The Feedback Funnel

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At Vectra Bank Colorado, customer feedback once took the form of paper-based surveys that were distributed throughout its various branches. Completed surveys were then accumulated and mailed back to corporate headquarters for analysis and routing to the proper employees.

“That’s not a really effective feedback management tool,” admits Erica McIntire, senior vice president and director of marketing communications for Vectra, a Denver-based provider of banking, trust, investment, and financial planning products and services. “It’s a great way of hearing what your customers are saying about you, but by the time the customer takes the survey, mails it out, and it gets into the right hands in the bank, you can well imagine what the timeline is on that. So as we began to accumulate more [information], we had a desire to be able to respond to our customers and be able to act on or fix whatever problem they had.”

To do so, Vectra turned to Allegiance, a South Jordan, Utah–based enterprise feedback management (EFM) provider. Since implementing Allegiance’s Engage platform, the company has doubled the amount of feedback received since 2003, response times have dropped from two weeks to 24 hours, and resolution times have plummeted from 31 days to five.

And yet despite scattered results of that caliber, it seems as if EFM’s true potential has only just begun to reveal itself, in part because the maturity of the solutions—and of the vendors offering those solutions—remains somewhat unresolved. (For more on the vendors operating in this field, see “Feedback Is the Future,” Scouting Report, December 2008.)

The reality of the situation isn’t lost on the players in the field. “EFM has grown up and become a real force to be reckoned with, and that’s only happened in the last 18 months,” says Chris Cottle, vice president of corporate marketing at Allegiance. “The market had to mature.”

Vectra is not alone in its pursuit of a full-fledged feedback solution. In fact, EFM is top-of-mind right now for most companies, says Oscar Alban, principal market consultant for contact center solution provider Verint Systems. “Up until now, it’s been very interesting to me that many organizations have guessed what was important to customers,” he says. “To me, this whole feedback piece has been the absolute missing link to CRM.”

Recent research backs up Alban’s observation. According to the “2008 Contact Center Survey/Feedback and Analytics Market Report” from West Orange, N.J.–based industry research firm DMG Consulting, the EFM space grew by 21.3 percent between 2007 and 2008, the highest rate of growth in its history.

As the market continues to grow, the manner in which companies are trying to cull and act on the treasure trove of information is also evolving. “Last year we examined survey solutions [in this study]; this year we also included feedback, but next year we’re just going to call it ‘EFM,’” declares Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting and author of the report. “We’re not interested in vendors that [just] have one piece. [Any qualified offering] has to support multiple channels, have a centralized environment, handle analytics, and communicate the information throughout the organization in a timely basis.”

In the past, companies collected feedback in the hopes of being able to solve a consumer’s problem—and also to keep tabs on contact center agents to ensure they were doing their jobs properly.

“You had the feedback of how the agent performed during the experience, and then internal quality teams also monitored them for quality and customer assurance as well,” recalls Roger Woolley, vice president of marketing for Autonomy etalk, a provider of quality monitoring and analytics solutions. “So it was a very quality-centric application, and it still is today. However, we’re really seeing this information used more to drive business operations.”

Home Shopping Network (HSN), a St. Petersburg, Fla.–based multichannel retailer, uses Autonomy etalk to obtain customer feedback—not only to monitor its own performance, says Ricardo Wald, director of performance support services at HSN, but also to discover opportunities for improvement in how agents service customers and manage the business. “First, we’re able to use it to calibrate our internal [processes],” Wald says. “We’ve identified standards and defined what our expectations are, but the benefit of having this survey technology is we can ask customers some of those same questions and see how we score it compared to [them]. That way we make sure we’re focusing on what’s relevant to customers.”

These operations aren’t limited by the walls of the contact center. The aim is to spread the wealth throughout the various traditional silos in a company—including sales and marketing. “The ideal use of this data is to use it throughout an enterprise,” Fluss says. “You can use one department to do a survey. However, the concept behind EFM—from a practical perspective—is that, regardless of who was responsible, that information needs to be available and shared with all the appropriate constituents throughout the organization.”

