Nicor manages customer experience from the inside out

Nicor National believes that managing the customer experience starts with improving the customer service representatives’ environment.

Nicor National, a provider of home warranty and energy management plans, believes that managing the customer experience comes down to this: If customer service representatives aren’t happy, then the customers won’t be, either.

“The environment we create for our employees is what the customer experiences,” said Barbara Porter, vice president of business development and customer service at Nicor.

That principle guided the company recently when it began an overhaul of its customer service operations. The company used feedback and survey software from Allegiance Software Inc. to assess satisfaction of customers and customer service reps. Based on that feedback, it launched a plan to first install universal front-end software from Sword Ciboodle to consolidate nearly a dozen legacy systems. It eventually will replace some of the legacy applications, Porter said.

Deployed this summer, the Sword Ciboodle software is helping the company reduce some key call center metrics, including average handle time, and cut back on employing training time, according to Porter.

Nicor National, a subsidiary of Nicor Inc. based in Naperville, Ill., estimates that it handles 1 million customer interactions a year. Over several years, the company had purchased or internally developed many systems to support sales, finance and service operations, all of which contained information that customer service reps needed to help customers. The end result was a labyrinth of 11 systems that was so cumbersome that the customer service processes were starting to suffer.

“As we added functionality and systems, we were making it difficult for them to serve our customers,” Porter said. 

Satisfaction data shapes plans for upgrade

Nicor has been tracking customer and agent satisfaction with the Allegiance software since 2009. Customers and agents are surveyed on a quarterly basis and the questions are designed to identify the factors driving satisfaction. The goal was to use this data to determine how to improve the customer experience. 

The Allegiance tool gave Porter data to back up what had until then been just an assumption -- when the agents were stressed or overloaded, there was a clear drop in customer satisfaction. “The [survey] answers tell us that when employee engagement goes up, customer satisfaction goes up,” Porter said. “If employee engagement goes down, then we can do a deeper dive to see what the cause for the drop is.”

Porter said that while most companies “intuitively know” about this correlation, “our being able to link this dynamic to the bottom line has been transformational for us.”

This clear correlation helped define how Nicor would approach overhauling its contact center. Whatever the fix was, it had to focus on making the reps’ jobs easier.

“One of the feedback items we had [from reps] was ‘Could you eliminate having to learn 11 systems to service our customers?’ ”

After assessing a variety of software options, Nicor determined the most cost-effective approach would be to install a front-end or dashboard that would provide a single view of a customer’s profile so reps would no longer need to toggle back and forth between applications. Porter said Nicor narrowed it down to three choices, and one of those options was to create its own dashboard. Nicor evaluated the internal option against Sword Ciboodle and another vendor it declined to name.

“We chose Sword because their software was very capable of doing what we needed without a ton of customization and their team took the time to understand our business,” Porter said.

New functionality for customer experience management

The legacy systems feed into a universal front end so the reps no longer directly access them and instead work within a customizable dashboard. In addition, the Sword software gives Nicor some functions it didn’t have before. One application is called the Recommender Model, which automates the process of making purchasing suggestions to customers. While a rep is engaged with a customer, the Recommender Model scans the customer history, identifies what products the customer may be most interested in purchasing and presents those choices to the rep to recommend to the customer. 

One of the biggest expected benefits to the new system will be a decrease in average handle time because the reps aren’t bogged down by moving through the old systems. Porter said the goal is to have an overall 35% reduction in average handle time. In the first weeks of using the software, the reps are already experiencing nearly a 10% overall reduction.

Next up is a survey with the Allegiance tool to measure initial reaction to the Sword Ciboodle software and “to keep up with the change management process.”

Porter is optimistic about the results from that survey because customer service reps were involved in the project from the beginning.

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