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At Your Service
Navigating the Complex Customer Interaction Dilemma

Managing the experience your customers have with your company is probably the most important effort you can undertake. But many companies don’t really have a grasp on what—exactly—that means. How do our customers perceive us? What do they expect (or demand) from us? And after they’ve had an engagement with us, how do they feel? Because it’s that afterglow that defines the difference between a return customer, or a disaster.

I sat down with a few trusted advisors on the subject of “customer service” (or whatever you want to call it—more on that later) to see if there are megatrends or (maybe a little less floridly put) any advice they could offer. I spoke with Stacy Monarko, director of product management for Vivisimo; Ashutosh Roy, chairman and CEO of eGain; and Sid Suri, senior director of product marketing at InQuira.

“Great customer service starts with knowing how to access knowledge; whether on the part of the customer through a well-designed self-service interface or through an agent who has ready access to key knowledge resources.” These words come from Sid Suri, senior director of product marketing at InQuira, but they would be echoed time and again by my other panel members this month.

My question was whether rank-and-file organizations—regular businesses like yours and mine—have sipped the KM Kool-Aid, and accept that customer service is more than merely reading from a help manual or referring to a pre-written series of FAQs... or whether there’s more to it than that.

“Simply collecting information is not the problem,” says Stacy Monarko. Stacy is director of product management for Vivisimo. “Content management, wikis, blogs, Web content management... there are plenty of places to collect and share information. Anyone can do that. In fact we have customers buried under 10 years of information. One has 160 different applications it can use to access information. You can’t survive under that,” she says. “The value is in optimizing the flow, and driving context around the information.”

“Not all customer service, but good customer service, is definitely a knowledge-powered initiative,” points out Ashutosh Roy, chairman and CEO of eGain. In fact, he adds, “customer service is one of the true killer applications for knowledge management.

“The reason behind any customer service interaction is the same—it’s the customer’s need for some information or help from the business. Without knowledge, the contact center agent or self-service system would be ‘flying blind’ and be highly unlikely to fulfill this customer need,” says Ashutosh.

“The important factors in this equation are time and accuracy. You know yourself that when a knowledgeable agent is assisting you, your experience is markedly improved and your attitude toward the company providing that customer service experience is much more positive. In addition, you’re probably off the phone much faster, a benefit to both you and the service-provider,” added Sid Suri.

While the basic purpose for improved customer contact may be self-evident, the subtleties of the practice may be less clear. For example, do you call it “customer service” or “customer experience” or “customer satisfaction” or... what?

“This area is evolving; there are no clear-cut answers to what it all means,” admits Stacy. “It’s funny you ask what we call it, because we just had a conversation about that last week. I definitely think ‘customer service’ is OK, but I tend to go with ‘customer interaction.’ And I expand that through all the touchpoints—not only with customers, but with partners and even internal conversations, such as an IT help desk. And that is important; a pharmaceutical company might have 2,000 sales reps, so their internal demand for support is huge,” she says.

The Social Aspect
I asked the panel to test a radical theory of mine: “Social media” has had enormous buzz but very little actual business effect... APART FROM customer service engagements. Its role in customer service makes sense... customer feedback, user forums, blogs, etc. I can see that playing a role in that very discrete part of the business. But it has had, in my view, very little impact elsewhere. Perhaps it’s oversold? The “promise” of social media has actually not come true in general business processes... true or false? And why or why not?

“The promise of social media hasn’t quite lived up to the buzz,” agrees Ashutosh. “Not even in customer service engagements, in my opinion. What we have today is widespread panic about the possibility of customers airing grievances in social spaces that the business might not be monitoring. Again there are no standards for good practices—what should you do if a customer vents loudly on your Facebook page or if you are the target of a Friday social punking? There are a growing number of cases where social interventions have backfired on the business,” he says.

“The idea that adopting social media as a knowledge resource has some merit, but then the search criteria for finding the right answer changes from ‘finding a needle in a haystack’ to one more akin to ‘finding a needle in 100 haystacks,’” says Sid. “Your search mechanisms need to be much more accurate and your analytics must be up to the challenge. There is so much noise in these social channels that one could easily become mired in the cacophony,” he adds.

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