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At Your Service: Delivering modern customer service is a critical step toward elevating the complete customer experience.

by Alan Joch

It’s no secret that cloud computing, ubiquitous mobile applications, and social networks are transforming the way we live our lives. We constantly connect with friends, participate in online communities, collaborate with neighbors, and communicate with people around the world. So it’s no surprise that the same forces that are changing our personal lives are revolutionizing the ways consumers and constituents communicate and interact with commercial companies and public-sector organizations.

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Consumers are no longer using the Web to merely browse for products or discover promotions—they’re actively engaging with businesses to make buying decisions, find answers to questions and concerns, and tell the world whether the experiences they’re having are positive or negative. In short, customer service and today’s activist consumer have a direct influence on the success of nearly all companies in their target markets.

Smart managers understand consumers want the same level of engagement with retailers and service providers that they have in their personal relationships. As a result, leaders in customer experience are creating engaged, responsive, and customer-centric service channels that become key competitive differentiators for attracting, retaining, and cultivating business.

Competitive Advantage

A few years ago management at Telecom NZ, a leading provider of mobile, internet, and phone services in New Zealand, made customer service a business priority. But a review of business processes showed that the company had work to do. “Customer service was seen as an area where we could make improvements,” says Sue Atkins, head of service experience for the company.

So Telecom NZ leadership embarked on an ambitious multistream improvement program. One of the workstreams would use Oracle solutions to create a central knowledgebase that’s available to customers and internal staff alike. The ready access to reliable information cuts down on customer inquiries, helps agents answer customer questions more quickly, and helps Telecom NZ get closer to its goal of “effortless service.” “This has become a real strength for us,” Atkins says.

Oracle’s back-end flexibility reduces IT complexity by allowing business analysts to make quick changes to the customer experience system.

Telecom NZ isn’t alone. In a recent Temkin Group survey, 59 percent of respondents said their company’s goal is to become an industry leader in customer experience within three years.

But good intentions don’t always translate into success with customer experience and the new age of customer service engagement. “Customer experience is not just lip service,” says Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group and chair and cofounder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

The Value of Superior Service

Nevertheless, more executives are deciding that leadership in customer experience is worth the effort. “The value of providing a positive customer experience is you increase your acquisition and retention of customers. You can also increase your efficiency, which drives your costs down,” says David Vap, group vice president at Oracle.

Research from Harris Interactive, commissioned by RightNow prior to the company’s March 2012 acquisition by Oracle, sheds light on this. A survey found 86 percent of customers will pay more for a superior customer experience. And consumers are surprisingly forgiving when customer experience problems occur—up to a point. RightNow research found that a vast majority of consumers were willing to give a company up to a week to fix a problem before looking for an alternative.

But if satisfaction doesn’t come within a reasonable time, consequences can be severe. Nearly all respondents said they’d dump a problem brand and move to a competitor if expectations weren’t met. Many consumers also said they’d post negative comments on social media sites if their complaints were ignored.

The flip side is that many consumers who feel a company quickly resolves a product or service problem go on to give the organization a positive rating for customer experience.

59%
Percentage of respondents
who said their company’s goal is to become an industry leader in customer experience in the next three years (Source: Temkin Group)

The bottom line: consumers don’t necessarily expect perfection, but they do expect service representatives to realize when there’s a problem and to take decisive action. And having the proper service channels for the task is an essential prerequisite for action. “Organizations have control over customer experience and can influence results if they act appropriately,” says Jon Ekoniak, vice president of applications product marketing at Oracle.

What Do Customers Want?

Social media, sophisticated smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks, and traditional Web via PCs—all are enabling new consumer behaviors. “Customers will want to interact across all these different channels and devices, so you have to be ready,” Vap says.

This translates into three new expectations. The first is 24/7 availability of customer service. The second is that purchase history will help service reps know the buying preferences of individual customers, rather than treating everyone generically. And finally, there is the expectation that customers can access the vendor via multiple communications channels in real time.

Understanding these customer service dynamics influenced the strategies management at Telecom NZ eventually implemented. “We look at customer service as a way to understand our customers, what they need from us, and how we can create a multichannel experience that will deliver effortless service,” Atkins says. “This area is also helping us manage the growing cost of service in our organization at a time when we are seeing an increase in complexity, particularly around mobile applications.”

To hone this effort, leadership regularly conducts customer surveys immediately after interactions with the contact center. “We found that if a customer describes our experience as effortless, then their likelihood to purchase more products from us increases significantly,” Atkins says.

