Building an Effective CIC
Customer interaction centers should not be complaint hot lines, but strategic customer care tools.
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In the current business environment, it's no surprise that the need to establish and maintain strong customer relationships is on every executive's mind. Combine this with a general shift of emphasis from gaining share of market to that of gaining share of customer, and you'll see that the interest in, and emphasis on customer care has increased dramatically. It's no longer about answering questions in the shortest amount of time. It's all about building customer relationships that transcend individual interactions and ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Enter the Customer Interaction Center (CIC), which should be considered a strategic element in any company's arsenal of tools to deliver excellent customer care. For some companies, it is the only method they have of communicating with, and caring for, their customers.

Traditionally, customer service centers handled most customer interactions--and these interactions were primarily via the telephone. Now, customers are interacting with companies in many different ways--telephone, fax, IVR, Web, e-mail and Internet chat, to name a few. Customers may call, e-mail and fax a company all in one day regarding the same issue. They are looking for, and demanding a much higher quality of service and they expect that service to be personalized and to be handled quickly and knowledgeably. If not, they are free to go elsewhere, sometimes with as little as a click of their mouse.

Companies must understand that every interaction is an opportunity to provide customers with a positive, loyalty-building experience--that is the essence of customer care. Because the CIC enables one-to-one communication with customers and prospects, it is just as important as other channels in providing personalized customer care and creating customers for life. On the other hand, a mismanaged CIC can quickly destroy customer relationships.

A successful CIC will maximize the value of every customer interaction--which leads to increased profitability.

A properly managed CIC enables companies to more effectively attract, retain and grow the customer base by delivering premium customer service.

Complete Customer Views

How do you ensure your CIC is utilized as a strategic customer care tool? Consider the following ideas:

Aim to make every contact--inbound or outbound--a dialogue with your customer. Regardless of the reason for the contact, make the customer feel important. Ensure contacts are handled quickly, knowledgeably and personally--customers have no patience for long wait times, uninformed agents and generic responses. Ensure that every interaction reinforces the customer's purchase decision and encourages additional and future purchases. When complaints and issues are handled in this manner, even if the resolution isn't 100 percent in favor of the customer, he or she will feel you have addressed their needs.

Make every agent a stakeholder. Empower agents to provide individualized customer care to each contact; give them greater responsibility. Provide agents access to as much relevant information as possible--order status, promotion details, marketing materials and corporate knowledge bases. This enables them to provide faster, more accurate and knowledgeable responses to the customer. Also provide them with a complete view of the customer so they can suggest targeted cross-sell and/or up-sell offers. This is much more effective than suggesting a standard add-on that might not be appropriate for the customer.

Integrate the CIC with a complete customer database. This enables intelligent routing, which matches the customer to the agent that can best handle his or her specific request. For example, high value customers can be identified and routed immediately to a priority agent. In addition, real-time recommendations for cross-sell or up-sell efforts can be made based on customer profile and transaction history. It also enables real-time personalization that provides a personalized customer experience based on past history and analysis.

Utilize knowledge management effectively. For example, when an agent resolves a problem, have him or her publish the resolution immediately so it can be used for all other agents.

Review CIC metrics. Ensure your CIC performance metrics are not focused on answering calls as fast as possible with the least cost. They should revolve around increased customer satisfaction, customer retention and revenue generation.

Use your CIC for quick handling of issues and market responses. Usually, your customers have contacted your CIC with a particular problem prior to it being known throughout the organization. Make sure an escalation system is in place and is utilized so these issues are quickly identified and acted upon. Know which products are selling and which are not, what campaigns are working best, and what product is receiving the most complaints.

Reduce inbound calls. Lower customer concerns and calls with automatic notification of order receipt, order status and shipping information. This also makes the company seem more customer focused.

Reduce or eliminate repeat data requests. Make sure whenever possible that the customer does not need to repeat information--it is frustrating and time consuming.

Provide technical support. Provide some (especially routine) technical support for customers via the CIC. This may result in a reduction in time-consuming service calls.

Build relationships. Use the CIC proactively as a low-cost way of forming relationships. For example, use automated communications to send e-mail, such as surveys, special offers, product updates and thank-you messages. This also provides a way to utilize capacity during non-peak hours.

Getting started

You may think this all sounds great, but where do you get started? First, understand that it's not all about technology. Consider the organizational changes that need to take place in terms of making customer care a priority and defining what excellent customer care means to your company and your customers.

Next, review your current agent staffing. Determine which of your current agents have the skills and interests to operate in this new environment. Some will be eager and some will want nothing to do with it. Focus on training and develop a program that assists your current staff in developing new skills and allows higher-skilled agents to begin servicing customers as soon as possible. Also begin hiring high-caliber, skilled agents.

Finally, create a CIC strategic plan that incorporates your company's customer care goals and includes specific programs to ensure a consistent and high quality customer experience for each interaction.

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