Archive

Archive for the ‘Call Center’ Category

Theory is Great; Solving Real Problems Rocks!

June 24, 2011 1 comment

Earlier this week Sword Ciboodle announced new relationship with Nicor National. We put out a press release (which is ‘old school’), and I challenged our new Public Relations team to dive a little deeper into Nicor National’s perspective regarding the selection process.  Despite being an ‘outside agency,’ I consider Liz and Anne an extension of our team, so it was time well spent as the begin just their second month with us. The rose to the challenge and spent some time with the customer!

Why is this exercise important? Well, let’s face it- press releases have their place, but we thought we could get a little more insight on what Nicor’s choice really means to them and their customers.  After we issued the official release, Liz sat down with Barbara Porter, Vice President of Customer Service and Business Development of Nicor National to have a candid Q&A.  The Questions below are direct from the conversation, my color commentary should be quite clear.

Perspective

Q: Before deciding to engage with Sword Ciboodle, how did you manage your customer relationships?

A: We had multiple systems, about 10 or 11. It was just becoming far too complex to manage our interactions with our customers.

My POV: In talking with customers and doing industry research, companies are lumping these two problems together, when they can be separated. Many companies are deciding that the transactional and data parts of many systems are just fine. It is the user experience that is becoming harder and harder to manage.

Q: What was the moment that really signaled it was time for Nicor National to change?

A: Our processes just weren’t customer friendly anymore. It was difficult for both our reps and customers and once that became very apparent, we knew we needed toexplore other options.

My POV: Putting the customer’s needs at the center of an infrastructure change can be an uphill battle. The ROI can be difficult to measure – possible, but not easy. Doing right by the customer always makes sense – period.

Q: What made you decide to select Sword Ciboodle?

A: We actually met Sword Ciboodle at a conference. We realized quickly that the team had great experience in our industry and truly understood our business at ahigh level. That’s just as important to us as the technology.

My POV: It is refreshing to hear a comment like this – for one, that the world of Marketing cannot simply be solved only using “Inbound” approaches. Business still takes place between people, in person, where you can shake hands and discuss business over lunch.

Q: Are you exploring other methods of engaging customers such as through social media channels?

A: Yes! Our customers have been indicating they want this more and more, particularly to communicate with us in general, pay bills, check their status and other areas that help maintain their relationship with us. We currently use a system called Allegiance to create customer surveys, as well as receive direct feedback from customers. We are hearing more and more from them that they want social functionality.

My POV: This is fun to hear and interesting at the same time. Those of you who know me, well ‘commentary’ will simply not cut it. I will try to schedule more time with Ms. Porter and dig in a bit more on this one.

Q: Anything else you think people should know?

A: All along our focus has been to create a positive experience for both our staff and customers. The two go hand-in-hand. We know Sword Ciboodle is going to help us deliver on that commitment. Once the program is entirely rolled out and themultiple systems are gone, it’s going to be fabulous!

My POV: Serving Nicor National and its customers is especially going to be fun and interesting because this is an industry where it can often be tricky to deliver truly personalized customer service. We are looking forward to following their success…

Liz was kind enough to add the following POV as well “We love any opportunity to brag about our clients’ customer successes- particularly when it pertains making consumers’ lives easier. We hear customer service “horror stories” everyday, so it’s a pleasant change of pace when we get to examine companies who are ‘doing it right.'”

Here is a link to the ‘old school’ release. Will we continue to issue press releases? Yes, because there is still value in sending them out, people do read them – I am told.

Coordination, Collaboration and Co-operation; An Approach to Service Excellence

Customer service excellence is a core value of many customer service organizations, as it should be for yours. Service excellence is achieved by an almost harmonious dance between the people, processes and technological components. When asked, many simply say: “the team just gets it done”. My question is, ‘how’? My postulate is that this capability can be explained by the proper balance between coordination and collaboration, enabled by a co-operative desire.  Processes that are highly responsive to customer needs require complex data, knowledge management, sophisticated rules and cutting edge communication devices. But, in the end, it really comes down to how people (knowledge workers, customers, partners) react and respond to the environment around them. The systems need to work like they do, complexity hidden when possible.

I believe that with all of the talk, writing, and proselytizing on collaboration and activity streams the essence of where coordination fits into the customer service realm is being marginalized, or even lost. If a customer calls with a billing question, I should not need to collaborate in order to find the answer; I should just be able to either answer it, or pass it to someone who can, simple.  Therefore, I suggest that coordination is of at least equal importance and collaboration is required when coordination will not work. The objective of collaboration is not to collaborate, it needs to be results driven, the problem is collaboration is recursive, thus it takes time. To be clear, I am not suggesting no use for customer collaboration, I am suggesting a time and place for everything. There are instances, such as co-creation where coordination is secondary and that collaboration is critical.

