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Customer Relationship Management
August 2002

All Media All The Time: Giving Customers A Choice

By Chris Rechtsteiner, Apropos Technology

The pendulum of customer sentiment swings swiftly from infatuation to disinterest. In the late 1990s, the market adopted the position that it was more cost-effective to acquire new customers and new revenue than to worry about existing relationships. As quickly as that mindset was embraced, it was replaced in the beginning of this new decade by the adage that it is more cost-effective to manage existing relationships than it is to pursue new customers and subsequently new revenue. This shift is due in part to the current nature of the economy and in part to the necessity of developing a satisfied, stable and referenceable customer base that extols your corporate/product/service virtues to additional prospective customers. Today the market is about leverage ' most importantly, leverage that is enabled through personal, high-quality relationships with individuals and corporations with whom one does business. The strength and value of these relationships is integral to the current and ongoing success for any company. The key to solidifying these relationships is to provide customers with the ability to choose from an optimum amount of media channels to communicate with your organization.

From wireless Internet access, mobile phones, instant messaging, e-mail, Web self-service and even the 'old reliable' telephone, people express themselves uniquely under myriad circumstances, which are driven predominantly by the urgency of their need to communicate. Individuals choose forms and methods of communications that are personal to them, significantly affecting how they will contact the sales, service and support operations of your business. At the same time, individuals expect comprehensive and rapid communication in return, regardless of the issue at hand or the communication medium used. Meeting and ultimately exceeding these expectations (as well as those yet to come) requires a fundamentally sound approach to customer relationship management (CRM).

Of late, CRM has taken more than its fair share of abuse from industry analysts, the media, the stock market and even individual customers crowing about the problems inherent in CRM strategies. There is, however, a rather elegant solution to this problem ' a solution that enables customers to make their choice of any or all communications media at any time, which is the final objective of a CRM initiative. The solution is a universal interaction management application with multiple media channel capabilities.

Step One ' Identifying The Media Channels That Matter
To implement this type of solution, it is first important to identify the complete availability of communication media channels within your organization. This straightforward yet difficult task will help ensure communications are not lost in transmission, receipt or during response. Take a look at your business card. How many forms of communication are listed? Postal address? E-mail? Web site? Corporate phone? Direct phone? Mobile phone? Now, go to your Web site. How many e-mail links, Web forms, phone numbers, branch offices and other points of entry are available to your customers? Finally, look at your sales and direct marketing materials. How many phone numbers, URLs and physical locations are listed? The number of answers will probably surprise you. At the very minimum, this exercise will provide you with a thorough understanding of the challenges in front of you.

Once these communication entry points have been mapped out, it is necessary to test all of them. Send e-mail, submit Web forms, make phone calls and visit Web pages and physical locations to understand how each unique entry point is managed. Does customer information transcend all available entry points? As you work through this process, note entry points that fall into oblivion or result in a significantly delayed response. Again, the results may surprise you. Remember, on average, more than 50 percent of available communication channel entry points deliver no response.

Next, identify which communication entry points are relevant for your business. Note those that should exist (but don't) and remove those that will only result in customer frustration due to lack of internal ownership and therefore a lack of a timely (if any) response. This simple exercise will significantly reduce customer frustration levels, as the remaining avenues of communication will be specifically designed and enabled to handle the incoming flow of customer inquiries as this process continues.

Step Two ' Integrating A Robust Solution
It is now critical to establish a central point of processing and administration to manage this seemingly endless number of communications channels and the resulting flood of communications. To accomplish this, the requirement is the identification of a robust multichannel interaction management solution ' one based upon open system standards and squarely integrated with a company's existing third-party business applications, business processes and communications infrastructure. The benefit to this type of enterprise-class solution is that you can introduce new applications, new forms of communication and new business processes at the time that's right for your organization, and at the time that is right for your customers ' all while leveraging your existing technology and infrastructure to its fullest extent.

Let's take a brief look at this requirement for an interaction management application, as it will impact the ultimate success of your initiative to open all media channels to all customers at all times. Interaction management is the foundation for evolving single-channel customer service into multichannel customer satisfaction. Interaction management seamlessly integrates customer communications with customer data no matter where the communications may originate or where the data may reside within your company. Making this information easily and quickly accessible throughout the customer management process, regardless of media channel, is an intrinsic value-add that the interaction management solution provides. Additionally, the interaction management solution enables you to make use of your defined business rules (through your recently defined communication channels), ensuring that each customer is offered the most efficient and effective way possible to communicate with your company.

All communications enabled by the interaction management solution are based upon YOUR business objectives. This is a critical distinction. Interaction management provides the foundation for you to offer the most effective method of communication to your customers, based on their value and the value of each unique interaction, as well as what is best for your company. Without the interaction management piece of this puzzle, the ability to offer any-time, any-channel communications, and ultimately a comprehensive view of the customer's activity, is nearly impossible.

