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Contact centers need an outside-in approach to technology, analyst says

A Forrester Research analyst recommends that contact center managers consider the customer's perspective when acquiring new technology.

Seemingly every company wants to improve its customer experience strategies and practices. But more often than not, businesses rely on legacy technology and siloed organizational structures that prevent their contact centers from fully engaging customers.

That's the viewpoint of Art Schoeller, an analyst at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Schoeller recently co-authored a report that advises companies to reconsider how they use their technology so they can better connect with customers.

He recommends businesses take an "outside-in" approach to customer experience management in the contact center. Outside-in means taking the customer's perspective into account by simplifying the technology they encounter and encouraging collaboration between departments.

Businesses should be able to handle customer email, social media postings and phone calls across multiple channels, Schoeller said. Businesses should create ways to transfer those communications between various departments, because this will naturally engender company collaboration and improve customer service, he said.

"A customer starts a conversation on Twitter, then goes to the Web, then calls or walks into a retail store," Schoeller said in an interview. "The tough question is, How do you link all those? If you have a system that's out of whack, you'll have a tough time cracking that."

Many companies say they want to stand out and conduct customer service differently to capture the allegiance of consumers, Schoeller said. But those companies lack clear customer experience strategies and practices, he said. As a result, contact center operational teams keep doing business as usual by requesting "like for like" technology updates instead of looking to transform customer service capabilities.

Consumers can tell when a company takes a business-centric approach over a customer-centric one, Schoeller said. Customers, for instance, usually start communicating with a business on one channel and then proceed to another. And they have the expectation the company knows what it's doing. "But how many times do you land on an (800) number, invest time in an interactive voice system, enter information, then have to start all over again?"

For Schoeller, an outside-in approach starts with departmental collaboration. Siloed departments will never provide robust customer service, he said. It's also a good idea to appoint a chief customer officer to oversee a team representing all departments. The team can help devise a strategy that will provide channel-to-channel customer support.

Another key to ensuring collaboration is a journey map, which is defines all the places where customers interact with a business. The customer experience team needs to identify and prioritize all those key channels where customers interact so that the company can invest in the necessary tools, Schoeller said.

Once that teamwork provides answers, a company can then start its technology platform transition, he said. Having a "platform vision" during this transition will reduce the complexity and increase the agility of technology and help create a channel-to-channel contact center, he said. To this end, he said, many contact centers are breaking away from siloed, best-of-breed components for more integrated software suites.

"A lot of this is getting this architecture right," Schoeller explained. "Lots of the time people paint themselves into corners."

According to Schoeller, companies should consider the following when making technology decisions for the contact center:

  • Companies should have tools for contact center agents-- as well as their supervisors and managers -- that account for how customers will interact with agents over many touch points.
  • Contact centers need access to a wide array of business transactions, but old, best-of-breed components break individual transactions across siloed applications. A catalog of SOA-based business services, usually packaged as Web services, will increase flexibility and reduce cross-application integration costs.
  • Organizations need to map and organize contact center data into a common plan so they can perform more customer experience analysis.

Schoeller wrote in his report that it's important to "get the right contact to the right agent at the right time with the right data."

To do this, companies need to properly identify a customer. "Who are they, and what do they want?" he said. Identifying a customer is complex; they can use a Twitter handle, a credit card number or email address, he said.

It's also important to know what the customer wants, what sort of transaction they want to conduct, and to stop having them reenter data at touch points, he said.

Schoeller says integrated contact-center suites aren't yet a reality. There are no comprehensive suites that cover all of a contact center's cross-channel needs. Companies should employ a consolidated approach that aims to reduce the number of vendors -- and integration pain points -- to contend with, he said. Schoeller didn't recommend any suites, but he advises companies to be ready to integrate the different products so their platforms can work seamlessly.

Above all, Schoeller urges companies not to overlook the human element: the contact center agent. Be selective about which applications end up on an agent's desktop, he said. For many companies, the trick is to limit applications and keep it simple, instead of offering a grand, total redesign.

It's also a good idea to monitor agent desktop use to see if they're properly connecting with customers and show agents data on their performance so they can possibly improve performance, he said.

This was last published in September 2012

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