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February 2000

 

Internet Customer Care: Survival Of The Persistent

BY LAURA DiSCIULLO

In all the excitement surrounding the Web and its “really cool” technology, many have forgotten that the question is no longer whether they should be on the Internet. Most businesses that need to be there have already made their decision. The question is about meeting customers’ needs and expectations through a satisfying Web experience. And, by the way, there is no one right answer.

What we have seen over the last year or so are companies in a state of transition. Large well-established companies are looking to expand beyond the traditional brick and mortar and call center. Companies with their genesis in the Internet are discovering the need now to include methods other than the Web to meet customer requests. And, both groups are rapidly learning they need to have integrated solutions to customer service. A great Web site is just not enough. Consider what your Web site is actually saying: Look, but don’t touch. Browse, but don’t buy. Ask, but don’t expect an answer. Or, even worse, caveat emptor.

TARGETING CUSTOMER NEEDS
Today’s Internet call centers give the promise of delivering interactive customer touch points to what was originally an anonymous and passive environment — the Internet. However, it may not be enough simply to answer your customers’ immediate questions. The next level of sophistication is to respond to your customers’ needs in a useful and efficient manner. Solutions on the market today begin to provide the following possibilities:

  • A holistic view of customer interactions;
  • Knowledge of customer interaction preferences;
  • Direct marketing tied to consumer behavior;
  • Determination of channel affordability by customer; and
  • “Easier to use” technology.

Assuming you’ve decided to jump in to the Internet excitement, several questions should come immediately to mind: What do my customers want? How do I bring the varying technologies together? How do I prioritize what’s needed now versus future needs? How can I structure a solution that has staying power? This could lead you down the deceptively simple path of evaluating technology solutions exclusively. But, in this case, you run the risk of forgetting the reason why you were looking at the Internet in the first place. It wasn’t to try out technology; it was to achieve some business objective.

Technology is only one step toward building a successful, integrated Web center. The Web requires no less of a business focus than any other part of your business — albeit you may have to plan and execute more rapidly. Therefore:

  • Have a clear business plan;
  • Identify ONE problem to solve at a time;
  • Apply technology to meet specific business needs;
  • Leverage current investments and consciously determine throwaway investments; and
  • Plan for rapid growth.

The business goals most frequently identified are to: (1) Differentiate the service and sales channel by creating a winning Internet commerce strategy with enough flexibility to evolve in this rapidly changing marketplace; (2) Reduce costs by optimizing core business processes; (3) Improve communications and coordinate the efforts across business functions; and (4) Ensure effective customer relationship management.

By selecting and prioritizing the business objectives, one is then able to evaluate the plethora of technology solutions available on the market today. The traditional call center providers have set the standard for solutions that deliver customer interactions to the best resource for issue resolution in the most cost-effective manner. And, through the use of CTI applications, more personalized customer treatment is possible.

BRINGING IN THE WEB
On the other hand, Web-based applications offer tremendous reach at a relatively low cost. The detached, remote nature of these sites is rapidly giving way to real-time customer service applications utilizing Voice over IP (VoIP), text chat, and/or callback with escorted browsing and collaboration. Innovations from both the call center providers and the multitude of emerging Internet solution providers have resulted in easy-to-use, secure, and interactive experiences. In many cases, the same CTI applications that support the voice call center are leveraged to provide tailored handling to the Internet interactions.

Other Internet-based solutions focus on providing the best, personalized self-service experience typically by optimizing the encounter based on consumer preferences or business rules. Of these applications, the ones that fully leverage a Web-based architecture are well suited to the predicted exponential increases in Internet activity and the growing customer expectations of tailored treatment. For identification of consumer preferences to be most effective, careful attention must be placed on collecting data. Internet-based customer care is still in its infancy, and the pioneers will help set the standards. Customer data must be handled with integrity, and with an eye on rational boundaries. Otherwise, consumers will balk at the obvious requests for personal information.

The penultimate question revolves around determining how best to leverage your technology investments (call center hardware and software, CTI applications, Web site, etc.) and move toward the new customer interaction end state. It is unrealistic to assume that one will, in a wholesale fashion, remove an established infrastructure and replace it with a fully re-architected multimedia, multi-channel, multi-purpose infrastructure. This behavior is demonstrated on a daily basis through component buying behavior. Also notice the burgeoning ranks of point solutions that address discrete slices of the new solution possibilities as a strong indicator of market need and expectations.

Couple this development with a rapidly increasing desire to integrate the pieces in order to provide cost-effective, high-quality, and holistic customer treatment. Thus the remaining question becomes how to integrate the best of all these worlds; how to deliver true customer relationship management irrespective of the communications channel. One can mold an all-inclusive solution from the piece parts, but the costs are likely to be substantial. Whether you view this as right, wrong, or indifferent, you can expect to evaluate multiple vendors, rationalize a plethora of disparate architectures and service creation environments, develop custom code to integrate the various elements, and so on. As a result, there is an emerging trend toward fully integrated solution suites as a way to mitigate these issues. Suites that integrate multiple business processes will have a higher market acceptance than those that target a single practice. Those that further provide a way to support multiple access media into the business will also be favored. The cost of ownership, as well as greater simplicity of management and administration, make this a reality.

While the pressures of “Internet time” suggest addressing your multimedia customer care needs sooner rather than later, the “perfect” solution may not be immediately available. It is almost certainly better to move toward your vision of multimedia customer care than to stand still. For example, among the point solutions in the marketplace are e-mail customer care software packages. This may not be a bad place to start since studies indicate how haphazardly companies are generally handling customers’ e-mail (and how expensive such poor management makes the process).

Therefore, we believe emerging multimedia and e-commerce technologies are both evolutionary and revolutionary. Revolutionary because the channels, tools, and techniques available to serve customers are beyond what most of us imagined just a few years ago. Evolutionary because most of today’s legacy systems can phase these new technologies in as business strategies and customer expectations dictate. That these new technologies offer improved means of customer differentiation is inarguable. That customers are beginning to expect multimedia service channels, and that those expectations are quickly becoming requirements, are developments businesses ignore at their peril. But the end game is building and managing profitable customer relationships, and the Internet is a jewel only to the extent that it supports those relationships. Consider who your customers and potential customers are, and how they want to engage you. If you want to roll them a red carpet, the solutions are out there. c

Laura DiSciullo is director of CRM eBusiness solutions for Lucent Technolo-
gies. Lucent Technologies, headquartered in Murray Hill, N.J., designs, builds, and delivers a wide range of public and private networks, communications systems and software, data networking systems, business telephone systems, and microelectronics components. For more information about Lucent Technologies, visit the company’s Web site at www.lucent.com







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