A Conversation with ...
Jason Hekl and Nav Chakravarti, inQuira

Roadmap to the New Crossroads
Customer Service and Business Efficiency

It’s tough out there. Finding the intestinal fortitude to invest in technology is hard enough; I assumed that defending that investment in terms of "customer service" or "competitive differentiation" is nearly impossible. But I spoke recently with a couple of sharp strategists from InQuira who made me change my way of thinking. Jason Hekl is vice president, corporate marketing, and he was joined that day by Nav Chakravarti, vice president, product marketing. I asked them to help me get into the mindset of the "typical customer" who is grappling with the conflicting forces of economic challenge versus business performance improvement.

"There are some companies that just aren’t able to spend money, for many reasons," said Nav. "But those that have some leeway with their spending are seeing benefits. Take, for example, a company that institutes a Web self-service program. They have fewer calls coming into their contact center, and that saves money. But they also use that newfound capacity to be more proactive, and take advantage of upsell and cross-sell opportunities."

Jason agreed, insisting that "the main business driver for implementing technology tends to be the impact it will have on the customer...not so much the internal-efficiency argument." He added, "That’s partly because products—especially in the B-to-C arena—are so commoditized that the only way for companies to differentiate from the competition is via better customer service.

"Professional customer service reps get their natural high from solving a problem," Jason stressed. "If they don’t have the right infrastructure in place, they don’t do their job as well and their satisfaction sinks pretty low. So, in that way, the two drivers go hand in hand; there IS an ‘internal efficiency’ argument, but it’s tied to the REAL business driver—the impact on the customer."

The Personal Touch
The intersection between business efficiency and customer service is clear. If call center agents have more time for high-value contact with the customer (the result of better Web self-service implementations, better support from the knowledgebase, etc.), those agents can concentrate on upsell and cross-sell opportunities. That’s where customer service, sales and internal efficiencies all meet to improve the value of the company.

"One of the misconceptions is that Web self service is a kind of poor ‘stepchild’ to agent-assisted support," said Jason. "Our most successful customers demand that their Web self service is on par or better than agent-assisted support. They can even charge a premium for support they provide over the Web. That’s an entirely new perspective; most people think of the Web as free."

I wondered whether any companies are swinging the pendulum too far, all the way toward a Web-only relationship. "Person-to-person is the ideal," answered Jason. "So the goal is not to replace that experience with the Web, but to replicate that experience with the Web." Jason thinks it should be up to the customers to choose how they interact with your company. But the smart companies are making their Web experience so good that customers prefer to interact with your Web site. And that benefits everybody.

If there’s a disconnect anywhere, it rests at the feet of customer expectations. A person seeking specific information on a company website expects a VERY different experience from a person using Google on the Internet. Nobody goes to a business website just to "read up"; they go there with a specific purpose in mind.

And, once again, the skillfulness of the company’s implementation has to align with its goals for customer satisfaction because, as Nav pointed out, the quality of the customer experience "depends greatly on whether the information is even ON the website. A product update that hasn’t been published. A procedure that hasn’t been documented. Whether these things happen relies on getting information out of people’s heads quickly and effectively, delivering it through both search and navigation and then measuring the effectiveness afterwards," Nav said.

The creativeness of the customer in designing applications from the building blocks available to them is the key element in successful implementations. "Our customers are really pushing the envelope," Jason explained. "Our platform is an integration of three cores: a search engine based on natural language processing; a knowledgebase that manages the authoring, structuring and publishing of content regardless of where it resides; and a mechanism to analyze how well the first two work together. Customers then deploy applications that leverage those elements in different ways to support many functions...call center applications, knowledge management, sharing and collaboration applications...our customers have bought into the notion that it’s not good enough to merely author content."

Jason went on: "The intelligence that powers the decision-making process of an enterprise comes from leveraging information...it could come from anywhere; you just need a way to harvest it," he said. "There are thousands of authors out there; I can’t possibly read all that information. Part of the sorting process has to be a reputation-based decision. I go to certain sources because I already know I can trust them. For instance, I go to the support forums first. There I may read something that helps me that hasn’t been published in the knowledgebase yet.

"But take it one step further," he continued. "What if that solution that helped me in the support forum could then be harvested and repurposed by a moderator? And what if the company could look at all similar solutions and analyze what percentage of problems were solved with information that began in the support forums...? You can see how all the different elements have to come together to make that work."

Jason and Nav are adamant that you don’t necessarily need to invest a lot (in such things as text-mining, etc.), to take advantage of user-generated content. You can use a reputation model, and let your users determine what’s valuable to them.

"You really have to think strategically about what resolves the customer problem. And it is usually found at this intersection of very contextually relevant information that’s very easily accessible through whichever channel the customer prefers," said Jason. "Then you have to manage it from an integrated platform, and have the intelligence to improve upon it."

I think they have the intelligence part covered. The rest is up to you.

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