Serving Up Service Strategies

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For the rest of the August 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

[Editors' Note: This piece includes an online-only sidebar, "Out of Bounds: Virtually Blending the Shopping Experience."]

It’s hard to find someone not talking about how the state of the economy is transforming the way organizations have to conduct business. One of the most common out-of-bounds calls is to “do more with less”—something that might lead some companies to commit a double fault. Nowhere is this heard more plaintively than in the contact center—especially one still seen by its corporate overseers as a cost center.

That said, there are companies treating this time of austerity as an opportunity to invest in customer service, recognizing the potential benefits to customer loyalty and retention. (See our February 2009 special edition, The Recession Issue, for more.)

“Now is the time to retool and rethink,” says Connie Smith, president of customer service consulting firm SpotOn Enterprises. “We’re seeing the best companies out there build relationships and really connect with their customers.”

Of course, there’s no one way for a company to go about revamping its service strategies—and, like a tennis player’s preference for a backhand or a forehand, some techniques are specific to certain company sizes and industries. “There’s no silver bullet as far as a great strategy,” Smith admits. Amazingly, however, the vendor executives, industry analysts, thought leaders, and even contact center employees we consulted for this article seemed to reach consensus on a single truth: No matter what your company’s circumstances, the “best” approach is one that takes that particular situation into account, and lets you play your own game.

To begin with, says David Butler, executive director of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), check out the fancy footwork of companies similar to your own. “Instead of thinking of strategies themselves, imagine companies most known for the best service, and deconstruct what they do well,” he suggests.

Once you’re ready to serve, some common themes seem to hit the sweet spot—and we’ve gathered up 10 top-seeded strategies that can help you stroke your way to a better customer experience.


1. Be a Pro(active) Player

Of course it’s great to react to consumer issues and solve them. That’s not up for debate. What about fixing an issue before it even becomes one? The idea of proactive support is a hot area, says John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research for the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA).

Ragsdale’s research finds 46 percent of SSPA member companies with revenue of $1 billion and higher are using proactive support, particularly to monitor customer equipment and detect errors or potential error conditions before customers are impacted. While only 27 percent of those with revenue of less than $500 million are using similar technology, Ragsdale says it’s still significant.

It’s not just limited to the conventional remote PC support, either. “Anything with an Internet connection is open game [to proactive remote support],” he says. “Consumer electronics, home appliances—monitoring for fridge, stoves, and services—the services revenue here can be huge.”

Not only when it comes to remote support. Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, says proactive outbound alert capabilities are also a stellar strategy to consider. “[Outbound] used to be a dirty word,” he recalls. “Anything outbound was looked at like an annoyance.” Now, he says, there’s a new emphasis on receiving information that consumers specifically need—account information, expiration dates, renewal notices, changes in service—in the form they prefer, whether a text message, phone call, or email. “The business understands what I need at a specific time, on a specific device,” he says.

2. Know Your Racket

Gaining a more-complete view of the customer is crucial, especially today when contact centers often represent the entrance to the rest of the company. That can mean cross-selling, upselling, or any other company function not specifically related to the contact center. The only way to get that needed view of the customer, pundits say, is through improved analytics. “One of the most important things happening, on the Internet, is real-time analytics and offers,” Maoz says. “If you offer something targeted rather than more junk during the service transaction—that’s a real best practice. People aren’t annoyed…. They’re thinking, ‘OK, [this rep] understand[s] me and my consumption pattern.’ ”

Not only can better analytics boost revenue, but Maoz and others argue that it can help improve operational efficiency. “The use of deeper survey software can give a more-complete view of what the customer is really experiencing when interacting with an organization,” he says. “Not just one channel, but [interactive voice response], Web, in-store, live agent…a more 360-degree picture of customer experience.”

Ron Hildebrandt, cofounder of Enkata, a performance management vendor, says analytics and call recordings can be used to help streamline contact center operations—as well as those of the entire enterprise. “We find that 20 to 30 percent of customer calls are repeats or low-value ones that should be handled [via] self-service,” he says. A headset manufacturer, for example, told Hildebrandt that 15 percent of his company’s incoming calls were related to Bluetooth set-up issues. “If you’re handling those same calls repeatedly, the company should redesign the product, process, or packaging…something to stop the calls from happening in the first place,” he says. “It’s costly and frustrating.”

