Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Advent of the "Service Game"

How frequently have you been a "Guest"?

I don't expect to hear very many responses of the "What's that?" variety. When you are traveling, staying in a hotel, occupying a "guest" house, visiting friends & relatives, or just relaxing in a beach-side resort - you are experiencing what I'm trying to drive at.

Which really is - you assume the "guest" status when you are not likely to be permanently "there".

That in other words means that there is a "Host" taking care of your needs. You are being "Managed" well, if you return satisfied wearing your "guest" mantle.

Now further stretch your imagination to apply this unique and fulfilling personal experience to a business situation. Why would you not want your business to be taken care of thus?
Especially when it is not "permanently there", it's being set-up, or simply because you want a perfect "Host" to take care of those aspects of your business that you would not rather handle yourself?

Enter "Managed" Services a.k.a. "Hosted" Services. This is the new mantra currently doing the rounds in the business corridors. Hosted Messaging, Hosted Contact Center, Hosted Security, Hosted Storage, .. the list goes on...

The benefit to the business is evident -
a) There are no hassles of setting up those complex technology pieces
b) Experts will be managing the systems for you
c) You don't have to invest in the entire technology
d) You only pay for what services you avail of
e) You are spared the technology obsolesence because you do not own the technology, it's someone else's problem to keep pace with the new advents being made in the field
f) The OPerating EXpense model particulary suiting many a industry in a variety of situations....

The benefits for the Service Provider -
a) Amortize one time technology investments over a period of time by providing services and getting periodic payments from multiple businesses
b) This provision of services to multiple businesses indicate a better utilization rate, because of economies of scale (it will cost lesser than setting up different individual platforms to provide services to each business)
c) Usually the Service Providers are doing this as an allied business, which would usually boost their primary business. e.g: A Telecom Service Provider "Hosting" a Contact Center, would ensure that businesses availing of this Contact Center service will use their bandwidth and 'last mile'. In Business As Usual, these customers might normally have gone to competition
d) Bring in Technologies ahead of their usual times - by making it affordable, practical, and feasible for many more businesses to "try" them out; instead of a mere handful of early adopters having a go at it, thereby expanding the addressable market

This last point finally also means that the Technology companies too will benefit as a result of this "Hosted Platforms" syndrome!

Many regions in the globe have completely imbibed this phenomenon, or are rapidly seeing multiple Service Providers introducing these services. In this regard it's really heartning to see the major Indian Telcos too beginning to open up their bouquet of services, introducing various "Managed Services" offerings to the Indian Corporate sector.

Their timing could not have been better.
With the Indian economy looking up, Indian Corporates requiring sophisticated technologies to keep them in the global race, and most importantly, the trends of "Software As A Service" and "Service Oriented Architecture" taking shape to give the "Managed Service" a new fillip; the future seems bright for the "Hosted" party.

I wish the Indian Telcos all the best.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I Know What You Want

Today I witnessed something interesting. An experience worth sharing, because it opens up other lines of thinking.

My 7 year old daughter Nidhi, brought a friend home, and they asked for permission from my wife Varsha to play games on Nidhi's PC. Having secured the permission, Nidhi went about the task of booting the PC, and opening the folder marked "Games for Nidhi". {I still get amazed at her deftness at handling the PC, especially on the way she controls the mouse etc. See her smiling face on My Homepage... I really must update those old photographs....}

So the duo began exploring, and Nidhi zeroed down on a game, but Varsha intervened and asked them to play Pocket Tanks instead. Her reasoning was pretty sound - there are two of you, so play a game that both of you can enjoy simultaneously.

That made tempers fly, an argument ensued, and both parties stuck to their stand, not willing to holster their drawn guns. Their swords still pointing at each other, I asked the friends duo what was wrong with the suggestion of Pocket Tanks. "After all, it allows both of you to participate", I preached. "Whereas in other games, only one of you will enjoy, and the other one will be a mere spectator".

Then our little 'Customers' revealed the following:
a) they did not know how to play Pocket Tanks very well - at least Nidhi's friend didn't - hence our suggestion that both can participate was actually wrong. Neither of them could, fully!
b) Nidhi actually wanted to sit back and check out how her friend either excelled at, or bungled on, the games she has become so adept at playing... she 'wanted' to merely 'spectate'... (maybe the English language will officially adopt this word some day)..!

Fertile that my mind is when it comes to sowing the seeds of imagination, I started drawing parallels to: Senior Management telling other down the line what's good for them; Quality Heads telling Supervisors what their jobs 'should' be; Marketing whizkids on the 39th floor deciding not only on Promotion but also on the Product - on behalf of those illiterate customers loitering on the pavements....

A real revelation for me - "I Know What You Want"!


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Effectiveness of Self-service: Are you lovin' it?

Theme: Self-service has traditionally had a major impact on the business efficiency (by reducing costs). But now it is being widely adopted by businesses as a means to increase the effectiveness, by enhancing the user experience. Learn what has been happening and some useful information in the notes below.

When I first heard the term Self-service, the vision that popped-up in my mind was that of the Big M. Que-up, pay for the goodies, pick up the tray, lug it across to a table (if you can find one), and don't forget to dump the tray in the bin when done....

This vision sure has E F F I C I E N C Y ..written all across it. Efficiency for the Big M. Convenience? Sure, convenient for me to some extent. It's fast, isn't it? Else who would call it fast food? Gives me loads of pleasure going through the exercise? Umm... not really.
So the message is - if there is no other choice, if I want convenience right now, because [I'm in a hurry] [I'm not really hungry] [My wallet is screaming..time for refill] (pick your choice), then Big M is the choice.

Else what? What if I'm looking for effectiveness? Like impressing my girlfriend, taking a business contact out for lunch, trying to multi-task my lunch through that business report... then Big M will miss me.

