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April 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 11
CRM, BPO & Teleservices

Don't Call/Contact Us...We'll call/contact you.

By Brendan Read,
Senior Contributing Editor

And that catchphrase, updated to today’s times, is what CRM messaging and notification is about: reaching out to customers via voice, e-mail, and SMS/text messages instead of waiting for them to contact your organization.

The object is to enhance customer retention through better service while lowering costs through avoiding inbound calls: including paying for idle agents and infrastructure that must be there when and if customers dial or ping in.

CRM messaging and notification tools deliver just that. SoundBite Communications held a webinar with Forrester Research on this subject that revealed interaction costs of just 10 cents for outbound messages compared with $5 per live agent handling.

Yes, this notion seems to go counter to the dominant customer ethos, namely that they are control, and that they do not to be bothered and will contact you if they need. Yet it addresses the other side of this same coin in that customers want and expect that you anticipate their needs by giving them information that is important to them.

Popular messaging/notification uses include but not limited to credit card fraud, overlimits, and limit increases, collections/past due accounts, flight cancellations, appointment reminders, service calls, and marketing offers. Datamonitor predicts that spending in hosted outbound automated voice applications and in services will grow by 18 percent per year between 2009 and 2014.

Joe Outlaw, principal analyst, Frost and Sullivan is seeing more messaging and notification for the above reasons aided by the increasing sophistication of these applications. For example when an outbound voice message reaches a called party they can be connected immediately to a live agent who can change an appointment or accept a payment.

"In this economy waiting for customers to call, that is being reactive only, isn’t going to be good enough," says Outlaw. "Firms should not just sit there and hope their customers will stay with them. They need to reach out in a way that reassures customers ‘we appreciate your business, and continue to be at your service.’"

Organizations that do just that are having success. Ivy Tech Community College achieved a record 13 percent enrollment increase while saving at least $15,000 per year over live agent with Vontoo’s voice messaging system. The college has even seen drop-outs re-apply, saying that the reminder calls helped them get back on track.

QualxServ, which provides field installation and repair services found that Varolii’s Total Solutions messaging tool enabled it to greatly reduce the volume of service calls, which cuts costs, avoids fuel waste and in doing so minimizes harmful emissions. The application transmits automated outbound calls to confirm them before sending out technicians.

"In our industry, customer service can make or break an organization, and effective communication is key for us," says Ted Parker, Information Technology at QualxServ. "We’re heavily evaluated on response time and whether we deliver a consistently superior customer experience. Using Total Solutions, we now contact our clients’ customers within four minutes of receiving a service request."

The SMS Trend
By far the most delivery method of CRM messaging and notification is by voice. Yet it is being supplemented, used instead of, and may be eventually supplanted by SMS i.e. text messaging.

SMS costs less than voice, is not as obtrusive i.e. it doesn’t interfere with calls, and it is an ideal means to reach out to the growing legions of mobile users, especially the next generation. It is also more effective as a marketing channel than other text-based means. A 2008 report by the Direct Marketing Association reveals that SMS generated far more responses – 70 percent – compared with 30 percent to e-mail offers.

Terry Saeger, senior vice president and general manager Volt Delta Resources sees SMS growing faster than voice messaging because of shifting demographics and simplicity of communication. These two factors are driving SMS growth worldwide, but faster outside of North America.

There are brakes on SMS demand and utility, mainly the end-user fees imposed by carriers to receive such messages. While individual power users can buy unlimited texting packages, those that only use or have need of it infrequently may and many no doubt have turned off the feature altogether.

There may be a solution on the horizon known as Free to End User (FTEU) billing, which works the same way as toll-free calling: the company making the outbound contacts pays for the transmission. The only barriers appear to be the ability of carriers to create billing records for FTEU and then driving those charges back to the message owners/marketers, and high profitability of the current pricing regime.

"FTEU will create new marketing and proactive communication opportunities for companies, but until it becomes ubiquitous among all carriers it will have somewhat limited appeal," Saeger points out. "I think market pressure from major direct marketers will drive the carriers to enable FTEU eventually but it is difficult to say when this will happen."

