Think of your customer-support operation as a big focus group. Businesses generally see call centers and customer-support operations as a necessary problem-resolution expense. But some companies are realizing that customer support can be a gold mine of market intelligence. Analysis of incoming phone calls, E-mails, and other customer communications can help managers spot market trends, better understand customer likes and dislikes, identify problems with products, even capture ideas for new opportunities.
Some companies are collecting information with technology designed to monitor incoming calls for service quality. Last summer, Continental Airlines Inc. installed software from Witness Systems Inc. to monitor the 5,200 agents in its four reservation centers. But the Houston airline quickly realized that the system, which records customer phone calls and information on the responding agent's computer screen, also was an intelligence bonanza, says André Harris, reservations training and quality-assurance director.
Continental found that software from Witness Systems used to monitor call-center agents also was an intelligence bonanza, Harris says.
But few companies are following Continental's lead, Gartner analyst Lisa Hager-Duncan says. Some don't have call-center monitoring systems in place, largely because of the cost, which is in the range of $100,000. But even many companies that have the technology aren't using it to its full potential. "The data is there. It's just a matter of gathering it and analyzing it," Hager-Duncan says. "It's very powerful because you're getting it live from the customer."
Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. is testing software from Nice Systems that records customer calls, voice over IP, E-mails, and chat communications from customers, then synchronizes that data with recordings of agents' computer screens for analysis. The tools use voice-recognition technology to let EarthLink managers search recorded customer calls for key words such as "cancel" to identify customers who call to end their service, and "AOL" and "AT&T" to identify customers who are switching to EarthLink's competitors. The company hopes to learn why customers defect, says Jennifer Goodman, senior manager of infrastructure architecture.
EarthLink has even been able to program the Nice analysis tools to identify calls with angry customers, using foul language and rising voices as indicators, and confused customers who repeat words and phrases. Identifying satisfied callers is trickier, but EarthLink has programmed the software to pick out calls with laughter, on the theory that only during successful calls will either party be laughing.
"You really need to listen to the stories," says Brian Curran, customer-care VP at Best Buy Co., which also uses Witness Systems' application. While the primary purpose is to monitor how well agents in the electronics retailer's call center do their jobs, the system also is used to collect comments on Best Buy's products, financing and rebate policies, and sales and delivery services. That qualitative information is often combined with data collected from the retailer's Web site and from Amdocs Ltd.'s Clarify contact-management application for analysis.
Conventional business-intelligence tools also have a role. BellSouth Corp.'s ISP business is using tools from MicroStrategy Inc. to study customer information compiled by the customer-service operation. The information, loaded nightly into a data warehouse, is analyzed to identify the cause of common problems. For example, the company once traced a rash of service calls to customer PC configuration problems that cropped up after the ISP updated its domain-name servers. In response, BellSouth trained call-center representatives on the problem, updated the customer self-service Web site, and developed new software for subscribers.
Will call-center analytics replace focus groups? EarthLink, which has traditionally relied on focus groups to understand its 5 million-plus customers, is considering such a step. "You have your own focus groups," Goodman says of customer-support operations. "Why not listen to the voice of the actual customer?"