All posts by Esteban Kolsky

Hire More Customer Service Representatives for Free

Customers demand more – more features, more service, more representatives.  You look at what you can do within your budgeting constraints and probably want to start crying.  Not much more you can do, or afford to do; least of all, bring in more people.  Certainly, other corporations are doing better than you – right?

Well, No. Everyone is asking the same question: how can we grow the number of customers without increasing the number of representatives or the cost for customer maintenance.  Alas, leading corporations began to realize in the last 12 months what it takes to achieve this difficult balance.  Hire more customer service representatives.  Lots more… like millions of them.

That’s right.  You can get as many more customer service representatives as you want – for free.  Yes, FREE.  Impossible you say?  Unlikely you express? (OK, I ran out of synonyms without checking the thesaurus).  Nay.  Easier than you think.  The answer is simple: empower your customers to become customer service representatives.  There are three steps to get there:

First, find the right interactions.  Comb your logs, ask your agents.  What is the largest number of interactions that your customers could solve on their own? Changing an address? Establishing new service? Getting a refund?  In the early days of web self-service, AT&T Wireless (the old one, not this one) leaped ahead of their competitors by offering the ability to claim credits for dropped calls automatically through a web interface.  The saved lots of time and money and (more important) lots of CSRs time to take on other tasks.  No interaction is too complex or too simple if you can figure out how to automate it.

Which brings us to step two. Automate, entirely and completely, the chosen interactions.  That means there is no human check at the end of the process to ensure it is correct.  You write all the business rules and exceptions for processing, feed them into a rules server, test them.  Then flip the switch.  The computer will now handle those interactions for you – and kick out the exceptions you want or need.  Your only job is to monitor the results periodically and tighten the rules and exceptions as you go along.  Can you imagine the savings if you deflect all those interactions from the phone?

Right about now your question is – will people use it?  Well, here is where it depends on you – our third step. Advertise, advertise, advertise.  “Force” customers to use the system (that means make it simple, available, and advertise it all over).  Make it a service differentiator.  Make it part of your brand.  Let them know the benefits, incentivize them to use it.  Make sure it performs flawlessly each time – and that necessary handling of exceptions is above average for speed and satisfaction (i.r. err on the side of the customer).

Guess what?  You just hired millions of new CSRs towork for FREE.  What do you think?

Tired of Web 2.0? Try Service 2.0 for size

Back in the old days of the Internet, when money was free and ideas plentiful, a few friends asked me if there was something new and different that I thought was ready to be discovered, transformed into a product, created into an IPO, and worth millions of dollars. I said I was not sure about the millions, but there had been something bouncing around in my head for a while. I called it, at that time, “point-of-need customer service” (Yes, seven years at Gartner improved – but not perfected – my naming skills). We created a pilot product, deployed it – and amazingly enough people wanted it and it worked. Of course, this was about the time the air was let out of the bubble, so the lack of funding made it impossible to continue the endeavor, which coupled with my wife’s insistence that I get a “real job” took me to Gartner.

The concept behind “point-of-need customer service” was that the browser is a clunky, stateless, session-driven interface that, to keep constantly providing service and support to customers required lengthy and complex programming, integration, and adaptation to many, many operating systems and computers. The concept I had was a unique, non-browser type application that was constantly in contact with service providers, proactively providing customer service and support to clients. The money-making portion was to sell to providers the infrastructure to service those devices, and “viral distribution” for free of the devices or applets would take care of the rest. As I said, it did not go far due to lack of funding.

Fast forward some time, and while at Gartner I proposed the idea of the Customer Interaction Hub (yes, this was the best name we could agree on – I told you it was better but not perfect). This basically became the infrastructure component that each organization could deploy to use browsers as “point-of-need” service applets. I sorta gave up on the idea of replacing the browser, as it had become as ubiquitous as operating systems in computers. I still, for the record, believe that the browser is a lousy interface… but my Don Quixote days are over, so let’s embrace it!

So, on to the concept of where we started: Service 2.0. If you are wondering where the next “thing” (or the new, new thing as Michael Lewis put it) is start to look into how to expand your Web 2.0 investments into Service 2.0. Think about the characteristics of Web 2.0: proactive, effective, low cost, high-volume, point-of-need… doesn’t it sound like that Customer Service strategy you have been working on? Some of these things already exist and are implemented (one of our clients, Symantec, does first-level troubleshooting of problems in the computer itself – without using the browser), others are infrastructure components (like device relationship management components embedded in medical and industrial machines that alert to service needs, troubleshoot, and even scheduled service calls automatically) already in place… but the whole idea revolves around three core concepts of both Web 2.0 – and your service strategy: automation, decentralization, and proactivity.

