If you don't untangle your company's customer contacts now, you may be caught in a web of your own making.
As CIOs try to gain control of communication with customers, they find the problem is a business challenge rather than a technology one. This story will show: How to improve customer communication Why proper business processes must support new forms of customer contact Why new technology sometimes hinders rather than helps Communication with customers had always been such a simple matter. People telephoned or wrote. Workflows in corporations were tested and known. Things were stable.
And then came electronic communications.
Within a few years, companies suddenly had to manage faxes, then voice mail systems and then e-mail and the Web. The life cycle of technology dropped from a decade to just over a year, shortening steadily until new tools began to appear every few months. And technical implementation, once under strict central control, was turned over to individual departments.
Indeed, the very technologies that were opening new possibilities for companies to communicate with customers have made it easy for those same companies to lose control of customer contact and unwittingly fracture the all-important relationship between buyer and seller.
Companies are learning that when they focus on narrow issues, department by department or employee by employee, the view of the customer as a whole gets lost. Decisions that make sense for one part of an organisation could have undesired effects on another.
Some companies have faced the problems and created order from chaos, finding ways to marry telecommunications, data processing and business processes to build stronger customer relationships. The trick, CIOs agree, is to place the customer at the centre of IT systems.
CompuCom Systems Inc. is a $2 billion services-based computer reseller that has had to keep pace with advances in communications. Demanding corporate clients want the flexibility to use phone, fax or e-mail to place orders. Customers are also looking for access to information via the Web. Electronic commerce has skyrocketed for the Dallas company, with EDI transactions jumping in four years from 5,000 transactions a month to 70,000. The company could see the growing need to focus on the customer because, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, that was where the money was.
But CompuCom's data resources had never been intended for the heavily interactive uses being demanded. So starting in 1994, CompuCom totally re-architected its IT infrastructure. Most basic to its logical design was a central approach to customer records.
"Before, customers would call our customer service centre and talk to employee number one," remembers CIO Jack Dowling. "Then they would talk to employee number two to follow up. Eventually, when the customer called back, he would then get employee number three." Communication would get scrambled, with no one overseeing the total customer relationship.
So CompuCom brought in an enterprise customer-contact application from the Vantive Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., which provided an event-driven system with detailed customer profiles that could control workflow routing, no matter what the form of contact used by the customer. That uniformity in approach ensures that a particular customer will be handled correctly, no matter who handles the customer. As a result, "Events don't get dropped anymore. Once they're put into the system, they stay alive until they are resolved. And every department that touches the customer [either has or will have] access to the system," Dowling says.
For Dowling, it was important to design the infrastructure to be extendible to customers to choose technologies and their integration in such a way that customers have access to information resources to make doing business with CompuCom easier. For example, 600 customer corporations now using CompuCom's Web services - including data marts offering information on accounts, tracking and asset management - get the information they want more quickly but with a minimum of employee involvement.
Computing is constantly changing and advancing, so to make the best use of it, the company constantly reviews new technologies and makes long - range plans to integrate those that the business and its customers would find most helpful.
Unlike many businesses - which act as though electronic commerce and customer communication can be tacked onto existing systems - CompuCom sees electronic commerce as a fundamental and integrated part of its overall strategy.
"A lot of companies are putting up e-commerce engines, and they want their customers to do business with them. But they need to make sure that they have the underlying architecture to support them," says Dowling.
Developing a flexible and extensible architecture assumes that a company's business processes are in place. Otherwise the company might obtain or develop the wrong set of information tools.
"You should ask, 'Have we really thought through how our technology and processes come together for a consistent customer experience? And is it consistent with our customer service strategy?'" says Jeffrey Tucker, vice president of Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc.'s IT group.
Canadian Tire Acceptance Ltd. spent considerable time answering those questions before redesigning its infrastructure. The Welland, Ontario-based subsidiary of Canadian Tire Corp. is a services arm of the company, handling a proprietary credit card as well as a MasterCard, insurance products and an auto club among other activities. Because of its product orientation, the company originally had as many as 22 call centres aligned around separate products, all of which served the same customer base. Each had its own policies for transactions and customer service, making true control of customer communication impossible.
"We have the usual folklore of stories where the reaction to service in one area led to the cancellation of a relationship in another area where they might be one of the top customers," says Gavin Welbourn, vice president of information technology and CIO. Customers were accounts, not individuals.
