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Customer Interaction Solutions
October 2006 - Volume 25 / Number 5
Rich Tehrani


Good Customer Service For Dummies?
Lessons From Lewis Black, Richard Branson
And A No-Fog Hotel Mirror

By: Rich Tehrani, Group Editor-in-Chief,
Technology Marketing Corporation

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By way of an advance explanation, let me say that this column will depart from my usual piece; I found inspiration this month not only from the contact center industry, but from another publication. I had never before read Fast Company Magazine and may never have started if I didn’t come across an issue of the publication featuring comedian Lewis Black on the cover. If you aren’t familiar with Black, he is a comedian who spends much of his time being angry and not censoring his true feelings — including profanity, which he spews out at a rapid clip. I find him funny. He makes a lot of great points and seems to be able to take ordinary material and deliver it in such a way that his audience invariably winds up in stitches.

As I perused the September 2006 issue of Fast Company, I noticed there were a few customer service articles. Even better, the Lewis Black article was devoted to customer service. I found the quantity of customer service articles interesting, as the issue also covered topics such as fluorescent light bulbs. Still, the content was well written, and I will likely pick up more copies of the magazine in the future.

For now, I thought I would share some highlights of the various articles with you. The first was titled “The Enlightenment of Richard Branson” (http://www.tmcnet.com/359.1). The article’s most interesting theme was that Branson, the colorful CEO of Britain’s Virgin Group, which owns Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Virgin Records, went into business not to make a lot of money, but instead because his experiences as a customer were dire and he wanted to launch businesses he and his friends would enjoy patronizing.

For example, he once had the experience of wanting to speak to a pretty girl on a flight, but was stuck in his seat until the plane landed. This was the inspiration for the stand-up bars on many Virgin Atlantic flights. Not all his decisions were based on his own desires as a customer, however. It was his wife’s manicurist who suggested offering nail treatments and massages on flights. Branson didn’t perform any market research, he merely decided that this was a good idea, and now there are 700 therapists on the Virgin Atlantic staff. Ironically, I am writing this column on a non-Virgin flight and have nagging back pain. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those therapists on this plane!

Part of the irony in Virgin Atlantic’s ascent to greatness is that when Branson wanted to equip his existing airplanes with $8 million in built-in seat TV screens so passengers could watch whatever programming they wanted, he found that banks would not loan him the money for this endeavor. Instead, Branson got the banks to loan Virgin $2 billion dollars for a fleet of brand new planes — with the screens included!

The moral of Branson’s story is simple. As he puts it, “Don’t rip people off and they’ll happily stay your customer.” One final word of advice from Branson: “Take a look at your business and ask yourself, ‘Is this how I would want to be treated if I were a customer?’”

Another great customer service success story highlighted by Fast Company is that of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and, specifically, the branch in Manhattan that I was lucky enough to visit recently when I covered a salesforce. com event. What makes the hotel so special is the way it treats customers. “A thousand little details delivered through a combination of high tech and high pamper,” according to company CEO Wolfgang Hultner.

You want examples? How about a distributed antenna system in the building so cell phone calls aren’t dropped? A heated mirror that doesn’t fog up when you shower? The temperature of the room is preset to your precise preference before you arrive, and the temperature in your local ZIP code is displayed on the telephone in the room. What sets the service apart, though, is what the company does on the rare occasions when they do make a mistake — they make up for it by overcompensating. When an occasional error occurs, a message goes out over the hotel’s rapid response system, apologies are quickly sent and the problem is corrected — and then some.

Employees are paid based on the quality of their service, a refreshing detail in the hotel business. There is more, of course, but if you want all the juicy details you should read the Fast Company article for yourself (http://www.tmcnet.com/358.1).

Now for the icing on the cake — the interview with Lewis Black (http://www.tmcnet.com/360.1). Black, as I mentioned earlier, gets riled up so easily that many readers may dismiss his ranting as hype, failing to notice by their own experience that customer service is indeed getting worse. Thankfully, people like Black do the noticing for us. Lewis doesn’t miss a trick. He details his aggravation at not being able to get a live operator to answer the phone when he calls directory assistance. He observes that, from the time he was born, American businesses have been so focused on the bottom line that they have forgotten to think about service as service.

