Thursday, December 16, 2004

Self Service: It’s Personal

How personalized are your customer service experiences? Been to a large department store lately? Did they know you? Have you called your local utility lately? Did they know you? How about the local gas station? Grocery store?

If your experiences are like mine, the only place where customer service appears to have any modicum of personalization is the web. When I log on to the web to pay bills, my bank’s site displays my personal data and offers me customer service options tailored to me. My broker’s web site displays trading options that are tailored to me. Yahoo goes so far as to allow me to decide the categories of content of my home page and personally tailor each of the categories to suit my interests.

Yet if I decide to use a phone instead of a browser to contact any of these companies, that personal touch that I enjoy on the web is gone. At best, my personal choices on the phone consist of entering some digits to identify myself and to indicate the nature of my call. Today, the loss of personalization that occurs just because I decide to use a telephone instead of a browser is not acceptable and not necessary.

Voice eXtensible Markup Language or vXML is a programming language that allows Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) systems to run as extensions of the web server rather than extensions of the telephone systems. With vXML, all of the services that can be accessed through a browser can also be accessed through a standard telephone. In essence, vXML is essentially a “phone interface” or “touchtone browser” for the web site.

Using vXML, it is possible to allow customer to determine the choices they hear when they call in. Instead of the “one size fits all” model used on most IVR systems, vXML can allow customers to customize the voice experience through the preferences they select on the web site. Want option 1 to always be account balance, not a problem. Want option 2 to always be “transfer money”, not a problem. vXML allows customers to tailor the experience to suit their habits and needs.

Combining vXML with automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) technology produces a supercharged self service opportunity. While vXML creates a “touchtone” browser, adding ASR and TTS produces a true “voice browser”. With ASR and TTS, it is possible to ask the web server for the information you want and have it read back the information. Questions can be posed in a conversational way rather than wading through a series of prompts.

When it comes to personalized self service, ASR & TTS provide the ultimate opportunity for personalization. Imagine programming your own commands and your own welcome message. How about your welcome message containing content that varies depending upon certain variables you choose. Call your broker and have your greeting reflect current market conditions. Call your bank and be advised if any account balance has dropped below some configurable level.

Self service today can be as highly personalized as the web. In fact, the telephone has the potential to be a better browser than the traditional web browser. Best of all, as the vXML is more widely deployed, the only real decision regarding access to web-based information will be which device is more readily available.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Generification versus Differentiation

Generification: The condition occurring when products serving a specific market segment change to become similar to one another.

Generification is not a word you will find in the dictionary. None the less, it is a phenomenon that is occurring in an increasing number of markets around the world.

Generification is a result of a blurring of the lines that allow one product to be easily distinguished from its competitors. Today, very few industries are able to escape this market trend. In the automotive world, sedans are all starting to take on a look of the European cars with rounded edges and sleek lines. Clothing designers have traditionally followed “industry” trends when it comes to colors, lengths and fabrics. Not even the drug industry can escape this trend as the spam mail for various disfunctions will attest.

So what is a company to do in order to boost its market share in a “me too” world?

Too often, financial incentives are the first choice for both holding and building market share. Financial incentives can provide a short term competitive advantage though as the automakers have found out, if you continue to offer these incentives too long, consumers learn to withhold their purchases until the incentives are big enough. No incentives quickly equates to no sales. Financial incentives, easily duplicated by all competitors, offer little in the way of escape from generification.

Some companies prefer to put marketing dollars into “consumer education” initiatives designed to highlight the differences between one product and another. The Internet makes validating these “claims” very easy yet hurried consumers often have little time to conduct any supporting research. Thus the subjects of trust and brand loyalty come into play. When 2 companies make the same claims about their products, who do you trust?

Brand loyalty is not something that can be controlled by a formula. At least, I have never read nor heard of anyone who has found the magic formula for instant brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is the product of a number things one of which is superior customer service.

Today, customer service is more than just being nice to every customer. It’s about tailoring the experience to suit the needs of the individual customer. It’s about recognizing loyal customers with special treatment. It’s about recognizing that big spenders have a different expectation than the small spender. It’s about recognizing that not all customers are created equal and providing customer service accordingly.

Airlines have segmented their customers for years through frequent flyer programs. The more you fly, the better the treatment you receive. Nothing is quite as generic as an airline seat. Car rental agencies have done the same.

Retailers have worked to integrate their Internet efforts with their retail locations but few have been successful outside of simple product return policies. Where’s the frequent shopper program that tracks my activity and rewards me for loyalty regardless of channel?

No industry today is immune from the effects of generification yet successful companies continually find ways of differentiating themselves from the competition. Customer service that targets customers with personally tailored offerings is one of the best tools for building customer loyalty, holding on to and building the customer base and standing out from the crowd. In fact, tailored customer service is one of the few products that produce lasting advantage that are very hard to duplicate.

Take a look at your company and its “generic” products. What makes you different from your competitors and what portion of that differentiation comes from a tailored customer service program?