"We worked hard the last couple of years seeing to what degree we could consolidate that without [adding new] technology," says Welbourn. Before discussing technical details, Welbourn and President Tom Gauld knew their work had much more to do with resolve and corporate culture. The first step was to develop standard rules for consistency in how call centres operated. Next was working with people who understood the business processes and could help create extensive flow charts.
"It's the branches that get you. It's modelling transactions that don't always flow A to B to C," says Welbourn. "You get into questions of trying to provide a single customer view. Moving from what was essentially a product-focused company to a customer-focused one clearly takes more than technology. It was a repositioning of our entire vision and strategy, our culture and our reward system. Only then did the technology become an enabler." By developing standards for customer service and processes, telecommunications and data technologies could play a clear roll in implementing the mandated business changes.
With workflows set, Canadian Tire could consolidate all the call centres down to four, with transfers of customers from one part of the company to another cut by more than half. Still, technical problems remained: The call centres had used different applications and platforms. The answer was to use a call centre integration framework from Chordiant Software Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.
Chordiant's products integrated with legacy applications provided a uniform user interface for customer service representatives. It offered a layer of abstraction that would automate workflows without having to change mission-critical applications.
Many call centre packages are on the market, but Welbourn found the Chordiant one a good fit. "Many of the packages have a model in mind around how you should run your call centre," he says. That can be disastrous if the application's business model does not match that of the company implementing it. Chordiant's package is more like a set of tools a business can use to create a perfectly tailored call centre environment. It is far from easy to implement, but in Welbourn's mind, the extra effort was small when compared with the flexibility of keeping Canadian Tire's business processes as they were. "I figure complexity is a zero sum game - somebody's got to deal with it," he explains.
For the most part, reps don't have to note what they are doing because the system notices the actions and enters comments into logs automatically. They can work to satisfy the customer without focusing attention on the needs of Canadian Tire's call centre. "Their interaction should be with the customer, and my system should follow along," Welbourn says.
If that seems unusual, so is the compensation of service representations, which is based on "knowledge blocks." The more representatives know, the more they can aid customers and the more they get paid. Representatives have an incentive to learn more areas of the company's total business, which makes them more valuable since they can handle more types of customer contacts. To avoid overwhelming personnel needs and payroll demands, the company posts openings for additional knowledge blocks.
"You move away from first available rep to best available rep," says Welbourn.
The combination of such factors as customer needs, prior contact data, the phone number used, choices on an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system and overall customer profile will direct the workflow. Customers can be directed to a representative with the right skill sets, and reps can provide proper attention to top customers.
Many companies feel the need to ensure standards of online customer service, including SBC Internet Services in San Francisco, the ISP arm of Pacific Bell Internet Services, Southwestern Bell Internet Services and Nevada Bell Internet Services. The regional telecommunications companies have had both high expectations for their online customer support and service - including the attitude of a regulated industry that had to document all customer interactions - as well as legacy systems. Add to that the technical expectations of Internet users, and the problem can be formidable.
"To go that direction and interact with the legacy system while still taking that customer forward into a very highly Web-enabled, customer-friendly environment has been our daily challenge," says Judith Meskill, executive director of switched service delivery and support. SBCIS uses workflow, personnel and technical solutions to meet its goals.
Many companies have taken the approach of adding groups of specialised customer representatives for new media like e-mail or the Web. To manage its contact process, SBCIS takes a different approach and has the same representatives answer everything: telephone calls, e-mail, even surface mail. Though an unusual approach, it has a number of obvious benefits, including a single training process, flexibility in employee deployment and a uniform style of customer service. SBCIS had to refocus how it measured customer service success. Its two main metrics are single-point contact and first-call resolution.
"A lot of folks keep those types of interaction separate," says Meskill, because they focus on communications functions rather than on the entire relationship with the customer. "We find that the type of agents that we employ to keep our service robust like to be continually challenged with different modes of communication. Those folks become knowledge workers, and they become part of crafting the tools." Most of the technologies that SBCIS uses are a combination of in-house developments and highly customised off-the-shelf offerings. Base technology choices were an Oracle DBMS (database management system) and customer contact software from Vantive Corp. to "take that customer from cradle to grave," according to Meskill. The platform of choice is largely Unix. The company is using some NT solutions in the mix, but they are not the "infinitely scalable, infinitely redundant, infinitely reliable" servers that Meskill needs in an enterprise setting.