In Customer Interactions, Self-service comes up either in Web transactions (Net banking, E-tickets, FAQs..); or Voice transactions - the classic DTMF IVR that everyone knows and has endured. Equate the Customer Interaction Center to the McCustomer IC; and all the corresponding scenarios will again have the same 10 alphabets written across them, in bold .. Please don't consume my Call Center Agents Mr. Customer, fumble your way through the Web and/or IVR Mr. Customer, and we will reward you with some extra [Frequent Flier miles] [Credit Card reward points] [A surprise gift?] [..], because you saved us some money.

What about effectiveness? What if businesses gave an overwhelming experience to their Customers ? That of doing transactions for which they earlier required live agents? But transactions they can now effect through Self-service, without waiting in a que listening to promotional messages, and getting irritated in the process? Processes that the Customers will cherish for their Effectiveness...

Think again. The E-ticket example I quoted under Efficiency was actually the wrong'un, and my compliments if you - the alert reader - spotted the Effectiveness part of it. E-ticketing is convenient AND effective for me. For one, in these days of 128 bit encryption security, I'm not allowing any human to read my Credit Card details, and I'm getting the E-ticket right here, ready to be printed. Makes me want to do it with loads of pleasure - my definition of effectiveness.

Sample the following similar processes you can create on the IVR to have "effective" voice Self-service:

  • Reset password
  • Lodge Insurance claims
  • Effect address change
  • Mobile phone activation (Remember the "Lara" persona of Vodafone in Customer Interaction Center: Business context)
  • Obtain stock quotes
  • Trade stocks
  • Pay bills
  • Fill up forms
  • Schedule appointments
  • ...... (Continue creating your own list)

Three to five years back, I would have been conferred the Man Booker Prize for creating the above fictional points. Today with the power of Speech Recognition, many more in addition to the above, have become solid reality.

The reality of creating a true Win-Win situation. The reality that affords the Businesses to create the Efficiency-Effectiveness balance. The reality to create The Effective Experience (TEE).

[Even managed to add effectiveness in my experience...(well, for my daughter really... so naturally even I'm lovin' it). The ambience / play-land / Ronald / McToys.... are all TEE for my daughter, and compels us to visit the Big M.] (Tip: Simply enabling old processes with Self-service is not TEE. TEE needs to be created afresh).

Which processes are you going to create afresh and put on your speech enabled Self-service? TEE off in the right direction... The course begins.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

The Predictive game: Reaching out to prospects

Theme: The 'Shotgun' approach - that of madly dialing out - needs curbing. WHY is it detrimental to the business and How to avoid common pitfalls

When the going gets tough, the tough get going! The markets just got tougher, and as a result, the tough Business Leaders have the crisis of increasing-sales-at-any-cost on their hands. That calls for rapidly building the sales funnel, and one quick-fix solution is to start firing calls at the masses. If that's all there's to it, with no prior thinking through, then this, I'm afraid, is the 'Shotgun' approach. Fire, miss, reload, fire, fire, fire, miss? no.. hit (good... get on with the game), fire..& keep firing away... Hit and trial.

The phenomenon of outbound contact itself is not new. Businesses have always been reaching out to the target population, but back then people dialed the numbers manually, on a relationship basis, connecting emotionally to us as human beings. But today, businesses increasingly deploy a technology known as Predictive Dialing. A technology that has reduced us - the unsuspecting 'Suspects' - to mere 'dialing lists'. The element of Relationship has approached near non-existent levels.

We have been harassed so much that the technology itself has come under the scanner of the regulators, resulting in the United States FTC regulations, Do Not Call lists and the likes.

WHY has this happened? What is the missing element? How can businesses preserve and enhance the Customer relationships while riding high on the benefits offered by Predictive Dialing technology? WHY is CRM missing in their Market share enhancing activities? How can business leaders initiate outbound contacts integrated with - or as a part of - true CRM?

Many years ago I attended a seminar addressed by Bill Pennabaker - the Global Director for Avaya's Predictive Dialing Applications business. Bill began his viewgraphs with the visual of a telephone (a Dialer), and followed it up with the picture of a fortune teller, complete with the Crystal Ball! A novel way to introduce the audience to the subject of 'Predictive Dialing'.. A telephone assisted by a fortune teller who 'predicts' the future.

While that was tongue-in-cheek humor; it is applicable to the overzealous businesses who are reaching nowhere with the so-called-sophisticated predictive dialing technology with their 'Shotgun' approach. They literally need a fortune teller to unravel their future - a future that seems increasingly murky otherwise.

The fortune teller - if they could lay their hands on one - would give them precisely the same reason for their consistent failure; namely, the lack of the relationship element.

Business leaders invest in a piece of technology once, and assume that that is a panacea for their reach-out problem. Whereas it is only the beginning. The beginning of the end, if nothing else is done about it. The Predictive Dialer is a mere tool, which requires thinking people, business sense and appropriate strategies; to achieve the maximum benefit.

Just because you can dial thousands of numbers in a day does not mean you should do that.
Just because you can program your dialer to retry a number 10 times in a day does not mean you should do that. Glance through the following indicative guidelines and check if you are committing some of the follies, or whether you are missing out on some possible initiatives:

Some DOs:
- Sort the list before you push it into the dialer e.g: in a collection campaign, call customers with higher outstanding amount first to maximize the revenue impact
- Gradually build a 'preferred calling time' table, as and when customers do indicate the same. Filter the list against this table before feeding in the dialer
- For above strategy to work, it is important that you chop the list into 'packets', and periodically feed these 'packets' in the dialer, as per the 'preferred calling time' table.
- Maintain a Do Not Call list of your own (apart from the federal/state DNC) and update it when people indicate they should not be called. Filter the list against this table as well.
- Invest in an Operational CRM (refer What exactly is CRM?) and deploy it commonly across inbound and outbound processes
- Consider deploying Predictive Analytics solutions that integrate with your Predictive Dialer. This will help to automate strategies like preferred time to call, maximizing the revenue impact, managing multiple dialers as one, etc.
- But it is critical that you first implement the strategies yourself, and then invest in Predictive Analytics, so that you are clear with what works for you. Else you might commit the same mistake, assuming that technology does everything, whereas it does not
- Some campaigns have either very short or very long handling time. e.g: a live connect might simply say 'not interested' and the call is hardly 30 seconds, but if interested the conversation might go on for tens of minutes. Consider splitting such campaigns across two teams. When the dialer reaches a live contact, the front end team takes the call, and if prospect is intersted, the call is immediately transferred (along with the CRM screen) to the second team. This way both teams' handle times are more consistent, and consequently, the Predictive algorithm of the dialer works more efficiently (Hint: Intuitive readers might have guessed it already, the team sizes will not be the same. The front-end team is much smaller)