The underlying interaction management solution should be designed from the ground up as a fully integrated suite, not a collection of loosely integrated products or technologies. This suite should include communication channel management applications, centralized interaction management driven by client-defined business rules, and comprehensive real-time and historical management tools to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of your customer management operations. The benefit of an inherently suite-based architecture is that it enables rapid implementation. In addition, a suite-based system delivers a lower total cost of ownership, as the complete solution remains on the same version at the same time and does not combine multiple products and/or vendors to deliver functional and operational capabilities.

The interaction management solution should also be able to prioritize, personalize, queue, route, manage and report on both synchronous communications (voice, e-mail, Web, fax) and asynchronous communications (task activities, offline work, document management, etc.), according to each medium's unique value to your business. This last 'technical requirement' is critical because it incorporates the ability to manage not only the live customer communications but also the resulting 'work' associated with complete resolution of a customer interaction. Instead of adding to static 'to do' lists, the interaction management solution should enable your company to queue these activities directly inline and within the prioritization structure of your business rules to ensure that they are managed in a timely fashion ' correlating with your service level and operation level agreements. Finally, the solution should be able to provide both real-time and historical business metrics on productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of the contact center operations.

An Example
As an example, let's look at a case study for a company in the financial services sector. This organization may find that its customers and brokers ' all of whom rely on common interaction management infrastructure ' prefer to use the phone. By the nature of their profession and because of the ability to actively record conversations for compliance with government regulations, the telephone is the most acceptable method of communication for both parties today. Having already identified the most appropriate media channels through the aforementioned first step in this process, the flow of these communications can quickly be centralized and therefore managed more consistently and effectively. Most important, while leveraging the chosen method of communications at this time (i.e., the phone), the organization is also able to easily integrate additional communication channels, e-mail for example, when both the company and its clients decide the time is right to move online. This is simply a matter of engaging the existing business rules infrastructure and application integration already developed within the interaction management platform. Once its customers and brokers move to e-mail (Web, wireless, etc.) as an accepted form of communication, the financial services organization can add e-mail modules, Web modules and mobility modules at the drop of a dime. This introduction is completed without adding a new, separate management application ' effectively lowering the total cost of ownership of not only the interaction management solution, but also the existing communications infrastructure and other CRM applications.

This is the inherent value of the interaction management solution ' the ability to quickly, easily and seamlessly introduce additional communication channels to the right individuals at the right time. When coupled with a detailed profile of customer information, the company even has the ability to selectively control the presentation of each medium to each unique customer.

Step Three ' A Strategy For Your Agent Force
The implementation and use of a common interaction management platform throughout an enterprise enables the company to provide superior service across all communications channels at all times ' either independently via media-specific agents (who retain cross-media channel visibility of current and past interactions) or via 'global' users skilled in many communications channels and languages. This flexibility is a critical step in the process and should not be overlooked, as the skill sets required for multichannel interaction management are significantly different than those required for traditional telephone interaction management.

Step Four ' Develop The Business Logic
The next step in establishing this central point of interaction management is the development of and integration to cross-functional business rules. Subsequently, customers need never worry their inquiry will get less attention simply because it arrived via e-mail instead of over the phone. The resulting integrated business logic of the interaction management solution and the business applications enables each customer and each interaction to receive its necessary level of priority escalation and, ultimately, service as defined by your company. With these business rules in place, a high-value customer, perhaps with a pending purchase, can jump to the top of a queue and receive immediate service, regardless of whether the interaction is taking place via e-mail, phone or the Web.

The Project Process
As you engage the process of introducing anytime, anywhere customer interaction management, remember the success of any CRM initiative is predicated upon up-front planning. Too little project scope, and the results won't meet the comprehensive business requirements. Too much project scope, and the ability to realize the 'end goal' of the project will be compromised. Most important, remember to align the scope of the project with your organization, not with that of a vendor, systems integrator or other third party. You alone will know far better what your company (and customers) are ready for than anyone else.

Acquiring new customers is more difficult than ever. Allowing customers to choose from multiple media channels will help retain existing customers by offering new avenues of communication, interaction and service. Additionally, your company now has the ability to enable revenue-generating service level agreements, in which access to increasing levels of communication channels carries a higher price.

As customers have become accustomed to using more communication media to interact with your organization, customer expectations of service levels have also increased. A centralized tool for managing multiple media channels gives customers both choice and confidence ' and that may be all that customers need to remain loyal to a company.

Chris Rechtsteiner is senior director of Strategic Marketing at Apropos Technology (www.apropos.com).

[ Return To The August 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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