When it comes to customer relationship management software, the market is awash with choices - and a huge number of companies are testing the water. Yet while managers may have a gut feeling that their CRM and self-service investments are paying off, those looking for concrete numbers may do better to ask not just whether the company is getting its money's worth, but whether its customers are, too. Such questions have been front of mind for Hubb Financial Group, a Sydney-based investment house with tens of thousands of primarily individual investors spread around Australia, South-East Asia, India, the Middle East and the United States.
To service such a diverse customer base, Hubb provides 24-hour customer support five days a week. But with revenues doubling in the past 12 months and an increasingly demanding clientele expecting quick and responsive assistance, the firm recently began looking into ways of maintaining the quality of its customer support.
Online support was seen as a critical complement to traditional phone calls, but Hubb didn't want to risk alienating customers if it couldn't extend its close phone-based relationships across the additional channels. This had already proved a challenge with email, which was supported but - in the lack of any form of structured management - was always a best-effort channel.
"We had quickly grown from a small company to a large one, but with that growth comes extra challenges," client services manager Chris Barker says. "We're very conscious of maintaining a level of quality, and it's far easier to have first-call resolution using online chat and phone than email. But you can't improve what you can't measure, and we had no idea of where we sat in terms of response times. So we couldn't really improve anything."
The company eventually turned to Talisma Knowledgebase's email and chat applications, which added two new customer support channels while wrapping its email support operation in a more robust management framework.
Although the Talisma tools facilitated the addition of new channels, the most important information for Hubb came through the company's regularly solicited customer feedback. In the past, this feedback had been handled in a largely unstructured way. However, by plotting changes in customer experience against the channels they were using, Hubb quickly began to learn new facts about its customers.
It discovered that online chats were what were the most appreciated by customers, with 100 per cent of respondents indicating their approval, and an impressive 18 per cent of support conversations now take place over chat. Phone support had a 96 per cent satisfaction rating, while email satisfaction was notably lower, with just 89 per cent satisfaction.
This last statistic was particularly revealing, since it gave Hubb a baseline to work from. As a result, the company has worked hard to improve its email response time and has seen overall customer satisfaction jump significantly.
"By having the capacity to measure our response time on emails, we've improved that response time," Barker says.
He estimates that Hubb has made savings of more than $100,000 a year from the efficiencies gained through chat-based support. "This improves client satisfaction," he says. "We can talk about return on investment, and there are certainly cost benefits in rolling all this out, but it counts for nothing if the client experience is diminished."
By pairing its new support technologies with a focus on customer feedback and analytics, Hubb was able to ensure customers were on board with the changes. Participation rates were up to 57 per cent, so it was clear to Barker that customers were equally keen to ensure the company was treating them right.
Hubb is just one of many companies coming to the realisation that CRM isn't a one-way conversation. While self-service portals and other new customer-facing technologies may reduce the cost of communicating with and selling to customers, technologies that end up confusing or alienating customers could well lead to losses, both tangible and intangible.
Companies seem to acknowledge this fact inherently: in a recent Forrester Research survey of 74 large US firms, 38 per cent conceded that customer experience would play a critical role - and an additional 47 per cent said it would play a very important role - in their competitiveness over the next three years.
For obvious financial reasons, self-service has been a resoundingly popular way for companies to achieve this. In a separate Forrester survey, 65 per cent of respondents said it was critical or very important to shift their customers to web self-service, while an additional 36 per cent said the same for phone self-service.
The implicit assumption in self-service initiatives is that customers respond better to having control over their experience, asking for help only when they need it. Confirming the truth of this assumption, however, requires constant customer satisfaction feedback mechanisms - but most companies still have no clear strategy for doing this.
Only 46 per cent of the companies Forrester surveyed had a company-wide customer experience effort under way, and more than one-third of these began only in the second half of 2006 - reflecting the nascent awareness of this issue.
Challenges in developing a unified strategy to improve customer experience may stem from business units using the same term to mean different things. Marketers may assume that a good customer experience can be measured in terms of increased brand awareness and competitive positioning, while sales staff will measure customer satisfaction in terms of absolute sales on the assumption that happy customers buy more.
At the same time, senior executives concerned with continued growth may prefer to assess customer satisfaction in terms of long-term customer relationships and repeat business. Such has been the case at Westpac Banking Corporation, which is on the verge of completing a massive CRM project built around Oracle Siebel CRM, SAS Institute data analytics and Teradata back-end data management.
The Westpac Reach project represents a $200 million investment and five years' effort, but most of that has extended beyond simply providing technology to help employees sell better. Rather, a big challenge has been to train 9000 employees in proactively seeking feedback from customers, then acting on it to strengthen the long-term relationship.
Need for change
"Using technology to flog products is a short-term solution, not a long-term one," says Fernando Ricardo, Westpac's head of sales and service desktop. "The organisation is culturally more interested in a long-term relationship than these three-month specials on discounted credit cards. It's all about turning an organisation inside out to focus more on what its millions of customers need from it. And the biggest challenge is getting 9000 people proficient in having proactive customer conversations, which has traditionally not been a capability of any bank."
