Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why is Good Customer Service So Important

Jim Cuoco,
CTO, Support Fusion, Inc.

It amazes me that in this day and age how some companies still do not understand the importance of good customer service. It seems many are focused more on saving money and less on keeping customers happy. Customer satisfaction leads to continued business, referrals, and customer loyality. Inadequate customer service does the exact opposite and ends up being an enormous burden on a company, which in the end will cost more in future sales and lost customers than what would have been saved in reducing support costs.

Here is a perfect example. About six months ago I switched my telephone service over to a popular Voice-Over-IP provider. The savings for my family was be about $50 a month and with the explosion of cell phones, we have become less and less dependent on our home service anyway.

It started out great, the representative that helped with the setup was terrific and the service worked just fine. A couple of months later I ran into a problem and the only way the company allowed me to contact customer service was by calling their technical support line. Personally I would rather email my issue to the company because I like putting things in writing. There is less chance for confusion and it leaves a paper trail of what the problem was and the steps taken to resolve it.

Anyway, my call was transferred overseas to the company's support center. The representative was very fluent in English, but his accent was so thick I often had to ask him repeat himself. The real problem was not the accent though, it was his complete inability to help me with my problem. I would state the problem and the actions I took to try to correct it. He would then state what I needed to do, even though I had already done it. It was if he was just reading from a troubleshooting manual and not interacting with me at all. It was incredibly frustrating, so I ended the call and tried again with another rep. Same result. This happened on three separate calls and there was obviously a pattern.

After that experience, I got online and searched the Internet for other people's experiences with this company (something I should have done before I switched). I was amazing at how many people had taken the time to write about how bad this company's customer support was. I couldn't believe it.

After this ordeal I decided to cancel my service with this company. When I called to do it, the woman I dealt with (from the United States) was incredibly gracious. She asked why I wanted to cancel and tried to convince me to stay. I told her that if I had dealt with someone like her initially I would have stayed regardless of the problems I encountered, but I stated her company's customer service was so bad, there was no way I could continue doing business with them or recommend them to anyone else.

It is really too bad, this company's technology is absolutely terrific, but technology alone does not make a great company. The company I switched to was also a VoIP provider and while their technology is not as good, their customer service makes up for it. Problems don't happen often, but they do happen and the company that can make those problems the least painful are tops in my book.

Jim Cuoco
As Featured On Ezine Articles
Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Friday, October 13, 2006

More than Just a Help Desk Solution

Jim Cuoco,
CTO, Support Fusion, Inc.

The Help Desk/Customer Service market is enormous. There are an endless amount of businesses, towns, schools, and non-profit organizations that currently do not, but could benefit from such a solution. Why aren't more of these entities doing something in this area? Confusion, fear, too busy? For whatever reason, there are many systems on the market today that try to help people solve this common problem, "How do I better serve my customers without breaking the bank?"

Support Fusion's solution is different from the rest for several reasons:

First, our system is completely modular, profile-based, and is put together with dynamic data driven menus. This means that you can set up the system in a way that suits you best. Rename, reorder, remove, and/or add menu items. These items can be pages that come with the system, links to other systems, or links to documents in or outside of the system. This makes our system more than just a standard help desk, it makes it the central source of information for your business. Not only can you collect contact, issue, activity, and asset information, but you can point to anywhere locally or on the Internet to other sources of information. Why bounce in and out of several systems when you can access everything from one central location from anywhere in the world.

Second, our system is very secure. Again the system is profile-based and each profile is assigned a security level. These security levels come into play when trying to access to specific pages, which relate to specific functionality, reports, news items, and issues themselves. No item in the system has hardcoded security levels, meaning you can reassign security levels to your preference on any of these items. In the end, this means you can control exactly what people are allowed to see and if they tried to access a page higher than their security level, they could not.

Third, our Flex-Report Writer. This report writer allows you to tap into any part of our database, plus you can write reports to tap into your databases as well. By simply changing the ConnectionString of the report, you can see data from other databases while logged into our system.