Atkins adds that the qualitative research Telecom NZ conducts shows that superior service has become a key reason that customers are staying with the company. “And that’s showing up on Facebook posts, as well,” she says.

Technology Challenges

The concept that customer experience excellence directly influences business success isn’t new. Successful business leaders have known this for years, but two factors contribute to gaps in expectations and results. First, mobile and social media technologies are opening up more communications channels than ever before, which challenges organizations to sustain high service levels in a greater number of areas, whether that’s on the Web, in physical stores, or in phone interactions.

But channel diversity isn’t the only issue. The second challenge most organizations face today is finding ways to successfully integrate all these channels. This is essential for making customer service consistent no matter how each consumer communicates with the company. For example, if price information on a company’s Website conflicts with what a salesperson tells a customer, the value of both interactions will be undermined.

This kind of problem can be solved with the right technology. For example, Oracle RightNow Knowledge Cloud Service provides a single source of information that eliminates the problem of inconsistent information about products and services. Oracle RightNow Knowledge Cloud Service acts as a resource for service agents, other employees, and consumers. “It’s accessible to a customer if they are chatting with an agent. It’s accessible to an agent if they are trying to answer a question for a customer via e-mail. It’s accessible to an agent if they are trying to answer a customer question over the phone. It’s available across all of these channels. And it’s the same information for everyone,” Vap says.

Oracle RightNow Knowledge Cloud Service is the cornerstone of the enhanced service efforts at Telecom NZ. “We’ve increased the number of articles on the knowledgebase from about 600 to 4,800 at last count. And it goes up every day,” Atkins says. “The information we have available helps customers resolve billing issues and learn about new technology we are deploying. And we merged it all into one place. We are even now using that content in our stores. Our strategy was to create one version of the truth.”

Oracle RightNow Knowledge Cloud Service offers another advantage—it can empower consumers to find answers themselves. “Most customers don’t want to call a business for help, so this helps them search for the information they need or perhaps find it by collaborating with their peers,” Vap explains. “We do that through a rich Web-based self-service portal that [Oracle’s] RightNow customers deploy for their clients.”

Customer Experience and Integration

Providing superior customer service is complicated by the fact that a host of new customer experience solutions are coming to market, increasing potential for dissonance between customer service channels. Unless IT strategists take a holistic approach to these technologies, rationalizing various point products that address one aspect of customer experience will lead to IT fragmentation. Delivery model is another complexity, with cloud-based and on-premises technologies needing to co-exist. “When there are many one-off solutions, IT environments become more complex,” Vap points out. “Increased complexity could actually make customer experience worse.”

Instead, Vap says, executives need to find solutions that run their traditional IT infrastructures while effectively integrating newer technologies for customer experience. That requires a solution with the right integrations to allow data to move freely between various components of the ecosystem.

The Oracle technology portfolio is unique because it offers a comprehensive set of technologies that address modern customer service requirements but can be deployed on a technological infrastructure that traditionally integrates new channels with existing enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management solutions.

Service-oriented architectures are part of the core technology that supports this integration. “Web services is one of the most important integration developments of the last decade,” Vap says. “This makes it easy to integrate components, such as the [Oracle] RightNow technologies with Oracle E-Business Suite and other Oracle enterprise applications. Cloud-based solutions have Web service layers that allow organizations to perform data integration with whatever systems may be on premises.”

Oracle’s back-end flexibility reduces IT complexity by allowing business analysts to make quick changes to the customer experience system without always involving the IT staff. “If it takes 24 months to implement a change to improve customer experience, guess what? Customers will leave. Agility and responsiveness are paramount today,” Vap says.

But customer experience veterans say success doesn’t come about through technology alone. Executives must also encourage employees to be as proactive and transparent as possible with consumers if problems arise.

Atkins says that while Oracle RightNow products are helping her organization deliver better service and develop more-loyal customers, that’s not the only goal. “This strategy also creates significant opportunities to keep costs down,” she says. “Our mantra is ‘Great service is the cheapest service,’ and that has certainly become evident as we’ve improved our ability to resolve problems faster, reduce the need to transfer calls among agents to solve issues, and deliver better metrics overall from a customer experience perspective.”

And Atkins believes making (and keeping) the customer the highest priority is what makes that transformation possible. “It is actually a cultural-change program that is very much centered around what’s important for your customers,” she says.

Alan Joch is a New England–based technology writer.

 
 
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