Some Background

I felt it was important to do a bit of research, if only about definitions, to make sure that I personally understood the differences. I am not trying to go down the definition route, but it is not simply semantics either. The diagram above is my visual attempt at segmenting, but also highlighting the overlaps. But it does not tell the whole story, nor might it fit your tastes. Does it?. I simply believe that coordination needs to be considered first, ahead of collaboration, as I believe it to be a peer with collaboration with respect to customer service.

Coordination is the organization of the different elements of a complex body or activity so as to enable them to work together effectively (Google definition). I would add that ‘effective’ often translates in business terms to execution and efficient. When a situation occurs, I want my team to be coordinated, roles and responsibilities well defined and each person completely clear with respect to their actions. An interesting extension is that parts of co-operation make there way into the discussion, as often all parties can realize mutual gains, but only by making mutually consistent decisions.

Co-operation is the process of working or acting together, which can be accomplished by both intentional and non-intentional agents. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a nation. (Wikipedia)

A quick summary thus far; Coordination is the ability and capability to work together, where co-operation is the willingness to work together – where does that leave collaboration?

Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal. It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective, determination to reach an identical objective) — for example, an intriguing endeavor that is creative in nature  — by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. (Wikipedia). I believe collaboration and co-operation are closely aligned, with emotional elements highlighting the differences.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, titled “Nice Guys Finish First”, columnist David Brooks stated the following:

“In pursuing our self-interested goals, we often have an incentive to repay kindness with kindness, so others will do us favors when we’re in need. We have an incentive to establish a reputation for niceness, so people will want to work with us. We have an incentive to work in teams, even against our short-term self-interest because cohesive groups thrive.”

The Takeaway

Many people smarter than I am have put a lot of thought into the goals and objectives of collaboration. It would seem obvious to state that there is a right way to collaborate, and there’s a wrong way to collaborate.  If teams lack a strong focus on the results of their efforts, then success will be very hard to measure. The objective of collaborating cannot be to collaborate – and hope is not a strategy. If the barriers to bringing in others to help you solve a problem seem too great, people simply will not stand for it, and will avoid it altogether.

It is always important to view the marketplace through the lens of your customers, advocates and partners. A company who truly understands and implements consistent, multi-channel, cross channel customer service experience has figured out how to manage the interdependence between predictable and unpredictable workflows. This is a coordinated approach to customer service excellence.

But what is the link? It goes beyond reacting to customer needs, to anticipating customer needs. The path to anticipation involves collaboration (knowledge and intelligence) but the response needs to be coordinated. If a customer contacts you with a serious problem, would you prefer to collaborate with others in the organization to figure out how to fix it, or would you prefer to have a coordinated effort in place, where the work sent work items to the right person to fix the problem? (Remember, collaboration is recursive).

Coordination enables the alignment of processes and related information around specific goals and objectives. In the case of customer service, the goals and objectives would be customer satisfaction, often driven by metrics customers care about, like first contact resolution (FCR) and time to resolution. The collaborative element is powered by the willingness of the team, ie co-operation and enablement. A quick note about resolution; customers who have an issue, problem or concern want to be heard and want issues resolved. Collaboration, by definition, will take longer than coordination, thus a coordinated approach is the objective. If this cannot be accomplished, yes, collaborate and figure out the answer!

More often than not, the resistance to coordination is that customers seem to be moving faster than an organization can adapt. There is the battle ground between coordination and collaboration; how can I coordination activities if I cannot anticipate and I do not know what is coming next?  It is important to note that in order for any of this to work, a common vocabulary needs to be put in place – this includes customers! If everyone is not talking the same language, the customers, no level of coordination or collaboration will be enough to save you! I gave some specifics around the alignment between Service, Sales and Marketing on this topic, at a recent talk in London.

An important source for this post was Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, By Ranjay Gulati. (link).  My goal was to give context specifically to customer service. Prem Kumar also has a nice post and accompanying slide deck which explores this issue from a different and important perspective.

These thoughts are an offshoot of topics I am exploring through a collaborative effort (pun?) with  Julie Hunt. The outcome of that effort is a white paper called “Focusing on the Total Customer Service Experience” –  Summary information here; if you would like a copy,  no registration forms, just an email to us, whitepaper@sword-ciboodle.com.

