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July 1999

Bringing Knowledge To Customer Service


"Knowledge is power." In the business world, this simple dictum is repeated so often that we take it on faith to be true. With the secret of power thus revealed, now all we have to do is figure out what knowledge is.

“Knowledge” is a trendy term for business intelligence. In the techno-vernacular of the 1990s, knowledge refers to the wealth of information that is gathered by a company’s employees and made available to everyone, both internal and external, who can use it. The collection, archiving and merchandising of thousands, perhaps millions, of pieces of data is commonly known as “knowledge management” or KM.

KM is more than just a fad. While it can sometimes be challenging and costly to implement, KM enables companies to leverage useful information across the enterprise. The enormous upside of such an effort is a dramatic increase in efficiency and productivity everywhere this knowledge is put to use.

KM Strengthens Customer Service
By definition, corporate knowledge is a cooperative resource. The ability to share or “reuse” strategic information places a team, department or entire enterprise “on the same page.” Drawing intelligence from a common pool also ensures a higher degree of efficiency, accuracy and consistency.

Customer service — particularly service geared to users of technical products — is one of the business functions that is most enhanced by knowledge management. A look at the typical pre-KM technical service call center shows a support team faced with a daily barrage of wide-ranging inquiries. Each team member brings a specific set of skills and expertise to the job — skills that may or may not match the customer’s concern. Likely, each also has a distinct manner of addressing issues and explaining solutions. Some approaches will be more appropriate to certain inquiries than others.

When KM is applied to such operations, the results can be striking. Today, product and support knowledge is being captured and managed in automated, online databases available not only to service personnel in home and field offices, but also to customers wishing to take advantage of “self-service” support options. Utilizing the World Wide Web and/or company Intranets as distribution conduits, online support services provide a common, accessible, convenient informational tool. With these resources now at their disposal, support staff can identify and convey solutions in a fast, accurate and uniform manner, shortening the customer-support cycle and delivering a higher caliber of service.

Automated Service Spreads Knowledge, Cuts Costs
In the information technology business, where highly technical solutions may be difficult or impossible to deliver verbally, a knowledge-based Web service is fast becoming an industry imperative. Because a vendor’s technical service engineers, channel partners and customers can all access a resource of this kind, the resulting solution is assured of being consistent and correct, time and time again.

This is where the aggregation of knowledge comes into play. A well-constructed online service program incorporates the input of experts in the production, use, functionality and replacement of the products being supported. Such a process ensures that all the information imparted to the user is well-organized, complete and effectively presented. When executed correctly, an electronic support service enables a vendor to capture specialized intelligence, communicate it effectively and distribute it instantaneously to users around the world. In this way, vendors are able to increase the accessibility and functionality of the knowledge they possess.

Customer service divisions offering an Internet-based program as part of the customer support mix are typically able to operate more profitably than those offering phone support only. Because online support vehicles enable customer self-service and promote a high degree of solution reuse, they create an efficiency that translates into a lower cost per solution.

The same is true for users of knowledge-based support services. Customers using automated support save time, resolve problems and, therefore, save money. These time and cost savings result from two factors, both due to the immediate and accessible nature of the Internet:

  1. Solutions are instantly available at customers’ fingertips, saving much of the time they might have spent waiting for and receiving telephone support.
  2. Customers have access to support during off-hours, when network demands are lightest, thereby extending system uptime and improving company productivity.

Following the time/cost-reduction assertion to its logical conclusion, consider that reining-in the cost of technical support allows a manufacturer to manage the cost of product ownership and operation for its customers. An increased return on investment further contributes to a customer’s profitability and competitiveness, and fortifies his or her sense of vendor satisfaction.

KM Support Shifts Call Center Focus
Among other benefits, knowledge-based support systems play a key role in reducing the volume of inquiries received at the call center. This is because many of the issues once raised in phone calls are now easily addressed by a knowledge-based system. As a result, telephone support engineers are able to spend more time working with customers on intricate issues that demand more specialized attention. On extended calls, support representatives’ ability to explore customers’ questions in detail permits them to offer proactive insights that maximize the value of support and identify possible performance issues in the future.

Being able to reach a support representative more promptly and receive expert personal attention certainly increases customer satisfaction. However, the reduction in traffic at the call center benefits the vendor, too. With more problem-solving occurring online, telephone representatives are now able to capitalize on additional training opportunities to expand their skills and further their careers. In addition, support engineers now can work with representatives of product divisions on cross-disciplinary task teams in an effort to better address customer satisfaction issues.

Armed with the knowledge to deliver more complete and prevention-oriented service, call center engineers now experience a heightened feeling of professional growth, pride and satisfaction. Increased job satisfaction translates into providing better support, which in turn creates happier customers. Thus, the reduced call volume that results from adding online support to the customer service mix creates a positive cycle of satisfaction between customers and service personnel.

