• March 10, 2010
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

Supporting the Service Channel

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I make a distinction between service and support. From what I can see, the product-based support that companies give their customers is distinct from the services they offer. What’s more, the people responsible for providing support may be enjoying a tailwind these days.

In 2009, support became seen as something that can arrive from a variety of sources in an array of modes; service, on the other hand, still requires a direct interaction. Twitterstreams and Facebook walls have reduced (or elevated) support to the level of graffiti and smart vendors such as Salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies have deployed innovative solutions for capturing and packaging those streams. 

These vendors have made an obsession of finding clever ways to capture the pearls of service wisdom that come from peers—nuggets of information that cost a company virtually nothing to aggregate. Some companies even hang out on the Internet waiting for a customer to raise a hand for help—and then swoop in to the rescue.

Over time, I suspect that these advances in support will penetrate services, but there will always be an irreducible need for customers to deal directly with vendors for account-specific issues.

Companies are catching another wisp of tailwind simply by being at the right place in time. People—a.k.a. customers—are not getting smarter but they are becoming more experienced, which is better. We’ve all faced steep learning curves in the last couple of decades and the experiences have given us a deep sense of how the new digital-infused world works. The experiences add up to personal reserves of understanding that enable us to solve our own problems—even without a network of friends.

At the same time, I’m skeptical of the continued use of the outbound contact center beyond the necessary functions of customer service and collections. Does anyone with Caller ID pick up anymore when the screen says “Unavailable” or “000-000-0000”? A recent study by Harris Interactive (sponsored by Varolii) provides some clues about the future of the outbound contact center based on customer perceptions. 

Most people—77 percent—said they welcome reminder calls from a doctor’s office for a pending appointment or a notice to pick up a package, but that high percentage drops like a rock to 10 percent when it comes to sales offers such as mortgage refinancing, especially from strangers. 

In fact, more than 75 percent of the overall sample said they’d hang up on unsolicited calls with no personal relevance. People under 34 years old, though, seem to have a higher tolerance for unsolicited calls. This younger crowd, sometimes referred to as digital natives, might hold the key to outbound calling. But we need a longitudinal experiment to see if people get naturally impatient with unsolicited calls as they age, regardless of their net native status. See me in 20 years.

This leads me to conclude that companies need to find better ways than the autodialer to reach customers. We need to become more proactive in customer outreach if we want customers not to hang up—or if we want better ways to get the job done than dialing and praying.

This might be the Service Awards issue, but we can’t ignore the change happening all around us. That the contact center is up for a rethink should surprise no one. Revamping the center and the business processes it covers will be child’s play when we also realize that conventional selling and salesforce automation are in much the same position. 

Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of CRM market research firm and consultancy Beagle Research Group, has been writing about CRM since January 2000, and was the first analyst to specialize in on-demand computing. His 2004 white paper, “The New Garage,” laid out the blueprint for cloud computing. He can be reached at denis@beagleresearch.com, or on Twitter (@denispombriant).

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