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Customer Service: Now More Than Ever...

By Vincent Deschamps
Nov 7, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Enterprise organizations often think of customer service as an unavoidable fact of business, a necessary expense. Rethink customer service, however, and it can become a strategic weapon that fosters growth and competitive advantage.

Customer Service: Now More Than Ever...

Some common steps can turn customer service into a strategic weapon that can be especially valuable during difficult economic periods.

Alignment and Vision

If customer service is going to be strategic to your company, the entire company must be aligned around that vision, especially the senior-most levels of the customer service department, marketing department, and ideally, the CEO and executive team. Without that alignment and clarity, a company can only pay lip service to the goal.

For example, if a company gets 80 percent of its business from 30 percent of its customers, the alignment decision may be to focus primarily on that 30 percent. After all, that group not only represents the most business, but also the most complaints. Here, the company wants to retain its best customers. Other companies might want to improve the loyalty of the second-tier customers. Or they might want to upsell their customers. Each company will have its own strategy and goals. To succeed, every company must align around its defined strategy.

Segment the Customers

Not all customers are equal, nor do they behave equally. You should know which customers are calling, which are e-mailing, sending faxes, using customer service over the Web, etc. Then, that knowledge can inform decisions on how to best communicate with each customer segment.

Typically, 95 percent of the activity in a customer service department involves voice -- customers dialing in for self-service via automated IVR or for help from a customer service agent. Even with the availability of chat, e-mail, fax, and the Web, voice is still the predominant means of communication for customer service. In that case, optimizing voice services is going to improve customers' communications with -- and experience of -- the company.

In customer service, the "if you build it, they will come" credo doesn't always apply. We've seen businesses overwhelmed by too many people calling their customer service departments. How did they try to solve the problem? By spending a lot of money on a Web presence. They thought the same people who were calling were going to all of a sudden start using the Web. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

The best way to segment customers is by looking at historical trends. Analyze who calls, how often they call, and why they call. Do the analysis even when the answers seem obvious. The results can be surprising.

Focus on the Customer Experience

Strategic customer service focuses on what will work best for the customer. In some cases, that means making phone calls as short as possible. Other times, providing lots of self-service information works best.

For instance, a bank customer might call the bank and get all the information he or she needs in 30 seconds via self-service IVR. For that customer, the automated service is preferred to a three-minute wait to talk with a customer service agent. But what if the customer had a follow-up question that self-service couldn't address? Ideally, the bank would let the customer transfer out of self-service and over to an agent, who could see the customer's self-service activity, including name and customer number.

Customer experience often breaks down when new technologies are implemented without thinking through all points of impact or when they have not been integrated on the back end. One result: Customers answer the same questions twice -- once during a self-service session and again when speaking to a customer service agent about the question related to that session.

Take Care of the Agents

Customer service generally has some of the lowest-paid people in the organization handling the highest-priority, customer-facing activity. The organizations with the best customer service think about the agents as much as the customers. The agents have the tools they need, making the customers and the agents happier.

Take the bank example above. If the customer got transferred to an agent who knew all the customer's previous self-service activities, the customer enjoys good service and the agent enjoys providing good service. This is a win-win scenario, but agents are only as good as the tools they have at their disposal.

Scripting tools can walk an agent through a complicated transaction, ensuring that the customer can follow the process. In addition to improving customer service, scripting improves upselling by ensuring the agent uses the right terms and presents them in the right order. When agents are rewarded on upsells, they will use any tool that makes them more successful.

Recording tools can be used for compliance, consistency, and training. When a company records the customer conversations of its most successful agents, the questions, answers, and comments made by those agents can be built into the company's scripts. Recording tools also help customer service supervisors coach their agents.

In some cases, taking care of the agents means letting them work from home, whether they live down the street or across the country. Overall, agents are happier when they work from home. They earn the same amount of money, but they save money on fuel costs. They're never late. They're rarely sick. Their productivity is often higher than when they work onsite. And working from home doesn't cost the company any more money than working onsite.

If the agents are happy, then the supervisor is happy, and everybody else is happy. And the agents are happy when the customer is happy. That's the secret. The agents want to keep the customer happy. But they need the right tools and the right environment to do it.

Find the Best Partner

With technology now a cornerstone of customer service, companies must find the best partner, one that understands strategic customer service. Evaluation criteria includes extensive customer service experience, including customers with the same goal as yours, industry awards, overall reputation and passion for what you want to do.

While hosted solutions are not the only technology choice, they are scalable and easy to implement. And in a challenging economic climate, a hosted solution provides flexibility that premises-based solutions can't match: Companies pay for a hosted solution based on the number of agents per month. Simply put, the agent force can be ramped up or scaled back on demand, cost-effectively accommodating fluctuating customer service volume.

Inspect What You Expect

From the beginning, measure everything you do related to your goal. Do you want to improve customer retention? Increase revenues? Double business without increasing costs? Regardless of the goal, include measurements. Set the bar high, and know what's happening inside your customer service organization.

When a company succeeds at making customer service a strategic weapon, it sets off a chain reaction that reaches through its customer service agents and out to its customers, who are better served and more satisfied with the company.


Vincent Deschamps is chief executive officer and chairman of the board for Echopass, which specializes in on-demand, always-on, hosted contact center solutions.


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