The Importance of Positive Customer Service Experiences

Customer experience is made up of the sum of all interactions and touch points between the people, products and services a company provides and their customers.  Customer service experience is a subset of the overall customer experience, with a slightly different focus. Specifically, a customer service experience is the sum of the interactions between you and your customers when they are trying to communicate with or to you, often regarding something that has gone awry.  Customers of all types (not just social customers) are emotional and tend to rate experiences based upon the expectations set (either specifically, or ones we set in our mind) – yes, they are often shared, both good and bad. The simple question is: “Is your business organized in such a way to accelerate your company’s ability to deliver a service experience, which meets or better, exceeds customer expectations?”

Every business has unique opportunities to create meaningful connections with their customers every day.  The idea, of course, is to embrace customers, offering exceptional value with each touch point.  Within customer service, if the team serves as an advocate for every customer, building trust along the way loyalty often comes along for the ride.  And to be quite direct, incremental revenue and a passion for your products is possible as well, but it is not as simple as that, it takes work.  People like buying from people they know and trust – get to know your customers! Each part of the organization can and should make a difference. Is this the case in your organization?

The customer need not initiate every interaction. A simple reminder via email or SMS as notification of an appointment, for example, can be very well received. Do you have in place the proper foundation – cultural and technological – to meet the demands of your customer and advocates?  Many customers are less satisfied with contact centers (ie phone calls) than they are with the trendier contact options (Social), but the investments are still towards the new flashy and ‘cool’ applications. Many customers do still prefer the phone – statistics prove it. This kind of disconnect has created a conundrum which is receiving attention from on-high, your CEO.

Executives are taking notice and have made it one of their business priorities to get closer to their customers.  I have been known to ask; “what exactly does ‘getting closer’ mean?” Executives have begun to realize that embarking down the wrong relationship-building path will continue to critically hurt their overall business strategy.  Leaders are now facing a decision: continue to let customers down through inadequate capabilities or embark on a journey to evolve their customer service experience.  Companies cannot do this alone, a new vision and a framework for support has become paramount.

To succeed with all customers, social and more traditional, companies need to create and maintain consistency of experience across all channels. A complete interaction experience goes well beyond just listening to your customer. It branches out to action, enablement and empowerment. Not only do companies need to learn how to interact well with customers using all channels; from the phone to social media, they also need to ensure experiences for the customer that deliver real value to the customer in exchange for time, attention, actions, information, and anything else that companies want from customers.

Few organizations are capable of providing the cross-channel consistency, an imperative for modern customer facing organizations. Unfortunately, the internal cultures of companies have not been built for this model. In order to achieve success, I am suggesting that companies must first change to better embrace their customers, not just as industry-mandated customer service operations. Companies will need to enable and empower employees to act as customer advocates who help customers successfully do the jobs they need to do with the company’s services or products. The company’s view of and objectives for customer service will need to change to provide very different kinds of training and guidelines to allow customer service staff to work creatively, cross-channel with customers. To succeed, companies will need more than collaboration platforms, though they can help. Coordination needs to come before collaboration, I will be exploring that in a future post.

During the past month, I was able to explore, in depth, many of the points above with Julie Hunt. Looking at the above points from many different perspectives – having fun along the way. Some the key questions addressed are:

  • How can you meet the demands of a multi- and cross-channel customer?
  • Do you know what your customers want from a ‘social’ relationship with you?
  • How can you align processes with the needs of your customers?
  • When does the difference between an Interaction and a Transaction matter?
  • How to focus on what your customers remember, for service interactions?
  • What is the proper balance of investment in ‘Social’ channels versus ‘Traditional’ channels?

If you would like to receive the full version of the document, please just let me know.  No registration forms, just an email to me, mitch.lieberman (at) gmail.com or to whitepaper (at) sword-ciboodle.com.

Who Leads the Social CRM Market? – An Analysis

April 23, 2011 3 comments

The question was raised on Focus and my answer may have surprised a few people. I started my answer with a disclaimer “I work at Sword Ciboodle” (a technology vendor for those of you who do not know). I then proceeded to state my opinion that no technology vendor currently leads the market, even questioning if there is a “market” for Social CRM, my logic is that technology is only one part of the problem. By the way, the word Social is starting to get in the way:

“The leaders in the market are the consultants and analysts. The reason is simple, I am not convinced that Social CRM is an actual market. Integrating Social Channels into a customer strategy is something that needs to be done, absolutely. Connecting the Social dots is something that does need to be understood and practiced, but a market, not sure yet.

When I was speaking on the topic last year, I was cautious to describe it as ‘CRM in the Age of Social’. Customers have problems to solve, companies need to figure out how to solve those problems – just with a whole lot more channels. My first statement about consultants and analysts was not a knock, it is a recognition of the complexity of the problem, people and process first, not technology.