Black is no fan of the airline industry, either. He has experienced cancelled flights after arriving at the airport at 7:00 am and asked for a reason for the cancellation. Instead of honesty, he encounters unapologetic lies. He wonders why the airline doesn’t just tell the truth: the flight wasn’t full enough to take off.

The telecom industry has also upset Black, as he once racked up a $1,500 phone bill because his carrier didn’t consider Scandinavia to be in Europe. Black sees himself as the champion of the little guy and hates it when Joe Average doesn’t get what he paid for. As you can imagine, Black is happiest with a warm reception and a little humanity. He comments that the companies catering to higher end customers generally provide better service. A few of the companies he singles out for providing good customer experiences are Continental Airlines and Nordstrom. Apparently, Black hasn’t stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel lately, or flown Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

Perhaps we, as a nation of consumers, could help bring about better customer service by giving voice to our inner Lewis Black (minus the profanities, of course). And perhaps, if customer-facing companies start to give in to their inner Richard Branson, we might just create synergy that makes bad customer service.

Move Over, Skills-Based Call Routing

Technologies come and go and, for the most part, skills-based routing is a technology that has changed little over the decades. The concept is simple — match the type of caller to the person with the needed skills to service that caller, such as language, product knowledge or a knack for salvaging troubled customer relationships or soothing irate callers.

It may be that the time has come for skills-based routing to share the spotlight. Over the last half decade, the concept of using analytics in call centers and CRM systems has become more popular and prevalent. Companies that deal with massive numbers of customers have so much data to mine through, it seems ridiculous not to mine that information while looking for trends that can help companies sell more effectively.

Recently, I met with Assurant Solutions (http://www.assurantsolutions.com/targsols.html), a company that has developed a new way of connecting customers and agents. The company, a division of Assurant, a multibillion-dollar insurance company, is well known in both the financial call center business and the payment protection market. Payment protection programs are associated with credit card accounts, installment loans, lines of credit and mortgages. Under the terms and conditions of a debt protection agreement, the monthly interest due from a customer may be waived or the monthly payments may be paid for a covered life event, such as disability, unemployment or family leave. Most often, in the case of the death of a covered account holder, the debt is extinguished.

As time went on, the company started to notice they were able to conduct more effective campaigns if they matched customers carefully with customer service agents or sales people.

Using analytics, the company is able to determine the best agent for the call — not only on basic skills, but on a host of other factors that increase the likelihood of the customer buying from the agent. I know it sounds a bit like magic, but bear with me — this could become a call center breakthrough if it can be duplicated often enough. In fact, the company’s product, aptly named Targeted Solution, may end up making a far greater impact than you might think. Assurant Solutions told me that when the system is in operation, agent retention increases. Matched with the kinds of customers with whom they are more likely to experience success, agents’ performance levels improve, and thus their job satisfaction.

The company has scores of mathematicians and scientists working on this project, and some of their findings are counter to general industry practices in most call centers. For example, they have found the learning curve for new agents does not increase as much depending on time as it depends on how successful the agent is. Of course, we all know confidence inspires salespeople and sales build confidence, but most centers look at time on the phone as the primary deterministic factor in agent experience.

Targeted Solution ties into customer databases and the workforce management system and continually adjusts, allowing, for example, an agent who is having a bad week to service a type of customer who may be different than that agent’s normal ideal customer.

Stop and think for a moment and ask yourself what type of data would be useful in matching callers and agents. The answer I received was enlightening. Assurant Solutions develops a demographic and psychographic profile of each customer with data points like when the customer last paid and details from the customer’s purchase history. The company develops a profile based on 27 “dimensions” of a customer. Targeted Solutions goes even further with agents, using 150 “dimensions” or data factors. It was at this point in the briefing that I thought about the matchmaking company eHarmony, which claims to use a sort of personality factor matrix to find compatible couples. The process, if not similar, is somewhat analogous.

In determining some data points, I surmised that a compulsive person may always pay his or her bill immediately, while a procrastinator would most likely pay at the last minute. Other factors include things such as ZIP code to determine what type of environment a customer lives in, as well as details such as the building floor a customer lives in a high rise. Where people live certainly gives clues as to their financial status — at least in general. I imagine some agents are perhaps more effective when speaking to customers of higher income; another agent may be more effective at communicating with lower-income callers. These are just a few examples.

