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August 1999

Selecting Customer Support Software


If you were to ask me what kind of customer support software (CSS) you should buy, it would be like asking me what kind of vehicle you should buy. First, I would ask you a series of questions to better define your needs. How will you use the vehicle? If you have a large or growing family, or if it will be used to chauffeur a youth soccer team, I would recommend that you plan for full seating capacity. If you use it for vacation travel, then cargo capacity is an important consideration. If you want to pull a boat trailer, horsepower and body strength are of utmost importance. You must define the need before you can identify the solution.

The process for the selection of the most appropriate CSS is no different. This article will take you through the process that will enable you to make the best selection for your needs.

Your definition of customer support will guide your CSS decision. The two principal types of customer support are informational and transactional. An example of informational support is the ability to provide a caller with delivery status, account balances and problem resolution status. The level of detail can be more specialized, as in the case of foods or products from health and beauty products companies, which might be called upon to provide information about adverse reactions and allergies. Transactional CSS applications typically provide such functionality as sales and marketing, technical help desk and problem tracking and resolution. Your informed decision must be based on the ability of the CSS to address the type of support required by the product.

From the business situation for CSS, you must then clearly define the type of customer(s) and set the level of support. Is the customer internal, as in the case of a technical help desk, or external, as in the case of someone who purchases your goods or services? Have you performed market segmentation to determine the type of service your customers will require or their value to your company? Does your customer contact strategy specify how they will be serviced based on that segmentation? Do you even have a customer contact strategy? If not, now is the time to develop one, or your CSS center may be called upon to spend time on nonprofitable customers or unnecessary work.

Alternative technologies for satisfying the needs of the customer must be explored to maximize your time. Rather than supporting each customer through a call center, you must decide if their needs can be satisfied through use of an interactive voice response unit (IVR), access to a Web site or the use of self-service devices such as kiosks or automatic teller machines (ATMs).

The CSS you select must capture all interactions made through those channels so agents in the call center are aware of all customer contacts and can respond to calls appropriately. The use of alternate channels, as well as determining which customer segment will be serviced by which channel, is an important part of your strategy. For example, you may decide to provide access to information about your company only through the Web site or IVR, and to assign valued customers a higher priority when contacting your call center. The CSS you chose must be able to address your segmentation strategy.

You must also factor both tactical and strategic business plans into the CSS selection process. Do you anticipate growth in terms of call volumes or number of customers? Are you planning to add or consolidate call centers? What percentage of calls do you estimate will/can be offloaded to alternate channels? Finally, from a business standpoint, do you plan to change the basic nature of your call center, transforming it from a cost center to a profit center?

Modern CSS provides the ability to support outbound as well as inbound calls. Agents can be provided with context-sensitive scripts that enable them to perform cross-sell and upsell functions. The ability of an agent to complete a sales transaction, or the offloading of the processing of a low-value or time-consuming transaction to the customer through the use of alternate channels, may result in your ability to reduce or redirect your field sales or branch operations. The CSS you chose must be able to address your future plans for your call center as well as your needs today.

Similar to the purchase of a car, once you have answered questions about how you're going to use the CSS, you can begin to think about its "interface" - what it will look like in terms of functions, features and capabilities. These are considered the technical requirements for the CSS system. The first consideration in this regard is how the CSS will fit into your company. You must carefully specify and document the interface requirements for the CSS, from the standpoints of your telephony and computing environments, data networks and databases.

The CSS must be compatible with your private branch exchange (PBX), or "switch," and your IVR. Advanced CSS systems can identify the caller so the agent can greet the caller with a personalized response and possibly predict the reason for the call. Modern CSS systems can also provide on-screen telephony features, such as point-and-click dialing and call transfer. You must be sure the solution you select is compatible with your telephony systems, models and software levels so you can avoid the"tail wagging the dog" syndrome of requiring expensive upgrades to your telephony environment.

The next interface requirements to be defined concern your computing environment. The software must be able to work with your current operating system at the appropriate software levels. The software will generally reside on a mainframe or server, with usage enabled through the use of a desktop application. Unless the CSS is compatible with your operating systems, both at the server and desktop level, it will not work.

The next question concerns the information sources the system will use to perform its tasks. CSS software should provide application programming interfaces (APIs) necessary to link to your existing databases and legacy systems.