All the elements of a winning Service 2.0 strategy.

What do you think? Ready to embrace the future? Are you planning your Service 2.0 infrastructure?

The second coming of email for customer service

Back in the old days of the internet revolution (circa 1990s) email was the solution for communicating with customers. It was to replace the phone, and virtually any other channel, for support. It was going to be automated and processed within minutes. It was going to allow anyone close to a messaging device to get world-class customer service.

The magic of SPAM, viruses, and malware, hindered that vision, and the coming of other text-based communication channels with more prompt responses put the, supposedly, final nail in ERMS (email response management systems). Email support became a four-letter word – but several companies saw email as an opportunity and succeeded at it. Their stories provide us with some very valuable lessons learned that we can use to optimize the second coming of email.

When properly done email can significantly improve and optimize your support organization. Of course, “properly done” is not usually the case. There are three things you can do make sure your ERMS implementation is actually well done:

Extend customer experience – for the most part, email support has been neglected, not loved, sent to the corner. Usually when a customer sends an email for support the answers are incomplete, incoherent with other answers and policies, or (in close to 50% of emails) non-existent. Make sure you can complete the transactions your customers want in a timely manner, and that you have access to necessary resources, data, and applications to complete the transactions.

Identify the proper transactions – organizations tried to use email for every single transaction, regardless of the viability of doing a good job with that channel. Not all transactions were meant for email, some of them will be almost impossible to do cheaper or better than through other channels. Make sure your ERMS tackles the transactions that make more sense – not just any transaction.

Speed up resolution – This is the killer application for ERMS, if there ever was one. If you use automation (included free with the best ERMS packages), and tie it to the proper knowledge repositories, you can increase response times to almost negligible. Better yet, route users to either use a web-form for sending emails, or automate the initial interactions to get the information you need (think conversational agents) then you are sure to answer those emails so quickly… it may just work.

Email can be your most powerful weapon for decreasing the costs of customer support and for improving your customers’ perception of your willingness to help them. Don’t cast it aside for a bad experience, turn it into a positive one.

What do you think? Are you ready to turn your customer service email into your friend?

Differentiate Your Customer Service or Perish

I am going to give you the secret to Customer Service. This is the one thing that you have to do if you want to use Customer Service as a competitive advantage. You will be shocked when you hear what it is, I promise you. It is not a specific application, or a channel you must support, or a certain function you must provide. Neither is selecting the proper people, training them right and empowering them. And, of course, it is not about collecting and leveraging feedback. Yes, these are all things I have written and spoken on in the past… and they are critical for Customer Service success. Alas, they are not THE critical success factor.

You probably heard of Zappos’ customer service, right? It has been making the blogosphere rounds lately with things like “pay your employees to quit”, “empower your agents”, and “deliver exceptional customer service across all interactions”. Their approach to Customer Service is legendary and they do a tremendous job of implementing all best practices they can get their hands on. However, if you were to do the same and implement all best practices known to humankind, you probably won’t be seen the same way. This is because you would be seen as a copycat, not an original, and not given the same credit for what you do. Why? Because you did not use Customer Service Excellence as a differentiator, rather as another way to get and retain customers. And that is the critical differentiation (no pun intended).

To become a master at Customer Service, to truly excel at it you have to find your differentiating factor. The one thing that will set you apart from every one else. That’s it. There is no preaching about how you must do a multi-channel implementation, or whether you cannot last longer than a week without collecting feedback. If you look at what you do, learn your strengths and work on your weaknesses — and constantly strive to maintain that differentiating factor you are guaranteed to succeed.

Are you differentiated? Tell me what you are doing differently and how it has proven successful for you…

The End of Customer Satisfaction

I want to tackle, again, a pet-peeve of mine. I want to put an end to Customer Satisfaction.

Before you start flaming me (that sentence brings back memories from the BBS days), hear me out. I want to end Customer Satisfaction as a metric, and as a corporate practice – yet, in the process, I want your customers to be so satisfied with the way you do things that you will never have to worry about satisfaction. I want to change the way you deal with them, and how to ensure they get what they need.

In the old days, back while at Gartner, I wrote quite a bit about this. Of course, you would have had to be a Gartner customer or attended one of our conferences to get the concept. I am saying this so you see the value of the information below. This is truly stuff that can change your career and your business. It did so for many other clients I had.

There are two things you need to do for this to work. First, you need to change your processes from efficiency-centric to effectiveness-centric. Second, you need to confirm the conclusion of each and every interaction. Let’s dig a little deeper.