Just as important as the technology are the processes a company puts in place to handle the information flowing across multiple departments, Alban adds. This is where quality-assurance teams, which Alban says have been long underutilized, can be instrumental: as a starting point to dissect the customer information and then forge relationships with other departments, such as sales and marketing, to share the wealth. “That allows marketing people to share the voice-of-the-customer information they’re hearing, and it also allows [that department] to give feedback on what they’re about to do so the contact center can be prepared,” he says. “Believe me, that’s easier said than done…it’s been a horrendous relationship until now.”

Many early adopters report difficulty in breaking down the silos and getting a cross-functional group of employees together to use this information—and to create actionable strategies as a result—but it’s getting better. Autonomy etalk’s Woolley says he’s seeing more customer service departments asked to give enterprisewide access to accumulated data. “It’s definitely improving, because the contact center has become [viewed as] a more strategic element of the business,” he says.

The EFM technology itself deserves some of the credit for bringing companies together in the name of customer feedback, Allegiance’s Cottle says. As these solutions become integrated with pre-existing CRM systems, the benefits made possible by that integration become clear.

Fluss agrees, saying that the EFM industry is responding to what is going on in today’s marketplace—namely, the fact that the voice of the customer (VOC) has to be heard and acted upon, enterprise-wide. “It’s only in the last couple of years that these solutions have gotten good, and they’re still getting better,” she says. “Everyone has to care, and the [VOC] needs to be a component of the goal…not just customer-facing ones, but the fulfillment [aims as well]. Every group needs to be beholden to customer satisfaction.”

As the market matures, there’s been an explosion in the number of channels through which customers can reach out and provide feedback. It’s not just companies pushing surveys, but also consumers proactively giving compliments, complaints, and suggestions.

Cottle says that the challenge of handling unsolicited feedback—essentially, as he puts it, “anytime anyone gives input”—can be daunting. “How does a company bring it into a centralized system, add in case management, route it around with the right people, and give an answer to people within hours and minutes, not days and months?”

With customers demanding better and faster service, the ability to nimbly take unsolicited data and respond is crucial. “Feedback response time…shows you’re a company that cares and respects its customers, if you get to it quickly rather than just let it go into a black hole,” Cottle says. One innovative approach is to determine future customer behaviors based on the information available. “Predictive analytics is the opportunity for future consequences by understanding attitudes right now,” Cottle says. “It plays such an important role in business.”

Collecting unsolicited customer feedback may require the use of speech analytics—likely the most literal interpretation of VOC. Many companies think they have to choose between surveying and speech analytics, Verint’s Alban says, but in reality the two technologies work best in tandem. “They’re actually very complementary to each other,” he says. “Speech analytics gives you information after the fact, which allows you to, in turn, create your surveys in real time so you can impact things as they’re happening,” he adds.

Autonomy etalk’s Woolley says his company is seeing an uptick in speech analytics, with prospective or current clients making decisions about call recording applications based on those analytic capabilities. “It’s the fastest-growing application in the history of the contact center market,” DMG Consulting’s Fluss adds. “We’re confident speech analytics will grow by at least 50 percent [over the next year], which is unbelievably impressive during a recessionary period.”

Why such optimism? Being able to take open-ended responses that customers are freely giving to agents while on the phone is one of the more-objective pieces of customer feedback a company will ever receive, she says. “You’re clearly using the [VOC], and that is going to be probably the most representative view of what the customer has,” Fluss points out.

There’s one vital piece to the feedback puzzle that many companies are still missing, even as customers are diving in: social media. Whether through blogs, chats, forums, social networks, or wikis, consumers are turning to these Web 2.0 technologies to get their point across.

“Most contact centers are still sticky enterprises in that they are concentrating on the primary phone and email channels, and maybe instant messaging,” Fluss notes. “As I talk to enterprises, the social networks are just not being addressed…at least on a formal basis.”

Vectra Bank Colorado is one of the exceptions, McIntire says, with two teams that surf the Internet for mentions of the company. While there are countless blogs and news outlets to scrutinize, McIntire says they stick to the key chat boards for their industry, such as Yahoo! Finance and Bankrate.com. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I know our investor relations manager has engaged with some of these authors to correct whatever [incorrect] facts they’re spouting,” she says. “Certainly if there was a better way of managing all of the different blogs, we would [do so]. For now, we’re just keeping our eye on the bigger ones.”