Unless your strategy is to populate the system with information starting with day one of operation, the ability to extract customer information from your existing systems is crucial. Moreover, customer support is enhanced by the system?s ability to capture each customer interaction and store it for later use according to your defined strategy. If the vendor does not/will not provide the proper APIs, it may require the need for expensive technical resources to make the CSS fit within your current information environment. The database supported by the CSS is of utmost importance. If the CSS uses a proprietary (vendor-specific) database, you must carefully examine the ease with which it can be integrated into your environment. Otherwise, the time, money and resources necessary to link a proprietary database into your legacy environment may not be worth the benefits the CSS provides.

You must now consider your customer support process itself and how well the CSS automates and/or enhances that process. You must determine how a particular CSS addresses the needs you have defined. Have you defined customer support as sales or marketing, order processing or shipment status reporting? Is your objective to provide information or resolve problems? Your new CSS must be able to seamlessly link to legacy systems required to meet those needs without time-consuming and expensive modifications.

You must also look at how your CSS will enhance the existing environment with the right embedded tools for the agents to use. For example, does it provide automatic calculation of account balances that include the most recent transaction? Or does it offer diagnostic tools to assist agents in identifying problems? Additionally, if it can enhance the existing environment, can it also accommodate the workload volumes and the speeds consistent with your customer support strategy? Can it identify specific customer segments for special services? Finally, if you've decided to offload some of your customer support to alternative channels, you may need a CSS that can link with those channels on a real-time basis.

To enhance each contact, modern CSS provides many helpful functions and features. Working in conjunction with your database, it can identify each caller prior to phone pickup (screen pop); determine the most likely reason for the call (based on prior contact history); personalize a response based on that contact reason through the use of dynamic scripting; and route the interaction to the agent who can best address the customer?s needs. If the call has been misrouted, or a specialist is required, both the call and the application screen can be transferred. This reduces customer frustration from having to answer the same questions for another agent. The features and functions provided by the CSS must match your strategy. Moreover, the CSS must provide basic tools to enable you to effectively manage your operations. These tools include reporting, agent administration and queue management, so that you can maximize the use of your people resources.

Successful software implementations take into consideration the people factor. Does the vendor provide training? What kind of training does it provide (e.g., manuals, online tutorial, formal classroom instruction)? Have you taken it for a "test drive" to determine its ease-of-use? The best CSS systems not only facilitate your existing interaction processes, but automate some other pre- and post-contact (follow-up) processes as well.

For example, they may provide for the next generation of fax, e-mail and letters and link to your Web page for the downloading of requested information back to your customer. The benefit of each feature and function must be determined based on your strategy for customer support.
Speaking of making the choice that best meets your needs, have you clearly defined the requirements for that new vehicle? The half-mile drive to the train station is like a simple software implementation. Your decision has been based on your needs as you have defined them, so it will be the right one.

Ron Bleiberg is a senior consultant, Customer Interaction Solutions, for NCR Corporation, which specializes in customer service call centers. His primary focus has been the use of techniques to improve service capabilities, revenue and profitability for his clients. In this role, he has implemented customer service call centers in the communications, transportation, consumer product manufacturing, banking and retail industries.

The Right Vendor Leads To The Right CRM Software


In a world that is highly Internet-focused, the electronic marketplace is being driven by businesses that are able to deliver information and service to their customers � anytime, anywhere. Having insight into the changing needs of your customers is the key to success. Consistently anticipating and providing for your customers’ changing needs is the key to customer loyalty. Maintaining that loyalty requires exemplary customer service, and software that promotes your ability to support your customers better than the competition can.

Trends In The Customer Support Software Market
Today, customer support has moved from a stand-alone application to integrated customer relationship management (CRM). Communication over the Internet, via a Web-based CRM software, is necessary for businesses to operate globally. Now, customers need to use the information within their CRM application, and they want the ability to make informed decisions based on real-time data. Market trends help determine what your competitors can provide and what might be important to you and your customers. Selecting the right customer support software is essential for lasting customer relationships. CRM software needs to consist of sales automation, marketing, help desk, service, analytics and Internet integration, to meet all current and future customers’ needs.

