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Break the Rules to Win in Customer Service
Out-innovate the competition in 9 contrarian ways.
Posted Sep 4, 2008
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"Contrarian wisdom" has often proved to be the winning approach in many walks of life, holding true even for customer service and contact center management. In an environment of product commoditization and global competition, breaking rules to innovate has emerged as the only way to maintain or extend service-based business differentiation. This article outlines nine contrarian examples of out-of-the-box innovations and approaches to create such differentiation.

1. If it ain't broke, fix it
Be proactive and stay ahead by constantly experimenting and innovating. Benchmark yourself against other companies within and beyond your industry sector to see how you measure up. Once on par with competitors and customer-focused companies in other sectors, get ahead by exploiting next-generation strategies in technology, process, and people management.

2. All customers are not equal
Provide service based on customer value. Nudge low-value customers to self-service, and make it easy for high-value customers to access any kind of service they need. Go through a vigorous process to define customer value and match customers to appropriate service levels. It is also important to integrate the customer service management system with back-office data systems that house customer value information.

3. Leap before you look!
Deploy interaction channels before customers demand them. Taking the traditional "wait and see" approach often leads to customer frustration and competitive disadvantage, which could be irreversible.

4. Older customers may not need walking sticks
Conventional wisdom has it that older adults are not comfortable with computers or the Web, and prefer to speak with agents. We found among one of our clients that older adults often prefer self-paced Web self-service since they do not feel comfortable exposing their self-perceived lack of knowledge, while speaking to live agents. Moreover, mid-to-late boomers are quite comfortable with online channels and do not always need agent hand-holding.

5. Fix agent experience to improve customer experience
Many businesses are launching customer experience initiatives without paying attention to agent experience. They don't realize that frontline agents are an important entry point to their business. Agents are required to comply with policies, rules and best practices, while assisting customers effectively and efficiently across their life cycle. Product proliferation, M&As, tightening government regulations and "any shore" outsourcing make this task even harder. To enhance agent experience:

  • Provide agents with multi-modal content access methods (search, browse, guided interactions, etc.), so they can quickly find the information they need and carry out compliant interactions and processes.
  • Implement a multichannel customer interaction hub that unifies customer communications and knowledge bases across channels and integrates with existing systems. This enables easy information access and seamless collaboration across interaction channels, people and systems.
  • Leverage robust routing to put the right agent on the right service inquiry at the right time.

6. One Web self-service method does not fit all
According to an SSPA tracking study, successful Web-site visits by customers declined from 48 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2007. A key factor limiting Web self-service effectiveness is a "one size fits all" approach in content access methods provided to users. For example, while a "search" that results in hundreds of hits may be adequate for experienced agents and knowledgeable customers, a guided interaction may be more suitable for novice agents and "ordinary" customers. Providing a broad range of access methods is a powerful way to improve Web self-service effectiveness and ROI.

7. Use agents to increase self-service adoption
Counterintuitive as it may seem, providing the safety net of easily escalating to agents, while preserving context, almost always increases self-service adoption. Take this one step further by providing customer-value-based or situational escalation options. Another powerful approach to increasing self-service adoption is the use of Web cobrowsing with simultaneous phone conversation to train customers in Web self-service.

8. Chat and Web collaboration are not just "nice to have"
A common myth is that chat and Web collaboration are more expensive than phone interactions, but in reality, these channels can deliver distinctive customer experience and create significant business value, when done right. Exploit capabilities such as chatbot technology, concurrent multichat and cobrowsing to drive down chat interaction costs, increase self-service adoption, and boost online conversion, adding directly to the top line and bottom line.

9. Don't mix Wal-Mart metrics with Nordstrom intent
Ensure that agent metrics are aligned with contact center objectives and the branding strategy of the business. A high-touch service-oriented brand or a revenue-focused contact center will be ill-served by solely focusing on metrics such as average handle times.

In summary, proactive innovation, which may often be contrarian, is the only way to create and extend business differentiation through customer service.


About the author
Anand Subramaniam is the vice president of global marketing for eGain Communications, a leading provider of multichannel customer service and knowledge management software. Prior to eGain, he served in senior marketing and product management positions at companies such as Oracle, Lotus, Intel, and Autodesk.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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