3. Come to the ’Net

The Web 2.0 revolution has made customers increasingly Web-savvy, so companies must volley the enthusiasm and fervor for rich media applications—including Web streams, video, and sound—to aid customer service strategies, according to Ragsdale. “It’s my favorite topic of the moment,” he says. “Any time the senses are engaged, reading comprehension is much higher, people absorb and use the content. So, self-service success, then, is considerably higher, offers a great experience, and people tend to come back and be repeat users.”

Ragsdale gives the example of Xerox’s rich media capabilities. The document company has embedded self-service videos on its Web site—and even its enterprise printing machines—about how to change paper and replace toner, and is also installing Webcams at corporate copy centers. That way, if people are struggling to perform a task, service agents can see what they’re doing incorrectly. Linksys is another example, Ragsdale says, “putting rich media into knowledge bases to show what button to push to reset your modem. I suspect you’ll see much more of this, since it’s so easy today to record little videos.”

4. Advantage: In(ternal)

You may need an internal evolution before your company can revolutionize its external customer service practice. NACC’s Butler says that empowered agents are essential in offering true customer service and, in the end, delivering real satisfaction. “If you use the ‘customer is always right’ scenario, what that means is if the customer is right, then the representative is always wrong…. There is always tension, then, between the two,” he says. “Southwest [Airlines] supports its employees…. They come first. When that happens, the employee knows she has the freedom and dynamics to handle the customer’s problems.” The approach is essentially unique, Butler adds, and requires a long-term, cultural change which, in the case of Southwest, started with founder Herb Kelleher. “You can’t flip a switch and do it overnight,” he says.

SpotOn’s Smith also believes that empowering employees is essential. “Sometimes we push out this idea of customer centricity, but we’re not taking care of our own house,” she says. “It’s great to say you care about agents and give them a pizza party, but it’s more than that.”

She suggests addressing physical, mental, then emotional needs of agents. “Make sure they’ve got a workstation that is conducive to them taking calls for six-and-a-half to seven hours a day,” she says. “Ensure there is good lighting and comfortable chairs. Then, make sure they have the proper coaching and training needed to do their jobs with confidence. Last, build an incentive program that recognizes agents for a job well done.”

5. Play to the Crowds

Analysts are convinced the ever-expanding morass of social media should be incorporated into your service strategy. In fact, it’s one of Forrester Research’s five customer service strategy recommendations for a tough economic climate. (See the sidebar, “Add a Little Topspin: 5 Recession-Busting Strategies,” for the others; for more on social technologies, see our June 2009 Social Media Issue.)

“Companies [utilizing] forums see large call-deflection [statistics],” says Natalie Petouhoff, a Forrester senior analyst. “So far, my findings are approximately 10 to 40 percent of call-volume reduction.”

Even Petouhoff’s best-case scenario still leaves the majority of call volume unaccounted for. The SSPA’s Ragsdale also warns companies against the belief that all calls will be deflected to these online communities, freeing up agents to take care of more-complex calls. “There is a misconception,” he says. “We have to be cautious on the [return-on-investment] side of things. Just because you have huge traffic in your forum doesn’t necessarily mean it prevented all phone calls.”

Like any other CRM initiative, Ragsdale suggests starting small, and then expanding your social strategy. “If you have a million different forums launched at once, there’s confusion,” he says. “Few people are participating in each one, you don’t have critical mass, and then the communication concept goes away.”

6. Celebrate the Love Game

“I don’t care if you reach 100 percent in service-level objectives and your average wait time is [less than] 30 seconds—it doesn’t mean squat unless the customer repurchases the product or service,” NACC’s Butler says. This idea of customer loyalty is also key—Butler says lack of loyalty spells doom for many organizations. “If you can’t do this, you won’t have additional revenue,” he says. “From there, you can’t pay your employees, you lose market share, you have unhappy workers, cut costs…. It’s a downward spiral.”

Ragsdale says a viable first step involves using the popular Net Promoter Score (NPS) rating, which is based on the question “How likely is it that you would recommend our company to a friend or colleague?” “If you can’t get your own customer to recommend your product, then you’re really in trouble,” he points out. “If you’re not paying attention to the link between customer satisfaction and loyalty/repurchasing, you’re really missing the boat—especially in a down economy.”

