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April 1999


A Roofer's Guide To CRM

BY MATTHEW VARTABEDIAN, TECHNOLOGY EDITOR, C@LL CENTER SOLUTIONS

Roofs, in a way, are actually quite similar to customer relationship management (CRM) software solutions - like products from Siebel, Clarify, Vantive or POINT, to name a few. Just as there are many different kinds of roofs, there are plenty of CRM applications - the one chosen will as much reflect the need being filled as the character of the person choosing it - be it an individual or an enterprise. And while it's fairly easy to go out and purchase some software and install it, that action doesn't necessarily imply that one's business processes and practices (the foundation and framing of a company) change with the new roof. Indeed, an elaborate slate roof with flying buttresses and fancy pediments would look rather silly on a ranch style house - it would probably even make the building collapse under its own weight.

It's much more prudent (and difficult), however, to first examine one's existing business infrastructure, identify areas for change, resolve to make those changes and then actually set about transforming the way in which the business operates. It would be like gutting and reinforcing a house to withstand the weight of that new slate roof. Rather than re-forming one's business infrastructure around a given software platform's functionality, defined business needs should dictate the selection of a CRM software solution (the roof). Since the primary objective of any software installation or business process renovation is to deploy a solution that works (fitting both customer and company needs) in a timely fashion, a real-life situation would probably incorporate both the top-down (roof first) and bottom up (roof second) approaches.

Implementing strategies designed to build meaningful, long-term relationships with your customers that will generate revenue growth (a workable, if general, definition of CRM) entails the unification of all customer data so that each of your company's departments (sales, marketing, accounting, service/support, etc.) has equal and constant access to up-to-date customer information. This customer-centric business approach necessitates a change in the way your company does business - it also requires a change in the way you measure the performance of your call center agents - your front-line reps in most, if not all, of your customer interactions.

The Tried-And-True
Call center managers and supervisors tend to live and die by the tried-and-true ACD-based performance/productivity statistics: average handle time, time per call, calls handled, percent idle, percent in wrap up - I'm sure you know the litany far better than I. These measures, however, are only quantitative - they don't speak to the quality of an agent/customer interaction. And so, quality monitoring was invented and, eventually, automated. By using these tools, supervisors and managers minimize the grunt work associated with the monitoring task and get down to what is truly important - coaching and mentoring the agent to ever higher skill levels.

Viewed separately, however, quantitative and qualitative measures can paint vastly divergent images of what's really going on in the call center. For example, an agent may handle a large number of calls quickly, meeting or exceeding the calls-handled metric, but the customers may leave the conversations annoyed at being rushed off the phone. Conversely, an agent might score high on the quality side - is courteous, kind, friendly, forthright, etc. - but takes entirely too long to handle the calls. Schedule adherence is another area for concern - the agent may have high marks in both performance and quality, but is rarely logged in when they're scheduled.

Achieving a balanced perspective of operations requires substantial manual effort - legal pads, spreadsheets and lots of patience. Unfortunately, once the holistic results of agent and call center performance are in, it's a couple weeks later and the opportunity to correct or modify operations at the immediate point of need has been lost, and so supervisors and managers are stuck in a reactive, rather than a proactive, mode.

A few software vendors (CallCenter Technology, Inc., Witness Systems, Inc., CenterForce Technologies and Speedware) have identified this need and begun introducing products designed to help supervisors and managers track, correlate and act upon information from various call center systems in real-time and/or map trends over time.

CallCenter Technology's (CCTI; www.callcti.com) solution in particular enables users to create, view and report on any combination of data from any standard call center source. CCTI's product, called Prism, facilitates the automated collection and display of data which correspond to metrics you design to meet your business' specific needs. Call handling statistics from ACDs, adherence exceptions from workforce management schedules, performance scores from quality monitoring systems and data from information systems (like a database containing customer histories/profiles) can all be interrelated and cross-referenced to create a concise, one-window, graphical view of a call center's performance.

Why is this kind of solution important? First and foremost, it soothes a pain felt by many supervisors and managers. Second, in my opinion, it enables a new kind of real-time performance benchmark that will help solidify a company's decision to implement a customer relationship management strategy.

Getting Real
The term "customer relationship" carries emotive undertones, which points to the need for qualitative measures of such qualities as friendliness, politeness, helpfulness. Acknowledging that fact, however, does not obviate the need for traditional quantitative metrics. Instead, it indicates a need for performance metrics that accurately reflect the business' CRM goals - a healthy balance between relationship-building techniques and efficiency/productivity-based metrics.

When I mentioned this point to Oscar Alban, product consultant for Witness Systems, Inc. (Mr. Alban is also a 12-year veteran of MCI's call center division, where he ran a 1,200 person inbound/outbound call center and functioned as a regional sales manager and regional training manager), he agreed and added the following, "For CRM initiatives to succeed, they need to be supported at the supervisory level. Supervisors have a demonstrable affect on the day-to-day business of a call center. They not only need the right tools to accurately gauge and improve agent performance, the proper training to coach and interact with their agents, and excellent time management skills, but they also need management's understanding that they're running a business, not just handling calls."