CRM is often discussed by its 3 core components, Sales, Marketing and Service – when we discuss Social CRM, which one are are talking about? Or are we talking about all 3 and more? Are we talking about Business to Business or Business to Consumer? There are 6 segments at least, where I believe there might be 6 different leaders”

Social CRM does Require Technology, but it is about People

A previous topic also on Focus sheds some light on my answer; “What are the top reasons for integrating Social Media with CRM”. Caty Kobe expands the question/problem statement to facilitate the discussion: “What are the top reasons why an organization should integrate CRM with social media channels” – There is the explanation to my answer, right there, simple. I did not even need to go to the answers (though friend Brian Vellmure has a good one), just the question.

Social CRM, from the technology perspective, is about integration of new channels, Social Media is a channel. Properly, Social Media is dozens of channels, where you need to choose the ones right for your business. The hard part, the real work, is choosing which channels to integrate and then designing the processes around these channels – the people part. Just “being there” because someone told you to is not a reason! Too many industry insiders (Vendors, Analysts and Consultants) are trying to put Social CRM into one simple bucket, it is not simple, and it is not one thing.

We need to find a balance among the new terms, big words and fluffy buzzwords. It is not all new – parts are new, the combinations are new, but in the end, Social Media is just a channel. If you are trying to figure out the Social CRM puzzle and you are doing your research, you might find definitions and descriptions; something like ‘The company’s response to the customers’ control of the conversation’ (@pgreenbe). If you are not comfortable with that one, I am sure you have found one you like. There is only one correct answer to the question of what is Social CRM, yours. Not OK with that, how about focusing on the strategy, not a definition? Looking back to a great post by friend Wim Rampen, who outlined a concise Social CRM Strategy:

“A Social CRM Strategy is all about understanding Who the customer is, through Listening to Engaging with and Collaboration between Customers, Employees and Partners and aimed at Developing Innovations that allow Customers to do What Jobs they need to do, by means of a Personalized Design that empowers Customers, Employees and Partners to influence How well Customers and Companies can meet their Desired Outcomes.”

Wim outlines some great actions, I encourage you to go back and read the original post and the conversation which followed. Notice that Wim only touches upon the technology components. Recognizing that they are there, but not focusing on them first. Some may find this strategy to constraining, some may find it to broad. The beauty of sharing it is that people can take from it and see how it fits within their own organization. It is not only about building new strategies and new frameworks – honestly I think some of the new stuff, without even a hint at looking at the old is pure rubbish. You will need to take this strategy and apply it to your programs of work. If we all spent a little bit more time understanding where we have been, we might be better at figuring out where we need to go.

So, Who is in the Lead?

Finishing off with the Social CRM Market question, which I do not want to leave hanging. There is not ‘a‘ Market, there are many different Markets, including both technology and consultative, there are data questions and process questions. From integrating social channels into your Customer Service operations (where Ciboodle excels) to Socialytics (which Ciboodle does not do, but we have friends who do) – and all the bits in between. For now, it is about how to integrate; technology and process, Social into the programs of work for the foundational components of CRM; Sales Service and Marketing. In the future, we will be able to get rid of the ‘Social’ descriptor and go back to focusing on doing business. The organization or person in the lead is the one who solves the problem you need fixed – not the one with the best marketing department.

Is Twitter a Customer Service Platform, Protocol or Channel?

March 14, 2011 4 comments

Twitter is an interesting beast, that is for sure. I am sure a few (or more) will suggest that it is none of the above. Or, better, that it is a monumental waste of time.

The nature of Twitter is that everything is open for the world to see, that does beg the question of how best does Twitter fit into your Customer Service processes? Some of the challenges are actually a bit technical in nature; Twitter is actually a Service Platform*, which acts like a Protocol, and should be treated like a Channel. In order to get there, maybe a little bit of review is in order. My review is timed for an event, close to home, where JetBlue and Comcast are planning to present to a small group here in Burlington, VT. The interest lies in the fact that by one measure, JetBlue is considered tops in Loyalty, yet are almost 3 times as likely (as the baseline) to see a negative experience show up on Twitter.

Looking Back

The question I began to think about a long time ago is whether by making a channel such as Twitter readily available, companies were ‘creating a monster’ or ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ and wishing that they had not. This is very Inside Out thinking, and non-customer centric. I first published a post in October 2009 titled “Why do people think Twitter is a good Customer Service platform?” (link). Some parts of the article were a bit tongue in cheek, as Twitter in the support arena was quite new. In that article I suggested the following statement to be a truth:

The need to broadcast a problem to the world would not be necessary if the customer had confidence that their issue would  be solved timely and to their satisfaction.