Integrated CRM Software
For most organizations, supporting customers requires more than stand-alone call tracking support software. Only integrated sales automation, marketing, service and help desk applications provide true customer support and relationship management. On a business level, CRM software promotes proactive, knowledgeable customer service, informed communication and cross-selling. This provides staff with access to useful information, offering a “single image” to customers and promoting the personalization that helps retain customers. It also opens opportunities for business partners to be incorporated into the model. On a technical level, integrated applications using a single database and single forms for all electronic channels offer a fast ROI, performance wins and ongoing cost savings.

Selecting The Right Software Vendor For Your Business
The vendor selection process must be preceded by a thorough analysis of your company’s business objectives. Proactive decision making relies on an assessment of your organization’s current business problems and opportunities and on its business strategy. Software selection, therefore, should center on the vendor and include three major considerations:

  • What is the vendor’s business reputation?
  • How does the vendor deliver software and support?
  • What technology decisions has the vendor made and what plans is it making for the future?

Vendor’s Standing In The Industry
Due diligence requires assessing a vendor’s reputation, years in the customer support software business, customer base and financial condition. A proven track record and excellent customer references are vital. A solid track record indicates that the vendor has functional and business expertise and market staying power. This is an important factor in the vendor’s ability to support your business during its lifecycle. It is important to get as many references as possible; references are the only way to get beyond flashy demos and GUIs to assess software value. Past experience, however, is only one side of the equation. A vendor must be able to help your organization look forward, using historical data as a reference, yet provide you with the tools to assess the future. It is also important to know the following: Has the vendor formed alliances with other vendors? What is the vendor’s long-term strategy? Does the vendor have an Internet focus? A vendor knowledgeable and experienced in the customer support software business should have a plan for the future and should be a leader in the market.

Delivery Criteria
Fast, successful deployment and after-sales support are the key measures of software delivery. How vendors deliver software, including their service and technology relationships, varies widely. Factors to consider are:

  • Vendor’s selection and use of partners and service providers,
  • Determining who will deliver and implement the software,
  • Importance of local presence,
  • Performance guarantees,
  • Warrants/rewards on delivery dates,
  • Vendor-assigned project manager,
  • Training and documentation, and
  • Technology relationships (with databases, middleware vendors, etc.).

Most important is determining who owns the customer relationship, particularly if third parties are involved. Vendor expertise and longevity in the market are key evaluation criteria.

Technology Decisions
Good customer support software relies not only on technical expertise, but on a vendor’s understanding of the market, with features/functions based on knowledge acquired from customers and its own experience that has evolved over time. Choosing the right CRM application, beginning with customer service automation, is a good start and should include the following:

  • Data capture/call tracking,
  • Call assignment,
  • Escalation,
  • Notification,
  • Diagnostic resolution,
  • Reporting,
  • Knowledge management, and
  • The ability to integrate.

Call management hinges on capture and access to meaningful data (e.g., caller, company, date/times, problem, resolution, who handled the problem, etc.) and integration of automated processing. Notification in its simplest form, for example, could be a follow-up call to the assignee. Customer support software should allow for e-mail, fax and reports (or any combination) to be sent automatically at specified times, to multiple assignees. The notification message and method should be able to vary depending on the priority or service level of the problem or customer. In addition, it should be possible to send notification to business partners on the Internet, as well as to internal staff. Diagnostic resolution, based on learning from past situations/problem solutions, saves time and money by increasing help desk resolution of problems previously assigned to highly paid technical staff. Taken to the next level, “learning” results can be used for customer self-service.

Reporting, both canned reports and ad hoc, is critical to the learning process, to move from hindsight tracking to proactive and predictive insight. New analytical reporting provides a “heads-up” display of your business, allowing you to enter “what-if” data to see how revenue would be affected � enabling you to make intelligent business decisions immediately. This approach helps you to improve your service responsiveness.

Other questions to ask when choosing the right software are:

  • Is it fast and easy to deploy?
  • How adaptable is it to your business process?
  • Can it help your call center reduce costs and increase profits?

Finding the right vendor and solution is the key to understanding your customer. The more you know about your customer, the more profitable your business will be. Look for a vendor that can deliver today and has a proven track record and a clear strategy for the future.

David Golan is vice president of customer relationship management solutions for Applix.

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