All of that said, it is important that directors of service organizations not forsake one mode of supporting customers for another. An automated support vehicle should not be viewed as a replacement for telephony-based methods of supporting customers, but rather as a complement to them. For users requiring around-the-clock, cost-effective access to a company’s technical information and solutions, electronic support makes it as accessible as the Internet. For those customers whose issues continue to demand the personal, voice-to-voice assistance and confidence engendered by a telephone call or site visit, traditional service methodologies will continue to play a significant role in the suite of customer support tools.

Web Knowledge Enhances Products, Processes
While Web-based support programs expand the collection of service offerings to better meet customers’ ever-changing support needs, they also serve the vendor itself. By providing support online, a company creates an ideal tool for charting customers’ inquiries and support usage. As customers log on seeking help, such information as visit frequency and duration can be captured in a database, along with any issues, comments and questions that have been submitted. When placed in context and distributed to the appropriate parties, this data becomes actionable, producing strategies whose effectiveness is easily measured through comparisons with future customer feedback.

Today’s provider of electronic support must leverage the knowledge it captures about customer concerns to reinforce its products and processes of the future. By effectively distributing this knowledge to all personnel who can benefit from it, a manufacturer, for example, is able to improve product functionality and key strategic aspects of the business. Once there is a system in place for deploying the knowledge gained from a Web-based support tool, the improved products and services that result will be even easier for that vendor to support.

One of the most important ways manufacturers gain knowledge is by capturing information about their own employees’ experiences. Increasingly, vendors are encouraging their field engineers and other remote workers to join traditional home office technical staff in contributing to — and drawing upon — the knowledge contained in their online support sites.

In an effort to generate and capture a critical mass of information on their knowledge-based support sites, many vendors have developed rewards programs designed to stimulate employees to share the knowledge they may have held onto in the past. Such programs have proven effective not only in helping to seed databases with a large volume of solution-related information, but also in raising the quality of that information.

Increasingly, companies are creating internal-only versions of their knowledge-based systems, through which both public and confidential solutions can be accessed. While classified or in-process information cannot be applied to solving customer inquiries, it can be used by field staff to gain contextual understanding and up-to-date knowledge of a range of technical issues. Moreover, by converging technical communications through a single informational resource, users are able to derive maximum value from the company’s knowledge reserves.

In an age ruled by information, knowledge of users’ support needs is highly advantageous to the company aiming to learn more about its customers, gauge the usage of its products and services, and improve its own competitive position.

Marketing Drives Web Activity
Offering knowledge-based support programs is not enough to ensure their success; companies must be enterprising about informing customers of their existence. Today’s savvy vendors capitalize on a wide range of marketing and promotional opportunities to create awareness and drive usage of their automated support services.

Some of the strategies being used to communicate the availability of a new support resource include print advertising in trade magazines and public relations activities aimed at garnering editorial coverage. Many providers of Internet-based support also participate in industry trade shows where they showcase demos of their knowledge-based systems. Banner advertisements on vendors’ own Web sites, as well as those of co-vendors and channel partners, have also played a pivotal role in pushing would-be service users directly to the site.

Speaking of the channel, much emphasis is placed on educating members of this community since, as agents of the manufacturer, they are well-positioned to positively influence users. Many manufacturers heavily market their online support capabilities to their resellers and sales partners. They rely on mailers, marketing collateral, user manuals, release notes, product packaging and face-to-face meetings, among other vehicles, to deliver this important message.

Companies are also using call center representatives and prerecorded “on hold” messaging as opportunities to expose customers to information about alternative support resources. Likewise, sales representatives, network consultants and other personnel interfacing with prospects and customers are well-versed in how to communicate both the sales and service implications of a leading-edge online support program.

KM Makes Sense — And Dollars
What is the proverbial “bottom line”? It is, simply, that the effective management and deployment of corporate knowledge in the customer service arena can have a significant impact on the literal bottom line. Every day, countless companies are realizing the efficiencies and profitability of incorporating the Internet into their customer service program. Those failing to do so risk being caught on hold.

Alan Kessler is senior vice president of 3Com Corporation’s global customer service organization. His responsibilities include managing customer service solutions for all of 3Com’s served market solutions including large enterprise, small/medium business, small office/home office and consumer customers.

So, You Want To Be An Internet Shopkeeper?

Ten Golden Rules For Keeping The Online Cash Register Ringing


E-commerce is growing at a rate faster than a speeding bullet, with more retailers leaping onto the bandwagon to exploit the growing trend toward online shopping. But, like Superman’s weakness, virtual storefronts are vulnerable to their own brand of Kryptonite. A year ago, there were fewer online retailers when customer satisfaction surveys soared to more than 80 percent approval ratings. This past Christmas, customer satisfaction dropped a few percentage points while online business soared toward its forecast level of more than $100 billion by the year 2000.

