Monday, April 19, 2010

eServices: A New Version of Some Very Old Ideas

As an active participant in the high tech industry for many years, I have seen more than my share of innovation. I am certain that there is no end to the well from which creative ideas spring forth. I am also certain that a great many of the ideas many consider to be revolutionary are really old ideas adapted to embrace the innovation happening all around us today.

The whole market for products now marketed under the banner of “eServices” is the most recent example of what was old is now new again. Currently included under the eServices umbrella for most vendors are e-mail, chat, co-browse, SMS, Social Networking and Knowledge Management.

E-mail has been around a very long time. When first introduced, there was a flurry of activity to embrace e-mail as the next big thing that for the upcoming generation, would replace the phone as a preferred means of communication. Large e-mail work silos were erected to support the expected flood of traffic. The good news is that the flood did happen though a bit slower than forecasted. The bad news is that the e-mail silo rarely had any connection to the voice side of the customer service equation leaving voice agents unable to respond to questions originally posed in an e-mail. Storage of these messages within some type of “contact record” was also missing. In short, the media chosen by the customer had the effect of dictating future contact methods as continuity was broken as soon as the media channel changed.

Text chat had a similar introduction into the customer service arena. Big push, high expectations and silos built to support the coming flood. Unlike e-mail however, chat has only recently seen serious attention as the addition of “pop-up” offers based on web site activity have helped coax customers to accept the offer to connect to an agent via chat.

SMS is seemingly unique in the customer service arena. Clearly, the use of the actual SMS interface for the sending and receiving of information is indeed new, but for years, the idea of reaching a customer service resource via text pager was offered as a connection channel. Some of you may not remember text paging but it was the forerunner to today’s SMS. In fact, I helped design a working prototype e-mail server that sent e-mail via the paging network to paging cards installed in laptops. At that time, cell phones were bulky and mostly bolted down in the trunk of one’s car. 3G referred to a clothing size. Pagers were the electronic leash of the day. SMS moved the text paging to the cell phone and provided a reply function few pagers offered. As much as SMS is an improvement, message size limitations still exist within the world of SMS.

Knowledge management is also a new version of an old model. Compuserve forums were one of the more common methods for customers to seek answers from a vendor without direct contact. This was before the Web and high-speed access were available. Vendors would have staff monitoring and responding to questions on various forums and doing their best to answer customer questions. Customers were often encouraged to provide answers as well with various incentive programs rewarding those that really contributed to the effort. Today’s knowledge management is a vast improvement on the old tools. The web has provided graphics and hyperlinks. High-speed access means downloading files is easy. Sophisticated indexing routines means finding answers is easier than ever. In short, the knowledge management tools of today are not new but are certainly a vast improvement over the support forum model of years past. Oh, and lest I forget, the new generation of knowledge management systems is able to be integrated into the existing customer service delivery system unlike the earlier incarnations.

Knowing the history of these media forms is useful only if there are lessons to be learned. There are.

Integration is lesson 1. The initial forms of all things called eServices were originally deployed as stand-alone customer contact channels. This produced different desktop applications for each new media type, different service delivery models with prioritization and segmentation as unique as the media themselves and different infrastructure making shared resources an impossibility. Today’s eServices products are designed to be integrated into existing customer service delivery systems. Avoid the mistakes of the past and take the integration step. Contact media silos have no place in the modern world.

Survey your customers is lesson 2. What do they want to use? Do they seek answers on Facebook or would they prefer to reach an agent on the phone? Are they willing to share their experiences with others or do they just want answers? Is text messaging a way to initiate a phone call or is it really a desired form of having an extended conversation? Respond to your customers’ opinions and you may find they reward you with greater loyalty. Who knows but you may find that customer’s opinions may also save you some money that would have otherwise been wasted on unwanted technology.

Reporting, reporting, reporting is lesson number 3. Often the most overlooked part of any new media, reporting is essential for determining the return on the investment. Too often, reporting is limited to activity counts and stopwatch metrics which, while necessary, do little to determine the impact of the introduction of a new media. Are activity volumes elsewhere being affected by the new media? Are the customers who are using the new media changing their buying patterns in any way? Is there a growth in the overall number of customers that can be attributed to the introduction of the new media? Are the reports integrated to the existing reporting systems thus it is possible to track activity by customer as well as by media channel? These types of reporting metrics are vital for determining the actual impact being generated by the new media. Don’t let the sparkle of a new channel blind you to the need for comprehensive reporting.

The bottom line is that the new world of eServices is a wonderful opportunity to apply new technology to old service models and to do so in a way that avoid the mistakes made in years past. Those who learn from the past will be richly rewarded.

If you would like help designing eServices into your Customer Service Delivery System, please call me regarding available consulting services: 602-492-1088

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