Small & Medium Business

Winning Strategies for Customer Responsiveness

Winning Strategies for Customer Responsiveness

It's easy to say you put customers first. An IP network can help you actually do it.

You've heard the clichés a thousand times:

  • "The customer comes first."
  • "The customer is king."
  • "Our entire company is built around customer service."
  • "We're all about the customer."

But a visit to gethuman.com, a Website that offers ways around unresponsive customer service call centers, paints a different picture. The popularity of such a site shows that there's a serious disconnect between what companies say about customer service and what they do. It's a valid concern, whether you're a $100 billion financial services company or a small office supply business.

The good news? Many small and medium-sized businesses recognize that they can use the customer experience as an opportunity to set themselves apart from their competitors.

Increasing customer satisfaction is a top priority for small and medium-sized businesses, according to the Aberdeen Group. Many businesses also recognize that technology can enable big improvements in responsiveness—and customer satisfaction.

  • Focusing on acquiring and retaining customers can boost sales and improve profitability, notes the Peppers & Rogers Group, a consulting firm that specializes in customer-based business strategies.
  • Reducing customer attrition by just 5 to 10 percent can increase annual profits by as much as 75 percent, according to a study by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Happy Customers, Higher Profits

Among small and medium-sized businesses, initiatives for improving customer responsiveness can vary greatly, according to Brian Prentice, a research director for Gartner. The best approach will depend on your company's industry, size, and geographic region.

For example, Churchill Downs, Inc., hosts some of North America's most prestigious horse races at its six racetracks, yet it has stiff competition in the entertainment industry.

"Keeping our top customers happy is vital to our business," says Jay Rollins, vice president of IT. "We want them to come here often, and we never forget that we have to compete for their business with the many forms of entertainment that are available today."

The 1,200-employee company is installing a unified communications network, which brings together voice, video, and data traffic onto a single Internet Protocol (IP) network. The new network will collect and pull together information from all the company's interactions with customers.

"With the all-IP network, we'll be able to track our top customers and give them a higher level of attention than ever before," Rollins says.

Another business, IT training company Sunset Learning Institute, uses voice-over-IP (VoIP) network phones with customer relationship management (CRM) software to build and maintain relationships with its students.

In financial services, MidAtlantic Farm Credit Services uses call management and CRM software to improve service to its fast-growing list of customers.

A Shift in Perspective

Being more responsive to customers often begins with a shift in attitude among top managers, according to Joe Outlaw, principal analyst at Current Analysis, an IT consulting company. Leading companies don't view spending on customer service and their call centers as costs to be minimized. Instead, they consider them investments to support their strategic business goals.

"I'm not suggesting that companies spend without regard for their usual investment rules," Outlaw says. "But investing to ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty is just good business."

It also means that you need to establish a solid technology foundation before moving on to more sophisticated customer service methods. Otherwise, you could end up irritating your customers by:

  • Dropping or misrouting phone calls
  • Repeatedly asking them for the same information
  • Confusing and frustrating them with badly designed phone menus
  • Unintentionally creating barriers to human contact

There are many ways to move from basic service into proactive, personalized service. Churchill Downs, for instance, has installed a wireless wagering system. Customers at the racetracks place bets using handheld devices instead of standing in line at the betting windows.

Because the system is based on an IP network, the company can gather useful customer information that Churchill Downs can use to deliver better service.

"We might have their favorite seat available in the Gold Room, or have their favorite drink mixed and waiting when they arrive," Rollins notes.

A network-based customer contact center can also improve your customer responsiveness. Even the best PBX-based phone systems can't come close to offering the features—and the long-term cost savings—of an IP system.

"We went to IP because it would simplify our customer service applications," Rollins explains. "Also, we knew we wanted to upgrade customer service across the board, and our options are pretty much unlimited with IP."

The move to an IP network will also save Churchill Downs money in several ways, such as:

  • Greatly reducing long-distance calling costs
  • Reducing the amount of call center labor by more efficiently distributing calls between its two call centers in Chicago and Louisville

"Our break-even point for the technology upgrade will be between 13 and 18 months," Rollins says.

Building on a Network Platform

Unless you have an in-house IT staff, your first move toward upgrading to IP is likely to be engaging a service provider or reseller that specializes in unified communications. For example, Churchill Downs chose Louisville's Boice.net, a Cisco® Silver Certified and SMB Select Partner.

After identifying business goals and objectives, the vendor designs a network that takes advantage of existing technology, explains Scott Klink, a senior consultant for Boice.net.

Boice.net also investigates the company's current network, checking everything from cabling and heating and cooling to power. The reason? Certain equipment, like new Power over Ethernet switches, can draw more power and generate more heat than older gear.

Also important is bandwidth, particularly on a wide-area network (WAN). "We look hard at any remote sites that communicate with headquarters over a WAN," says Klink. "Then we project the maximum number of simultaneous calls and plan accordingly."

