THE 24X7 ORGANIZATION
Call centers get interactive
Providing your customers with a call center simply isn't sufficient anymore. Your customers demand interactive tools to contact your service reps. Is your company up to the challenge?
by Garry Kranz, contributor
The Internet is spawning increased customer sophistication and heightened expectations of service. Aside from the traditional phone contact, customers expect Web chatting, e-mail capabilities, Web FAQs, browser sharing and content pushing to interact with your service reps. If that interaction is lacking or unsatisfying, beware. Your competitors are only a mouse-click away.
The evolution of call centers to customer interactivity centers (sometimes also called customer contact centers) is akin to what happened in the catalog industry with the advent of toll-free numbers, says industry veteran Charles Ciarlo, formerly the founder of 800 Direct. The Canoga Park, Calif., company was acquired last April and immediately provided CyberRep with three Customer Interaction Centers in California.
"When catalog companies experimented with toll-free numbers, it opened up a whole new channel of communication with customers," Ciarlo says. "Then came faxes, and then e-mail service. And the Internet has added two to three new channels of Web-based communications," he says. Now companies have to provide not only the traditional channels but also all these additional new interactivity channels, he adds. "They are scrambling to retrofit their legacy systems and add new software and hardware, because they have to be able to service their customers 24/7."
Moreover, customer-relationship management (CRM) software and personalization agents are aiding companies in compiling comprehensive views of individual customers, based on their past purchases and interaction history with the company. The reasons for these new developments are contained in an old saw: "It typically costs about five times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing customer satisfied," says Marcel Petrucci, who manages an outbound service call center in Toronto for Indianapolis-based research firm Walker Information -- a company that evaluates customer loyalty.
For example, if a customer is unsuccessfully searching your Website for information, browser-sharing technologies enable service reps to determine that customer's needs and point the customer in the right direction. Push-to-talk technologies enable service reps to offer customers the option of being telephoned or initiating a Web chat. In years past, customers would have been relegated to the back of the line in the phone queue and forced to wait for the "next available agent" -- a prospect with which we are all familiar.
Turning negatives to positives
Online customer service tools act as the digital equivalent of a customer "raising his hand to ask a question," says analyst Chris Martins, who tracks the CRM market for Boston-based Aberdeen Group. Although most call centers have only slowly begun incorporating these various technologies, in the near term, no company with aspirations of competing online will survive without a fully interactive customer environment. "CRM provides a clinical, unified view of the customer, with an integrated communications channel," says Martins. "It's going to be critical for companies to have a successful e-business strategy."
Adds Matt Stamski, a London-based CRM analyst with Gomez Advisors, which is located in Waltham, Mass: "The bar certainly has been raised by the Internet. Consumers now have more information than they ever have. For the first time in a long while, consumers are in control."
Building fully interactive customer service centers places demands on a company's budget and infrastructure. The necessary hardware and software often require a significant upfront investment. Service reps must be trained how to use the new technologies. But it also presents companies with opportunities to drive revenue from what traditionally was a negative-based customer experience.
CRM software and personalization engines help companies examine analytical data to get a snapshot of their customers. By studying this data, a company can target its product mix to individual customers more effectively. "Interactive customer contact centers potentially are profit-driving initiatives. They present more of an opportunity than just collecting complaints from customers, but a way to also boost revenue by cross-selling and up-selling," says Tracy Thorne, an analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based Hurwitz Group.
Technology is a tool, not a replacement
CRM tools "discreetly discriminate" between customers based on their value to the company. This lessens the impact of the 80/20 concept -- namely, that 80% of a company's sales are derived from only 20% of its customers -- and helps companies determine which customers should receive service priority.
Using CRM for pinpointing additional sales is a sound strategy, provided customer satisfaction remains a foremost objective, notes Petrucci. "You've got to pick your spots when cross-selling. You want to retain customers, so you need to make sure they are satisfied, loyal, and therefore, committed."
The rapid deployment of new technologies challenges companies to stay abreast. As Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is perfected, PBX and ACD hardware will be rendered obsolete. "Typically until now there's been (a need for) hardware and a bunch of wires. As VoIP matures, all that will be needed will be an office with an IP connection and an IP phone," predicts Ciarlo.
As interactive communication becomes the expected norm, however, companies must remember not to presume that technology will take over. Emphasis on proper training of service reps becomes even more important, says Rob DeSisto, vice president of the CRM practice at Gartner Group's Boston office. "The big issue is training your service reps to be more relationship-oriented. You can throw all the technologies at them that you want, but you've got to have the right people, the right metrics and the right behavioral incentives" to ensure that they put customer needs first.
Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group gives a compelling reason why this mantra should become more than mere nostrum: Through 2005, enterprises that provide individualized customer service online are expected to gain up to 15% more market share.
Martins says the shift to interactive centers mirrors the evolution of the economy. "In a product-oriented business model, revenues were tied to product delivery, while call centers were viewed as a cost," says Martins. "As we move toward a more service-oriented economy, customer service becomes a key deliverable."
About the author:
Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer based in Richmond, Va.