Fourth and most important, our customer service is the best. We help our customers navigate through any issues they may encounter. And it does not take days or hours for us to get back to you. It is usually within minutes.

Jim Cuoco
As Featured On Ezine Articles
Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hidden Jewels: Build Stronger Relationships with Customer Issues

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger and CRM Advisor

The well-known Russian Playright Anton Checkhov once wrote "Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice". Nothing could be more true when it comes to achieving efficiency in customer management.

The "practice" of knowledge as it relates to customer service varies by organization, but clearly the goal should be (for any organization) the desire to establish an efficient, consistent process for meeting the demands on the most frequently requested (and thereby necessary) knowledge bits and bytes that live at the heart of your product offering.

Careful listening is by far the very best way to build credibility in customer service - why? Your relationship with that customer becomes stronger each time you are able to service their individually unique articulation of a particular question, problem, or issue. I truly believe there is a significant difference in customer impact when a problem is solved with written communication as opposed to a passing conversation.

Furthermore, any future customers that encounter similar problems will make an identifiable connection through the benefit of written communication - consider the reasons why:

  • someone took the time to document precisely what their question or issue was
  • the problem was already experienced by someone else, or perhaps many others
  • by responding in writing, customer support genuinely endorsed the validity of the issue

Thus, the "practice" of knowlege from a tools perspective manifests itself in the form of a knowledgebase of reusable artifacts. You would be hard pressed today to find a helpdesk or CRM system that does not have this feature, but there are some distinct differences when it comes to how much work (and what kind of flexibility) it takes to develop a good solid library of reusable artifiacts.

The first place to start when it comes to looking for a CRM or Helpdesk knowledgebase feature is the capability for a customer or external constituency to report and self-manage questions, issues, and problems in their own words. This ensures that your tool can capture the level of granularity that your customer may want to start with, and that once the knowlegebase article is added it will contain a solution that truly reflects customer intent.

How much work does this cause your administration on the inside of your company if you wish to create a closed-loop knowledgebase artifact, strengthen the relationship with that customer, and service the repeatibiltiy aspect of others in need of the same solution? Consider some "must have" features to create a positive collaborative environment for knowledge sharing:

  • State Change - look for a system that enables a CSR or admin to create state change on a customer-originated issue. The state change would transition the issue from open to (for exampe), to "closed - knowlegebase" without having to create the article from scratch.
  • Publishing - look for systems that enables instant publishing as opposed to batch processing or convoluted processes that slow artifact approval.
  • Content - create solutions that contain rich content - many of today's knowledgebase tools have added document editing panels (similar to MS Word) that provide word processing features, enabling you to create rich content.
  • Flexibilty - demand a system that gives you options on how your knowledgebase articles will be displayed - when it comes to knowledgebase preferences, you can please some of the people only some of the time with a "one-size fits all" approach.
  • Security - ensure that knowledgbase articles have security settings so that certain types of external users are limited in what artifacts they are able to access.

A bit of solution shopping and careful consideration up front will go a long way in building stronger relationships with customers with well planned, collaborative knowledge sharing.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

We Don't Need No Stinking CRM Solution

Jim Cuoco,
CTO, Support Fusion, Inc.

Some time ago I was visiting a friend at his company and we got to talking about the software that I was working on. I explained it was a web-based CRM system that could be used by any company (large or small) to help streamline their business. He said to me, "I don't see how it could help us, we have half a dozen support reps and they handle our customers just fine". I asked him if anyone had taken the time to actually calculate dollar-wise,how much supporting customers was costing the company. He wasn't sure but thought the numbers were most likely reasonable.

That was the wrong answer - why?

We often hear about how expensive it is to support customers and other close relationships that exist in day-to-day business operations, but what are some of the specific reasons?

