It is fair to say that customer service has changed since the Web 1.0 days. We know that the customers of today want to receive relevant information on their own terms, from peers, not companies, using their own terminology, displayed in the layout of their choice. At the same time, empowered customers want to make their own choices about the way they interact with companies that they do business with. That means that the company needs to provide not only the goods and services, but also the tools and culture to make the service experience one of paramount value to that customer and thus to the company in return.
Here are some key steps to take in order to maximize the service experience for a customer:
Know your customer
When a customer contacts a company, agents should have full access to the customer's information. They should be able to view past and pending requests made across all available communication channels-phone, e-mail, chat and SMS (Short Message Service). This ensures that customers are receiving consistent information irrespective of the contact channel.
In addition, if a request has been escalated from a Web self-service session because the customer was unable to locate the correct information, agents should have access to the full session history in order not to repeat questions or searches that customers have already performed.
Couple your CRM system with others
CRM (customer relationship management) systems should be more than just the front end of a database of customer information and cases-they should also be integrated with back office applications. Real-time data integration means the system can make calls to third-party systems to further define a question or retrieve a real-time answer to a question such as, "When did my order ship?" or, "Do you have model XYZ in stock?"
Some companies go a step further to deeply couple knowledge management systems with CRM. When agents are gathering the details of the customer's issue, under-the-covers searches are being executed so that an updated list of relevant solutions can be presented to the agent. Agents should be able to drag and drop solutions right into the case details and e-mail them to the customer.
Make search smart
In the perfect world, in order to optimize the search experience, context-driven search should be available on the agent's desktop. The context of the interaction with the customer should be passed into the search-such as the product version being used and its operating system-so that only relevant, targeted information is returned back to the agent.
To make the tight coupling of knowledge with CRM effective, agents should be able to easily create new knowledge if pertinent knowledge is not found, or modify knowledge that is inaccurate. Agents should also be able to bookmark knowledge that they frequently use, and be able to share these bookmarks with other agents, in order to help novice agents get up to speed on the most useful solutions for their work.
In addition, some CRM systems can be deployed to be fully "context-sensitive." For example, if an agent is researching the customer's history, only screens that contain this information are actively available to him or her. This helps focus the agent on the task by guiding him or her through a complex application to the right information.
Meet your customer's expectations
E-mail has surpassed voice as being the preferred service choice. The SSPA (Service & Support Professionals Association) reports that customers expect an e-mail response within between 20 minutes and 2 hours. Yet, as Jupiter Research reports, e-mail response performance on the whole falls short of consumers' response time expectations-only 42 percent of companies responded to e-mail inquiries within 24 hours in 2006, down from 54 percent in 2002, while the number of unresponsive sites increased to 41 percent.
Even with these statistics working against you, there are basic steps to take to ensure that your customers know when their questions will be answered.
Auto-acknowledgements are a failsafe way to manage the conversation that you have with your customer, and establish service expectations-for example by letting your customers know that they will receive an answer to a question within 12 hours, or that their answers may be slightly delayed because the company is experiencing a higher volume of traffic than anticipated. Yet Jupiter Research tells us that only 39 percent of companies actually use them!
If you do implement auto-acknowledgements, personalize them with the customer's name and include a greeting and your branding, as well as any pertinent order information. You can even include links to related products for purchase in auto-acknowledgements for cross-sell opportunities.
Answer your customer's question
According to Forrester Research, six in 10 customer service e-mails do not answer the customer's original question. Teach your agents to write useful e-mails. The first two lines of the e-mail should acknowledge the customer's question, and the message should be formatted for easy scanning, by using bolding or highlighting, for example.
All questions that the customer asks-direct and implied-should be answered up front to help reduce follow-up questions from the customer. For example, a customer asking whether shuttle service is available should receive an answer answering this question, as well as giving the cost and schedule of the shuttle service.
Follow up by asking whether the customer's question was answered, and give the customer alternate contact methods, such as by providing a pointer to the frequently asked questions section on the corporate Web site, a phone number or access to a chat link
Never force your customer to use a particular communication channel, or get stuck with a single communication channel for the duration of the service experience. Allow customers to choose the channel that works for them at that particular time. For example, a customer should be able to follow up an e-mail service request with a phone call if he is away from his desktop, and the agent should have access to the customer's information across all contact channels.
Lastly, allow customers to give you unsolicited feedback-both good and bad. E-mail messages containing feedback can be categorized as such and routed to a queue designated to handle such contacts. As most of this feedback tends to be negative, strong focus should be given to addressing this feedback. Such interactions can be used as triggers to target consumers for proactive outreach.
These strategies put you on the path to engaging in a successful two-way conversation with your customer base. Customers will still influence the relationship that they have with companies. Yet companies will have a greater success in creating a loyal customer base if they respect their customers.
Kate Leggett is the director of e-Service Product Strategy at KANA. Her 10-plus years of experience as a senior engineering management professional in the enterprise software industry have been instrumental in allowing KANA to consistently deliver robust and competitive Knowledge Management products. Prior to joining KANA, she spent a decade working in many diverse areas of the eCommerce and CRMsoftware industry. Kate uses her experience to help deliver world-class customer service solutions.