Some DON'Ts:
- Don't dial a number if it has already been dialed by another department's campaign, have it marked as Do Not Call. (This calls for some back-end integration)
- Don't dial customers who have already called-in. Flag the number Do Not Call once the inbound agent updates the CRM
- Don't dial numbers if the reason(s) to call become invalid during the currrency of the campaign. For instance if a customer who is on your collection campaign, has paid up in the meantime, take him off the list as soon as you can get the information from the back-end system
- Don't retry a busy number for at least 30 minutes. Chances are that if the number is busy now, it will be busy after 5/10 minutes as well
- In some dialers, unless the preceding number is reached OR tried N times (say 5/10), the next number is not dialed. Don't allow such settings (refer above DON'T). Override these settings and go through the numbers cyclically. Else your Hit Rate will suffer badly, and Agent idle time will shoot up
- Don't attempt Predictive dialing for very sensitive campaigns containing customers in VIP/Platinum category. The very best technology will still produce nuisance calls, and you don't want very important and influential people hung up on, because no one is available to talk to them

Above is a very brief list of the more common indicators. There are many more that will apply as per specific business situations. So expand the list as you think fit, but please think through the business repercussions before putting that next campaign on your dialer. If you are already doing everything on the indicative list - Congratulations. You are in my club!!

Predictive dialers have had enough bad press themselves, and created enough damage to the brand image of some of their users. But you know it is because of the 'Shotgun' approach. Now it's time businesses should step in wearing their thinking hats, and begin the era of establishing "Relationship oriented Proactive contact" with the Customers.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Don't move your lips when you say Quality

I am yet to come across a business or meet a CEO that does not brag about "Quality"! "Sure, we produce / deliver / promote / utilize / create - Quality".... I see their lips move, doing a good service; and rarely more.

What about your experience? Did ever your experiences differ from the above, and you heard - "Well, I don't know whether I should admit this, but honestly we strive hard to produce sub-standard stuff... our creative folks are busy figuring out why and how are our customers still getting a high quality experience... and we will fix these anomalies soon..."

I bet your experiences in reference to Quality are exactly same as mine.

Having made the point, now let us delve deeper into the fabrics of these organizations, beyond the facade of the freespeak. We would be dismayed to find that an overwhelming majority of these "Quality promoters" do not have any structured Quality process when it comes to managing Customer Interactions.

People who follow "Exceed your expectations" or "Consulting for Success" closely, will intuitively know that this is the weak link. The business might have built the greatest product, and a robust supply chain, and may command an overwhelming shelf-presence. But the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and their Contact Center Quality Management department CREATES this weakness, by being absent in the corporate structure.

Then there are those who do have the said department, but merely monitoring Agents' Quality - to hire, train, promote, and improve their Agents through the stick-wielding approach (which most agents resent, by the way). These organizations may do well in the short term, but that's because there is a superficial correlation between agent quality and Customer Interaction quality. But these short term 'coincidences' will at best appear as good efforts so far as their customers are concerned. The customers will rarely rate these organizations as 'great'!

What most of the business leaders miss, is the phenomenally higher potential they can exploit with a Customer Interaction oriented Quality process. If only they could learn to glean Customer insights from these interactions, listen to what the customers are saying about them and their competition, get fantabulous product ideas, and also make agents more aligned (as opposed to merely improve them) to the customer expectations!!

Technology is rapidly making these erstwhile 'flights of fantasies' a solid reality. All it needs is the right attention from the CEO!!


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Methodical madness: Do what makes sense to you

You hear me (okay read my stuff...and I hope regularly at that) on the Business of running a successful business. I rant on and on:-

  • manage Customer Interactions well,
  • give Customers real choices (not in Henry Ford's Model T style),
  • and make Customers feel they are in control, to convert them into staunch advocates...
(You might want to jog your memory from the following: CRM (Re) Defined, Customers have choices, and my (hopefully by now) famous "..the thought - business of the customers, by the customers, for the customers - shall never perish from your mind" from Work Force Management: Business Impact)

Weird thoughts, you might say.

Then I hear Seth Godin on the subject of Weirdness (It's not weird when it's your weirdness). Seth says it all, when he mentions the keyword believe (and he does not play golf..).

I believe it's all about doing what makes sense to you - which in turn should be what makes sense to your customers. Then never mind whether it appears as madness to the non-believers.

And finally, I think most of the time this 'weirdness' stems from the overzealous 'increase the specialization at any cost' syndrome - you want to be one up, you want to differentiate, you want a punchline in your promo - never mind whether the customers want it or not. To that extent it is not a science! It is a mere reaction, a reaction to your competitor's offering.

But if you do what you do, because it makes sense to you, with a clear reasoning - then of course it is a science.... or maybe not! Maybe it's an art as well as a science. And what makes sense to your customers will only make sense to you if you believe in what I believe - else it's my 'weirdness'.

So my advice to you Business Leaders is - Go create a chaos, a systematic chaos- by doing the right things for your business!!


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Seth's Perspective: How poor processes create disillusioned Customers

On June 12th, I wrote the article Customer: A Victim of poor Business Processes.

And today I looked up Seth Godin's blog, and got a perfect illustration on a poorly executed business process - The thing about coupons.

Seth's personal example re-iterates my earlier point of how businesses (consciously or otherwise), alienate their customers instead of attempting to create staunch advocates!

