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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
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12/2/2011
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7 Ways IT Can Improve Customer Service

Take these concrete steps to get closer to customers and help your company's marketing and customer service teams do a better job.

Companies have a customer service problem. They know that good service is essential--90% of customer service decision-makers tell Forrester that it's critical to their company's success, and 63% think its importance has risen. Yet companies struggle to offer an experience that meets their customers' high expectations at a reasonable cost. Beyond the costs, anecdotes of poor service experiences can echo through Facebook and other social channels, eroding hard-earned brand image.

IT needs to take on this challenge. They need to better understand the customer and the process for serving them, so they can give the company's customer service leaders the tools to deliver outstanding results. None of this is easy. But here are seven practical, actionable steps IT can take.

1. Understand Who Your Customers Are

Customers demand good service from each interaction they have, over any communication channel that they use--phone, electronic channels like email and chat, and new social channels like Facebook and Twitter. Forrester's data shows that customer demographics affect channel preference--the younger generation is more comfortable using peer-to-peer communication and instant service channels such as chat, for example.

Understanding customers is not only the responsibility of chief marketing officers and the marketing department--IT leaders also need this insight to deploy the right communication channels that will improve the service experience.

A case in point is American Airlines which, after an innovative technographics assessment, realized that 41% of its passengers used their phone's text message and wireless internet capabilities. American Airlines crafted its mobile strategy to target its typical customers with email and text message alerts for information such as flight delays, changes, and cancellations. And, it offered a mobile website for more advanced transactions such as downloading a mobile boarding pass, which is used by 29% of its customers. This strategy increased customer confidence in the airline as well as helped control costs via self-service and proactive notifications, which reduce the number of inbound calls.

2. Don't Offer Silos Of Communication Choices

Your service experience should let customers start an interaction over one communication channel and complete it over another. To make this happen, CIOs must ensure that channels are not implemented in silos, but are integrated so that agents have a full view of all customer interactions. This is harder than it sounds, and only 10% of IT leaders report that multichannel integration is one of their current top priorities.

3. Empower Agents With Good Information

Customer service systems must be more than just the front end of a database of customer information and cases. They should also be integrated with back office applications so that agents can retrieve real-time answers to questions such as "when did my order ship?"

High 5 Sportswear, an athletic apparel distributor, highlights the benefits of integrating customer service systems with a larger IT ecosystem. In the past, its customer service agents had struggled to track down customer interaction history, piece together customer claims, and validate discounts, which sometimes took 48 hours to do.

The IT department delivered an integrated sales and customer service system that allowed agents to quickly access customer sales data, orders, and discount levels. The result was higher-quality customer interactions, better productivity, and faster turnarounds on orders.

4. Focus On The Agent Experience

Agents use over 20 different applications during their workday, and typically don't follow the same discovery path through them--agents each slide into their own patterns, some less efficient than others, leading to inconsistent service.

One solution is for IT to apply the power of business process management to their customer service tools. IT can help service managers create repeatable business processes using visual modeling tools geared to the business users. Agents are led through a set of screens, each one displaying the information that they need at a particular point to complete a process in a reproducible--and most efficient--way.

An international bank used this strategy when managers realized that its poor customer satisfaction scores were the result of service agents in its 23 contact centers following different operational processes. Agents now use a process-driven agent desktop and, as a result, first-contact resolution has improved by 30% and call transfers have been reduced by 20%.

5. Pay Attention To Your Knowledge Strategy

A good knowledge program is one of the foundational elements for a good service experience. A Web self-service presence is a must, because many informational requests are best answered using a simple "frequently asked questions" page. Also, making sure agent knowledge is the same across communication channels guarantees consistent and accurate answers.

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Maintaining relevant knowledge is an ongoing task. One approach is to use automated tools that bubble most frequently accessed content to the top of FAQ lists. Intuit TurboTax does a good job at this, helping ensure that the most relevant tax code information is readily available to its customers.

6. Harness Your Customer Community With Web 2.0 Tools

Yet another common strategy is to use peer-to-peer communities to allow customers to interact with one another, deflecting inquiries from the contact center. However, IT should pay attention to the end-to-end business processes and system integrations needed to ensure that unresolved questions are escalated to customer service agents, and that valuable discussion threads can be recommended for the knowledgebase.

The computer maker Lenovo exemplifies best practices in tying forums to its greater customer service offering. As a result of the information contained in its forums, Lenovo saw a 20% reduction in laptop support call rates, and shortened problem resolution cycles.

7. Listen To Your Customers

CIOs need to partner with CMOs so that marketing can gather customer feedback after every interaction. Companies also must listen to the voice of their customers over social channels, using tools such as monitoring and sentiment analytics. IT should help CMOs gather and analyze opinions about products, services and company processes, and help put in place continuous improvement workflows.

All these strategies will help companies engage in a winning customer service relationship with customers. But, crafting a good service experience is a job that's never done. You must monitor successes and failures, listen to the changing needs of your customers, and constantly evolve your offering to meet those needs.

Kate Leggett is a senior analyst at Forrester Research, where she serves Business Process Professionals. Follow her on Twitter at @kateleggett.

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