Almost a year and a half later, I am revisiting the same issue, to see if things have changed, or not. I also suggested that using Twitter for support masks a larger issue. Customer do not have confidence that their issues will be addressed when they contact a company or register a complaint. There was some good discussions regarding the post. No, not everyone was in full agreement either. There have been a lot really smart people (smarter than me) thinking about this issue, now 18 months further along. That said, while people have been thinking about it, data to support or to counter the arguments is hard to find. I am not convinced anyway. Looking at this problem from the more important customer perspective, if your customers are there, then you need to be there to, right? the comment from Parature hits the mark:

Regardless of whether or not it is a good customer service platform, customers are taking their issues social and they can’t be ignored.

Core to this discussion is trying to figure out exactly; what is Twitter? During the recent history that is modern customer service, the channels of communication have been controlled by the organization (for the most part, of course there are exceptions); In-Person, Phone, Letter, Fax, IVR, Email, Website, Chat. These are protocols/channels, which a company decided to offer, or not. Unless something went really wrong, and it made the news, or trade press of some sort, the results of communication were ‘contained’.  With that in mind, Esteban Kolsky had the following to say on the previous post:

Any channel a customer chooses to contact an organization is a channel the organization should be listening on – or have a clearly stated and well-known reason not to (example: you cannot contact your broker about a trade via email due to latencies)…. Despite the novelty behind it Twitter remains a simple channel you add to your lineup of channels to serve customers. If you understand the basic rules of engagement for the channel, and how to deliver value best (e.g. tweeting the answer in 14-consecutive-tweets versus posting a link to somewhere) to your customers, then you should be able to deliver against those expectations – after you set them at the right level.

We have not Answered the Question

As noted above, Twitter is not a Customer Service Platform – it is only part of a Customer Service Platform, maybe. That does not mean people do not use it as such. Coca-Cola is not billed as a rust removal system either, just saying. Some believe that Twitter should be an open protocol, but that is not likely to happen either.  Therefore, a channel of communications is what is left, that is what Twitter is, and how it should be treated. This does not take anything away from it, just calling it like I see it. Your customers are there, and therefore you need to be there as well. Some old rules are broken though, unless I am missing something important. For example, if JetBlue has that many negative issues, then their loyalty number could not be that high if it takes “12 good things for every bad”.

The follow-up question is how well is this (or any) channel is integrated into the rest of your customer service processes? According to some recent research (Brent Leary analysis), 35% of companies surveyed said “Yes” when asked “Is your social media/social networking fully integrated into traditional customer service problem-resolution processes?” I need to be direct and question that particular statistic, as I have yet to run into many (any?) companies at all where the processes are truly integrated from end to end. The simple point is about a technical challenge or limitation, your customers will know if they systems are integrated, or not.  Even so, 65% of companies recognize that social is not integrated, therefore each is an island of process and of information. Your customers deserve better than this, no? I spend a lot of time thinking rhough these types of issues for Sword Ciboodle and our customers.

(*For the technical minded in the group, Twitter seems to be tending towards a service, offered by a private company, as a 3rd parties can typically build on top of a platform, but those rules seemed to be changing as well (who can and will make changes)).

A Conversation with a Friend

February 26, 2011 2 comments

Earlier this week, I was able to catch-up with friend Graham Hill via Skype.  Before you get too far, this is not an interview style post. This is an extension of the sharing of ideas to a broader audience. I first met Graham, in person, about two years ago, his insights into CRM, Design Thinking, Innovation, Co-Creation and a broad variety of both business and technical topics is simply awesome. We touched on many different topics, and true to form, after the call, Graham shared links and resources, which I thought would be worthwhile to share beyond just our conversation. I do have a lot of reading to do, that is for sure! We did spend a fair bit of time talking about SMS as well, in relation to some research I am currently working on – post forthcoming.

First a new approach / framework for requirements gathering with a focus on the agent/user call the i* Framework. The framework takes a new approach to designing systems based on how work is done and how value flows through work systems. Graham was passionate about this particular framework and it sounds very interesting and valuable to designing systems.

The i* framework conceives of software-based information systems as being situated in environments in which social actors relate to each other in terms of goals to be achieved, tasks to be performed, and resources to be furnished. The i* Framework proposes an agent-oriented approach to requirements engineering centering on the intentional characteristics of the agent.  Agents attribute intentional properties (such as goals, beliefs, abilities, commitments) to each other and reason about strategic relationships.  Dependencies between agents give rise to opportunities as well as vulnerabilities.  Networks of dependencies are analyzed using a qualitative reasoning approach.  Agents consider alternative configurations of dependencies to assess their strategic positioning in a social context. The framework is used in contexts in which there are multiple parties (or autonomous units) with strategic interests which may be reinforcing or conflicting in relation to each other.  Examples of such contexts include: business process redesign, business redesign, information systems requirements engineering, analyzing the social embedding of information technology, and the design of agent-based software systems.