One company making strides in adopting social media into its customer strategies: Comcast, a Philadelphia-based provider of cable, entertainment, and communications products and services, is fielding customer inquiries through Twitter, a Web 2.0 “microblogging” service that allows users to instantly update their status in messages (called “tweets”) of 140 characters or less via computer or mobile device.

Frank Eliason, director of digital care for Comcast email, has his own Twitter account called “ComcastCares” to swap tweets with customers who have Comcast-related concerns or questions. “We try to assist them right then and there,” he says. “Web 2.0 is the best place for feedback. The customer service world is generally very data-driven, but [social media] really translates into the customer story.” (See “Transparency,” our December 2008 cover story, for more about Comcast’s move toward openness.)

Alban believes that other companies haven’t started to formally address Web 2.0 because of generational issues. “They need to begin where customer trends are taking them, and go with the flow,” he says. “The more they start to understand what these blogs and different online channels are about—and how they can actually start to use them to their benefit—then I think they will actually have a competitive differentiation.”

It’s clear that companies will continue to seek out customer feedback. The real question involves how these organizations will pull together the strategies to foster an environment that welcomes data from every channel, and distributes insights throughout the enterprise.

Jim Rembach, senior vice president at consultancy Customer Relationship Metrics, warns that, just as with any CRM effort, the only way to avoid potential failures in EFM is to not look at technology as a panacea. “You put in what you get out, right?” he says. “If you put in correctly, your programs can be directly linked to increases in revenue and profitability. It can also be [correlated] to a decrease in operational costs, while improving the ability to have more customers. All of these are absolutely possible, but…it takes a lot of monitoring and rigor.” 

SIDEBAR: The Problem(s) with Surveying

One of the primary ways companies have sought the thoughts of their customers is through surveys—either the old-fashioned paper-based variety Vectra Bank Colorado used to employ or the increasingly common ones that rely on the phone, interactive voice response (IVR), or the Web.
One problem: The technology to create surveys and
push them out to consumers has become so commonplace that it has seriously impacted the validity they deliver
to organizations, says Dr. Jodie Monger, president of Sterling, Va.–based consulting and research firm Customer Relationship Metrics. “One of the things that is particularly frightening to me as a research person is many believe
it doesn’t take much more than staying in a Holiday
Inn Express last night to think you can write a survey or conduct survey research,” she says. “In fact, that cannot
be further from the truth. People understand there has to
be some way to gather customer feedback, but it’s the deviation from the research principles that is causing so much bad research to be done.”
Monger says that many fail to realize the different survey biases that can occur by using different scales within one survey and simply asking the wrong questions. Companies not adhering to proper research guidelines will have perpetually flawed data, she says. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Monger says. “This isn’t something to take lightly because people are making business decisions based on these statistics. You think you’re making an informed [choice] based on research that’s done, but it’s leading you down a particular path that can’t necessarily be supported quantitatively.”
Monger and her colleague, Jim Rembach, senior vice president at Customer Relationship Metrics, both believe that the problem with surveying has to do, in part, with the proliferation of technology making it possible. “Everyone is interested in the capability,” Monger says. “Now what hardware and software providers have done is enable rampant survey malpractice to occur by making it easy to collect data. No one ever said it is difficult to collect it, but the challenge is in getting the right information, understanding how to do the analysis correctly, and applying it to a business.”
Issues in surveying also crop up from contact center agents, says Oscar Alban, principal market consultant
for Verint Systems. He argues that companies are doing themselves a disservice by customizing technology to automatically ask callers in the IVR system before a call begins whether they would like to participate in a survey, as opposed to having a customer service representative (CSR) manually invite a caller to do so. “[Executives] are afraid agents are going to be cherry-picking, but in reality CSRs can figure out if a customer decided to do a survey [pre-call], and if the interaction went badly they can put themselves in idle because they have to hang up first in order for the customer to get to the survey,” he says. “It’s like a Mexican standoff.”
This isn’t to say that surveys are not a viable way of collecting customer feedback. Just not in all cases. “The problem is that surveys aren’t the answer to every single research need,” Monger says.

