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January 12, 2007

Remember Me? Personalization in IP Contact Centers

By John P. Joseph, TMCnet Voice Solutions Columnist


Personalization in customer service is a concept that has been around for quite some time. To date though, few companies have put it into practice in the contact center. And now, with the emergence of the IP contact center, the level of personalization that’s possible is even greater and more affordable. But, will it push more organizations to personalize their customer interactions? The short answer is, it better!
 
Today, personalized customer service is largely limited to the Web. With the spread of the World Wide Web and eCommerce, companies such as Amazon.com (News - Alert) opened our eyes to what a personalized shopping experience could be like. The difference was night and day. Far from a new concept, personalization is actually a return to time-tested business practices. Just like in the “old days” before malls, Amazon.com gave us a warm welcome when we came in the door and they remembered everything about us from our prior visit. Ahhh…think about those stories you’ve heard from your grandparents about going to the local butcher who remembered just how they liked their steaks cut.
 
When re-introduced to the personal touch, consumers responded. Customer satisfaction went up and so did the revenue of those companies whose Websites did personalization right. As a result, our expectations of what constitutes a good customer service experience also increased. Over time, we have come to expect that we can access information any time of day or night, and that we can access the information using the device we find most convenient.
 
Meanwhile, the level of personalization in the contact center hasn’t changed dramatically in years. There are several reasons for this, first and foremost of which is technology. The main technologies needed to personalize customer experiences are a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system - that holds the customer data - and Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) software - that delivers that data to the agent that needs it.
 
Today, there are many CRM products available, both hosted and on-premise varieties, which allow organizations to collect a historical view of the customer. There are enough options available that an organization can find one that is both easily affordable and sophisticated enough to collect and store data on customer preferences that they can use to personalize the interaction.
 
Likewise, CTI software, which can route the call to the best agent and can forward the customer, call or IVR data to that agent, has been available for years. It wasn’t adopted in high numbers because it was usually based on proprietary interface standards that were particular to a specific PBX (News - Alert)/ACD. This made CTI a costly option to maintain and modify and impractical for organizations that had several different PBXs/ACDs. That’s all changed. Standards-based CTI software is now available providing more choices and eliminating the need altogether for a proprietary CTI link for a specific PBX/ACD. In fact, a single CTI software solution can work with PBXs/ACDs from multiple vendors, making it possible to keep your CTI software even as your company acquires other organizations and/or migrates to next-generation PBXs/ACDs. CTI software products based on standards such as CSTA and SIP lower the deployment and maintenance costs by an order of magnitude and make it possible to have several CTI alternatives for a single PBX/ACD, providing even greater flexibility.
 
Together, this combination of a capable CRM system and standards-based CTI software can be used to deploy CTI applications, such as a screen pop or intelligent routing, which are essential applications for personalization in the contact center. Armed with customer data the agent can personalize their greeting and handle the customer interaction from a position of knowledge. I expect that these will become more prevalent in IP contact centers purely because of the lower price point, ease of integration, and flexibility provided by the latest standards-based solutions.
 
Will that be enough to drive personalization in the contact center though?
 
Not on its own.
 
Personalization has often been avoided in the contact center due to personnel concerns, such as the level of training required or whether the agents will have the innate ability to personalize the interaction, and the misguided impression that personalization conflicts with the key metrics of the contact center operations, such as average call time.
 
These remain issues, but they can be solved rather easily by limiting the scope of your personalization effort and by implementing standard call handling practices. Remember, the example of Amazon.com. Personalization there meant remembering the information that the customer had provided previously and making recommendations in a knowing manner. Personalization didn’t mean distracting the customer with poorly matched offers or taking more of their time. In fact, the most important goal for both caller and contact center is to finish the call in the shortest possible time. Much of the same personalization accomplished by Amazon.com can be accomplished simply with CTI and CRM software and a well-defined call handling script.
 
Many of the personnel concerns raised can be solved by precisely defining the level of personalization expected and the scope of the conversation. For example, an agent can offer a personal experience by simply saying, “good afternoon Aaron, are you calling about your recent transaction.” This comment does not require a tremendous alteration in training, and can be scripted and trained fairly easily. Yet, the added benefit of even minimal personalization such as this goes a long way toward making the customer feel important and assuring them that they are in good hands. Plus, in my experience, even this level of personalization can disarm callers and eliminate much of the caller-agent tension that is a key cause of job dissatisfaction and agent turnover.
 
The issue of personalization hurting call center metrics can also be solved by narrowly defining the scope of personalization. A few clear guidelines on how to personalize the call will prevent agent temptation to spend too much time on a call ensuring that the customer is satisfied. Personalization is simply the process of customizing your approach to customer service to a specific customer. It doesn’t have to take longer. Plus, CTI software has been proven to reduce call time, so you are already starting out on the “plus side” of things with a CTI-enabled call center. With a tightly controlled scope (as discussed in the example above) the length of a personalized interaction isn’t any longer. The result is a better customer interaction that fits within your traditional call center metrics.
 
The evolution of the IP contact center is enabling even greater personalization. IP enables more sophisticated routing schemes because of compatibility with presence engines that tell us where you are and your current status. This enables calls to be routed not just within a single contact center, but also across contact centers and even beyond the walls of the contact center. Calls can be routed to geographically dispersed agents whether they are working from a corporate office or working from home. And, calls can be routed based on skills, presence, location, and more. Even with this more complex structure, the basic principles discussed above still hold true — a limited amount of personalization goes a long way. Taking this limited approach to personalization can lead to many of the desired benefits without wading into the uncharted waters that have spooked many call center managers in the past.
 
In any case, it’s clear that the Web has brought us back in touch with the benefits of personalized customer service. Now that IP contact centers are giving people the chance to re-evaluate personalization in the contact center, I expect to see increasing demand from enterprises for standards-based CTI solutions and personalization.
 
While the approach recommended here is to combine standards-based CTI software and CRM software with policies and procedures that limit the scope of personalization, it is possible for more aggressive companies to go far beyond these suggested levels. For example, less-scripted and more open-ended interactions would allow agents to do more than just react to customer questions. They can make suggestions, anticipate needs and create up-sell opportunities generating more revenue. With these added responsibilities come added training and maintenance costs, but the benefits are clear. In fact, in the extreme case, contact centers have been able to elevate themselves to a call center with private P&L responsibilities.
 
In a world where the Internet has commoditized many things, especially in industries such as travel and retail, enterprises can and must use customer service as a key differentiator. Delivering personalized interactions is critical, and achievable today.
 
John Joseph is vice president of corporate marketing at Envox Worldwide (News - Alert), a voice solutions provider based in Westborough, Mass.

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