The Second link which references the part of our conversation which touched on Value Networks and Collaboration. A new approach to modeling collaboration within an organization.

Work life is completely changing as social networking and collaboration platforms allow a more human-centric way of organizing work. Yet work design tools, structures, processes, and systems are not evolving as rapidly, and in many cases are simply inadequate to support the new flexible and networked ways of working.

Value Networks and the true nature of collaboration meets this challenge head on with a systemic, human-network approach to managing business operations and ecosystems. Value network modeling and analytics provide better support for collaborative, emergent work and complex activities.

Third – We both get a bit passionate when relationships within the business world end-up being unequal. The following talks about companies are managing customers for value over their whole lifecycle, not just at sales touchpoints. This topic is particularly important to me at the moment in my new role. Here is the link (It is an HBR article and is a PDF)

Companies have powerful technologies for understanding and interacting with customers, yet most still depend on mass media marketing to drive impersonal transactions. To compete, companies must shift from pushing individual products to building long-term customer relationships.

The marketing department must be reinvented as a “customer department” that replaces the CMO with a chief customer officer, makes product and brand managers subservient to customer managers, and oversees customer-focused functions including R&D, customer service, market research, and CRM.

Any conversation between two passionate people within the CRM domain, which did not spend just a few minutes talking about loyalty, would be a missed opportunity. Thus, true to form we spent a few minutes talking on the topic, with more reading for me on the topic! The following is an excerpt from another PDF, this time from the Economist, shared by Adobe and of course, part II (also a PDF).

Most companies today face a two-fold dilemma. In many product and service categories, competition based on both price and quality is increasing. Customers, faced with so many good choices, are making decisions based on a variety of complex factors. Even in business-to-business sales a similar dynamic is evident, as loyalty and relationships play less and less of a role in many contracts.

In this environment, the enterprise interested in winning, retaining and deepening customer relationships can no longer do so simply by creating a better product or even by holding down costs. For many companies, both strategies are essential simply to stay in the game. Increasingly, executives are finding that the winning differentiator is no longer the product or the price, but the level of engagement—the degree to which a company succeeds in creating an intimate long-term relationship with the customer or external stakeholder.

Sharing thoughts, information and resources is how we all learn and get smarter. Graham has a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. In a social world where too many people are trying to replace experience with book knowledge, Graham strikes a great balance (with more of both, than most) – and most important, he is willing to share. As you can probably gather, we touched on lots of different topics and and the discussion was quite enjoyable. I am looking forward to our next conversation, and getting together with Graham in NYC this summer – Enjoy!

Jelly Beans and Expectations

February 17, 2011 1 comment

Customer expectations are high and organizations are constantly challenged to meet, or dare I say to exceed expectations.  Interestingly, I do not think many organizations can definitively state their customer expectations, can you?  Go ahead and ask,  before your head of sales, marketing or anyone else with a fancy title reads this, ask them: “What do our customers expect?” I also believe that the bar is continually changing. Asking the question above often receives a “we do not simply want to meet expectations, we want to exceed expectations!” Great, you are not really sure what expectations are, but the bar has just been reset!

Think through the following: You walk into the local candy shop and the person behind the counter weighs out the 1/2 pound of Jelly Beans (Strawberry Cheesecake, if you must know). After they weigh it, they affix the little sticky with the weight and price. Before they seal the bag, they throw in another small scoop of Jelly Beans. Your expectations have just been met and maybe even exceeded. Now, what do you expect the very next time you walk into the candy shop? This is obviously an over simplistic view of the world. Take the conversation to cars, houses, software, insurance policies, mobile phone, cable and Internet provider, the list goes on and how do things change?

Expectations Around Service are Different, or are They?

The hyper-connected, mobile, choosier, but ‘I am your customer’ demands simplicity and is less tolerant of business-driven organizational procedures. Customer experiences are made up of interactions and touch points with the people, products and services a company provides to them. The connection – you might say the emotional connection –  between customers and an organization consist of the sum of these experiences. The simple question is; “Are you organized in such a way to accelerate your company’s ability to deliver a 21st century experience to the 21st century customer?”

