Focus On Customer Experience

A growing number of businesses are spending more time and money on technology to improve virtually every aspect of customer interaction.
Businesses are relying more on IT for nearly every facet of customer interaction: billing, marketing, order processing, sales, and support. With the growing use of technologies such as call-center automation, customer-relationship management, data warehousing, and Internet-based applications, it's hard to imagine how businesses could comprehensively relate to their customers without IT.

Despite some ineffective results, the trend toward technology-centric customer interaction is continuing. Some 40% of the 200 business and technology professionals surveyed by Optimize Research in June said their companies are devoting far more time and money to customer-relationship strategy issues and IT implementations this year compared with last. (Optimize and InformationWeek are both published by CMP Media.) More than half of the businesses will spend the same amount of time and money this year, and only 4% said they'll spend far less. On average, companies are allocating about a quarter of their annual IT budgets to customer-facing technologies, maintenance, or both.

Automation Motivation, pie chartMost of the businesses (91%) have automated some aspect of the customer experience. And many of these (61%) are doing so to improve the customer experience rather than to save on costs (30%).

For example, DHL Holdings USA has tried to enhance customers' experiences by making it easier to access information such as shipment status and pricing. In the highly competitive package-delivery and logistics-services market, IT is essential to go up against competitors such as FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc.

The company, a subsidiary of DHL Worldwide Network, has extended its EDI service so that large business customers can make automated queries about shipments or billing either through an XML interface or through pure EDI, says innovation manager Terrance Glover, who reports to DHL's IT and customer-experience departments.

DHL's large customers that ship hundreds of thousands of packages per day "don't ever want to talk to us [about shipments]. They want to handle it all electronically," Glover says. For smaller customers that don't use EDI, DHL continues to expand the amount of information it provides on its Web site so customers can make automated queries about shipping routes and other data.

Customers have become more tech-savvy, too, and companies have to respond accordingly. The Art Institutes International Minnesota, a school for the visual and practical arts, has automated functions such as resetting passwords for its Web site and E-mail service so students can more easily gain network access, says Chad Ness, director of technology. "Those [students] who are more technically advanced want to fix problems on their own," Ness says. "Now they can click a button to reset their password, as opposed to having to call" for access to information. Automating password resetting and other functions also saves the institute money and lets staff members spend more time getting other work done, he says.

The survey respondents are deploying a range of customer-relationship initiatives and technologies, including improved call-center capabilities, customer satisfaction or loyalty measurement, staff training, integration of customer-contact channels, customer-experience analysis, and the much-needed integration of CRM with billing, enterprise resource planning, and back-office applications.

What are the results of all of these efforts? The survey shows that CRM initiatives yield a number of benefits. The most common are improved customer satisfaction (73%), increased customer loyalty or retention (56%), reduced operating costs (51%), and the ability to meet customer demand (51%).

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