Operations: Communication

Communication overload

Marlon Bowser, CEO of HTK, looks at how companies can get the most out of the increasing number of customer communication channels.


Few would argue that over the last decade there has been a communications revolution. The explosive growth in web use, email and the whole range of mobile communications has given businesses the potential to dramatically improve the way they interact with their customers and increase satisfaction and brand loyalty.

In a recent Forrester Customer Experience Survey, customer experience was rated as more important than low prices across all 12 sector categories, from banking and insurance to PC manufacturers and service providers. But it is not just about customer service: businesses should be making use of these channels to promote new products and services to increase revenue.

The problem is that all too many companies are not only failing to grasp the opportunities that these communication channels bring; but they risk irritating and alienating customers by getting it wrong or simply not being equipped to handle so many contact methods. The result is disjointed, unpredictable and unreliable communication on all fronts.

Maybe this is not surprising with so many ways for customers and businesses to connect—email, web forms, social media forums, instant messaging, Twitter, SMS and of course the old faithful phone, fax and post. Each of these has the potential to shape and change the all-round customer experience in an instant. For example, it’s great to send a customer a tailored offer via email that has been cleverly based on their recent buying habits; but if they end up on hold for ages or there is no record on the system when the customer calls, all that hard work is for nothing. In fact, it is likely that the customer will be less loyal that they would have been had they never received the special offer.

So what needs to be done to avoid mistakes and take full advantage of this new world of choice and instant communication?

One problem is that the increase in the number of new customer contact points has meant that many organisations are struggling to provide a seamless and personalised service because their CRM solutions are simply unable to cope. At the same time, tech-savvy customers have become increasingly demanding, expecting far more from their interaction with a brand. The younger generation in particular know how to use communications technology so expect a more immediate and far richer, personalised experience from the companies they deal with—and rightly so.

What is lacking is true integration between the communication channels and CRM systems. While most companies have the ability to send and receive messages in a variety of ways, they work independently of each other. 

Knowledge captured by a CRM solution needs to be harnessed and used dynamically to deliver highly tailored, targeted multi-channel marketing and customer service, every step of the way. In fact, it is possible to use the information held within an existing CRM system to personalise each and every customer interaction. And by acknowledging customers as individuals and treating them accordingly, negative experiences can be avoided. Instead, positive emotions such as feeling valued and cared for can add to a positive experience and enhance loyalty.

The problem is that most CRM solutions are designed to capture and analyse information and ensure maximum efficiency in dealing with and managing customers. They are not designed to support direct interaction with customers. So, while CRM systems can help to get things operationally right, they do not look at the wider issue of improving the whole customer contact experience. 

One of the most important and seemingly simple things to get right is to understand how customers want to be contacted. But all too often, companies just pay lip service to this. They ask the question and then file the answers neatly away in a CRM system before emailing everyone, just because it’s quicker and easier that way.

Rather than expecting customers to fit around the way an organisation does business and communicates, these processes should be, where possible, automatically adapted to meet individual customers’ needs. Knowing how, when and why customers want to interact and acting upon this information is extremely valuable. Having to tell a customer ‘the computer says no’ is simply not an option when they have asked what seems to them a simple request, such as a ‘could you text me to remind me about my delivery’ or ‘please don’t call me’ email.

To get the most out of CRM data, there has to be a further link. It has to be opened up to all of the people and systems across an organisation that has any customer contact. But this can take a serious amount of time as well as money, and also presents significant operational challenges in terms of performance, governance and day-to-day control.

What’s needed is a secure and controlled environment that can make CRM data readily available to customer service, marketing and other business departments, on demand—in essence, agile CRM. By making CRM flexible and integrated with communication channels, new and improved business processes for improving customer interaction can be rapidly tested and operationally deployed, without the risk of disruption to existing systems. 

A new generation of multi-channel marketing and customer service automation solutions, such as HTK’s Horizon platform, help to unlock the customer interaction potential of CRM, enabling a more personalised approach to customer service and marketing automation.

With the sheer volume of incoming communications, many businesses find it hard to differentiate between important calls and messages that need to be actioned immediately and those that have a lower priority. For large customer-facing organisations in particular, it is important to automatically recognise incoming customers along with their value and nature of the contact, be it an ongoing complaint, service renewal or late bill payment, for example. In the case of an inbound phone call, it should route them automatically to the right person, avoiding leaving them frustrated because they are waiting in the queue or navigating IVR menus. This streamlines the process and prevents wasting the valuable time of both the customer and the service operators.

For utilities and telecoms providers, it is also possible to use the same technology to play automated messages to update customers calling from a particular location that has been affected by a service outage, for example. The system can also intelligently ‘guess’ the most likely reason for a call if customers have just been sent their bills or specific personalised marketing promotions. Email and SMS messages can also be routed automatically based on knowledge built up about the customer. This makes customers feel valued and important. There is nothing more frustrating than getting the impression the company you have given your business to knows nothing about you.

With so many communication options, it is also essential to control the sequencing or interaction between different channels. An SMS that was sent after an email may actually be read first; or a phone call could be made before an earlier email has got to the right person or department. This not only leads to confusion and wasted time but may well end in the loss of the customer altogether if there is no knowledge of order between disparate communication systems. But by bringing it all together into one multi-channel platform, this can be easily achieved. 

In the past, poorly executed automated communication technology has earned itself a bad name: obvious examples are spam emails, outbound voice marketing and complicated ‘press 1,2,3’ menus that seem to bear no relation to what the call is about. However,these technical capabilities that were originally introduced to cut costs can actually help deal with the communications overload and improve the entire customer experience. Instead of a random, obtuse email, how about a timely email with options when the customer’s contract is about to end; or an outbound message to let them know that their train is running late and an IVR menu that immediately offers to route them where they want to go? Suddenly, it’s a whole different picture; and it’s even better when the outbound method of communication is the one the customer chose in the first place.

It is only by integrating all customer communication into one cohesive platform integrated with CRM systems that businesses can truly harness the enormous potential of advances and variations in the communication channels. Once that is achieved, it is possible to personalise interaction to keep customers satisfied, deliver a whole new level of customer engagement and gain a competitive edge.