Monday, September 13, 2010

History in Spirals

History is a wonderful subject of study if the study includes the “cause and effect” behind the events. Some would say that history repeats itself. I would suggest that history does not repeat but rather history occurs in a spiraling pattern. What seems like repeating events are actually events that are similar in many ways but significantly different in others. Some would equate this to pendular motion rather than a spiral motion. To my way of thinking, the spiral is more accurate as the pendulum returns to nearly the same spots on each swing. The spiral moves within the same relative range but continually changes altitude thus events in the past, when well understood, will share some common threads with the events of the present.

Thus the beauty of knowing history is the opportunity to recognize those common threads when they appear which leads to an understanding of what is likely to follow. The history of customer service technology is a clear example of this.

In the very early days, customer service was provided by the owner of the local store. The proprietor knew customers personally and willing to go the extra mile to keep customers happy. The successful merchants grew as did the cities in which they were located.

The introduction of the telephone dramatically changed the service delivery model. No longer was service a face-to-face experience. The telephone allowed customers and agents to be far from one another. In the same way that merchant size offered a potential pricing advantage, so too did the telephone allow the large merchants to reduce their cost of service by locating the service personnel in places with much lower operating costs. “Let your fingers do the walking” became more than a catchy jingle for the Yellow Pages. It became a wonderful description of how customer service was delivered. Efficiency was the order of the day. Consumers bought into the idea that 24 x 7 services via a toll-free call was as close to nirvana as anyone could imagine.

Like all innovative ideas, after a number of years, the innovation became commonplace. In the early 80’s, the idea of personalizing service delivered via the phone began to gain steam as customers starting growing tired of being “just another number” in the eyes of the merchants. It was time for technology to fix what had become a problem. The fix came in the form of specialized software.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software was and is intended to help the agent on the phone provide service that is as personalized as the clerk in the store. Years of transaction information and preferences were combined into a single system intended to allow the agent to appear to be someone who has a personal relationship with each customer. Lots of money was invested in training the agents in the use of the CRM software in order that the CRM software be as useful as possible.

This CRM model became the new innovation which every business looked to adopt. It was the customer service history spiral coming back around to its beginnings; personalized service but this time, without having to meet face-to-face.

The CRM excitement lasted throughout the ‘90s. Then came the Internet.

The Internet changed a lot of aspects of business as we know it. It certainly has had a big effect on the delivery of customer service. The Internet brought about a highly connected consumer population that took CRM for granted and placed a higher value on 24 x 7 self-service. Self-service came in the form of web sites and intelligent IVR systems; systems that allowed the customer to service themselves whenever and wherever they happened to be. In the same way that call centers and their toll-free numbers provided a way to greatly reduce the cost of service delivery, the Internet brought about a similar reduction in transaction costs through a pure technology play.

It should come as no surprise that the next turn of the spiral is coming into view. The very technology that has been deployed to help avoid the need for customers to speak with agents has left only the most difficult questions for the agents to tackle. Sadly, few companies have any idea what their customer service staff actually know. We are not talking the simple stuff like how to check an account balance or pay a bill. We are talking difficult technical questions and complex transactional problems that cannot be addressed by any self-service system.

The coming turn of the spiral will require an investment in the agents as well as their tools. The breadth of media forms currently offered to customers along with the increased complexity of the questions customers are raising means businesses need to be looking at investing in both people and technology in order to stay competitive. No agent can possibly know all the answers to all the questions that are starting to come at them. Specialization of agent resources will require targeted training efforts as well as new software tools not yet developed. The bottom line is that this round of the spiral, like the CRM period, will require investments in both people and technology.

The question is are you ready? Are you ready to identify agents by specialization? Are you prepared with programs that foster the growth of agents into specialized topics? Are you ready to properly deliver customers to the agents that can handle this new level of media and subject complexity? If not, it is time to start.

If you would like help preparing your company for the coming change in world of Customer Service Delivery Systems, please call me regarding available consulting services: 602-492-1088

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