First and foremost, let's consider right off the top that you must commit to the expense of the phone lines and infrastructure, which depending upon the size of the organization, can be thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once the lines are in, there is inherent waste in the form of productivity busters such as:
  • documenting the details of the call, in some cases excessively
  • "good-will" banter - while good for the relationship, it becomes a time drain across the support continuum
  • inability to multi-task effectively

If someone within your organization actually took the time to calculate how much each call is costing your company in relation to how much your customers are paying you for customer support (or even as a percentage of time expressed as productive utilization), you would be amazed. Ever wonder why many large companies are moving their call centers offshore?

Ok, so what are our options? Email! Yes, electronic mail, a proven form of effective communication almost since its inception. Except email has its problems as well:

  • How do we control who is emailing our company? Are these people supported?
  • Are the right people getting the emails? The ones who have knowledge regarding the questions being asked.
  • Are the emails even being received at all. Is that person on vacation? Deleting them by mistake?
  • How can this communication be monitored? We have no way of knowing what information is being relayed to our customers.

Solution, a web based CRM application. While some customers will always want to call, others can be asked to send their questions in via email or a web interface (possibly for a reduced support price). These questions can be turned into cases in a database that any internal CSR can access. Cases can be automatically forwarded to the CSR's that have specific knowledge in certain areas. Customers can check the status of their cases without calling and tying up CSR's. Other benefits include:

  • Minimize transcribing time by letting the customer document their question or problem.
  • Shorten the solution time by making sure the case is being sent to the correct person who can solve it.
  • Build a knowledgebase of answers so customers can search it rather than creating new cases. Most questions and/or problems have been asked before and solved already, don't waste time solving the same problem twice.
  • Monitor all communication in and out of your company.
  • No lost emails.
  • Decreased calls
  • Keep track of which customers are using support the most and adjust your billing appropriately. Decrease the cost for customers that become more self-sufficient.
  • A happier customer base makes for a more efficient company.

In the end, I convinced my friend to try the system for free - if they found it useful they could keep it, if not, no harm done. Well, I would not be writing this article if there wasn't a happy ending.

Today, my friend's company is heavily reliant on the system. They not only track their customers support time with it, but they use it to track the time of almost everyone in their business. Practically every daily activity is documented in the system. They love it, live by it and cannot do with out it.

Jim Cuoco

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

TOOB Series: Turning Ordinary e-mail into Actionable Lifecycle Tasks

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger/CRM Advisor -- Part of the TOOB Series (thinking out-of-box)

Here and there we're going to jump out-of-the-box with an occassional article that blends technology and alternative thought process. Being that it is the middle of the night and I'm not much of a sleeper, why not? We'll have to see if other TOOB articles follow this same trend of nocturnalistic inclination.

eMail is here to stay (forever) - if our planet is completely dessimated, somehow somewhere there will be an Exchange server that survivies. Companies are struggling today with the sheer volume of e-mail, and especially how to sort through thousands of message and know what constitutes a good message as opposed to junk. e-Mail filters are a good way to reduce the level of unnecessary e-mail, but there is still the problem with how to deal with the good stuff.

As the most widely accepted form of electronic communication, e-mail has become the standard for both business and personal use. Before you power on your computer tomorrow, take a moment and think about how many tasks are going to result from the average of a dozen to fifty e-mails that will be waiting for you. From those e-mails, how many of them are going to then spawn other tasks for other people?

The push is on for ways to reduce the amount of e-mail, thereby reducing the amount of storage that is required to archive terabytes of e-mail files. Traditional ERMS (e-mail response management systems) are focused primarily on facilitating self-service response and in many cases this adds to e-mail generation.