Extending the Jelly Bean example to more complex organizations is hard. For one, it is harder for these organizations to simply give you something extra with regards to service or product. I suppose that you could get a few extra minutes on your mobile phone, but if calls were dropping in the first place, then I am not sure what that does for you. As organizations decide to offer new and different channels, they might be giving the appearance of an increased level of service, but for the general population, did anything really change? You have now met the expectations on these new channels, because you are there. Well, maybe, kinda sorta, for the few that are yelling and screaming on Social channels you may have now met expectations. Did you just reset the bar on Social channels too? Did you invite more people to yell and scream?

I am excited to spend a few minutes with friends and super smart CRM folks Paul Greenberg and David Myron next week, for Webinar.  The discussion will be light and we are going to have some fun (probably at my expense) and talk through some of the fun and maybe not-so-fun issues people who think about customer service stay up at night wondering about – basically that Customers are fickle. They change and are changing the way they communicate with each other – and your business – and this change is happening at a frenetic pace. Last year’s never-ending debate was the definition of Social CRM, thankfully, this year we have moved on. I can promise you that we will NOT talk about definitions, Cloud Computing nor Software-As-A-Service, we will focus on the fundamentals of customer service and keep the topic focused on business issues.

What Would Einstein Say About Customer Service Complexity?

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Nothing.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, E=MC2, is known by every school child post 4th grade. By 6th grade most school children all are told what the letters stand for, but it is highly unlikely that they actually know what is means. Have you ever tried to describe to someone what the formula actually means? Here is the Wikipedia link, good luck.

Hiding Complexity takes Hard Work

Each time an additional channel is integrated into your customer service strategy, the complexity of your processes increases. As practitioners in describing complexity, we often work very hard to simplify and describe it using metaphors and stories, else people will not read what we have to say. Somewhere during attempts to explain, respect for complexity is lost and an oversimplification process begins. The result is that we are left holding the bag. The job of the Contact Center is to make the lives of our customers simpler and to focus on their experiences. The more we try to hide our internal process complexities from our customers (because, frankly they do not care), the harder we have to work.

According to Gartner, within the next 5 years more than half of contact centers will include some level of real time participation by customers in the service process. One interpretation of this is that social and collaborative technologies are more than just new channels or extra channels. How can (or should) a contact center deal with the insertion of these new real-time variables if they do not fit smoothly into the currently designed business processes? The modern contact center need to be able to “enable the contact centre worker to become a real-time advocate on behalf of the customer” (Steven Thurlow, CTO Sword-Ciboodle).

Is it Really that Hard?

Yes, but it is matter of perspective. If you go about trying to solve a problem which approach do you prefer?  Do you prefer planning for the unexpected, possibly that the problem is slightly harder to solve than you anticipated? Or the reverse, at first glance it does not look too hard, thus you are sure it will not take much to solve (I call it the wishful thinking approach). In a recent Forrester report (author Kate Leggett), the most difficult type of contact to handle in the customer service contact center has high interaction complexity and high process complexity. Kate refers to this as Intelligent Dialogue, which describes it quite well. When I wrote a position piece on the topic last summer, the name I gave was not nearly as good. The concept is straight-forward to describe, but requires work to implement. Like any project done right, please do not skimp on planning and design hoping to ‘figure it out as you go along’.

During the next few years you will likely be able to automate more processes as you understand them better and they become repeatable, but more and more I believe a better word to use is optimized. When customer experience is involved the ‘automation’ word (and world) scare me a bit. Your customers are changing their habits quickly, I believe this trend will continue, you need to be able to be agile and change with them. Each business will need to decide which segments require a human evaluation, and which do not. It will be important to break down the essential elements (of a case or request) into discrete components, and allow contact center workers the capability to evaluate each component first in isolation, then together as part of the whole. Ideas like the sentiment, intent, tone, channel and dare I say ‘influence’ (Yeah, I know that one might raise some eyebrows) combined with pure informational elements; communications history, transaction history as well as other elements.

I am not trying to scare anyone, these are all solvable problems – I am simply requesting that you think about it.

The Changing Culture of the Contact Center

October 31, 2010 7 comments

My apologies for the delay in this post, I meant to get it done sooner. As I said in my previous post after the RightNow user conference, I was able to spend some time with customers, end-users and practitioners in order to understand a bit more not only about the specifics of their success, but how and why. In speaking with different folks, I decided to take a different approach in the discussion, wanting to probe a bit on the changing culture of the call center during the past 15 years. This proved to be a very interesting tact, as the culture has changed. Specifically, 15 years ago, knowledge workers within the call center (or contact center if you prefer), had good verbal communication skills, but lacked computer savvy. Now, things are basically reversed. That might be an over-simplification, but it is basically true. While a fair number of things have in fact changed, some are not so different than when I first prototyped a customer self-help system in 1998 – If you can enable customers to help themselves, they will.