If approval ratings drop farther, then online sales may taper off as well, unless e-tailers can pare down the obstacles that turn off Internet shoppers. After all, the customer is only one click away from another store � something every Internet retailer should worry about. How can the independent online retailer compete with industry giants such as Sears, Dell Computer, Amazon.com, General Motors and Microsoft? Use the same successful Web site architecture as the big players. Follow the rules and avoid the pitfalls.

1) Create a simple, relaxed Web site with neutral color schemes that adapt to any color. The first thing you want a shopper to focus on is not your bravado GIFs, but your product. The infrastructure of the site must be as light as possible in size and in bandwidth point of view.

Best suggestion: Use a white background with pale colors for navigation bars. Remember to prominently display your product.

2) Your site must load fast. Avoid using animations or anything that could slow down the customer from loading your site. Remember, not everyone is using a high-speed cable modem, a T-1 or T-3 line.

Best suggestion: Use small graphic elements and small logos. Your designer should use code optimization techniques to remove overhead.

3) Deal with your online shopper’s concerns over credit card security. Laxity over this issue can result in lost sales.

Best suggestion: Get a third-party certification of your site. Display a logo, such as the “Safe Merchant” logo, prominently on the page.

4) Don’t let your online visitors get disoriented, overwhelmed or lost. Online shoppers can easily be frightened away by confusing instructions, enormous selection choices and dead-end searches on your site.

Best suggestion: Filter your choices up front through brief customer profiles and direct your shopper to areas of your Web site that actually match his or her needs. Let the shopper know where he or she is on your site at all times with a “you are here” button.

5) Make your shopper feel welcome, not just another number.

Best suggestion: Personalize the shopping experience for your visitor with short customer surveys that help guide him or her into the areas they want to visit. Offer “members only” services to reward the shopper for answering the questions. Remember to split up the questions and avoid overwhelming the shopper. Three or four questions work best.

6) Create a sense of community for visitors. Try to avoid making the shopper feel alone on your Web site. Shoppers like busy stores, not empty ones.

Best suggestion: Tell your shopper about other customers who have used the product with user ratings and shopper reviews from previous customers. This comforts him or her to avoid the “guinea pig” feeling.

7) Create an instant customer service connection for the prospective customer. Online shopping eliminates the human element, which is one of the factors that drive people to shop in the first place.

Best suggestion: Prominently display the means to contact a human directly, either with a toll-free telephone number or a direct chat line to customer service. Let your shopper know there is someone available to talk to. The longer this service is available, the more confidence you provide your prospective customer. Aim for 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.

8) Explain your currency. While the Internet has no boundaries, currencies do. If you are going global, then you have to accommodate your global shopper on the most important detail � money.

Best suggestion: Offer your customer the option of paying in different currencies or offer billing in local currencies. If this is not feasible, let your customer know the currency exchange translation for his or her local currency. Customers will thank you for this service and it may encourage them to purchase from your site again.

9) Provide helpful shipping terms to make your shopper’s purchase convenient. Who wants to pay as much for shipping as for the cost of the items purchased? Market research shows first-time users are not big spenders on their first online purchase.

Best suggestion: Offer a flat shipping rate, whenever possible, rather than a complex shipping formula. If possible, also offer a very low shipping rate to first-time users. This can help build customer loyalty.

10) Advertise effectively to reach customers. Research shows that Internet-only advertising can be ineffective unless it is combined with existing marketing and advertising efforts. There are many “Internet-only” advertisers that customers have never heard of.

Best suggestion: Create alliances with other sites to get customer referrals. Offer incentives to other, similar Web sites that will help match your shopper’s needs. Establish links with other e-tailers. Wisely balance your advertising budget with a mix of mostly traditional advertising and some Internet advertising. To date, nothing has replaced traditional advertising channels. Creating strategic co-marketing alliances with similar databases can help you get started in e-tailing. Avoid the “shotgun” approach � it can drain your budget and make shoppers resent your omnipresence.

In general, online retailers should realize that converting first-time visitors into repeat customers requires making the shopping experience a simple, convenient one � not a “lost in cyberspace” nightmare. Making the shopping Web site user friendly includes having a site that is easy to navigate, has current information and provides useful searching capabilities that provide the customer with what he or she wants with minimal delays.

Marco Argenti is CEO of Internet Frontier, a wholly owned subsidiary of Microforum. He has specialized as a virtual storefront designer for many North American online stores, including Sony Music, Ford Motor Company apparel and accessories, Gamesmania, Business Depot and StorageTek, among others.

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