The optimal solution comes in the form of intelligent e-mail monitoring. Monitoring is relatively new technology that turns incoming e-mail into actionable tasks that can then be:
  • managed by state changes (status management)
  • automatically assigned to other people or "queues" using predictible workflow
  • escalated and prioritized

The resulting tasks can also significantly reduce disk space by compressing attachments in binary form (BLOB). For example, you receive an urgent e-mail that requires a purchase order to be processed. The e-mail was sent to you but processing purchase orders is Mary Smith's job. In this scenario, e-mail monitoring technology would work as follows:

  • the e-mail inbox where the message arrives would be monitored by a web service
  • the e-mail would be processed and deleted by this service using user-defined rules
  • the processing of the e-mail would include opening a task and assigning it
  • the assigned task would create a notification message to the owner (text message, e-mail message, pager notification, etc.)
  • the purchase order that was attached to the e-mail would be stored in an attachments tab of the task form

The e-mail notification to the recipient would include a link in it - when accessed it would bring the recipient to a page where he or she could access the task, whereby they can add activities to the task, change the status, re-assign the task, and more.

e-Mail monitoring that results in actionable tasks solves x major problems:

  1. e-Mail is processed and deleted (as well as the attachment) immediately
  2. Accountability from the original e-mail becomes enforced by having associated traceability in the form of a task
  3. Storage is reduced - archives of the databases are significantly reduced due to BLOB storage and compressed database files.

These new capabilities are an important consideration for companies that are trying to reduce storage space with the added benefit of task management.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Oh No Mr. Wizard, I don't want to be a CSR anymore!

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger/CRM Advisor

How many windows does it take to get to the center of a contact record?

If you have spent a decent amount of time in the customer support business as either a technican, manager, or divisional VP, you should be able to relate to the above statement on some level. I can recall using one particular enterprise system (which of course shall remain nameless) that actually opened thirteen (yes 13) windows before I got the information that I needed. That did not count the ones that were online help!

Cumbersome systems can push your CSR's over the edge when it comes to good service. Remember that these are people that are continuously beaten on a daily basis by customers and other dependent individuals - the very last thing they need is a system that is hard to use.

When looking for Helpdesk/CRM systems, very often the focus is on the relationship that the tool will create between you and your customers. The truth of the matter is that while external capabilities and features are important, we often forget about the our own support staff in choosing a system that will help them be more productive as well as resourceful. It is a given today that the most frequently requested capability is web access - some managers may disagree because of their preference for "in-office" support, but the majority of today's professionals can be much more productive solving support issues anytime, anywhere using the power of the internet.

When it comes to CSR productivity, less is definitely more. Look for powerful feature that are clear, easy-to-use, and give back real value. Many CRM vendors sell on a feature basis, but who wants a system (and pay for it as well) where 70% of the functionality is never used?

Some good solid features and "must haves" to consider for CSR access:
  • issue/ticket creation that includes automatic workflow that can be defined by you
  • cloning capabilities to initiate multiple tasks from one primary issue or ticket
  • attachment capabilities, with binary storage to minimize database size
  • activity management that is both system-driven and user-driven
  • routing options, such as customer to CSR, company to CSR, product to CSR, etc.
  • easy-to-use, yet powerful search capabilities for CSR's

Likewise, there are feature that the outside world (customers and partners for example) should have as well, such as:

  • issue or ticket creation that is clear, simple, and easy-to-use
  • ability to (as warranted) show who the ticket has been assigned to
  • ability to add attachments and activities
  • knowledgebase search
  • field level security (blocking sensitive internal information on the form)
  • password change capabilities
  • ability to update personal contact information
  • broadcast or news pages maintained by support

Additionally (and perhaps one of most important features) is the ability for a CSR to facilitate equal support capabilities through e-mail. This means that your tool of choice should have e-mail monitoring capabilities that will result in issue or ticket creation and maintenance as the result of incoming e-mail from your customers. Ordinary e-mail communication between CSR's and customers should post the same identical information to issue and ticket activities automatically, enabling the events to occur in a completely mobile situation without any detection.

Finding this combination of features and functionality is not nearly as difficult as it once was due to the many updates technologies that are being used today to create these systems.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Accountability Enforcement through Web-based Activity Management

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger/CRM Advisor

For as long as I can remember, there has always been an acute lack of "bi-directional accountability" when it comes to complex problem resolution. This lack of closing the loop affects people within corporate organizations as well as external relationships, such as customers, partners, and affiliates.

