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May 18, 2006

Customer Care: A Winning Strategy

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Associate Editor


How can a small company that produces communications systems hardware and software components compete against the big boys? In the case of PIKA Technologies, the answer is an overarching emphasis on customer care.
TMCnet recently spoke with two of PIKA’s customer care specialists—Terry Atwood, VP of sales, marketing and customer care; and Rod Boileau, manager of customer care—who explained how their company delivers technical support, and why an emphasis on customers helped PIKA weather the burst of the tech-boom bubble.
In today’s competitive marketplace, Atwood told TMCnet, companies must find some way to differentiate themselves from everyone else. There are three main ways to do this:
1. Technical superiority. Companies like Intel (News - Alert) fall into this category.
2. Operational efficiency. An example is FedEx, which has perfected a method of getting packages quickly from one location to another.
3. Customer intimacy.
PIKA chose customer intimacy as its differentiating factor, and has built that idea into its corporate strategy.
At PIKA, “good support is an attitude,” Atwood said.
Customer intimacy is not just about traditional customer care, he emphasized. Every part of the company is focused on making sure the customer’s experience is as good as it possibly can be.
This focus on customer intimacy is the only way that PIKA can effectively compete against much larger companies that have more employees, broader product offerings, and higher revenues, he said.
Weathering the Storm
Focusing on customer intimacy isn’t just a good strategy today; it also helped PIKA survive the burst of the tech-boom bubble in the late 1990s.
During that period, many companies were forced to cut back on customer support, and as a result, sometimes destroyed good relationships with their customers. PIKA, on the other hand, decided that its best course of action was to put more resources, not less, into customer care.
That decision is a big part of why PIKA increased its revenues every year for the past five years
Defining the Niches
Of course, like many other companies—both big and small—success for PIKA also comes from defining the distinct niches it serves.
Atwood said that PIKA targets four primary niche markets, listed below.
1. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system developers.
2. Special-purpose PC PBX system developers.
3. Audio logging system developers.
4. Fax broadcasting system developers.
Stages of Customer Intimacy
PIKA offers comprehensive support at all stages of the customer relationship, from initial inquiry to post-installation, Boileau told TMCnet.
Those stages are outlined below.
1. Whole Lifecycle
This is the pre-sale stage of support, during which support staff answers all technical questions and help companies feel comfortable switching to PIKA’s products.
2. How to Port
This is the after-sale, pre-revenue stage of support. Support staff helps the company’s clients learn how the architecture works in PIKA products, and holds their hand through the process of developing systems that must be in place before those products can be installed.
This “testing cycle” stage can last anywhere from three to 24 months.
“We put a lot of effort into the porting process,” Boileau said.
3. First Installation in the Field
This is the stage at which PIKA’s customers purchase and install equipment and begin interfacing with telcos. The support staff helps clients understand how to provision and install lines and configure cards, and provides mediation with telcos.
4. Post-Sale Support
PIKA offers continuing support for products in the field, offering help with any technical issues that may arise.
“Keeping up the relationship is very important,” Boileau said. “The cycle repeats itself.”
Good support ensures repeat sales, which is why PIKA very rarely loses an existing customer., Atwood said. When that happens, in fact, it's almost always because a company goes out of business.
R&D and Customer Support, Together At Last
At PIKA, the emphasis on customer intimacy means that resources are used in whatever way necessary to ensure customer satisfaction, even when that means adopting a non-traditional business structure, Atwood said.
For example, the company readily shares resources between the R&D and support departments; some of the support staff, including Boileau, previously worked as developers.
That makes sense because, in many cases, the people best equipped to offer support for a product are those who designed it. But it is unusual in the industry, nonetheless.
“Normally there's a brick wall between R&D and customer support,” Atwood said.
This blurring of the line between R&D and support also extends into the area of sales. At PIKA, technical support is part of sales. Some of the support staff even get commissions, Atwood said.
Integrating departments in this way is especially helpful an in industry where, because of the fast rate of technological change, the job of the customer support person is never done.
Support as an Attitude
Whenever a client gets in touch regarding a technical issues, Atwood said, PIKA’s support staff starts off with the mindset that the problem is PIKA’s and not the customer’s. Then, a support person sets out to solve the problem and, if possible, prove that it originates on the customer side.
In many cases, he noted, the issue has to do with products from another vendor.
“Support is not a necessary evil,” he added. “It's a serious enabler.”
Helping Customers Become Clients
When a company decides to use a PIKA product, Atwood said, it often takes them many months to prepare to begin using that product.
Any company, for example, that is building a voicemail system has a lot of software development work to do before they start buying from PIKA. In order to get to the buying stage, they need technical support, and PIKA provides it.
“The sooner they get the software work done, the sooner we'll get revenue from them,” Atwood pointed out.
Mae Kowalke previously wrote for Cleveland Magazine in Ohio and The Burlington Free Press in Vermont. To see more of her articles, please visit Mae Kowalke’s columnist page.

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