Smith agrees that NPS is a powerful force, but suggests another excellent service strategy: boosting the loyalty programs your company already has in place. As an example, she says, “it’s like pulling teeth” to get her to fly with anyone other than Alaska Airlines, but the airline doesn’t serve every city. When flying to those locations, Smith says, she can opt for one of Alaska’s partners and still get points in Alaska’s loyalty program. “Collaborating with other competitors to offer a better loyalty program is a good strategy,” she says.

7. Add Some New Strokes

Consider diversifying your portfolio. By having a healthy mix of offshore, onshore, nearshore, brick-and-mortar, and virtual agents, “you leverage the best cost resources with the best talent level and skill-set resources available,” says Andrew Kokes, vice president of marketing for outsourcing company Sitel. (See “And They’re Off!,” May 2008, for more on the global possibilities of outsourcing.)

Like the other strategies, though, there is no tried-and-true formula for allocating agents. Kokes says companies have to closely scrutinize their business needs in order to find the right mix. “Saying ‘Let’s put [roughly] a third in the U.S., a third nearshore, a third offshore, and the remaining 10 percent in a homeshoring environment with flexible workdays’ doesn’t work,” Kokes says.

Ragsdale says that one facet of smartshoring, the work-at-home agent (WAHA) workforce, is growing, largely because of the increased pool of resources you can tap. “You may not be able to find 200 qualified people in the town where the corporate office is, but you can find them all over Canada, the U.S., and Latin America,” he says.

Angie Selden, chief executive officer of Arise Virtual Solutions, says you can only expect contact center workers to commute approximately 20 to 30 miles. “Once you exhaust the talent pool in that geography, you either have to lower the bar in terms of talent or pick up and move the contact center someplace else,” she says. (See the online-only sidebar, “Virtually Blending the Shopping Experience,” for the path taken by Shop Direct to blend virtual and brick-and-mortar agents.)

8. Avoid Any Unforced Errors

SpotOn’s Smith says the desire to stay ahead of the contact center innovation curve—while well-intentioned—can put too many balls in play, damaging customer satisfaction. “We have to simplify things,” she says. “Policies and procedures have unfortunately been way too confusing and complicated in the past.”

Smith suggests we get back to basics. “This means fixing interactive voice response system routing…. Get to the right agent the first time as opposed to one agent documenting things and then having to transfer you again,” she says. “Also, when customers get through, have a good CRM system in place so you know what the history of the customer is and don’t have to start from scratch.”

Maoz suggests business process modeling tools can ensure agents truly understand the customer. “Have consistent business rules so a rep doesn’t sound like an idiot,” he says. “That way, agents understand what the customer has been offered, what policy rules are, or what discounting policies really mean. Having more-intelligent, actionable information…we see this with best-in-class companies all the time.”

Smith praises multichannel efforts, but if they’re not tightly woven together, it’s all for naught. “The most important strategy out there is providing consistent servicing…making sure all channels are integrated,” she says.

9. Know When It’s Not Your Serve

Sometimes, it’s best to put the power back into the hands of customers themselves. NACC’s Butler says self-service is an important strategy often done incorrectly. “The best self-service is a transition process in which you use your center as a means to connect with your customers, and use that to help move them to self-service,” he says. “Every call to the contact center should yield a data point or communication that can either direct or help people figure out how to do this themselves.”

Isn’t there a risk of putting contact center agents out of a job? “In a sense, yes,” he says. “But as soon as you clear up the standard routing—repetitive calls that on average make up approximately 60 to 70 percent of total calls—it allows you to start adding more value to your customer. Now when calls come in, they are more detailed and the agents can do what they are truly paid to do: not reset passwords, enter product codes, or swipe cards…but instead provide a connection—a tangible voice or face to the company.”

10. Change It Up When You're Playing the Senior Circuit

Contrary to what most deli counters will lead you to believe, each customer is more than just a number. SpotOn’s Smith says companies need to keep demographic differences in mind when dealing with consumers. “You must have different service strategies for each generation,” she says.