Here is a perfect example that occurs all the time - you call your customer to provide them with one or more updates to a particular situation. They are not available so you leave them voice-mail.

A week later, your phone rings and guess what? It's the irate customer you called last week asking you where the updates are that they specifically asked for. You passionately profess that you did in fact leave them the information on their voice-mail ("you should have gotten this information"). What happened to the bi-directional accountability? There was an obligation for you to supply the information and an obligation for your customer to acknowledge that response, but the trail was cold (in fact, non-existent).

The constant battle with accountability management is sorting through who said what, when, and under what circumstances. In the case of voice-mail, for example, someone can always make the argument that "the system ate your voice-mail" - what are you going to say to that?

If you take the initiative to implement appropriate systems for accountability, you should be certain that they have little or no capability for intervention. For example, if someone gives you a hand-written note, it can be lost or thrown away, destroying the evidence.

Typical benefits of systems that provide accountability should include:
  • traceability
  • reportability
  • auditing capability
  • archiving

Many of today's better CRM providers include features that enable detailed activity management with security features that prevent activities from being deleted. These activities can also contain category triggers that can be tied to notifications when activities are generated, further enforcing the model of accountability.

In the perfect scenario, the category triggers will generate notifications and they will be logged for auditing and archiving purposes. Activities should have the ability to be tied to a main driving factors, such as a helpdesk ticket, issue, defect, IT request, etc.

Taking the steps to facilitate accountability through software implementations is one of the most critical factors for reducing operational costs - something that every CFO and CIO in business today will be motivated to achieve.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Streamlining Support with Web ACD Technology

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger/CRM Advisor

For those of us who have lived in the trenches of a busy customer support environment, hanging up from a support call will instantly zap you with another if your company is using ACD (automated call distribution) technology. If you're a power support resource, your phone is going to be the one ringing the most because the ACD is continuously detecting your availability. Managers love this approach because it ensures productivity and optimizes time...but what about the expense?

Well, move over telephony-based ACD systems - out with the old and in with the new. Web-based ACD technology is taking over traditional ACD systems and ringing up some impressive cost savings in the process. These capabilities in many environments enable companies to scrap their expensive telephony infrastructures and ride the Internet for pennies as opposed to thousands of dollars in overhead costs.

If you are paralyzed reading this, then you might be one of the many IT professionals that may feel you have over-invested in telephony technology. Frequently these top-heavy infrastructures are put in place in anticipation of significant volume. What happens when your expectations for volume are considerably less - it's your job to explain to the division manager or VP the reasons to justify this environment. What kind of reaction do you think you are going to get?

Customer support operations are prime targets for web-based ACD re-architecture. Programming of the ACD is required so that customers are able to pick from selections in order to route the call to a certain destination. This takes time and requires maintenance when options change, something that I think many managers would agree is frequent. This also requires that the caller pick from an extensive list of product options, specify license entitlements, and other tasks that could be time better spent.

To alleviate these traditional tasks, web-based systems (customer support in particular) should provide the capability of storing this information already thorough the existing customer record. When a customer reaches the web page, they will pick the product of choice (or another decision trigger), which kicks off the routing process. Behind the scenes, the CSR record can have all sorts of routing characteristics attached to it, ensure that the customer request will make its way to the proper resource, without having to choose one option after another as is the case with a phone call. A robust system will enable a myriad of characteristics that can route "solo" or in combination with other settings, such as:
  • customer to CSR (dedicated contact support)
  • company to CSR (dedicated company support)
  • product to CSR
  • "always available" capability (for off hours, routed to static queue)
  • round-robin (distribute to CSR with lowest open call count)

The method for routine varys and usually involves some sort of hierarchy that will dictate how these characteristics apply across the spectrum of broad-based capabilities. For example, if two CSR's can support the same company, the second level check might be round-robin checking.

