Enterprise Apps

Providing Inputs for a Positive Customer Experience

I spent part of last week at a user group meeting high in the Rockies, theRightNow Summit. The term “summit” is not only figurative — it’s literal. The company is headquartered in Bozeman, Mont., another high spot on the continent, and it seems to select meeting locations near the tree line to burnish its western image. At that altitude, it’s sometimes hard to breathe, which produces a perfect environment for being sedentary and listening to new ideas. In retrospect, it might have been a perfect setting.

RightNow has its roots in the on-demand movement, but instead of initially focusing on sales and marketing, as many early on-demand companies did, it chose to concentrate on service and support. Today, RightNow is one of the largest on-demand call center solutions. I say “solutions” because more than supplying infrastructure on demand, the company sports a variety of on-demand software that call center agents use to provide service to their customers.

Striving for Perfection

In my experience, the call center is the most conservative part of the front office — with good reason. Call centers have been obsessed with efficiency, and an elaborate set of accessory solutions has grown up around them to measure and manage most aspects of the operation — from how long customers wait in queue to the percentage of problems resolved on the first call, and lots more. Call centers identify best practice metrics, compare themselves to national averages, and look for ways to improve. Good for them.

The concentration on efficiency has had its downside though. Call centers have historically been expensive propositions to get rolling. There’s a lot of equipment and software to buy, as well as people to train and monitor, so it’s important to maximize call center use to offset the costs. For many people, that efficiency orientation makes the call center a less than fun place to work — and efficiency is not usually the first thing that customers think or care about when they have problems.

On-demand solutions have helped call centers manage many of their costs, and operations people have been continually searching for ways the call center can expand its role and possibly generate revenue. RightNow CEO Gregg Gianforte saw the need for call centers to expand their roles, and focused his firm on providing solutions that do more than help companies deal with customer issues quickly. At last week’s summit, the company introduced a lot of new thinking to its customer base focused on the customer experience, which I thought was a smart move.

Staying the Course

Although RightNow offers a full suite of CRM software solutions, the company did not spend its valuable time with its customers focusing on simply expanding the footprint of solutions in each account. Instead, RightNow continued an ongoing dialog about the customer experience.

There’s a lot of talk about customer experience management (CEM) in the marketplace today, and some people think it should be the successor of CRM. I am not so sure. Truth be told, “CEM” is a terrible name. Suggesting that a subjective experience can be managed is silly and almost bound to fail. The more I look at it, the more I think that CRM is trending toward a technology set that enables companies to provide all the ingredients of a positive customer experience. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but …

In my view, the customer experience is more a method or an approach to business. To its credit, RightNow never suggested that you could actually manage someone else’s experience — only that you should try to provide all the inputs.

So, for example, Martha Rogers, who gave a keynote, emphasized that customers are a company’s most precious, basic and limited resource. More importantly, she pointed out that the relationship between a vendor and a customer need not equate with a personal relationship. Instead, the customer relationship needs to be managed from the customer’s perspective — not only to ensure that companies do the right things for their customers, but also so that customers feel well treated. From a customer experience perspective, that’s how you build loyalty.

Knowledge Is Key

For a long time, CRM vendors and solutions have emphasized capturing data to support internal business processes such as rolling up an accurate forecast. The trend today seems to be in the opposite direction — capturing data so that a company can better understand customer needs, likes and biases. Knowing that kind of information makes it more likely a company will do the right thing for a customer at the right time and thus enhance loyalty and ultimately gain a larger share of the customer’s business.

Those were the points that RightNow tried to make last week at its user meeting. To back up the message, the company introduced version 8 of its on-demand solution. The new version sports a very functional and powerful user interface, and an architecture that should enable further additions as the company fleshes out its customer experience vision.

I doubt the conversion to a focus on the customer experience will be immediate in the industry. There is, after all, a lot of investment in the status quo. Nevertheless, the marketplace shows lots of signs that — in the absence of new blockbuster products — companies will increasingly need to rely on their existing customers for growth.

That makes retention and loyalty highly prized ,and means paying attention to the customer experience will also remain a high priority.

Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected]

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