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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