A recent New York Times article described how a financial services company handled a spike in calls from panicked customers who had suddenly recognized how much money they’d lost in the economic collapse. Eager to have customer service representatives who were most likely to relate to these older customers, the company turned to the virtual agents of the Boomer Group.

Age gaps aside, ensuring that you’re speaking your customers’ language—literally—is also important. Chipmaker Intel, for example, decided to turn to a machine-translation vendor to help reduce the cost of human translators, according to Will Burgett, the globalization, internationalization, localization, and translation (GILT) program manager for Intel’s global Web operations. The move also resulted in higher-quality knowledge base articles served more quickly to Intel’s global audience.

“If you don’t have a Web site in the language of that customer and they can’t read English, you’re really defeating the self-help model,” Burgett says. “Many emerging markets are important to Intel’s revenue growth, and many are English-intolerant.”


SIDEBAR: Add a Little Topspin: 5 Recession-Busting Strategies

  1. Make self-service work across all channels.
  2. Be proactive about chat.
  3. Invest in online social-networking communities.
  4. Explore unified communications.
  5. Empower sales agents with cobrowsing tools.


SIDEBAR: Mixed Doubles: The Other Side of Customer Service

Most of the coverage in the pages of CRM and other service-related publications highlights the relationship between the company and its end consumer—but what about the relationship between the company and its contact center vendor?

That’s just as important, says Jim Shulkin, director of marketing for Envision Telephony, a provider of workforce optimization solutions. In fact, Shulkin says that his company’s relationship with its customers needs the same level of nurturing. “Customer services come in all sorts of different packages, levels, and types, with various bells, whistles, and features,” he admits. “Regardless of what or how you offer it, the single-most-important aspect to customer service is delivering to, or above, the customers’ expectations and setting the stage early on for them to know what and how it will be delivered.”

Another parallel is the need for transparency—especially when you know the court’s muddy. “Relatively poor service is widely expected and even accepted in some business settings, but the expectation is set such that it’s not a business-killer,” Shulkin says. “Making sure that the entire range of services you do offer is predictable and transparent to the customer is absolutely a best practice for being a successful services-delivery organization.” (See our December 2008 cover story, “Transparency,” for more on the topic.)

With transparency in mind, Envision recently launched its executive direct program, which gives every customer immediate access to Envision’s executive management team as needed. Shulkin calls it “the customer Batphone”—a way for the client to contact the vendor for any reason, via phone, Web, or email. The vendor guarantees that the appropriate executive will respond directly to each inquiry within 48 hours. “We’re basically guaranteeing to our customers that they have immediate access to the top of our organization,” Shulkin says.



The economy’s giving us a deuce of a time, but analysts believe that companies willing to invest in and retool customer service strategies now will not only win the short-term points, they’ll be the ones competing for the title down the road. As Intel’s Will Burgett says about machine translation,

“The ultimate goal is to have an integrated system because each plays a part in getting value, production, and quality, giving you end-to-end capability…. It’s the best experience [your customer] can have. Machine translation is just one of the solutions…. There has to be an overall strategy.”



Each month, CRM magazine examines real-world case studies that highlight aces landed by players in the fields of sales, marketing, customer service, and enterprise strategy. Here’s a look back at some recent examples of successful customer service strategy:

  • June 2009: Infusionsoft realized a 50 percent reduction in case volume by utilizing an online knowledge base and community forum through Helpstream.
  • April 2009: Bath & Body Works—first profiled in October 2008—won a CRM Service Elite award thanks to a more-robust knowledge base from Astute Solutions, an improvement that, in turn, helped reduce escalations by 62 percent.
  • March 2009: Varian Medical Systems reduced service costs by $2,000 for each problem solved remotely with the help of Axeda. 
  • February 2009: Wagner Equipment Co. saved $500,000 on a new brick-and-mortar contact center by utilizing Siemens for a virtual agent force.
  • January 2009: Elderhostel monitored trends affecting its customers’ travel plans—and increased employee performance scores by 10 percent—using CallCopy’s call recording solution.
  • November 2008: Pitney Bowes Canada improved response times by 16.1 percent by revamping its mobile service solution with Antenna Software.
  • August 2008: Groupe b2s improved its contact center business by reinforcing its infrastructure—and improved system availability to 99.9 percent—with Altitude Software.

Contact Assistant Editor Christopher Musico at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

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