Mr. / Ms. CEO, I hope you understand the critical brand impact of the customer experiences Seth and I refer to.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Customer Interaction Center: Business Context

In my earlier articles, I have attempted to establish the importance of Customers & Customer interactions - refer to CRM (Re) Defined, Customers have choices, & What exactly is CRM?.

The above articles examine the fundamental concept of WHY should Customer Interaction Center be an integral part of your business. To summarize the linkages between the earlier articles, (and to offer a starting point if you have missed those articles):-

  • No Business is an island
  • Customer is the core around which the business is built
  • Customer is the Key success factor & needs to be nurtured and converted into a staunch advocate
  • Business needs to build a meaningful relationship with customers- CRM is therefore a MUST - regardless of what is deployed and how
  • Customer Interaction is the cornerstone of Relationship building, hence Collaborative CRM is the foundation of any CRM strategy
  • If your business strategy flounders on any aspect of the "true" CRM, Customers have the choice of abandoning the business relationship

With these linkages clear, it is time I turned your attention to the basic inter-dependencies equation of the Business Enterprise <-> Customer Interactions.

Very few businesses really succeed in making Interactions as an integral part of their business, and most organizations keep Contact Centers as a dump for complaining customers, primarily because it is easy to fall in the "Cost Center" thought process. You can choose to take the easy way of keeping the Contact Center isolated; or build a perfect Customer Interaction Center that is kept fine-tuned on an ongoing basis. But the latter is possible only if you appreciate the Enterprise <-> Customer Interaction dependencies. And this appreciation can only begin with the true understanding of the overall constitution of the Customer Interaction as embedded in your entire Business Enterprise.

Visionary Business Leaders view their entire business as a smoothly functioning unit - like a well engineered Car. Their Customer Interaction Center (read Contact Center), is also an integral part of this integrated machine. The dependencies are therefore both inherent and inevitable. Hence you cannot just arbitrarily change strategy elements in either the business or the customer interaction dimension.

I chose the analogy of a Car because it self-explains many of the core principles you should appreciate. Can you simply decide to increase the width of the car by another 8 inches without changing anything else?

  • What happens to the dashboard design?
  • How would the seats be realigned?
  • Can the engine still carry the additional weight of the chassis?
  • How will you maintain other controls within same reach of the driver?
  • What happens to the engine block design under the hood?
  • Why do you want a wider car - does it increase passenger capacity?
  • What does it do to the aesthetics? Should you increase the length as well?
  • What is the cost impact? Impact on fuel efficiency?
  • Will you be able to sell more with this change?.....
    endless questions... And the same happens when Customer Interaction Center is an integral part of your business.

Notice also, that not all changes in the Car will create a major impact. How about changing the seat covers from fabric to leather? Maybe some cost impact, but I'm sure it does not lead to a engine block redesign...

Same goes with the Customer Interaction Center as well. The importance is in understanding what are the parameters that have a far-reaching impact on other strategic dimensions. So when I am asked for example, which technology do I recommend, my answer to my clients is:- "choose the experts who can make your Car run". It is not very important how the Car looks, with fabric seats or leather, whether it costs $500 lesser, whether the boot space is 500 Liters or 550.. But it is critical that your Customer Interaction Center vendor(s) should make the Car run,.. now.. as well as keep it running appropriately in future.. as per your business needs.

Hence it is critical that you have expert consultants examine the framework in light of your core business objectives and value proposition. For example, it should not be a simple - "deploy your Interactive Voice Response with some navigation and forget about it". The consultant will design an appropriate 'Persona' for your Speech recognition enabled IVR by identifying how do you want to sound to your customers? - youthful and energetic, or mature and business-like, or playful and informal, or exuding calm & measured in its response?

WHY would the consultant do so? Because IVR is your first touch point to your voice callers, and as such it must identify with the brand image you are trying to portray to your customers. Else you spend millions of dollars in advertising & promotions, and at the same time your IVR is busy distorting that brand image when each new customer calls in.

A positive persona example is that of "Lara", helping pre-paid customers to register with Vodafone Australia. This "28 year old brunette" having a penchant for pouplar music, appeals to the key demographic profile for Vodafone pre-paid - namely the 18 to 35 year olds. But just imagine Lara being erroneously plugged in your IVR if you were an old and the most prestigious bank catering to 40-something businessmen, who are seeking Power, Prestige, and aspirations of a CEO Lifestyle?

So Business Leaders, move over from the age-old tradition of towing your Contact Center behind your powerful Car. Integrate the Customer Interactions seamlessly within your business, and experience the power it will generate for you. If you need a hand in the re-design, we are there to help. Go realize your dream!!


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Work Force Management: Business Impact

If you have been following the series of my articles on the business of running a successful business, then you have hopefully understood the power of the 'customer'. Confident that you have done so, I further take the poetic license of taking a cue from Abe Lincoln, believing that: "..the thought - business of the customers, by the customers, for the customers - shall never perish from your mind".

If you subscribe to the above tenet, then your Customer Interaction MUST be an integral part of your business, so much so that Customer Interactions must be core to your business.

What has Work Force Management (WFM) got to do with this belief? A great deal, as a matter of fact. Because you believe in making the customer your advocate, and you believe that customer is the key to your success, and you believe that Customer Interactions are core to your business, then you have definitely been putting resources to ensure the core of your business is delivering on, and exceeding, the expectations.

However, if the business of managing the resources is not done appropriately, then there is a risk you are running. Either the resources might be too many, or they might be too few. The latter indicates you are deviating from the Abe Lincoln tenet (under poetic license - of course..); while the former is a disservice to your investors - another key stakeholder community.

To make the matters more complex, your contact center managers have to keep striking this balance every half-hour of the day, for every day of the week, for every week of the month, for every month of the year.. And without the proper tools at their command, try hard as they might, they are constantly making errors in this balancing act, errors that keep swinging your business through the extremes of customer disservice and investor disservice.

