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Out-of-the-Box Thinking
Resetting mindsets about customer data.
Posted Jun 29, 2012
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For decades, IT has been trying to perfect the ways in which we leverage information to optimize customer service and increase sales. Plan after plan has been advanced to link systems and create seamless access to the facts customer-facing workers need to do their jobs better.

CRM systems do a good job, but the number and complexity of system integrations and the movement of massive amounts of data create obstacles to achieving that single view of all customer, product, channel, sales, and social information. Furthermore, systems inherited through acquisitions can be costly and time-consuming to bring into the IT structure. Business units often need to move faster than IT can keep up with, so they take it upon themselves to build point solutions inside and outside the infrastructure. This creates even more places to house data, which will eventually need to be moved, integrated, or changed. It is a vicious cycle, and IT can't seem to get ahead of it. Moreover, the proliferation of data in these systems and in social media is not showing signs of slowing—only accelerating. Adding more complexity, the types of data, from voice to video, are multiplying rapidly.

Workers and customers suffer "insight deficit" from these challenges, losing access to knowledge and information. In many organizations, workers don't even know what information they have. A recent Argyle Customer Service Executive Forum survey showed that the majority of executives believe their companies have visibility into less than a quarter of the information across all interaction channels, including social streams. Many of those respondents also noted that employees rely on a mix of systems the company gives them, as well as personal networks, to get their jobs done.

Are we destined to continue in this manner? Many companies are continuing to move along the same path they have for the past decade. Buy a new system, move data into it from other systems, devise integration plans…and attempt to execute. Often, for customer service and sales, new CRM systems are the solution of choice. Though absolutely necessary, they cannot provide the consolidated view of knowledge that will achieve the desired results—knowledge will continue to proliferate outside the system, in email, desktop content, social communities, bug-tracking systems, PLM systems, intranets, file shares, and many more. Moreover, the integrations required to affect even a partially consolidated view via the CRM are IT-intensive and costly. As a result, according to Coveo's "Barriers and Benefits: Unlocking Knowledge to Engage Customers," 84 percent of executives surveyed believe that the inability to manage unstructured content effectively will impact their ability to serve customers efficiently.

Staying competitive

Forward-thinking companies are working on ways to provide interactive, real-time, one-to-one, end-to-end customer experiences. When engaging with customers, these companies do more than connect; they provide insight and knowledge—which is contextually relevant to that customer, easily consumable, at that point in time. They access information about the customer, their particular products or services, any issues and how to resolve them, to bring true value to the connection.

Companies like CA Technologies, Tokyo Electron, and Sungard are bringing together customer-related information that is typically locked away in silos. These organizations are providing their customer service representatives, sales teams, executives, and customers themselves with access to technology that can:

  • Bring brand discussions on social networks that are happening in real time into the enterprise by combining that data with customer information. This allows front-line employees to be fully informed about all interactions and about possible issues/solutions discussed in social communities.
  • Move even complex challenges to online self-service by presenting online customers with instantly assembled, contextually relevant information that helps them quickly solve challenges and move further along the continuum to buying more.
  • Empower first-level agents to solve more complex customer issues by giving them access to all relevant information, including similar issues that have been previously solved by a company's agents or by experts outside of the company.
  • Increase contact center capacity without adding resources by increasing the throughput of the organization.
  • Improve customer satisfaction while reducing costs, for both self- and agent-assisted service, by increasing first-contact resolution and reducing case handling time.
  • Increase sales by informing sales teams and customers about next best steps along the buying continuum.

A new way to think about data management

Rather than moving the data into a single system of record, or attempting highly complex integrations, these organizations are creating unified indexes of content with advanced enterprise search-based applications. With this "virtual information integration," companies can quickly and easily configure role-based views of data, which present the information various roles require, when they need it, to more effectively serve customers—or themselves. The information is always up-to-date, and it is correlated in a contextually relevant format, from multiple systems, in real-time mash-ups.

Look at how your organization and its employees need to interact with your collective knowledge. Do you want to curate knowledge and then put it in a system, locked away from the people who created it? That effectively creates another silo, while at the same time delaying access to much-needed information. There is a place for curated knowledge. However, your customers and sales and service employees can't wait for curation or rely upon it alone. They need information now to make decisions—about what product to purchase, what prospect to sell to, and how best to serve your most important customers. Moreover, there is information that is not meant to be curated, as it becomes almost irrelevant if not acted upon immediately.

Social media cannot be curated and retain value. A tweet with a resolution to a poor product experience has a short shelf life before it's gone forever (though its ramifications may be felt for some time), but it is an invaluable resource to a customer agent who is speaking with someone with a similar issue, or a sales executive selling into that company. The paradigm has already begun to shift to enable content creators and their peers to curate their own knowledge, in real time, in blogs, wikis, and social streams such as Twitter. It is vitally important that enterprises work quickly to capture those data streams in real time to better cultivate one-to-one customer relationships.

Take action

Once you stop trying to preplan every decision and piece of information you think you will need, you will be amazed at the things your organization can do. In the world of customer service, there is a popular methodology called Knowledge Centered Support, which promotes the capture and reuse of information as it happens, letting demand and usage determine the value of knowledge before curating it into structured repositories. In an environment like this, solutions to customer issues can be shared immediately versus going through a cumbersome process flow for vetted creation, which delays the availability of this valuable knowledge. Suddenly employees will see the full picture, rather than the individual data points in front of them, because it will be instantly assembled based on their own personal needs and experiences, as opposed to presented in a predefined database, in predefined fields, to solve predefined problems. Business moves and changes too fast for this, and much of this predefined problem resolution is outdated before it is ever implemented.

Technologies are available to access this knowledge. Similar to how Google or Yahoo! can consolidate the entire Web within a common index, new technologies based on advanced enterprise search enable powerful information mash-ups across complex and secure enterprise information, combined with social stream data as well as cloud-based systems. Companies simply leave the data wherever it resides—ERPs, knowledge bases, engineering databases, CRM systems, and more—and have the information consolidated and correlated within a single unified index. From there, you discover what you didn't know you knew and suddenly, insight becomes actionable.

The bottom line is that a system of record can no longer solve your information management challenges. Knowledge is everywhere. Data has grown too large, and too complex, to be housed in a single system, following a set path to curation. We have found after too many failed programs that this doesn't work. Companies that embrace this new paradigm, accessing data in real time from where it exists, gain agility, innovation, customer response times, and overall customer delight.


Ed Shepherdson is senior vice president of enterprise solutions at Coveo.

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