Take your contact center to new heights

Several strategic changes to your customer service center can pay big dividends. At Oracle AppsWorld, a Gartner analyst shared a few sure-fire ways to maximize your technology investments.

SAN DIEGO -- If sales force automation is the least successful aspect of many CRM implementations, customer service and support may be the healthiest corner of the market, according to one expert.

In the wake of the much-publicized CRM failure rate, Michael Maoz, research director for CRM strategy at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said that more positive stories are coming out of the customer service arena than ever before. The analyst addressed a crowd of CRM users at Oracle Corp.'s AppsWorld conference.

While admitting that a good deal of support-related technology in users' hands isn't being used effectively, Maoz said a recent Gartner survey of Fortune 500 CRM adopters shows that things are turning around.

"The perception is that most support and service automation projects have failed to deliver, but the reality is that many users have succeeded on some level, even if just in terms of their customers' opinions," Maoz said.

One company that profited from improved customer support is European wireless telecommunications provider Orange. Maoz said the London-based firm struggled with service after growing rapidly in the late 1990s, but it has been able to improve customer perception using an analytics-based system built by a team of vendors that included SAS Institute. Officials at Orange estimate the company is 18% more profitable as a result, he said.

Maoz said that building better support using CRM technology is a matter of adhering to a number of critical best practices, including creating a linear path across all channels to help customers feel they haven't been lost in the system.

"There's a direct equation between how effective you are in presenting a consistent experience to the customer and how likely they are to get mad and leave you," Maoz said.

In order to achieve this kind of consistency, companies should blend the architecture that supports different customer service channels, including call center and Web and in-store operations, he said.

Oracle CRM customer Brad Snook, vice president of CRM at telecommunications maintenance provider United Asset Coverage Inc., is seeing results. According to Snook, the Naperville, Ill.-based company was wasting resources tracking customer warrantee information, losing time and money trying to fulfill repair orders on phone equipment.

Snook said that after implementing CRM and gaining the ability to more efficiently track billing in its call center, UAC saw the percentage of calls related to invoice issues fall from 70% to 1%. One of the largest benefits is an increased ability for UAC to defend its charges, Snook added.

Another result of successful service projects is gaining the ability to track where customers stand in their product and support life cycles. Knowing what products or services a customer has already purchased and where in the support process a user may be has become a differentiator in some industries, particularly business-to-business sectors, Maoz said. The analyst said this is driving the adoption of analytics-based support strategies.

"Some 95% of companies using CRM don't know why a customer defects until after the fact; analytics can help change that," Maoz said.

Maoz also focused a good deal on how companies can improve contact center strategy, perhaps the most important piece of customer service. He said that businesses should first identify just what kind of call center they operate: service centric (repair and warrantee), order-centric (an e-tail model like Amazon.com's) or complex (common in financial services).

One of the hallmarks of successful customer service efforts is the ability to track and reward call center agent activity, he said. Maoz criticized the level of human resources software currently in call centers as "abysmally low" and said that charting the effectiveness, profitability and training needs of individual call center reps can have a positive effect on CRM in general.

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