When I say change your processes i man it is not about getting the RIGHT information to the customer quickly and efficiently. It is about getting the PROPER information at the RIGHT time. You will have to change the process from asking questions that match your answers to finding out what they need to complete their task, and figure out how to deliver that information best. It may not even be in your knowledge base — it may not even be documented, but it will be after you are done. For example, if a customer at a bank asks for a balance in a savings account, it would be interesting to know why they need to know, what they intend to do, and propose certain service or solution that may match their need. It is about complete delivery, not just get-off-the-phone delivery.

In the same manner, when we talk about confirming the finality of each interaction, you MUST ask two questions at the end of each interaction (methods vary, results won’t): did you get what you needed? did we do a good job delivering? Sure, the exact wording can change to match your needs and to customize or personalize in each interaction, but the concept should not. This is the key part of this concept. Not only MUST you ask the question, you also have to have the processes in place to reach out and complete the interaction to the customer’s content. If they say NO to either question, you need to continue working with them until it is YES.

If you follow through on changing your processes and systems to incorporate these practices I can guarantee you will never worry about customer satisfaction again — since all your customers will be satisfied. If you don’t believe me, pilot it.

If you need more information on how to approach and accomplish either of these tasks, let me know.

Finally, a definition for Enteprise Feedback Management

There is a lot of confusion surrounding what EFM (Enterprise Feedback Management) is and what is not.

Lately it has been used as a substitute for surveys. Whenever we used to say “surveys” we now say Enterprise Feedback Management. Problem is we are just using a fancy term to describe the same, short-sighted approach to managing customer feedback: ask ‘em and forget ‘em.

Enterprise Feedback Management goes much further, if done properly, than that. Contrast the two following cases:

Case A – company purchases an “EFM” system (surveys by any other name). Produces and distributes a few surveys a year, mostly for customer satisfaction (another no-no), and collects some data. They look at the data collected, produce some simple reports (x% said this, y% said that), and are overall satisfied with their results. Yet, they cannot seem to affect their churn rate, nor can they focus on bringing new customers — not to mention that their marketing program seems to be aiming for the wrong customers. They conclude, erroneously, that EFM is not really a solution for them… even though the vendor told them they would be able to understand their customers better, they are at the same place they were before… but with a “good” customer satisfaction score.

Case B – a similar company deploys an EFM initiative within their organization. They create a strategy to manage customer feedback, which tells them where the feedback can obtained (no more than 40-50% should come from surveys), what they can do with the feedback they collect (think insights and data-mining for new data), how are they going to integrate and mix their survey-data with existing enterprise-data, what metrics they need to implement and follow, what insights and analysis they need to perform — in short, a complete strategy on how to collect, manage, leverage and utilize customer feedback. As a result, they can identify the three sources of churn and address the problems, they can create a better demographic, socio-graphic, and psycho-graphic picture of their clients, they can finally focus on improving and developing new products per the needs of their customers, and more.

You probably already noticed the difference in the two cases above, but just in case you need to read it. Enterprise Feedback Management is NOT a piece of software, it is a organization-wide initiative that needs to leverage three infrastructure elements: surveying software, data-mining and analysis software, and integration points into existing data and applications. When you implement it you will spend more time building a comprehensive strategy to understand where the feedback is (surveys, blogs, unstructured data through the world, interaction wrap-up notes, etc.), and how to collect it and integrate with your existing data. You will also know, before you seek feedback, what you will find out, how to analyze it, and what you will do with the insights your obtain.

Ready to start? just let me know… glad to be of service.

Customer focused strategies, the missing element

Glenn Ross asked a question a couple of days ago to fellow bloggers: how to define customer-focused strategy. Several replies followed with a similar answer: it is about listening to the customer, and delivering to their needs and demands. I agree, for the most part, but I would like to add one item to this discussion that I learned to emphasize while at Gartner.

The most interesting part of working as an analyst is the exposure to both theories and practical approaches to deploying solutions. We wrote and pushed our customers to adopt customer-centric (the old term) strategies for many, many years. Several times I felt I was talking to the wall – but once in a while a good example showed up. Now, without naming names (confidentiality clauses still apply), I can tell you the difference between a successful customer-focused deployment and one that did not do so well over time was a throwback to an older concept, that still applies today: make sure that each deployed solution is a win-win solution.

Countless solutions I saw deployed failed in the long term because, even though they delivered to what the customer said they wanted, they were too expensive to maintain, they did not reflect the corporate culture, or simply “got boring” (yes, those were actual words). The ones that succeeded were the ones that had been built and deployed not only considering what the customer wanted (a win for the customer), but also what the organization could deploy and maintain for a long time. In other words, if it made sense for the organization to do something – and there was a gain (either financial or other) that arose from it – it was a win for the organization. Alas, if the customer got what they wanted at the same time, then it was a customer-focused, win-win solution.

