Power Shift

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Customer expectations have changed. When dealing with vendors and suppliers, today's customers demand quicker, more personalized interactions, and easy access to information and services. That means companies that want repeat business from their customers are being held to a higher standard of customer care.

"A lot of the power has shifted away from companies, vendors and suppliers and gone to their customers. Customers now are empowered," says John Montague, director of marketing for Zamba, a Minneapolis-based consulting company focusing on customer care.

Much of that empowerment, he adds, can be traced to the growth of the Internet, which enables people to quickly and easily access information on any company as well as its competitors. What's more, customers can conduct such research and complete transactions on their own timetables.

"The speed at which business is being conducted has increased-and the Internet is driving a lot of that. People are used to typing in a URL and seeing information right in front of them. The combination leads to a need to provide an efficient means of connecting people," says Jim Alland, president of Ariel Systems, Vernon Hills, Ill.

Many companies are introducing strategies designed to assist customers while they are enmeshed in the World Wide Web. Compaq Computer, Gateway and Dell Computer all equip the personal computers they manufacture with a link to a Web site providing e-service. Press the "rocket button" on a Compaq computer, for instance, and you're immediately connected to the Built-In Technician that diagnoses problems and suggests solutions. If the problem persists, you're connected to a Web site with more self-service diagnostics, all thanks to software from Motive Communications, Austin, Texas.

The software has the capability to gather all the information from the self-service trouble-shooting attempts, and forward the data to an online technician who provides assisted service. Forwarding the information reduces the time needed to ascertain the problem (and to verify warranty information), enabling the technician to zero in on an effective solution. By moving away from telephone-based support to a Web-based program, Compaq estimates it may reduce the cost of providing technical assistance by 20 percent for each computer it manufactures. Gateway sees diagnostic service as a means of emphasizing its personalized service, in addition to curtailing costs: Motive's software retrieves information about the user's equipment and applications so the technical support is tailored to that particular computer. Notes Calvin Johnson, Gateway's program director, electronic support, "Technical support is an area where we continually look for improvement, as it has a significant impact on the customer's opinion of our company and products."

Response Options
Currently, the majority of companies handle about 10 percent of customer requests via the Web, reports the Yankee Group, a research and advisory services firm headquartered in Boston. When it surveyed customer care executives at Fortune 1000 companies last spring, the Yankee Group found that most of the respondents believe that much will change in the next two years. By 2001, the executives expect their companies will use the Web to handle 25 to 30 percent of customer support requests. The Web interaction applications mentioned most frequently by the survey respondents offer self-service programs for resolving problems and place icons on a Web site to request a response.

stockwalk, an online brokerage, took the latter approach as a means of humanizing the relationship with its computer-based clientele. When clients click on the "contact" button on stockwalk's Web site, they have a choice of requesting a response via e-mail, phone, chat session or fax. As soon as a request is submitted, the client receives a confirmation on the computer screen, along with a reference number and an expected wait time.

The system, which uses CyberCall software designed by Minneapolis-based ATIO, prioritizes the requests by the type and time of response desired. The requests are then distributed to the next available customer service representative having the appropriate knowledge. Within the customer interaction center, CSRs have on-screen access to the information desired or the problem encountered, so clients don't have to restate their requests.

Even in a Web-based environment, the option for human contact shouldn't be overlooked, emphasizes Elen Bahr, ATIO's director of public relations. "Analysts have reported that 63 percent of people online say they won't buy anything over the Web until there's more human interaction involved," says Bahr. "Behind every e-transaction is a real person, and many customers need people to talk to."

Becoming Conversant
Customers needing high-quality service don't need to speak to real people in order to get it, as companies employing speech-recognition technology have discovered. Call the information service devised by BellSouth Intelliventures, for instance, and you can speak to a computer to request a weather forecast, stock quotes, restaurant listings or your daily horoscope. VAL (Voice-Activated Link) responds in a natural, conversational style and works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What's more, callers don't have to follow complicated voice-mail menus or fumble with touch-tone phone buttons: They simply talk, and the system talks back.

United Airlines turned to automated speech-recognition technology two years ago to streamline its employee reservation system. Reservation agents were handling up to 1.5 million calls regarding employee travel per year, which took them away from assisting revenue-producing customers. Now, using an automated system devised by SpeechWorks International, Boston, United's 95,000 employees call a special number and say their preferred departure and destination cities and dates. The system responds with the flights available, including the likelihood (ranging from "very good" to "bad") of obtaining space.

Bruce Parker, United's chief information officer and senior vice president of the information services division, says the employee reservations system successfully handles thousands of calls each week, and employees enjoy using it. The airline recently introduced another speech recognition system, one that provides travelers with information on arriving and departing flights. Even without a flight number, callers need only say the origin and destination cities and approximate arrival time to check a flight's status.