Although not as important to some companies, the resulting ticket, issue, or request (depending upon the nomenclature of the deployment) might also enable VoIP capabilities that will allow CSR's to orchestrate customer call-back, further reducing the cost and increasing the overall ROI proposition.

These capabilities are cost savers but will inevitably cause problems if customers are not able to see what kinds of activities are going on inside the company by the CSR to resolve the request. Refer to the article entitled "Accountability Enforcement through Web-based Activity Management" for more information on this important aspect on streamlining support.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On-Demand CRM at "feature level"

Leandro Goldberg,
Contributing Blogger/CRM Advisor

It's time to talk about the concept of on-demand and how completely over used this phrase has become in nearly every aspect of technology. Let's talk about CRM, where on-demand seems to thrash between vendors perhaps more competitively than any other areas.

The concept was initially introduced to showcase the ability for things to happen "seamlessly" in the most broad sense through automation driven by integrated software and hardware technology platforms. One of the very first "on demand" commercials showed a Ferrari getting painted the color of your choice with a simple touch of the stylus. Impressive, highly unlikely, but a good example of how to catch one's attention and make a legitimate point at the same time.

On-demand capabilities are taking an interesting twist by refining the initial concept of demand itself and taking it to a much more discrete approach by servicing the demand on a per-feature basis within application deployments.

For example, older technology deployments of CRM used technology that resulted in large-scale mammoth systems that required consulting intervention to make discrete features work for specific situations. This model, although not completely gone has certainly been replaced with applications that are infinitely more agile. Why do we need this?

Business systems today require a much broader-based enablement that is often sliced and diced based on roles and responsibilities. Why should you pay for expensive consulting to turn on a feature that might be necessary a handful of times? The value proposition diminishes quickly if you have to pump dollars to bend the technology that you shoud have probably gotten in the first place.

Tracking as a CRM concept is perhaps the core component that is common among all of the business functions (support, sales, lead generation, etc.). Not all users of the tracking portion of CRM are created equal, since today, much of the tracking information is (and should be) available to outside constituents for communication and relationship building. That said, certainly some portion of the information that is tracked (for example) in a service request should be blocked from external consumption (such as a customer or business partner). With larger systems, you can be certain that the ability to hide that information is done through complex custom coding or expensive vendor intervention.

Another critical component to consider for buyers of on-demand at a "feature level" is a discrimminating appetite for component-based, "flat technology" that inherently provides the capability to morph functionality literally by customer request. Such designs offer two major benefits:

  • architecture that enables quick modifications and fast deployment
  • functionality that provides dedicated features notwithstanding a shared environment (such as hosting)
In all fairness, many vendors have graduated to the fast deployment model, since CRM disasters of the past were most notably related to deployment times, resulting in budget overages and lost time-to-market. By the same token however, some vendors (which will remain nameless) are still operating under the mammoth model, with greater than 70% of their deployments deemed unsuccessful for just these reasons.

Perhaps the more compelling business requirement today is the capability for vendors to support customized deployments that deviate from standard code maintenance as we have come to know it. The traditional model says one build and deployment is good for everyone - hardly the model for today's on-demand environments, where feature requirements are as a la carte as the pumpkin pie you can pick from any dessert tray. In other words, today's CRM providers need to meet specific vendor needs and still maintain an infrastructure that does not wrap their technical staff around the software axel, so-to-speak.

When considering CRM architectures, specifically in hosted environments, on-demand concepts lend themselves well to the following characteristics:

  • pick a vendor that can support your customized requests despite a shared hosting environment - ask the question first before taking the plunge
  • look for a vendor that will give you the database if you exit their service, with an option to buy on-premise licensing. This ensures a flexible schema and your ability to easily support that model going forward
  • Look for flexibility - make sure the solution you pick is roles-based with plenty of ability to turn discrete features on and off for particular areas of functionality by profile.
  • Ask what technology and database vendors are used and be certain you can support an on-premise path for the future, both with engineers that know the technology and database support.

Leandro Goldberg

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Comany: Support Fusion Inc.