From Service to Experience
The Evolution of the “You” and “Your Customer” Interaction

I am always a little dubious when marketers update the way in which we refer to time-honored traditions. A recent case in point would be how "search" has become "information access." Why is that an improvement?

Another one that MIGHT fit the category would be "customer experience" as a euphemism for customer service. Except that I think it is not. Here’s the thinking: "Customer relationship management" implies that one side—the business—has the ability to control the behavior of the other side—the customer. Poppycock. "Customer service" is a little better, but it also implies that the customer is merely a passive recipient of some sort of benevolent gift.

But in this age of Web 2.0-type self-determination, when consumers have the power to control their own destinies and even collaborate with one another with support and advice, I think that "customer experience" is a dandy term. It perfectly describes what the "customer experiences" when he or she interacts with a vendor of any type.

So when I sat down to talk with Chris Hall, vice president of marketing for InQuira, I was all ready to talk about "customer experience."

"All we do is knowledge management," began Chris. "We just mask it as ‘customer experience.’"

Oh. Well, that shoots THAT theory all to hell.

"No," Chris laughed. "We shouldn’t hide under the verbiage anyway. Whatever it’s called, the evolution into CRM 2.0 has gone from customer satisfaction, to customer access, to customer process, and now we’re into customer involvement.

"If you look at our kids, and their generation of Facebook and instant messaging, it’s all about having the customer involved... not as a third-party, but actually touching it. That’s what’s going to happen more and more as our children take control of the wealth of the interaction," said Chris.

I love that expression... "the wealth of the interaction." Because it perfectly encapsulates the difference between the top-down, monolithic, costly implications that "CRM" has become burdened with, and it describes an entirely new view of the customer interaction. One that suggests that instead of being a cost to the organization, and yet another process that needs money and people thrown at it, the customer experience can be a means to create wealth ... not endure cost.

"There is a business transformation," said Chris, "that occurs when you push the customer experience to the Web channel primarily. There are software companies out there that plan to have 80% of their customer inquiries handled on the Web and only 20% going to assisted-service channels. There’s been about a $20 billion investment in CRM over the past five to 10 years, and when you look at the customer satisfaction levels, you have to wonder... why we aren’t moving the needle?

Cost or Value?
Speaking of investment...I told Chris that ever since news about the economic downturn passed the tipping point between "Wall Street" and "Main Street," every process automation company I’ve spoken with has argued that, by virtue of their emphasis on efficiency and cost-saving, their businesses are "recession-proof."

After the laughing died down, Chris sort-of took a similar stance. But in Chris’s case, he can back it up. "KM is a good investment with the economy the way it is," he said. "It’s both an opportunity and a challenge for us to deliver that message. The challenge is just keeping projects alive. We do a lot of education to the people involved in the project to help them sell it internally. Because the value proposition is that these tools are EXACTLY what they need for their initiatives," he insisted.

"Here’s an example: look at any large customer service center. Everyone’s consolidating, either with people or business units. The minute you consolidate, you have to increase training, because the proficiencies of cross-training and skills based training has to go on—you can’t be a specialist anymore.

"The first key issue for training is to have better content to train from. As the need for content becomes greater, then content management becomes important. That’s why you have SharePoint and FAST coming together, and Autonomy and Interwoven merging. Well, of course they did!"

Chris made the case that access to content, knowledge, whatever you want to call it, is not a luxury that rests apart from day-to-day work, but that it’s a critical, must-have component. "The biggest challenge is getting at content when you need it, when it’s mission-critical to a front-office application. The ‘informational’ industries—high-tech, telecom, software companies themselves—all get it. Implementing these systems are among the few projects still on their budgets going into 2009. They understand technology, they understand technical support and they understand that they need knowledge to fix their problems. That’s because all their problems are either ‘break/fix’ or ‘how-to.’ They’ve always understood knowledge management, and there’s strong business will behind getting those things done," he said.

"But the OTHER ones... what I call the transactional businesses such as banking, insurance, healthcare... are another story. Traditionally, they rise and fall depending on outside influences, such as government activities, as we’ve seen recently. They are very procedural, very policy-driven, regulation-based..."

I interrupted him to ask how those transactional-type companies respond to all his "knowledge talk."

"Not as well. These business processes are step-by-step, and when they need a particular piece of content, it’s related to which step they are in a procedure. So the word knowledge is not as important as the word answer. That’s what those companies are looking for...not KM. The number-one need for these companies is in connecting the dots: I have a need, and I need an answer. Call it what you like, but I can’t think of a better ‘customer experience’ than providing answers."

It’s A New Generation
I wanted to pursue this "wealth" concept a little more, and in my typical ham-handed way asked Chris to talk about the upside of customer interaction as a sales tool. Especially now, as consumers become more savvy, and companies become more desperate, isn’t there a greater incentive to extract revenue from the common customer interaction? And aren’t contact center agents (and their automated counterparts) typically tuned to go for the sale...even in a "customer service" environment?

"You and I both know it," admitted Chris, "there are industries where, when you ‘walk in the door’ so to speak, you are marked as an upsell candidate. For us it’s not that much different. It’s just a piece of content that needs to be served up to the agent at the right moment. We used to have many terms for it: ‘real-time decisioning’; or ‘real-time recommendations.’ But now we just call it knowledge... using the right knowledge at the right time for the customer."

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