SIDEBAR: EFM Integration Checklist

Allegiance’s Chris Cottle says that integration with CRM systems is a growing trend in the enterprise feedback management (EFM) space. Brad Bortner, a Forrester principal analyst, recently published a report, “The Next Wave in Customer Satisfaction Studies is CRM Integration,” offering several recommendations on how to proceed with an EFM/CRM integration in order to maintain and build strategic relevance.
• Drive, rather than passively witness, these implementations.
• Maintain quality control on design and analysis.
• Harness EFM to control disintermediation.
• Be clear about the higher costs of these implementations when making decisions.
Source: Forrester

SIDEBAR: Keeping Your Community Engaged

As companies increasingly turn to the Internet in an attempt to engage Web-savvy consumers, microsites—an individual or cluster of Web pages meant to function as an auxiliary supplement to a primary Web site—are becoming more popular.
According to Jeffrey Henning, chief strategy officer for Vovici, a Dulles, Va.–based enterprise feedback management (EFM) vendor, microsites are the 21st-century answer to the traditional focus groups that organizations used to rely upon to get candid, honest thoughts about their products or services. That said, the same rules and fears apply now as they did back when managers were peering at individuals through a one-way mirror and taking notes.
“Like focus groups, sometimes you have the one loud individual and others change their thoughts because of that,” Henning explains. “It’s important that you have that broader perspective which is where EFM comes in. It makes it quantitative and ensures everyone gets a voice—not just the most vocal participants.”
In his company blog, Voice of Vovici, he examined several prominent companies and how they infuse microsites into their customer feedback strategies. The successful businesses are not simply the ones that try to implement every single idea proposed, but rather make it clear that the ideas are being considered and the most popular ones will be given a shot. “Customers want to be heard just as much as they want their ideas to be implemented,” Henning says.
Below is a chart based on Henning’s original, but with additions explaining how feedback is processed by the respective companies and shown to the customers themselves—in fact, what many consider the true goal of EFM.

COMPANYLinked to from
corporate home page?
How ideas are acted upon
YesA cross-function team participates in the community and internalizes the customer point of view. Members can promote or demote particular ideas.
NoMore of a resource for technology professionals, who can speak to one another about how they use Intel products. The company can then identify real-world usage and act accordingly. “Ask an expert” function allows Intel to assist customers with specific inquiries.
No (but a link does appear on the Microsoft Developer Network home page) Developers can post discussions or start forums, comment on any post, or provide a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any suggestion; a counter displays the number of views each post has received, as an indication of popularity.
Yes   A link called “Proof” enables any visitor to see the status of any idea (under review, reviewed, coming soon, or already launched).

SIDEBAR: Employee—Not Just Executive—Sponsorship

Undoubtedly, one of the keys in trying to implement an enterprise feedback management (EFM) strategy is executive buy-in, particularly from the
C-level suite. To date, properly articulating a sound business case has been a challenge, says Jim Rembach, senior vice president of consulting firm Customer Relationship Metrics.
“You can’t sit there and say that chief executive officers aren’t buying in—they are,” Rembach points out. “The problem now is how you communicate that. How do you get them to understand [that] the issue that you’re trying to execute upon needs more credible customer data, [as opposed to] winging it?”
For Erica McIntire, senior vice president and director of marketing communications for Denver-based financial services firm Vectra Bank Colorado, executive buy-in is essential. However, the employees themselves—the individuals who would be using EFM every day—sometimes fall through the cracks, and it’s imperative to make sure they’re involved in the process from the beginning. “You really need to have a grassroots effort and ensure every worker in the organization is supportive of this [EFM initiative],” she explains. “The information could land on anyone’s desk, so it has to work from both ends there.”
For McIntire, this wasn’t difficult. She recalls employees coming to her, complaining of customer feedback received sometimes months after the fact, so much so that the problem was either already resolved or, worse, the consumer left the bank by the time an employee was able to act upon the information. “That kind of feedback from our employee base—that groundswell—is the support you need to say, ‘We need to figure this out and get a better system.’”

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

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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