WFM is that magic platform that you can implant beneath your wonderful customer interaction management team, to take their performance, and with it your business, to new heights.

Ever heard of the principle of "the power of one"? If your customer service level is down in the dumps, you can substantially improve it by just adding one more Agent/CSR/Phone Banking Officer/.... (For a related discussion on the underlying Erlang formula, refer Convincing an Erlang Non-Believer). Of course the customer interaction team cannot produce that 'one' resource - at the critical juncture - out of thin air. It has to be planned in advance.

That is the power that a good WFM suite will bring into your business equation. By accurately forecasting the interactions by half-hourly intervals (based on past data), and by accurately determining exactly how many Agents/CSRs/PBOs.. are required (not too many, not too little), WFM creates a schedule of the available resources, and later tracks how those resources adhere to their assigned schedule - so that you first achieve, and then systematically keep improving on this 'customer-investor' balancing act.

And WFM will be but a one time investment, with some incremental additions basis future resource growth (a minor detail because WFM platforms are licensed on number of resources you have). But consider this investment against the constant unintentional errors your stressed and overworked customer interaction team is committing, and will keep on committing, unless you intervene with a suitable remedy.

Can you win any game whilst you continue to make unforced errors? Is it worth taking the risk of not having WFM? Think about WFM as your next business investment.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What exactly is CRM?

I was in a seminar yesterday, and some offline discussions gravitated towards the subject of CRM. The general opinion was that CRM is a very costly software, and is generally overhyped to the point of being considered as a 'fashion statement' in the technology world.

One Vice President of Customer Services was particularly vociferous on the 'glamor' angle, as she had a firm belief that 'someone from IT' convinced the CEO to sign the budget saying 'our contact center MUST have CRM, because our major competitor does'.

She was disillusioned with the 'stuff' because it did not do a single thing to make her job any easier. In fact, she complained, the overly complicated screens, and the slowness of the system was actually impeding the agents' job, increasing their handle time, and generally running a havoc with customer satisfaction!

That was the cue for me to step in and try to bring some sense in the discussions. I asked them what did they mean by CRM? All the answers indicated in only one direction - CRM that is visible to us, CRM that is of the Siebel/Oracle/SAP variety, CRM that resides on the user desktop..

But I did not elicit many responses when I asked my next favorite question - Why do you require CRM? The top reason I left them looking at each other was this - they did not know what exactly is CRM.

As a matter of fact every business requires CRM. Why? All Businesses have customers, they also have relationships with their customers, and I believe they also want to manage those relationships. So by definition, they require a 'Customer Relationship Management'. But I haven't even told you yet what this 'Customer Relationship Management' IS. Which brings me to the core of the debate. Anything - a software, a technology, a tool, a method, an idea, a process - that helps the business to manage the customer relationships better, IS CRM. But then which software, technology or tool is CRM?

Metagroup has put a structure around CRM software, by categorizing CRM into broadly three areas - Collaborative, Operational, and Analytical.

Collaborative CRM is meant to deal with all the interactions you have with your customers. Customers call you through phone, send you an email, send you a fax, launch webchat sessions by clicking the 'live help' on your website, and increasingly they also use SMS (Short Message Service). Systems that allow you to manage these interactions and collaborate with your customers, are 'Collaborative CRM'. Some of the Collaborative CRM providers are - Avaya, Genesys, Nortel etc. However, people in general (and surprisingly, even experts) consider these excellent companies as 'mere' Contact Center providers. In fact, the core foundation of your CRM strategy actually begins with Collaborative CRM. No one agrees with me more vehemently than the above VP of Customer Services.

Operational CRM - the visible CRM that I referred to earlier - helps you deal with customer transactions. Agents create requests on customers' behalf (when they contact through - you guessed right - Collaborative CRM), these requests are passed through workflows so that other departments in the organization fulfill those requests, and appropriately update the system.
If you notice, the Operational CRM does NOT contain (nor tell you) everything about the customer relationship. If a customer contacts the contact center, but this contact does not result in a transaction created in the Operational CRM, then the SAP/Oracle/Siebel/.... does not know anything about this contact, this interaction, because it does not track it, and the agent did not work on it. Example of such a situation:

  • Assume that I call in to my Bank's contact center and get my savings account balance - either through their IVR, or an agent looks it up (maybe from the Operational CRM screen in front of her that automatically populated through CRM-CTI integration, when my call was delivered to her). Then the Collaborative CRM plugs this interaction in its database (Rajas called again today), whereas the Operational CRM does not track this interaction - this facet of the relationship.

Analytical CRM is genearlly and carelessly labeled 'MIS' by most people. Actually this is the CRM that generates the business intelligence for you. It may be part of your Operational CRM package, or the Collaborative CRM platform, or it may be a separate Business Intelligence software suite altogether. It all depends on why do you want to do analytics, what is the information you are looking out for, and what are the actions you will take once you get the information. For example:-

  • If you have SAP as Operational CRM, and wish to generate reports & trends on transactional data captured therein, you would choose SAP Business Warehouse (Analytics as a part of Operational CRM).
  • If you have Avaya Collaborative CRM solution, and need to know details on Customer Interactions and analyze KPIs like Service Level, Agent statistics etc. then your money should go in Avaya Call Management System or Avaya Operational Analyst (Analytics as a part of Collaborative CRM).
  • When you want a more powerful solution that should combine data from multiple sources, generate multi-dimension analysis to understand complexities viz., which Customers are most likely to Churn, then you must know about their transaction details, as well as their interaction details and then do predictive analytics using Business rules that you set - and consequently you will invest in solutions like Cognos, Business Objects etc.

And lastly, but most importantly, CRM is a Strategy, and CRM software just an enabler. The three categories of CRM solutions (as above) in any combination will only help if the Strategy is right. Which means you must know WHY do you need those solutions in the first place. I have seen very efficient and effective businesses, working with minimal 'CRM' (in its popular sense). Sure, these effective businesses can further improve their Customers' Experience multi-fold as they evolve in their CRM journey, by deploying the Operational and Analytical CRM pieces, with full awareness as to WHY they are doing what they are doing.

