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June 18, 2012

Customers Pledge Allegiance to Enterprise Feedback Management

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC

The customer is always right. This saying became part of the business lexicon years ago. The rise of the smartphone and social networking, however, are making that more true than ever, as customers are becoming more powerful every day.

That – and the fact that TMC this year celebrates 30 years of covering customer interaction – means it couldn’t be a better time to look at where we’ve been with customer service and where we’re going.

In this installment of our CUSTOMER coverage, we talk with Andrew McInnes, director of product marketing at Allegiance, Inc. McInnes also spent five years in the customer experience research practice at Forrester (News - Alert) Research.

How and when was your company established?
McInnes: Allegiance was formed in 2005 when SilentWhistle, an ethics compliance company founded by Adam Edmunds, merged with Allegiance (News - Alert) Technologies, a provider of web-based feedback tools founded by Gary Rhoads. Since then, Allegiance has grown to become one of the leading providers of enterprise feedback management solutions. In July 2009, Allegiance acquired Inquisite, an innovative provider of online survey software based in Austin, Texas.

What does your company sell to whom today?
McInnes: We provide voice of customer intelligence solutions to clients in several different industries and professional roles. This includes the Allegiance Engage platform, a feedback system that continually collects and analyzes the voice of customers and employees. Engage has the unique capacity to collect feedback through multiple channels (e-mail, Web, print, phone, social media) and provides analysis and reporting that helps companies uncover insights and take action to increase loyalty and revenues. Many Allegiance clients are voice of customer or customer experience leaders who have responsibility for providing continuous customer insight to their organizations at a very large scale. Others are business unit or department heads who want to empower their people with the insight they need to make smart business decisions related to their interactions with customers.

We’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary of TMC’s (News - Alert) Customer Interaction Solutions magazine. What has been the most important development in the past 30 years related to customer interactions?
McInnes: The most important development related to customer interactions is the pervasiveness of technology. Just about every business now relies on a labyrinth of systems to serve customers, whether through direct self-service interactions with IVRs or websites or through human interactions enabled by technology in stores or call centers. For a time, these technologies severed the connection between employees and customers. That’s a problem, because employees need to understand customers in order to design and deliver customer interactions that drive business performance. Fortunately, a number of technologies now address this fundamental issue. VOCi technology allows companies to generate insights from customer feedback and operational data and distribute those insights at a huge scale within a company, all in real-time. This injects customer insight into the thousands of daily decisions made by employees. Ultimately, it empowers employees to interact with customers in a way that adds value to customer relationship and the company balance sheet.

In the past decade?
McInnes: In the past decade, we have entered the age of customer empowerment. Customers now have the power to publicly talk about their experiences with a brand or product. This has posed challenges and opportunities for marketers to harness this power and capture new insights, which can be used to rescue customers and increase loyalty.

In the recent past?
McInnes: Primarily the most recent new development is the ability to combine customer data from feedback with operational and financial data to provide a complete understanding of the customer. In addition, when you combine structured data with unstructured data, such as freeform replies to open-ended survey questions or comments on the Internet, you add another layer of depth that can give you a complete picture. For example, you can see what customers are saying about a poorly performing product, why customers in a specific region for a specific type of product and for a specific time period are unhappy, and what the key issues were that drove low satisfaction.

How is CRM changing?
McInnes: CRM provides important insights into what customers actually do, what specific actions they take. This is now being combined with what customers think, their perceptions and desires, which allows companies to predict future actions. This provides predictive and actionable data that companies can use to improve their operations. It goes beyond answering what to understanding why.

How is the rise of cloud computing impacting how businesses target, engage with and deliver product/service/support to the customer?
McInnes: Allegiance gathers customer feedback from all channels (Web, phone, social, e-mail) and makes it immediately available on a single platform in the cloud. This delivers real-time feedback and actionable insights to the people in a company that are most able to take action to improve the customer experience. For example, if an airline is receiving feedback that customers are unhappy with signage at particular location, the people on the ground there can access Allegiance data in the cloud and take quick action to improve customer satisfaction.

How is the widespread use of social networking technology impacting how businesses target, engage and deliver to the customer?
McInnes: Social has clearly had a profound impact on business. In the simplest sense, it’s added a new channel to the customer journey, and that has opened up a whole range of new responsibilities and possibilities. On the one hand, social is a new channel for direct customer interactions. Today, we see a number of firms offering social customer service and using social to interact with customers for marketing or research purposes. Social is also a new source of customer data. It opens up a huge new set of information that we can mine for insight, which can then be applied to direct marketing, online experience optimization or personalization, or customer experience management. In the VOCi world, social extends the customer insight ecosystem. Allegiance has responded by building the capabilities to distribute surveys via social, identify and engage customers already talking about a company via social, and turn happy customers into vocal advocates by pushing them from our surveys to their social profiles. 

What new tools and practices are businesses using to better leverage their own and/or outside data to target, engage and deliver to the customer?
McInnes: Text analytics and data mining are really changing the VoC world right now. Text analytics adds structure to large volumes of open-ended customer comments so that companies can glean insights without manually reading and categorizing thousands of lines of text. Data mining is making it much easier and faster to get insight. It evaluates every possible pattern in a dataset and surfaces only the most important ones for a user. That means less time finding insights and more time acting on them, which is a major benefit for VoC practitioners and companies overall.

How is the mobile boom impacting how businesses target, engage and deliver to the customer?
McInnes: The ubiquity of smartphones makes text and SMS survey feedback an increasingly viable channel. It's direct, it's timely and it's becoming a preferred communications method for many people.

Receipt-based surveys provide great information, but they don't always capture sufficient sample data. On the other hand, SMS and text messaging open direct communications with customers –and many like the ease of response. However, SMS and text feedback have traditionally been hard to manage, let alone integrate with other data. Allegiance Mobile Survey Solutions make it easy, from participation to thanking customers and even responding to their feedback.

In addition, since retailers, restaurants, and other vertical-based companies have a difficult time capturing sufficient survey sample via their traditional receipt-based survey invitations, SMS provides a new channel to augment response rates. SMS may be preferred by the customers as a way to communicate and provide feedback depending on the age and demographic of your customer base. And it helps to emphasize your desire to listen and provide good service to your customers.

Edited by Braden Becker
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