According to the company, while “perfect matching” is important, more critical are the business factors such as revenue and persistency. They look at driving more revenue to a business in a more efficient matter. All factors are weighted and they have the ability to “turn the knobs,” so to speak, to adjust. Some reps are better at selling $500 customers while some are better at selling $50 customers. Their success has been more focused on retaining/selling/collecting the most revenue and achieving the most revenue out of campaigns by aligning customers to agents who are best at retaining, selling or collecting specific revenue targets.

Targeted Solutions offers three modules: Retention, Sales and Collection. The system is configurable, allowing a user to decide they are more interested in customer retention, for example, than maximizing initial revenue generation.

Assurant Solutions informed me that within a 12 month Targeted Solutions campaign, a client achieved 67 percent “lift” over baseline in revflights after arriving at the airport at 7:00 am and asked for a reason for the cancellation. Instead of honesty, he encounters unapologetic lies. He wonders why the airline doesn’t just tell the truth: the flight wasn’t full enough to take off.

enue retained, which translates to a projected $25 million lift in revenue over a 24 month period. And the best part is that Assurant Solutions offers a variety of payment options allowing customers — assuming the situation warrants — to pay based on the success of the solution in the company’s organization. Assurant Solutions refers to it as “a percentage of the lift,” or the success achieved over baseline rates of customer retention or account salvages, for example. It’s essentially pay-for-performance.

Here is another thought I had. If using analytics for more effective call routing is the future of the call center, then we need an all-encompassing term for the industry. I discussed some terms with company execs, but we didn’t come up with anything 100 percent definitive. I’ll keep you posted! For me, it seems to make sense that analytics should be the overriding factor in connecting agents and callers. In fact, analytics can be considered an overriding term that encompasses “skills-based.” In my opinion, at the present time, the best term for this market seems to be “analyticsbased routing,” as it renders the concept simple to understand. It should be noted that in addition to helping companies with inbound business, Assurant Solutions successfully offers their solution for collections business and other outbound campaigns.

Obviously, the larger the number of agents and the more customer data there are, the more successful the program can be. Assurant Solutions’ executives provided us with a number of examples of enormous savings from a variety of companies and campaigns. If this technique can be applied more widely, we can expect call centers to become much more efficient and able to generate more revenue, becoming even more strategic to their organizations.

This concept also has incredible ramifications for e-commerce. Imagine if Circuit City, for example, was able to send out targeted e-mail based on this technology. They could determine what I am likely to buy before I even know what I’m looking for. For example, I might be a chronic procrastinator who begins buying holiday gifts on December 20th. Based on that information, Circuit City might determine that I am therefore more likely to respond to gift cards as an incentive than a discount that must be used before the end of the holiday buying season. Using this, in combination with other data, the store could create the perfect offer for me, served up into my mailbox each time I log on.

But it gets more exciting than that. Imagine personalized Web sites from Amazon, for example. The company could have millions of customized pages — they do this now to some degree — but imagine e-commerce companies using reams of data to be better able to serve up the best offers and customer interactions possible. Customers and companies will be better off if analytics become more widely deployed in all aspects of commerce. Ultimately, these sorts of innovations benefit the entire value chain from customer to manufacturer.

The World’s First Call Center 2.0 Conference

As you receive this issue, you are likely attending (or possibly you planned to attend but just couldn’t make it) the world’s first Call Center 2.0 conference. Call center technology is advancing at a rapid clip and, as the example of Assurant Solutions illustrates, there are techniques for wringing millions of dollars of savings and increased revenue from your call center and/or CRM practice.

Reading about these innovations in Customer Inter@ction Solutions or on TMCnet is just the beginning. To maximize your company’s potential, you need to observe the “One-Third Rule” at TMC’s Call Center 2.0 event, which is taking place at the San Diego Convention Center from October 10th to 13th. The One-Third Rule stipulates that one-third of your education at a trade show is derived from attending conference sessions, another third from the exhibit hall where you can see products and services in action, and the final third from networking with colleagues.

The next Call Center 2.0 conference will take place January 23rd to 26th in sunny Fort Lauderdale Florida, and I am looking forward to personally greeting you there. Visit http://www.callcenter20.com for details.



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