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The sure-fire insight into customers

Organizations strive to learn what their customers are thinking through detailed analysis and sophisticated technology, but sometimes it's easier just to ask them.

There are any number of ways to gather information about your customers, whether you use analytical tools to measure buying habits or call center metrics to determine spikes in service calls.

Or you can just ask them.

That's what Lynn Jordon, CEO of Determination Processing Services Inc. (DPSI) in Tucson, Ariz., does. His company provides services to the mortgage industry, and it contracts with Contact 101 Inc., in Las Vegas, to follow up sales calls. Customers fill out a short online survey that comes from Contact 101 and provide feedback about their recent experience. Jordon initiated the project, hoping to get some insight into his sales team's professionalism and determine how they were received and what products they were trying to sell. Jordon then talks with sales reps about their approach and strategy.

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Because customers are dealing with an organization separate from DPSI, they tend to give more honest answers, Jordon said. The project has returned some valuable information and some surprises as well. Jordon recently had Contact 101 send a survey to a large client in Cincinnati after a visit by DPSI's vice president of sales and a local rep. Jordon discovered that the client felt his vice president of sales, someone he sent there regularly, was "too pushy."

"Unless I got [that customer] guy drunk, I don't think that's something he ever would have told me," Jordon said. "But that one I thought was very telling."

Yet surveys are far from a perfect way to collect information.

"It's always better to understand what customers do rather than what they say," said Chris Selland, vice president of sell-side research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. "Surveys are always subject to being misinterpreted."

Customer feedback can be a valuable tool for organizations, Selland said. It can be both quantitative, the sales figures and number of complaint calls, or qualitative, such as one-to-one discussions with call center agents. Ideally, you want both, he said.

Often it's the qualitative that can be most difficult to measure and address. There are survey and proposal-sharing tools that allow salespeople to communicate customer information with each other.

"Often these are sold as add-ons to SFA [sales force automation]," Selland said. "Salespeople can then share with the rest of sales force. One of the perceptions in the market is that these come with the SFA when the reality is they don't."

For example, Involve Technology Inc., in Phoenix, offers a product that helps salespeople coordinate with other salespeople, sharing best practices. There are similar technologies for marketing. The challenge is to share customer feedback throughout an organization, Selland said.

One way is to record it. Generally, customer feedback comes either through outbound marketing responses or inbound customer support calls. The emergence of analytics from quality monitoring vendors is allowing companies to take advantage of recorded inbound customer support, according to John Ragsdale, research director with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Quality monitoring can help find patterns and trends early to address issues before they affect additional customers.

Listening in to thousands of calls per day is not an effective or fast way to deal with emerging problems, but "word spotting" offers an alternative. Quality monitoring software vendors are promoting technology that uses speech engines and predictive key words to search through records and separate calls that contain key phrases, according to Ragsdale. For example, a company could then sort through all its calls with the phrase "cancel my order" to address product returns, Ragsdale said.

Because of storage issues, however, organizations should only record all conversations if they are mandated by law. Otherwise, take samples from different hours, days and events, Ragsdale suggested. The newest analytic modules have only recently been introduced and have not seen wide adoption but can provide differentiate for contact centers, according to Ragsdale.

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