"Speech is speed. And customer service is often about how fast you can get people what they want," says Steve Chambers, vice president of worldwide marketing for SpeechWorks. Also compelling is the ability of speech recognition systems to reduce call times, especially within companies that have complex phone menus with numerous options. "One customer says that, by converting from touch-tone to speech, it has reduced transactions that lasted an average of 16 minutes to an average of two minutes," adds Chambers.

Easy Does It
No matter which end of the phone you're on, that element of time is equally important. As Zamba's Montague points out, "What we're hearing more from customers is, 'I'm so pressed for time. I have so much going on.' When you have such a stressful, time-pressured environment, people just want things to be easy. They want a business to be easy to deal with, not create more hassles for them."

The bigger the customers, the more hassle-free you want their experiences with your company to be, observes Tim Manning, director of marketing for Phoenix-based Xantel, a firm that specializes in call management systems. In fact, Xantel named its precision call distribution product Connex 80/20, in recognition of the fact that fewer than 20 percent of a company's customers typically represent 80 percent or more of its revenues.

Xantel's product differentiates between customers based on their value or level of importance and routes the calls accordingly. For instance, a call from one of a company's top 100 accounts might be programmed to receive a voice response within 60 seconds.

Arizona Public Service, a power company, uses such a system to distinguish among its largest corporate users and residential customers. Although all customers are important, the utility acknowledges that some may have more pressing needs than others. For instance, says Manning, "Corporate users are not going to stand by during a power outage and go to voice mail. They need an immediate response and want immediate satisfaction."

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin employs precision call distribution to manage calls to its internal help desk. Of the thousands of inbound callers, the 50 information technology specialists who staff the desk know immediately which are highest priority based on their names, titles, locations or any other information contained in the database.

While precision call management prioritizes callers, the technology offered by Ariel Systems treats all incoming calls as top priority. The firm has developed a system that tracks each employee's location within a company so that calls can be routed directly to the appropriate person rather than to his or her desk.

"In today's world, knowledge is dispersed among a number of different people within an organization. And with the mobility we have, rarely can anyone just sit at a desk and wait for a phone call. So many of the calls in a typical business environment terminate in voice mail, which can hinder customer service," says Alland. Although Ariel's system includes a voice-mail option if an employee is unavailable to take a call, its main goal is to connect people instantaneously. W.W. Grainger, an industrial supply company, uses Ariel's system within its customer interaction center. The center's 300 employees wear identification badges that enable the computer system to determine their current locations and route communications directly to them. Employees can also set their badge status as "unavailable," at which point the call is directed to a designated back-up person who can offer assistance.

"The employees work in teams, and no one person has all the information a client may need. Grainger uses the product to make sure each team is in constant communication and can find an individual who is needed to solve a problem, close an order or make a decision," says Alland. The company estimates it saves five minutes per search before connecting callers to the appropriate employee; it conducts approximately 2,000 searches per day.

To people who might say, "You're tracking people, just like Big Brother," Alland argues the opposite. "No one is being tracked individually. It becomes a peer courtesy to wear your badge because it makes you accessible to anyone who needs you to help solve a problem." The system can increase the quality of work life, he adds, by reducing the frustration of customer interaction center employees and field salespeople who spend much of their time trying to find the person with the information to solve a customer's problem.

Going High-Touch
Traditional call centers must evolve to encompass responsiveness via the Web and other avenues and be able to integrate the various systems. Observes SpeechWorks' Chambers, "A lot of people will want a Web experience that's visual. A lot of people will want to deal with another human being. And others will want to have their questions answered by just talking into a phone."

For all its allure, however, technology alone isn't the answer to improving customer service. "What's more important than anything is the ease of doing business and the comfort-the relationship-that people have with a brand," says Montague. He recalls a solution that Zamba devised for Hertz Rent-a-Car when the company decided that its customers, especially key business clients, needed a faster way in and out of car rental lots in their rush to make meetings and flights on time.

Using wireless communications technology, Zamba designed hand-held devices that enable Hertz field representatives to access reservations and rental information. Employees greet clients right at the cars, ask a few questions, print out a receipt and send clients on their way in a matter of minutes, with no waiting in line.

"What we did for Hertz created a new standard for the entire industry-it forced everyone to follow Hertz's lead. That's how the market works," says Montague. "There was a time when such a solution would be considered a competitive advantage, but that's not true anymore-not when competitive information is so accessible and it's so easy for people to shop and compare." "We're in an intensely competitive arena," agrees Xantel's Manning. "Competitors are vying for the same customers with aggressive offers and promotions. Utilities are being deregulated, financial services are opening wide, and telecommunications is bursting open." In such a pressure-packed environment, what will set a company apart from its competitors?

"It isn't going to be technology," says Manning. "The differentiation will be in nurturing your customers and creating customer delight-recognizing them and providing a consistent level of customer service."

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