Quite simply: to deploy successful customer-focused solutions, you have to make sure that both the organization and the customer benefit equally, or at the very least that they both obtain a benefit or gain. Else, well – it will be one more of the customer-focused failures.


The One-Two Combo to End Customer Satisfaction

I read a lot of blogs to get an idea of what’s going on around the world and the industry, probably the same you do. I prefer, instead of taking the ideas at their worth, to extrapolate ideas from other areas into customer service – shake the core beliefs if you may – to improve our current situation and create a better system. Seth Godin has two posts in his blog that got me thinking. He talks about how to improve the role of marketing for an organization, but I could not stop thinking of the implications for customer service… and the power of implementing these two ideas:

Make big promises; over-deliver
Connect like-minded people

We are so obsessed with measuring customer satisfaction that we don’t take the time to think what we could do to replace it or even ignore it. Forget trying to get to 70-75% of satisfaction, ignore the NPS (net promoter score) and the likelihoods to do something – we are talking about long-term guarantees your customers will remain loyal and continue to bring you their business. Two steps to achieve it, but it is a great revolution from where we are. Ready?

First, over-deliver. Often I have expounded on the virtues of SLAs (service level agreements) and the place they have in customer service: managing customer expectations of service by setting the standard. I said, as much as I could, that SLAs are external guidelines – not internal. Our internal guidelines and processes should always, always be set to over-deliver what we promise. We should never, ever simply just do the best we can – we should always do better That is what impresses customers, creates loyalty, and provides stickiness to the relationships. In this time and age, it takes no more than two seconds to move to the next provider and leave the current one behind. Over-delivering is THE differentiating factor you need to stick out among them and to retain your customers.

The second question that comes up, what do you do with your customers when you have them? You know how customer relationship works: what have you done for me lately. You can over-deliver only so many times before the customers get acclimated, your competitors copy you, and the novelty is gone. That is the second punch, the one that knocks them down and keeps them coming. We talked about using communities for collaborative customer service in the past, customers helping customers, but how about for customer retention? Yes, it is a crazy idea – but so crazy it just might work. You build the communities to bring customers to your site, and use it to make them stay… not just for customer service or collaboration, but simply to stay. Connect like-minded people and see what happens.

Final words: don’t just nod your head in agreement (or disagreement), don’t scream at the computer – it won’t make me any smarter or more reasonable. Try this advice… it is not hard to do, and can give you the simple results you need. Oh yeah, let me know how it goes (or, if you already did it, how it went). If you don’t know where to start – or are not comfortable, let’s talk..

A Higher Quality of Service

Customer Service is broken.

Not exactly breaking news, no pun intended, I know. But it is broken beyond repair.  We have tried many, many fixes over time – web self-service, customer experience management, IVR or automated phone attendants, more agents, less agents, and many combinations of all of them.  Still, it is working on band-aids, at best, and in most cases it is not even working.  There is no fix we can apply because there is not one single thing to fix, rather too many.  The only solution at this time is to start over again, and build a higher quality of service.

As we leave behind this model, we must focus on a new one with features to provide for the retention of our customers (i.e. make them happy). I propose the four pillars of this new High Quality Customer Service (HQCS):

Customer Centric – do what customers need you to do
Integrated – make sure it all works together, from one single location
Knowledge-Based – have the best possible solution available at all times
Iterative – you won’t get it perfect the first time, but you will be moving forward

Alas, these four pillars are the reason we cannot fix what we have – no matter how much we try. They are all tightly intertwined and need each other to operate effectively. The best way I can find to relate this model is comparing it to a house that needs remodeling. If you ever bought a “fixer upper” and tried to bring it up to current days you know what I am talking about. Forget about those wonderful recessed lights you must-have, fix the electricity first. New appliances for the kitchen? not with that antiquated breaker box. Building your dream home-office? Guess not without changing the entire wiring in the bedrooms… pretty much everything you want to do to make it better will be tied to a main system, in this case electricity and wiring, or another. Try to fix a sub-system (like, deploying email) without putting new wiring (knowledge) and boooom! there goes your fuse box (in your case, your churn rate just increased)!

If you want to improve your customer service you must approach it as neither a band-aid fix (implement one more thing and see what happens), nor a forklift maneuver (change your entire customer service department). You must approach it as you would a renovation project for a new house – look at the main parts, make sure they work well, then begin to work on a sub-system.

If you have some questions about the best approach, I’d be more than happy to look at your blueprints — er, strategy and help you get there.