SBCIS developed many of the other applications in use in deep cooperation with technology partners. Choosing the vendors was difficult. "Plenty of them had a lot of baggage in their offerings, which I guess was their legacy," says Meskill. One of the vendors, Silknet Software Inc., offered products to help integrate database applications with a Web site so that customers can help themselves through the knowledge base and submit their own trouble tickets online as a part of their knowledge management strategy. That is an example of how new communications technologies are integrated into the base systems.
With the number of daily customer interactions, the sheer amount of data could become paralysing. To combat the inclination, SBCIS keeps content for only short amounts of time before archiving it. That approach keeps the database responsive for customer representatives. As material is archived, pointers are placed in the database so it is available if needed. SBCIS is particularly sensitive about archiving because, although not regulated itself, the company comes from the highly regulated world of telecommunications. In that world, a regional bell has to be able to document all interactions with a customer.
To further streamline processes, SBCIS is also investigating leading-edge technology. For example, the company is developing a knowledge base to automate responses to customer e-mails based on the content of previous exchanges. An electronic e-mail responder parses the content of an e-mail and compare it with known question-solution combinations. If the confidence factor is high enough, SBCIS will send a machine-generated response to the customer. The system automatically logs automated responses, so nothing is lost from the customer relationship.
Technology can help a company manage its customer communication, but when is enough enough? One approach used by Atmos Energy Corp., a $900 million Dallas company operating gas utilities in 13 states, is to let technology provide what might be called "just-in-time information." Atmos grew through a series of acquisitions. Because utilities are highly regulated, the result was a patchwork of markets, each with varying customer expectations, legal requirements, rate schedules and services. The company also had 100 storefront offices with different phone numbers, practices and computer systems.
To be competitive as the utilities market moved through deregulation, Atmos needed to consolidate operations while ensuring that each account was treated according to the appropriate rules and rates. The first step toward that end was to choose a customer information system (CIS) that would create an application platform allowing call centres to be integrated. Atmos decided to bring in Technology Solutions Co. (TSC), a Chicago consulting company with particular expertise in call centres. TSC developed a desktop integration model referred to as "Cockpit." "It's really an application that combines a lot of other applications that are running out there," says Lewis Binswanger, the company's chief engineer. The package includes the billing system, phone statistics, contact information, reference material and state utility regulations. It provides the data flow needed but does so in a consistent manner, no matter which system is used for a particular customer. Different rules and tables give the customer service associates guidelines as to what they can do for any account. Representatives are given wide latitude in handling situations, providing faster problem resolution for customers. "It's important to give the reps the flexibility and responsibility to make decisions," says Binswanger.
Currently, reps are trained to handle calls from one utility company; they're also segmented by CIS system and the type of call, such as billing or emergency. The company is hoping over time to develop "universal reps" to handle any type of call from any type of customer. When Atmos is ready to make the change, which will likely be in the next 12 months, the information infrastructure will support the switch. There are still four acquired companies that are not integrated into the company's customer information system, but the conversions will likely be done by the first quarter of 1999. Even with the advantages of the rules and tables, Binswanger expects six months of training on systems and state requirements before the representatives can be truly universal.
The technology must be intelligently examined to ensure that the company really accomplishes what it wishes, warns Richard Nadler, president of Perseus Development Corp., a Braintree, Mass., company that provides customer satisfaction software and consulting. "The IT has to be designed with the customers' needs in mind," says Nadler. "Access to the tools has to be available to the people facing the customer," he adds.
Atmos found out the hard way that customers do not necessarily take to technical innovation in expected ways. The company knew that customers were becoming more demanding, wanting 24/7 service rather than service limited to traditional weekday business hours. It decided to implement an integrated voice response system with voice recognition and to write the IVR scripts based on what the company thought its customers wanted. The response was, well, not something you would call home about.
"We first tried our hand at writing the interactive voice commands and menus based on what we thought the customer wanted," says Binswanger. "It was a very enlightening experience. We found that we were very comfortable with using the technology, but a customer calling us twice a year can't get through the script quickly." In general, customers found the system too complex and were confused when given the choice of pressing a menu choice or relying on voice recognition, so they would press "0" and simply talk to an attendant. The problem was that Atmos had been looking to make work easier for itself rather than to improve the experience for the customer. Its solution was to conduct focus groups and redesign scripts using customer suggestions.
As Atmos learned, technology can be an aid but only when you're trying to fix the right problem. A company succeeds not because it handles paperwork efficiently, but because people want to do business with it. Using technology to improve customer communication can lead to higher revenues and even profits - just make sure that the customer agrees that things are better.
Erik Sherman is a freelance writer based in Marshfield, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.