Closing the gap between customer expectations and business reality will give everyone a good night's rest.
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It's my turn!" "I want it now!"
These are the 2 a.m. rantings of my 4-year-old, who often shouts in her sleep. Her pleas are not far from the tortured dreams of today's e-customers.
"What keeps you up at night?" is a question journalists and industry pundits love to ask business executives. Managers haunted by images of declining profits, missed quotas, and defecting customers make great fodder for trend articles and research studies. But these executives' nightmares are not the only important business issues of today. Knowing what keeps customers from getting their beauty sleep is just as crucial to business success.
Simply stated, customers want what they want when they want it. In business terms: They want real-time interactions with vendors. While that desire may be nothing new, in the past customers have realized that instant gratification wasn't always possible. Now that CRM and e-business have become so prevalent, customers have come to expect it. But for many companies, real-time business is still more a dream than a reality. In turn, customers' expectations can keep them tossing and turning all night.
Here is a simple example of the disconnect: As I clicked the final button to purchase a lamp from Sears.com recently my computer crashed. Assuming the purchase did not go through, I placed the order a second time. Moments later my e-mail signaled the arrival of incoming mail. There they were, two order confirmations. I immediately called the toll-free customer service number to cancel my duplicate order. The service rep was unable to handle the request, because online orders take at least 24 hours to show up on the customer service database. Instead I had to send an e-mail to the Web-site service staff, who notified me late the next day that they had corrected my mistake. In the interim I wondered whether I would receive two lamps and be charged twice.
If Sears.com had been equipped with real-time capabilities integrating the two departments, I would have needed the time and assistance of only one rep. Instead I needed two. In effect, this doubled Sears' customer service costs. But just as important, it forced me to do double work to resolve my problem and to wait with angst until I knew it was resolved.
Having covered CRM for years I was not surprised by the disconnect. However, many customers today are. They expect a company to know who they are whether they contact the firm by phone, e-mail, fax, mail, or Web self-service. They expect disparate divisions of companies to share information about their customers in real time. And they expect a vendor's response to a problem or query to take less time than it takes most home pages to load. How many customers have been lost when their e-mail or online queries received automated responses of "Thank you. We will reply within 24 to 48 hours"?
The technology necessary to turn siloed, near-time businesses into real-time enterprises is now within reach. Companies such as Asera, Camstar Inc., and Microsoft are already helping such firms as BP PLC, Cadence Design Systems Inc., and Corning Specialty Materials to deliver on the promise of immediacy. But until all companies embrace those technologies to help meet customers' high expectations, or create a true understanding and acceptance among customers that near-time business will suffice, customers' nocturnal screams of "I want it now!" will continue to disrupt executives' dreams.
What are your thoughts on real-time customer service? E-mail me at email@example.com and let me know.
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