Moreover, if you boil CRM down to its essence, you're really just talking about customer retention (making more money at less cost to your company). And once you start talking about retention, you peel back the lid of a whole new can of worms - customer satisfaction and loyalty.

What Does It Mean?
Jeffrey Gitomer, in his new book Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless, suggests that "Satisfied customers are only a measurement that everyone did their minimum 'job.' Big deal. That's what they're supposed to do. 'Satisfied' (or satisfactory) is another word for 'mediocre.' So, 'very satisfied' must mean 'very mediocre.' Oh boy, there's a group of customers I want to have out there talking about me."

To determine the degree of a customer's loyalty to your company, Gitomer suggests asking a different kind of question: "'Would you recommend us?' is a classic example of a question that gives you worthless information. The real question is 'How will you recommend us?' or 'Why will you recommend us?'…And when you get the answers [they are] real information that will give you insight and direction to lead your company. And lead you to more loyal customers."

Mr. Gitomer's point is echoed in an article entitled "Strategies for Keeping Customers" by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers (the full text of which can be found here), in which they stated, "Studies have shown that it is not enough to achieve satisfaction ratings that are merely good (satisfactory satisfaction?). Only stellar performance seems to have any measurable benefit in terms of customer loyalty at all."

The agents of interaction - the call center reps, the field sales and service/support reps, the agents in the collections and accounting departments…all the members of your CRM team - affect the customer's perception of how well your company is performing. From a strictly call center perspective, if the goal is to retain customers, strategies for so doing must be clearly mapped, responsibilities detailed and assigned, and quantifiable metrics put in place to ensure those lofty goals are in fact being achieved with very real results - i.e., money in the bank.

In the aforementioned article, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers also suggested four strategies for improving customer retention. I think you'll agree that in a call center environment, these strategies can be easily implemented, from something as simple as intelligent call routing off of ANI or DNIS information to installing an IVR front-end that prompts customers for account numbers:

  • Customer Recognition - This technique involves treating your most valuable customers in a special way without appearing to favor a given customer over other "less valuable" ones. A distinction should be drawn between revenue generated to date and potential lifetime value, for every customer is a revenue opportunity, the degree to which they are depends on the selling and servicing ability of your reps.
  • Loyalty Purchasing - While it's great to give incentives to loyal customers, this tactic is probably the weakest of those suggested since it is obvious and "easily matched by the competition…it often smells to customers like just another cheap marketing promotion. In the long run, purchasing a customer's loyalty is not much different from reducing the price to attract new customers." And if it costs seven to ten times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain an existing one, is this tactic really all that viable?
  • Product Quality and Customer Satisfaction - This point should be obvious. Without a good, competitive product, available at a price the market will bear, you don't really need to worry about customers and/or their degree of satisfaction.
  • Customization and Collaboration - This point is especially compelling from a call center standpoint. The authors' contention is simple: "If you can convince a customer to spend some time or energy teaching your firm how to cater better to his or her individual tastes, then you can keep this customer loyal for a longer period, out of the customer's own self-interest." From a technology standpoint, this tactic is well within a call center's sphere of capability and opportunity. Since databases really drive the whole interaction anyway, you just have to figure out how to convince the customer to provide the information you need to customize the interaction, which can be effected through IVR prompting, front-ended, perhaps, with a speech recognition engine, or a Web form (the contents of which you pledge you won't resell to every spammer in the country) or through a simple inbound/outbound customer survey in which you ask for some basic information that can be used to customize subsequent interactions.

The goal is to only contact/disturb the customer when you have something of value to impart. No one likes getting interrupted by telesales calls during dinner, but if the call is from the local pizza joint a couple hours before dinner (which was prompted by its detailed records on your pizza-buying tendencies) then they may very well have contacted you at a time when you really didn't feel like making dinner, and yes, that pizza does sound really good. "And, what? You can charge my credit card directly so I don't have to worry about cash payment and a tip? Even better."

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers are describing what they call a learning relationship, which is based on the "deceptively simple idea that when a customer spends time teaching your firm, the customer himself develops a stake in the benefits of this learning." And thus, the more trouble it will be for the customer to obtain the same level of customized service from a competitor. The same point, phrased differently, appears in another article by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers entitled "Smart Customers, Smart Companies." (Full text available here.) The "real value of a learning relationship lies not in the one-dimensional information residing in a customer profile, but in the interaction of company and customer. While defecting customers might take their own static profile information with them, they can't take the combination of their stated needs and preferences and the efforts of companies to address them - a much richer and dynamic form of knowledge."

I hope I've driven home the point that if you want your agents to engage in customer relationship management techniques, you not only need to provide them with the desktop tools to manage the interaction itself and access to the information they need to satisfy the customer, but you also need to institute performance metrics that accurately reflect the nature of the task you've assigned them. And while the discovery of those new metrics may prove difficult, their adoption should prove well worth your while in redefining the way in which your company, as a whole, interacts with its customers.

The author may be contacted at mvartabedian@tmcnet.com.







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