As Social engagement practices mature, which they absolutely need to do, because Social behavior is going to drive how customers communicate their needs to your organization. Customers are going to communicate with you via social media, so we all have to be ready. It is not ‘if’, but ‘when’ and ‘how’. In addition to the obvious benefits to your customers, the benefits to you and your organization by enabling, supporting and even promoting social media for customer service, will allow for insight to more easily find its way back into the core business to help improve core functions.  From a cultural perspective, one trend that is certainly ripe for change is how front line employees are compensated. Social Media channels not only allow you contact center agents to help your customers, but allow them to do it in a way that adds the human element back to the equation. These critical teams players, your contact center agents, within your organization need to be trained and treated with the respect they deserve. As your organization works to become “more social” please think about who will be on the front lines.

Conversations

Lisa Larson – Director of Customer Care at Drugstore.com

Both drugstore.com and beauty.com fall under Lisa’s watchful eye, a new generation of contact center, which include more channels than ever before. They include Websites, FAQs, Chat, Email and oh almost forgot, phone. Yes, Lisa and team are on Twitter was well; Directors Desk for Drugstore.com and Beauty Advisor for beauty.com The idea? To use the tools and technology available to her to improve the quality of customer service, making sure each customer interaction is meaningful to the most important person – the customer. Lisa and team are keeping pace with where their customers are and where they need help. Lisa and team are using Chat very successfully for high value products, increasing the conversation rates for these products by almost 40% when compared with not using Chat.

Lisa has a team of about 150 people across the board to make sure her customers are happy. They are there to solve problems, and make the experience as close as possible to the beauty consultant you might work with at the local store.  In order to provide that experience to the customer, the employee – knowledge worker needs to be given the tools and resources (and love) so that they can pass it on.  Lisa spends a lot of time making her team gets what they need. With regards to the culture question, it is important to Lisa to bring on team members who have actual people skills. Many people come into the call center these days with great technical skills, but talking on the phone and interacting at a personal level, with a business proper bent is something that is not as common as it was 15 years ago.

As Lisa pointed out to friend Brent Leary in a recent Interview:

“When you put a face out there, or you put people out there and they get to know who you are, they treat you differently.  Our goal is to serve them and to solve their problems, and do it well.”

Maryellen Abreu – Director of Global Technical Support at iRobot

From a certain vantage point, iRobot is pioneering a new market, which has unique challenges. iRobot needs to quickly find out what customers want, and adapt accordingly. From another vantage point, customers are customers, and iRobot needs to deliver great service and support, because this is just what smart companies do! A very successful part of the initiative is the Web self-service, which has been very successful from both sides – customers are able to help themselves more often than not and this keeps the operation expenses of the contact center in check.

“iRobot designs and build robots that make a difference”

Maryellen also shared the following tidbits, which I found very valuable:

“In regards to our call center culture, we ask our reps to Think like a customer. If the customer is not happy, let us know. Call Center feedback is absolutely critical to our success.”

It was important for me to dig into the culture and objectives by which Maryellen manages her center, and directs her team. In the information RightNow shared with me, iRobot was able to see a “30% reduction in call volume”. Now, call volume is an interesting statistic, because it only tells part of the story. When I worked with a few large insurance companies, we were able to see a similar drop in volume, but the calls that remained were all the tough kind (long, complex and did not follow a standard path). This was before the age of Social, so I wanted to see what had changed. I will add that for certain customers with specific problems, iRobot does not have any issues with bringing the users into their private communities and asking the customers to give detailed input into the products and experience.

“Our calls went down 30% in volume but the average call length did not change significantly. When we added Targus Info to populate/verify the customer’s address, we were able to shave approximately 1 minute off each incident that required a shipment. As I mentioned, we do not focus on reducing talk time, we focus on customer satisfaction. Typically long calls result in a low CSAT and we calibrate accordingly.”

Both Maryellen and Lisa are taking similar approaches:

  • For Customer Interaction – Where, When and How their customers want to communicate
  • For Measurement – Do what it takes to get the job done, talk if you need to talk AHT looked at, but does not drive the center
  • For Employees – Allow them to feel and act empowered, give them flexibility, not scripts; guidance, not rules

(Disclosure – I was an appreciative guest of RightNow Technologies. RightNow paid for my travel and expenses pertaining to the user conference only. RightNow is not a client of mine, or anyone else within my firm. For some visualizations of the experience, please take a look. I did have a great time in Colorado, not something hard for a Vermonter to do!)