Frost’s Outlaw is seeing SMS/text messaging growing, driven in part by its convenience, and compatibility with an increasingly informal and mobile life style. Yet will it displace voice as the message tool of choice? Not for a long time, if at all, according to a December 2008 contact center end user survey by the research firm.

"The majority of customer contacts are coming in via telephone, e-mail, and Web," reports Outlaw. "Only about 10 percent of the respondent contact centers even offer SMS/text as a channel for customer interaction."

Blended Automated Voice/SMS Solutions
Contact center suppliers have been adding more messaging and notification functionality in multiple modes: voice, SMS, and e-mail, with ease of management to select the right channels for customers’ preferences. For example Interactive Intelligence has incorporated outbound and inbound SMS in its multichannel Customer Interaction Center platform. The solution permits both automated and live-agent-sent SMS messages as well for agents to receive them on the same way as other media types.

The latest release of Varolii’s hosted SMS solution permits organizations to use one channel to drive communication in another. One example is sending a voice alert about a cancelled flight and rebooking options, and then sending the new confirmation code via text message so the consumer doesn’t have to write it down.

Varolii’s tool also lets organizations tailor any aspect of their contact strategy according to individual or group preferences, demographics and responses to past campaigns. A pharmacy could for prescription pick-up reminder messages, send text messages first followed by phone calls to Generation Y consumers, send landline voice calls followed by text messages to Generation X consumers, and send only landline calls to seniors.

Automated outbound solutions are becoming customized to meet individual market needs. Avaya has done just that for its new outbound messaging/notification functionality, Proactive Outreach, for what Datamonitor reports are two early adopters of this technology, financial companies and healthcare providers, which deal with large volumes of incoming customer calls.

Financial firms can utilize Proactive Outreach for Financial Services to cover customers from acquisition to retention to collections. Healthcare firms can connect into Proactive Outreach for Healthcare automates and improves patient care interactions including welcome calls, appointment reminders, flu shots and checkups, and for past-due payments.

Volt Delta is planning a new voice and SMS notification program aimed at the growing number of wireless users, a small but steadily increasing cadre of which no longer have landline phones. The new offering will be tapping the directory assistance database managed by LSSI, a sister company which for North America has over 100 million cellphone numbers and 144 million residential and business listings. The firm is currently building self-service tools to enable its customers to schedule and manage their campaigns.

"Consumers want to be touched in many different ways," says Volt Delta’s Saeger. "I have an iPhone and it offers me many ways to communicate, and to be communicated through graphical interfaces and SMS. A lot of times I’d rather have that than a voice message."

Avoiding Crossing The Messaging Line
There is the danger that companies will overuse messaging and notification to the point where it turns off customers altogether regardless of how beneficial the purposes.

This line has already been crossed in telemarketing applications. Effective September 1, 2009 pre-recorded sales voice messaging is banned in the U.S. unless firms have signed written consent from customers. Saeger believes that the new regulation, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission has the potential to dampen demand for that modality and in response will drive even more use of SMS.

"The FTC regulations should have the desired negative impact, which is to stifle the amount of marketing voice messages going out," says Saeger. "The rules are onerous and potentially damaging to the industry, but there are companies who abuse it and in fairness some regulation is needed. Quality companies like Volt Delta will adapt to the rules and continue to provide multi-modal communication technologies for their customers."

SoundBite is taking a proactive approach with the new regulation. It is helping companies comply with the ruling by gathering approvals from existing customers, determine the best channels to use to reach them, and be more effective in their marketing initiatives.

"Each consumer has their own communication preferences and, even within a given consumer, their preference will vary by situation," says Mark Friedman, chief marketing and business development officer at SoundBite. "Our experience has shown that communicating with consumers via their preferred channel, or a combination of channels, is most effective."

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article


Interactive Intelligence

SoundBite Communications (News - Alert)


Volt Delta


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