Despite the many interpretations of what it means to service customers properly, IT staff - who are often charged with implementing CRM projects - usually have their own understanding. Ask a network manager what goes into a good customer experience and you'll likely hear about low-level issues such as network response, website design and application server latency.
Hand in hand with that perspective is a focus on service performance and network performance - which has itself been strengthened by the network-focused doctrine of performance improvement initiatives such as IT infrastructure library. The underlying assumption here is that satisfied customers are those who are served quickly and efficiently.
This is only part of the game. Network management vendors long ago began trying to match technical and business expectations by tying network performance statistics to the applications they affect. However, many are still working out the best way to link these metrics with business performance in a meaningful way.
Such links have been largely subjective in the past, but need to be quantified to allow companies to compare performance over time. In Forrester's survey, nearly half of all companies planned to do this by broadening access to internet analytics tools.
CRM adjuncts like Oracle's Siebel Contact Center and Service Analysis tools offer some benefits, but it's also worth considering automated customer survey systems like StatPac, SurveyShare, KeyPoint or myriad others to encourage customers to contribute invaluable feedback data. It is critical to establish a process for making sure that dissatisfied customers, once identified, can be prioritised and followed up individually.
Yet while available technologies provide valuable assistance for managers trying to tie infrastructure performance to customer satisfaction, customer experience will never become completely measurable in terms of latency and response time. There is still a need for human involvement if the aim is customer well-being and satisfaction.
For this reason, many companies still rely on external measures of customer satisfaction, run by third parties on their behalf. Sometimes the size of operations makes this a necessity - polling Westpac's 3.5 million customers is a big ask, and it's easier for the bank to have someone else do it.
Because the company already has a robust, regularly updated set of data from market research companies, it has left its Reach customer feedback mechanism largely unstructured: customers can leave feedback when they want to, and it is logged into the CRM system alongside customer records.
"The feedback we get from customers has increased dramatically," Ricardo says, "and we can look at areas that are not working properly. It's much easier to find improvement programs for process breakdown. Before this, you had to do it on a mainframe with limited reports and information."
Acting on information is as important as collecting it. At Westpac, ongoing education about the program means executives are aware of just what statistics are available through the SAS Institute environment - and use them in their decision making.
"A core metric of activity, efficiency, productivity and results is there across the network from the senior executives to the branch manager," he explains. "When the metrics are related to your performance, you don't need to provide a lot of incentive [to encourage their use]. People are always keen to see how they're doing and what they need to improve."
Customer care role
Providing information on customer satisfaction isn't always enough on its own. In an effort to collate the various sources of customer satisfaction metrics into a more actionable entity, many companies are appointing executives charged with managing customer satisfaction levels across the company.
About one-quarter of the companies Forrester surveyed had made such an appointment, but the firm warns that the roles of the chief customer officer (CC) or chief experience officer (EO) must carry sufficient authority to make it worthwhile.
To help the CC or EO position realise its potential, Forrester recommends several measures, including tasking executives with advocating customers' interests in business and IT dealings, encouraging continuous improvement in customer care, fostering best-practice sharing such as forming internal centres of customer care excellence, developing company-wide customer care campaigns and encapsulating efforts to improve the customer experience through internal and external communications.
Forrester also notes that a successful CC or EO is a change agent rather than a recurring role: if the job is done properly, they will theoretically no longer be necessary in two to five years' time since the principles they espouse will have become part of the company's DNA. During that time, the key is to make sure that customer interests are well understood and represented in any discussion about customer-facing initiatives.
This adds up to one thing: perspective, whether sharing it or getting it. This is valuable in shaping customer-support strategies - even if, as at radio broadcaster Austereo, the solution favoured by customers turns out to be less technological than personal.
Austereo, which manages revenues of about $230 million a year through a CRM system built on technology from StayInFront, is enjoying improvements in internal efficiency after developing a gated work-flow environment that has helped manage large volumes of data on a daily basis.
Yet while Austereo has implemented online technologies like self-service billing and credit applications, group IT manager Peter Bourke is quick to point out that technology is far from the be-all and end-all.
"We're cognisant of issues as simple as how easy it is to deal with us," he explains. "[Even with online self-service in place] we want to maintain the model of how we work with customers. Customers don't want to just come in and do business on a simple basis - which is easy to computerise. They want to be able to negotiate with us, and they're always looking for new advertising and business processes. This is not a technology-driven process, but technology supporting the process."
No matter how your customer feedback system is implemented, the key is never to take customers for granted. Self-service will often make sense, but it's also crucial to implement mechanisms to detect customer dissatisfaction - and to drive enough change to fix the problem.
Customers want to know you're looking after them because you want them to be happy, not just because you want to sell them more. Look after the former, and the latter will follow.
©Fairfax Business Media
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