant and can contain helpful data about our products. We may work with these sites or we may choose just to watch. Watching data is really useful, even if you can't do much about a particular issue.

"BT works pro-actively so that we can solve problems or at least point towards potential solutions.

"What we often do is use chat, then move the issue from a social platform to a private conversation. It helps to pull it into the customer service mechanism and achieve the best results for everyone."

In terms of pinpointing future trends, Dr Millard acknowledges that everything is still developing on social media, but highlights the fact that increasingly online platforms are being used as a complaints channel - a place where people can vent their anger or frustration.

She adds: "The interesting strategic challenge is how much do you want to be public? Any company that can move from bad service to good service has found the best solution but, meantime, do you want any dirty linen hung out for all to see?

"You can't stop negative feedback but you can signpost the customer to online help or, where appropriate, lead the conversation to a more private channel. Always, the big challenge is how to respond. For Twitter, for example, you really only have about twenty minutes to an hour to reply. It's very fast moving.

"In that sense, online forums are much more important as the content stays around for much longer."

So, in the final analysis, does BT's futurologist foresee communication technologies enabling Scotland's businesses to offer a better customer experience? Dr Millard replies: "A lot of it depends what industry you're in and examining what the specific challenges are.

"Our last piece of research into effective use of communications looked at brands across multiple sectors. The top two in terms of control were retailers and travel companies: the retailers dealing with brand exposure, and the travel groups with disgruntled travellers with access to Twitter via smartphones.

"At the bottom, however, was government. A big factor here is trust - and simply disinterest in what they're doing. Only a few sectors of government seem to have an appetite to engage."

Niche forums are also coming to the fore."There are many bubbling up," says Dr Millard. "Under-24s for example are looking at using whazzap, chat etc. There really has never been so much choice."

With such a burgeoning variety of platforms and channels, it certainly can't be easy to predict the

exact shape of things to come; thanks to the work of Dr Millard, however, we don't need that crystal ball to enjoy glimpses of what the future might hold.

Contextual targeting label: 
Business

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

239886