But a good Customer Experience is NOT guaranteed by merely purchasing the CRM elements. Ask the VP of Customer Service, if you think otherwise.


This article appeared on the CRM - Customer Relationship Management site - A repository of the latest CRM news, articles and resources.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Proactively manage Customer Churn - in Real Time

They say Change is the only constant in life. Having been reduced to a cliche (being quoted by every other guy), it is still an eternal truth. Hence, it is but natural that all businesses should expect their Customers to also look for change, and consequently, Customer Churn should be an equally prevalent truth that you cannot wish away.

True. But the question is - how much is tolerable? What can your organization do to slow down the churn rate? What is customer churn doing to your business? Are you even aware of exactly what is your Customer Churn rate?

Unfortunately, the above questions - though most critical from a business standpoint - go unanswered in most business situations. If you want to do something about retaining your customers, thereby augmenting your growth journey of acquiring new ones, then its time you took a hard look at the numbers applicable to your business.

Managing Churn traditionally:
Having said that, I still come across a few organizations who are doing precisely that. They have sophisticated systems, data warehouses and business intelligence tools that not only tell them broadly how are they doing on customer retention front; but also slice and dice the numbers and generate 'customers most likely to churn' report. This way the business leaders expect to take preventive steps and retain those 'high risk' customers.

Obviously this step comes at a much later stage in your business evolution - the earlier steps being customer identification, segmentation, customer need categorization, customer satisfaction indices, developing parameters & metrics to generate trends on satisfaction, and only then building the early warning systems that signal the 'likelihood' of customers at risk, should the appropriate trends show a deterioriating business relationship in one or more dimensions.

Managing Churn dynamically:
However, given the rapidity with which the scenarios are changing; focused activities by competitors to grab your share of the pie; and the quantum leap in the enormous number of customer transactions that take a phenomenal time if bulk processed for all customers; the frequency of generating the 'at risk' report usually lags behind and the opportunity to take structured preventive steps gives way to the 'fire fighting mode' of saving customer situations.

This is where the pioneers in their respective industries have begun to move towards 'real time predictive analytics'; solutions that allow most appropriate handling of customer interactions taking into consideration the 'propensity to churn factor' right there, in real time, for one interaction at a time.

Say I am a frequent flier of ABC Airlines, and have not flown with them for more than a month, but I have called in a couple of times in the period to enquire about schedules & fares, and I have still failed to make any bookings; then ABC Airlines MUST treat me a bit differently and innovatively when I call in the next time, in 'real time'. And they will be able to do so if they invest in the right analytical tools. Technically similar to the cross-sell / up-sell routine, the power of retaining me in real time will give significantly higher returns to the company's bottom line.

This will be much more powerful than sending out an email 'post haste', after two months, politely pointing out that of late they did not have the opportunity to welcome me aboard.

And if they are able to leverage the predictive analytics in real time, then they would have experienced the power of the change axiom - I would not be an 'at risk' customer, for a change !!


Friday, June 16, 2006

Customers have choices

We live in the Information era. Information is power, Internet abounds, almost everybody knows what Google is (ever tried finding out in 1998 how many people had an inkling?).

From information emanate choices. You have choices, I have choices, businesses have choices and so do their customers. Yet whilst businesses are busy prioritizing their choices of technologies, suppliers, markets & strategies to create opportunities (which is good for them), they are being stingy when it comes to giving choices... choices to their customers.

Customers cannot choose whether they will call, email, webchat with, or SMS the business, its usually the jurisdiction of the business to define how they allow customers to contact them. There are many companies who do include many of the above channels in their access strategy, but all these interactions from "siloed channels" are treated "as if" they are from different entities, even when the same customer contacts through different channels. So businesses are taking away the choice of the customer to remain as "their customer" - an individual entity - instead they reduce her to a bunch of unrelated interactions.

Customers cannot dictate the amount or effectiveness of self-service they wish to have, it is the business that determines how much and how helpful those systems will be. Self-service should reduce wait time for the customer, and not test their patience level with shabby touch-tone menus full of "absurd choices". Worse still are those companies who want to reduce the cost of serving customers and hence "force" them in the IVR - leaving them to perish there - without any option to zero out to a live agent. (Refer http://gethuman.com/ - that is a great attempt at dealing with this "Mr. Hyde" facet of the IVR, though I know as a consultant that the IVR can be an excellent Dr. Jekyll, as long as you are willing to let it be so)

Businesses do not ask the customers "tell us what you want". Their customer surveys are self-centered, rarely checking whether their access strategy is right. And when they do get excellent scores from their customers on other "we think these are critical" items, rarely do they raise the bar and go after fixing their customer access strategy.

Henry Ford was credited with saying that customers could have his Model T in any color they wanted as long as it was black. That was in a different era, and businesses just cannot afford to try and replicate this attitude any more.

In today's "connected world", if you are not giving your customers the power to choose how and when will they contact you, then you are not in the business of giving choices. Consequently there are great chances that your customers will still go ahead and exercise their choice - the choice of abandoning the business relationship.

With increasing awareness and competition, exercising this last choice is not going to be very difficult any more.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Computer Telephony Integration for the Business

If you are a Business Leader, and the last one to get embroiled in complex technical terms like Computer Telephony Integration (CTI), then you better read the rest of this article to get your EUREKA!! (or A-HA, whichever you prefer)

The three words in CTI look so formidable - reeking of techical aspects. What have you got to do with Computers, Telephony or Integration (of the two)? You have the task cut out for you - run a successful business, which is profitable, and keep it growing - isn't it?

Till I was a mere technologist, I too believed that CTI is a reserved domain for technology people - out of bounds for you business folks. What would you understand anyway?

But as my outlook matured, I started getting involved in Call Center Operations discussions; and through those, eventually tried to understand your business needs. I started thinking like a Technocrat.

