• November 2, 2011

Improving Customer Service in Midsized Businesses

Customer retention through excellent customer service is important for companies of all sizes in a tough economy. However, the challenges faced by small and midsized businesses (SMBs) are somewhat different from those encountered by their enterprise counterparts. Below are some of the most important of these SMB challenges and potential solutions.

1. Your best customers have gone multichannel (and you need to follow them).

You need to keep up with the rapid adoption of new communication channels such as Web chat, cobrowse, SMS, social media, and smartphones by your most vocal and, hence, most valuable customers. These customers want seamless service experiences within and across multiple channels—they don't want to spell their mother's maiden name five times and repeat information that they have already shared with your customer service group.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that businesses are not meeting customers' multichannel needs. Seventy percent of leading North American businesses were rated "below average" or "poor" in multichannel customer service experience in a 2010 mystery shopping research study. In fact, the study revealed inconsistencies even within the same channel, with customer service reps giving different answers and following different processes for the same query. On the flip side, this less-than-desirable "state of the industry" in customer experience presents an opportunity for forward-looking SMBs to gain market share through better multichannel service.

Here's a tip! Take a "hub" approach to multichannel service, consolidating all customer communications, knowledge bases, and workflows into one platform. This will create a complete view of the customer and service context, enabling effective, efficient, and consistent service within and across channels. It will also help you avoid the "spaghetti syndrome"—multiple point products for customer service hopelessly intertwined with one another and also with backend systems, such as order processing and financial applications. Another benefit of the hub approach is that it allows you to start with the most important channels first and simply plug in others later, based on your evolving business strategy and customer needs.

2. Your IT resources are limited or nonexistent.

Most SMBs have limited IT resources. As companies try to do more with less in an uncertain economic environment, the IT project backlog continues to grow, while your CEO wants results now!

Savvy SMBs are leveraging cloud-based customer service deployments for a rapid start without having to make significant upfront investments or waiting in line for IT resources. We recommend that you go with proven customer-focused suppliers that give you the flexibility of shifting from the cloud to on-site at the right time, based on your evolving requirements.

3. You need a reliable and scalable platform for growth.

Customer service systems are the most mission-critical of all CRM systems, since they are either customer-facing or agent-facing at the moment of truth, i.e., during live customer interactions. This is unlike internal-facing CRM systems, like sales force automation. When customer service systems fail, they directly impact the customer experience and your business. Moreover, social networking sites provide a high visibility avenue for customers to "virally" air their complaints about system failures and poor experiences.

As you evaluate software solutions for delivering great customer experiences, ask yourself: Does the supplier have a track record of enabling large-scale enterprise deployments, which will support our needs as we grow?

4. You want to keep costs down.

SMBs have to watch costs even more closely as they position themselves for profitable growth to attract more investment. Technologies that can help keep service costs down include:

Multichannel customer interaction hubs (CIHs): The hub approach reduces total cost of ownership (TCO) and improves service efficiency by consolidating interactions, knowledge bases, workflow, analytics, and administration in one platform.

Web customer service: It's well known that eService channels such as email, multichat (i.e., multiple concurrent chat sessions conducted by a single agent), and Web self-service are more cost-effective than phone interactions. Moreover, customer preference for online channels has been on the rise, making eService a win-win for the customer and the business.

Knowledge bases: A Web self-service system, powered by a knowledge base with multiple access methods such as dynamic FAQs, keyword and natural language search, browse, guided help, and avatar interfaces, can help improve self-service adoption and reduce the need for agent-assisted service. The same knowledge base can be deployed to agents for increased productivity in the CIH approach.

Pre-emptive service: Proactive notifications through channels such as voice, email, and SMS can help reduce incoming calls into the contact center. Furthermore, a hub approach helps integrate and coordinate these alerts across channels.

5. You need best and next practices.

Make sure your supplier can provide implementation and process best practices for traditional customer interaction channels and next practices for new channels such as social media, smartphone, cobrowse, and SMS. Customer-focused suppliers incorporate proven practices for out-of-the-box use. Is your supplier a thought leader or follower? Do they provide a comprehensive best and next practice library? Do they have a track record of incorporating best practices in their solutions? Can they help you stay ahead of the competition?

6. You want to be a revenue center and not just a cost center.

Let's face it. When you produce or enable revenue, you will be perceived as a value center and not as a cost center, and it will be easier for you to make business cases for ongoing investments in your organization.

Do-not-call rules, draconian restrictions on email marketing, and super-aggressive spam filters that choke off even legitimate emails are making it difficult for businesses to fill the top of the revenue funnel. However, service-related calls and emails are always welcomed by customers, who are also prospective customers for new or related products. This has created an opportunity for selling at the point of service.

Next-generation, multipurpose Web interaction and knowledge management technologies can help your service agents and even Web sites to become effective sales agents. Among examples of these tools are intelligent, proactive offers that can be made on the Web or over the phone, chat, cobrowse, phone-assisted cobrowse (i.e., concurrent phone conversation with cobrowsing), and chatbots. For example, phone-assisted cobrowsing allows agents to help consumers fill out forms and complete shopping transactions, improving online sales conversion. A chatbot or an agent can escort users around the Web site in a phone cobrowse session, showing them critical information to help the sales process along.

7. You want to improve operations and innovate, but without risk.

Have your cake and eat it, too! Launch and optimize your operations, and even innovate to leapfrog your competition. Ask your vendor if they provide risk-free options to try their software and pay only for value without having to sign a long-term contract. Vendors that can "step up to the plate" with this kind of no-lose offer are confident about their own solutions and are willing to put their skin in the game. You are clearly better off going with such an option!

Following these proven best practices will enable you to safely scale and optimize your customer service organization and contact center, while innovating to stay ahead of the competition and control costs.

Anand Subramaniam is the vice president of marketing at eGain Communications.

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