Deliver the Information Customers Crave

With so much data generated by so many systems today, you'd think customer-facing employees would be hyper-informed and able to delight customers at will, that they could upsell spectacularly and execute transactions in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, possessing an abundance of data is far from the same as being able to get the right information to the right people at the right time. Inefficient information management is commonplace, and the penalty is huge—as is the opportunity for organizations that get this right.

A big part of this challenge is that information is constantly being transformed. It enters the organization in one form—say, a piece of paper—and then is deconstructed and reassembled many times over. Part of an incoming document might be scanned or emailed or entered into a CRM or ERP system. Part of the information that goes to the CRM system might be printed, and another piece might be exported to a form, which might be printed and or perhaps emailed somewhere else. This pattern of deconstruction and reconstruction continues ad infinitum as data travels around the enterprise and externally to partners and customers. So how do you harness this information and the intelligence within it?

The most tangible impact of the inavailability of timely, incisive information for customers is lost sales. But there are big hidden costs as well, including a frustrated sales force, employee turnover, and customer flight. Then there are productivity problems as salespeople scramble for information: e.g., separately querying finance about pricing, product management about capabilities, and operations about delivery schedules. Information consistency and accuracy suffers too.

The flip side of these risks is opportunity.

A lot of revenue hinges on the customer loyalty that high-performing salespeople can foster. A 5 percent gain in retention can yield profit increases ranging from 5 percent to 95 percent, according to a study by Frederick Reichheld, author of Loyalty Rules! And retaining a customer is far more cost-effective than acquiring a new one, which can cost six to seven times as much.

But why be loyal if you're among the two out of three consumers Consumer Reports found hang up on customer service without getting their problem addressed? Customers who give up on purchases and/or take their business elsewhere cost those businesses billions.

Bottom line: Winning, retaining, selling, and satisfying customers depends on access to critical, often unstructured information—pricing, contracts, technical data, customer correspondence, new products/packages, and more. This information comes in a wildly broad array of unstructured sources, including "emails, memos, notes from call centers and support operations, news, user groups, chats, reports, letters, surveys, white papers, marketing material, research, presentations, photos, video clips, Web pages, and all kinds and forms of upcoming electronic data in databases," business consultant Atre Shaku said.

How do you tie it all together?

Sniff out the paper trail. Streamlining information workflows almost always involves digitizing any crucial information that's paper-based. So step one is to look for information sources or processes with paper outputs—receipts, contract documents, tracking slips, etc.—that also serve as inputs to another customer-facing system or workflow. These paper outputs may come from outside the organization—e.g., vendors or customers—and cross organizational boundaries. The key is to digitize the paper, structure it, and integrate it into efficient electronic workflows.

Map current document processes. The next step is to thoroughly understand current document processes: the capture, extraction, flow, and current use of information. Focus on the people using the information, the processes themselves, and the technology. Establish key performance indicators by which you'll measure effective access to timely, accurate information—e.g., conversion rates, call time, satisfaction levels, average sales cycle, deal size.

The resulting map will help you design a solution that supports greater collaboration across departments and geographies. Imagine a new contract scenario that employs document management software, digital signatures, and CRM integration rather than multiple cycles of inefficient printing, mailing, printing, signing, mailing, scanning, signing, and faxing.

Enlist subject matter experts to design improved processes. Next, identify a business process domain expert in the chosen functional area—an acknowledged "go-to" person for the function at hand, whether it's the person who drafts contracts or controls the information that can resolve customer service issues. This person knows best how a new, streamlined process should be designed and executed. Empowering the respected go-to person also helps get important buy-in from the workers who will use the new solution.

Focus on the most pressing business goals. In choosing where to start transforming customer-facing business processes, select those that are most obviously suffering from unreliable information. Streamlining these processes will help deliver the most tangible benefits soonest. Never lose focus on the needs of the customer and your clearly defined, operational business goals.

Remember, you don't have to do everything yourself. Outsourcing specific day-to-day document processes (conversion, distribution, output, archival, and disposal) can help free you to focus on revenue-generating opportunities. The experience and scale offered by a qualified vendor can be the quickest and most cost-effective way to help you get where you want to go.

 Manage organizational change. Finally, transforming document processes means changing human behavior—no mean feat. It's crucial to understand how hard it is for some workers to change. So communicate before, during, and after the transformation to ensure success.

First, clearly identify and promote the reasons for the transformation (e.g., serving customers better, winning more business) and publicly reward success. Sponsors, ideally from the C-suite, must do more than simply "buy in" to the transformation: They must be proactive in ensuring the team can move past any potential roadblocks. They must also help in continuing to emphasize the goals, reporting progress and openly rewarding success.

Combined with a formalized training and education program and a systematic change management program, these steps can accelerate your transition from the current to the desired state, delivering the right information at the right time to the right people—your customers.

Joyce Ouellette joined Ricoh Americas in 2004. She currently holds the dual roles of director, Global Managed Document Services (MDS) Marketing, and director, U.S. Dealer MDS Marketing. Previously, she was director of solutions marketing, where she was responsible for Ricoh software technology product marketing and software partner marketing for the Americas.

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