The first revelation that came to me - as I moved up the maturity curve - was the eternal untruth contained in the popular notion "CTI = Screen Pop". Ask 100 people in the call center industry - "what is CTI", and you will hear 90 of them laboring under the above misconception (that is if you are lucky. I have heard of unfortunate inquirers encountering 110 confused people when they asked 100).

As a matter of fact Screen Pop is the least intelligent thing that CTI does. It is capable of adding far higher "business value" to your call center. But then its a bit too much to expect technical folks to know the business needs - whilst the business folks are avoiding CTI like plague - and that is where CTI finds much of its undoing.

CTI (in addition to Screen Pop.. alright you techies, I heard you...) can:-
- route calls more intelligently using customer segmentation information
- enable diverse information to be put together (e.g: How frequently the customer called you, as well as sent you emails)
- do context sensitive routing (e.g: if a customer sent an email on a subject and called up within a given time window, then route the call to subject matter expert)
- enable your cross-sell / up-sell initiatives triggered in appropriate context
- allow appropriate scripts to make the agents more effective
- and much more... imagination is usually the limit, and unfounded fear of deployment costs normally deters the decision makers

So let me walk you business folks through a scenario. It is customary for businesses to send out tremendous amount of print mail, which you like to call as Direct Mailers. I will bet you that most of this paper finds the waste-basket sooner than you can say 'Jack Nicholson'.
The busier I am, the less likely is that I will even open one of those glossy papers floating about on my desk. And on the other hand, you are spending umpteen thousand dollars to create the flashy pieces, employ people or agencies to wrap them up, look up databases & print labels, stick them on, and bear the postage charges to mail them across. ...whoosh..

And when the intended audience is calling you day-in and day-out; you don't even spend one moment to catch their attention to tell them what you want to tell them...whoosh again..
Whoosh again... even if you are blasting out emails.. Instead of consigning it to my waste-basket, I will bury it in the "Trash Folder" if you are lucky (I might mark it as Spam if you are not), faster than you can say, . .. whatever..

Do the math yourself - does it work out for the 2-3-4% kind of response rates on the hundreds of thousands of dollars you spend on the expensive missives? A good CTI solution doing ALL of the above tasks I mentioned (and some more) will still probably cost lower, will be yours forever, be far quicker to roll out and operationalize, and will generate far greater than 2-3-4% kind of response rates. After all, the customers called you themselves didn't they? So there should be no problem 'catching their attention', should there be?

The above unfrequented business process - the uncharted territory - will not be a cake walk. It will take some thinking through, some technology investment, and professional help to develop and deploy the innovative solutions. But thats what consultants are for, to help you understand and conquer these issues.

Think about it! Smarter business leaders have figured out the art and science of it all.
And they are enjoying the immense returns - by considering the Contact Center as an integral part of the Business, not just a dump where complaining customers land up.

When are you deciding to make your Contact Center (and CTI) a part of your business?


Monday, June 12, 2006

Customer: A Victim of poor Business Processes

I intend this to be a sequel to my previous article CRM (Re) Defined. Therein I had urged the CEOs around the world to think about the customer as a key to success.

Now I turn your attention to some specific personal experiences, which I have translated into Business Problem statements that should hopefully become “big rock” items for CEOs to mull over.

These personal experiences are being repeated millions of times daily; to all the customers like me across the globe. The experiences below do not mean that A PARTICULAR issue exists with a particular Bank or a Telco or any other Service Provider.

My guess is that these issues are common to all; across horizontals / verticals; whichever applies (softer issues across horizontals; specific process issues applicable in all similar verticals).

I sincerely hope that Business Leaders do appreciate how are these issues affecting their customers and their brand image as a consequence. I also hope that the Business Leaders do something worthwhile, and not just view the related corrective mechanism as an unnecessary expense.

This is important because we know that all businesses spend Millions to build brand equity. But if it keeps getting eroded because of ineffective processes then there is no point in spending all the good money to build that fragile brand, which could snap when the customers / prospects begin their interactions with the Business.

It might be much better to shave a small percentage off of that mammoth promotion budget; and use that money to correct as many such business processes that adversely affect the brand and the business relationship. This, according to me, will be most effective in the long run.

And this, most importantly is what the Business Owners need to understand.

Experience 1) XYZ Bank:

Sequence of Events: I have multiple relationships with my current Bank viz. Savings Account, Credit Card(s), as well as my current Car loan.

Having shifted my house, I emailed to the account manager requesting address change for all my communications, and the reply was that this facility is currently NOT AVAILABLE through Internet, and I need to call the Call Center.

When I called up the call center, the agent rattled off a process – that needed me to enter my Debit Card number on the IVR etc. for verification whereupon I would go to special agents who would process my request.

I called up the IVR, went through the usual irritating stuff – Press *, Press 1, Press this that….authenticated myself, and then listened to some 8-9 options, trying to spot ‘Change of Address’. It was not, so I zeroed out.

When I reached an agent this time around; she wanted to further verify me through a set of irritating questions.. a) bank account number for verification, b) a random cheque number from my chequebook as verification, c) my permanent address for verification.

And then ………………. – contrary to my belief that the ordeal was over – she was ready to proceed further with the verification process – my current address as per their records. Only after going through this step, did my verification get over, and the change of address was accepted for my Savings Account purpose.

For my Credit Card statements however, I was to either call again as a Credit Card customer or at best she would transfer me to the Credit Card department. I declined.

