Think of Customer Service Automation as a Means of Improving the Customer’s Experience


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Sometimes it’s hard to think of customer service in any context other than CRM, web site FAQs, knowledge bases, IVR systems and outsourced call centers, but commerce and customer service existed well before globalization and the Internet. A typical customer-service interaction used to entail a back-and-forth dialogue between customer and merchant, until a mutually agreeable resolution was reached. Communication, empathy and understanding were the enablers for successful service interactions.

Today, there are cost pressures to deflect service requests from live CSRs and time-saving, productivity-enhancing technologies that purport to "improve" the customer-service function across interaction channels. The inherent problem with many of these process and technology trends is their company-centric bias; they improve productivity or throughput but rarely improve the customer’s perception of the resolution experience.

Though traditional approaches may work well for the most common and simple support issues, they ignore the basic premise of customer service. Examples might include forcing customers to peruse FAQs or tolerate multiple touch-tone menus. Denying customers the opportunity to articulate their problems and needs is shortsighted and destined to have negative repercussions. The customer must at least have the opportunity to articulate his or her problem, even if the service interaction occurs through an automated channel like the web.

The alternative approach is to implement technology that complements existing infrastructure and enables businesses to engage their customers in dialogue. Consider the following: Internet use grew just 3 percent in 2005, but the number of searches increased by 55 percent (Nielsen/NetRatings, Feb. 2006). People recognize search as the medium through which they communicate their needs and desires. Used properly, customer-service search applications can automate the dialogue between customer and service provider.

Mentor Graphics, provider of complex hardware and software for electronic design automation, implemented natural-language web self-service for its SupportNet portal and found it so successful that many customers now prefer online support, even for their most complex issues. With SupportNet, a Mentor Graphics customer can pose a well-stated problem and have high confidence the system will understand the problem and provide the right collection of information to resolve the problem.

There is no shortage of articles and reports that question the value of CRM systems. Most executives will claim that CRM is critical to their businesses but in the next breath admit they find it difficult to quantify its value.

One argument holds that CRM is very effective in tracking and centralizing what we know about our customers—purchase history, service-level agreements, previous support issues, demographic data—but not so effective in making that knowledge actionable or measurable in terms of business value. It is important to know detailed information about your customers, but rarely does that information alone help resolve customer problems. When combined with a real-time understanding of a customer’s current problem, however, the contextual information that CRM systems collect can be essential in delivering the most effective service experience.

Intelligent search
Intelligent search capabilities enable an agent to reconcile a customer’s problem with available information resources. CRM data can provide the context by which that information is further refined and presented back to the agent, and ultimately to the customer. The convergence of CRM contextual data and real-time understanding of the customer’s intent creates a compelling up-sell and cross-sell scenario.

Taken a step further, the ability to understand language makes it possible to cluster customer searches into intent categories. Businesses can then define and manage the customer-service experience intent by intent and trigger related business processes such as knowledge creation and customer-service analytics, reinforcing a continuous cycle of improvement. The basic premise of the service interaction—a mutual understanding between customer and service provider—is inherent throughout the resolution process. It drives how problems are resolved, how knowledge is created and how effectiveness is measured.

The back-to-basics approach to customer service provides hints of things to come. Agree that capturing and understanding the needs of your customers is a powerful enabler for customer-service processes, particularly in lower-cost interaction channels like the web, and you begin to envision potential applications. For example, say a customer searches on "When is my payment due?" Why not query directly against the billing application and return the actual due date and amount due?

A few telecommunications companies are doing this today. Similarly, searches related to DSL availability feed directly into a lookup application. If the customer is authenticated, his phone number will be pre-populated into the application. How about a question that triggers a diagnostic process, like how to download email to your PDA phone. Completely feasible, if you realize that successful interactions are largely dependent on the business understanding the real-time needs of its customers. Thought of this way, search may very well become the entry point of choice for every automated, self-service interaction between customer and company.

Jason Heklc
Jason Hekl joined InQuira in February 2004 with more than 10 years of high technology sales, marketing and business development experience. As senior director of marketing, he is responsible for all corporate and product marketing initiatives.


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