The next steps—installing new equipment and training users—can take anywhere from three months to a year. A complete upgrade of a 100-person company with a 10-agent call center could cost $100,000, according to Eddie Goff, an account executive at Boice.net.

Still, the rewards can be high. A unified communications system can quickly pay for itself. And it creates new opportunities for you to build strong customer relationships and customer loyalty.

Next Steps

Learn more about Cisco solutions that can help you serve customers better

Find out how Cisco brings together Cisco Unified Communications with Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

Understanding the Customer from Every Angle

"Bringing together unified communications and CRM is one of the ‘killer apps' for VoIP," says Gary Chen, an analyst at Yankee Group. "For many small and medium-sized businesses, it can be the driving force in the decision to move from a traditional PBX system to a networked call center."

Chen is talking about the Cisco and Microsoft CRM solution. Bringing together the power of Cisco networking with Microsoft Dynamics CRM software lets companies create a complete, 360-degree view of the customer.

Going Full Circle: The 360-Degree View
CRM software collects, organizes, and distributes information about customers. It tracks data such as purchases and returns, buying habits, the products they own, service contracts, and more.

The call center is a real-time point of contact for each customer. Unite the IP call center with your CRM application, and you can take a huge step forward in managing and taking advantage of the entire customer experience.

For example, if a customer calls to complain about a missed product delivery, your sales rep can immediately access information to help fix the problem.

You can also use a center to reach out to interested customers to:

  • Announce special promotions
  • Invite them to events
  • Ask them their opinions

"The customer experience represents all of an individual customer's interactions with a company and its brand over time," according to Peppers & Rogers Group. "Customers view a company as a single entity, not as a collection of departments or offices."

You should view the customer the same way. A networked CRM solution can give you the complete view of customers you need.

Building the Solution
Bringing together your CRM and your phone network can be a challenge, depending on the solution you choose. You can build your own solution using industry standards, but this approach can be difficult.

That's why the partnership between Cisco and Microsoft is significant. Cisco Unified CallConnector for Microsoft Dynamics CRM smoothly brings together Microsoft CRM software with Cisco Unified Communications, to help you deliver more informed, personalized service:

  • Employees can get complete customer information on a pop-up PC window whenever a customer calls.
  • Employees can view complete product catalogs and customer histories on-screen.
  • CRM workflow automation tools help them handle complex questions.
  • The solution can display information based on employee roles—a finance rep sees different data than a tech support agent does, for example.

Real Business Benefits
The CRM database keeps up-to-the-minute records of all customer contact—not just with customer service reps. This feature is especially helpful to a company like Sunset Learning Institute, which does Web-based training, onsite training, and classroom training all over the United States.

"Every touchpoint is a customer touchpoint, and every instructor is a customer-relationship manager," according to CEO Rick Morgan.

Another company, MidAtlantic Farm Credit Services, used the Cisco and Microsoft solution to bring together its customer service systems after several mergers. The company, which specializes in financial services for agribusiness and rural homeowners, wanted to deliver personalized customer service—even with a fast-growing list of customers.

"The Cisco solution gives us an instant customer view that helps us deliver better service to customers by pulling together all CRM information in one place," says Tom Truitt, senior vice president and CIO of MidAtlantic Farm Credit. "Providing a 360-degree view of customers lets every employee treat customers like they truly understand their business."

Immediate customer information is also helping MidAtlantic use its workforce more effectively. For example, a receptionist can forward a customer call to the loan officer most qualified to handle the issue, saving time and making processes more efficient.

"Our business volume has doubled since 2000, which obviously increases our workload," says Truitt. "Nonetheless, our head count is actually a bit less than it was before we purchased the solution. Technology has helped us to accomplish more work with fewer people."

A Roadmap to Improve Customer Responsiveness

"Many small and medium-sized businesses are overwhelmed by their business challenges and the range of IT solutions for addressing them," says Derek Hibbard, Cisco senior manager for commercial midmarket campaigns.

The Smart Business Roadmap can help you prioritize your business challenges. Then you can work with a reseller or service provider to identify and build a network solution at your own pace. The roadmap grew from global customer research by Cisco and analyst partners.

"We found that of the four major concerns of small and medium-sized businesses, being more responsive to customers was the most important," Hibbard says.

The Smart Business Roadmap can help you:

  • ssess how your business is using technology
  • Help you take advantage of opportunities to improve, and make the most of your network investments
  • Guide you as you evolve your network to improve your customers' experience

Call Center Basics... and Beyond

Here's what to expect from an IP-based customer call center:

Basics

  • Inbound calls with automatic screen pop-up windows
  • Click-to-dial ability with automatic customer record creation
  • Call reporting tools
  • Virtual call center with remote agents
  • Unified voicemail and e-mail

Beyond

  • Speech recognition and voice portals
  • Video conferencing and other "rich media"
  • Integration with CRM software, which permits:
    • Skills-based routing to get the call to the right person fast
    • Workflow automation to save time handling calls
    • Access to contracts and product catalogs
    • Searchable knowledge bases
    • Self-service Web portal
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