Business Problem Statement: (As I would give it to this particular Bank)
− Why are you ignoring the Usage of Internet as a low cost communication channel and effective means of transaction processing?
− Why are you ignoring its convenience factor (to customer)?
− You are increasing work load on your IVR; your call center agents; and / or your Branch personnel who have to read through (and work in response to) the letter I would have to write to you.
− I think you have an issue:- How to identify and verify your customers
Customer Satisfaction:- You should also look at another issue:- How not to hassle the Customers in the verification process. The best authentication is in your Internet banking facility. It gives me access only after acknowledging my details; it has 128 bit key encrypted security; it trusts me enough to allow me to transfer funds; pay my bills;… etc.. but not allowing me to change my address myself?...Just allowing me to write to my Account Manager (who obviously KNOWS me by virtue of my Internet Banking credentials) but not allowing the same person to either change the address himself; nor initiate it on my behalf?....
− When I call up unauthenticated, the agent could have got me verified the same way when I did land on an agent after the ‘so called authentication’.
− This would imply that maybe not all agents are suitably trained to handle transaction requests hence only the ‘so called authenticated’ calls go to agents who are authorized to do transactions. The other types of agents apparently do not have such access. Hence even though the ‘so called authentication’ actually does not play a great role (actually most of the authentication happens by agent questions subsequently) it probably serves to filter the calls appropriate to your needs (BUT NOT THE CUSTOMERS’ NEEDS).
− Finally
o Agents don’t know what communication I have done with the Account Manager through Emails. Voice / Email integration is absent.
o My various relationships are ‘linked’ on the Internet Banking, which gives me a great comfort whilst browsing through the Internet banking site. But there is no way you know me as ONE person in your Call Center.
o Why do the Phone Banking agents (of either type – empowered or not) want to transfer me to Credit Card etc for a simple address change request? Because they don’t know my other relationships? Or because they don’t have access to the different systems Credit Card department uses?

Experience 2) ABC Bank:

Not much in terms of events. I got chased through phone by someone from the Bank’s Credit Card Sales (probably their Sales Agent). Given the promises of getting a Diary, Parker pen etc OR a free card for 3 years, I agreed to go ahead with the gift scheme; and their representative turned up. After filling up the forms etc. and waiting for about a month; I got a letter from the bank that plainly stated that due to some reasons (that they didn’t mention) I was denied a card.

I went to their website, and wrote a mail to them through their ‘contact us’ section. It was a stinker. The text is enclosed:

My first stint with ABC has been a complete washout. I fail to understand your logic of first approaching customers like me through your Sales Agents who pester you for appointments. Thereafter upon filling the application (ref XXXYYYZZZ), I am rudely informed by you:'not in a position to offer membership to our credit card programme'.
It gives me pleasure to inform you that you have just lost a prospect who could have done business with you worth INR XXX/- (my current limit with my existing credit card company).
I will also take every possible opportunity to discourage anyone who I know or have influence with; to refrain from ever applying for ABC card. What is the point of wasting their time as well as yours, if the end result is known upfront?
With regards but not so many thanks.

First I received an auto response thanking me etc. and that I will hear from a representative in 48 hours.

But even after the provocative language designed to generate a suitable response; the reply that I eventually received was exactly the same that I had received in the letter from ABC. It would have been better had they not bothered to reply at all, because the end result was the same.

Business Problem Statement – (As I would give it to this particular Bank)
− Do you treat interactions with your customers / prospects as ‘unsavory tasks’?
− Do you (or don’t you) consider interactions with your customers / prospects as an opportunity to increase revenue?
− Is there anyone from the Line Of Business who knows about such ‘cannot serve you’ syndrome?
− Why would a LOB head spend so much in a process that tries to woo prospects and eventually turn them down as a business opportunity?
− If that is
o being done with his / her consent; need to relook at that entire process itself
o being done without his / her consent; how does s/he know when such issues occur?
− Do you analyze your email systems and voice call center systems to trigger really upset sentiments ‘I will cancel’; ‘I will discourage everyone to ever applying for ABC card’; etc. and highlight it to appropriate Senior Management?
− Do you know how many complaints are you actually getting because of your processes? Or do you have your own convenient definitions of ‘problems’ and sweep under the carpet anything that does not fit this description (saying this is the way our process works)?

Do you know what is happening to your Customer Mr./Ms. CEO? Are you listening?


Friday, June 09, 2006

CRM (Re) Defined

Every CEO thinks about managing growth - and more importantly - consistent growth.

Managing multiple growth dimensions is the other challenge. CEOs need growth in:-
- Top line to stay as the market leader
- Bottom line to cover the dividends and the salary hikes
- Workforce to manage financial growth ...

The best kept secret of the growth process?
If you as a CEO seek to fix the organization in isolation, then you are only partially right, and will therefore achieve but partial success. The real growth drivers are outside.

Success Driver
CEOs 'talk' about Customers. They talk about Customer Retention being more profitable than Customer Acquisition. They talk about Customer Satisfaction, Customer Delight and Customer Loyalty. They talk Customer Centricity & about Customer being King. And they talk...
Yet how are the Customers - the key to success - treated?

Customer Experience
How often as a Customer yourself you hear:-
- "You will have to call that department"
- "You may have sent an Email but I don't handle Emails, so tell me what do you want"
- "But our policies do not allow us to do this"
- "Please press 1 if existing customer, press 2 for bill information, press 3 for savings account, press 4 to activate roaming, press 5 for flight schedules.."..

Customer - Your Advocate
When was it last that you really felt your [Bank, Telco, Insurance company..] cared for you, about you?
Do you feel delighted you chose a brand? Do you say - Come what may, I will never change the brand?
Are you from a royal family? Do you 'think' you are a King?
Let your customer take control and make her your 'advocate'. She will rate you supreme - against all - not just against your direct competitors.

Differentiation pays
By creating 'advocates' you will have set a benchmark! With or without CRM in its clich├ęd form.
In order to set benchmarks, you must be able to answer the WHYs. Why do you spend hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars:
- on CRM deployment
- or on the direct mailers and discounts you shell out to stay in the race
- or on.. whatever..

What do you do about it?
Seek Expert help. Experts are often asked:
- Tell me WHAT are the best practices
- I want to know HOW can I prevent commoditization of my product/service
- I want to know WHAT.., Tell me HOW..

But think WHY? You should do "Customer Segmentation" - but WHY? - to know them so that you serve them the right way - the way they like.

Experts unravel such WHYs, as applicable to you, in your own setup. And only then tell you WHAT!