There are two things you can do with a customer once they've bought your product: you can ignore them, or you can support them. Tempting as it is to pursue the former course - and there are those companies that do opt for this business model - most companies simply can't get away with treating their customers badly. For them, customer support is vital.
"Customer support is one of the top mission critical functions for our company," asserts Kevin Ramskir, Europe, Middle East and Asia customer support technical manager for enterprise software supplier, JD Edwards. "It's our facing edge to our customers. Customer support has been the differentiator in swinging deals."
But customer support faces two traditionally contradictory pressures - to be both cheap and good, efficient and effective. As anyone knows who has ever been told by a call centre computer that they are currently 14th in a queue and will be answered shortly, computerisation of customer support can be a double-edged sword. While computer-aided call centres are often the only practical means of interfacing to the customer base, the corporate support function has to ensure that the way they operate works in favour of both the company and its customers.
This is just what JD Edwards hopes it has achieved with its new generation of call centre technology from Siemens.
"Our enterprise software products are the foundation on which companies build their businesses, and it is crucial that we have a market-leading capacity to support them 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Ramskir.
The bottom line of customer support is recognising that customers do not want to need it in the first place - nobody wants to have problems. It's a phone call nobody wants to make. So, when customers do pick up the phone to customer support they want the experience to waste as little time as possible, and solve their problem as fast as possible. Some customer problems, says Ramskir, can be solved by reference to the company's Web site.
"We have a very extensive knowledge garden on the Web containing all sorts of information - the site can track calls, looking for keywords in association with the customer's problem, and download code fixes," says Ramskir. "We encourage customer self-service, but we give them the choice of dealing with us direct."
Given the highly complex product set JD Edwards supplies to run major enterprises, it's not surprising that sometimes only a live brain will do - in which case the customer wants to reach it as quickly as he can.
"The volume of calls is not high - we get about 7,000 a month rather than 7,000 a day - but the queries are complex because of the complexity in the software," says Ramskir.
There are also peaks and troughs, notably those tracking the accounting year.
"Ends of months, quarters, half or full financial years can be periods of very high anxiety for our customers," says Ramskir. "They have to produce very large business reports and hammer the software."
Anything that may prevent them doing so elicits an immediate call to customer service at JD Edwards - and a request for an immediate answer to complex software problems.
That means that a customer has to be put in touch with the right expert for his problem. The first key task, therefore, is to identify the problem, and pass the caller to the consultant with the answer.
JD Edwards' customer support centre looks after the company's 1,000-plus customers throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as JD Edwards' business partners and its own field consultants.
"We're the single point of contact for all JD Edwards' post-implementation issues," says Ramskir.
As an international support centre it has over 100 staff, "We support six languages - French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and English - which is unusual in the industry," he points out. Between 60 and 70% of the calls are in English, although the support centre has consultants on site who are native speakers in all six languages.
Until last summer the company had, says Ramskir, "a fairly aged, green screen call-tracking system, about half a dozen years old, which required an administration team to handle the customer calls. They would take a call, enter customer details, verify them, get a brief description of the problem and identify the product range, and make the best efforts to place the call in a queue so that any one of a set of consultants could pick it up and take the call. It was a fairly typical human intervention model."
What was wrong with it?
"The administrator had to decide where to place the call - and not spend too much time about it!" says Ramskir. "That was high pressure."
Inevitably, there was a degree of both inaccurate entry of details (which meant that the consultant would sometimes need to re-enter them correctly), and an inability to find the best expert for the problem. Metrics showed that up to over a quarter, 26%, of calls were being misplaced in the call centre.
"There was a very strong possibility that we couldn't find the person with the right skills [for the problem], and had to get them to call the customer back," recalls Ramskir.
This was aggravating, and not just for the customer. It wasted JD Edwards' time as well. Having, as Ramskir points out, "very high level support people - I've been in customer support for over 20 years and I've never seen a higher quality set of people, including qualified accountants and a high proportion with university degrees" - it was frustrating that customers with a problem couldn't get through faster to an expert with an answer.
Was there a way of breaking the bottleneck between customer and consultant?
"Around two years ago we went to Siemens to find a better solution," says Ramskir.
Siemens came up with two products - Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and Resume Routing (RR).
"They upgraded our whole call centre infrastructure," says Ramskir.
The two products work in tandem. IVR identifies the customer and his problem, Resume Routing identifies the consultant who can deal with it and puts the customer on to him.
Of the mass of incoming calls, the first sort is by language.
"We have a different telephone line for each language we support," says Ramskir.
IVR then clicks in - in the appropriate language - and goes through a rapid elicitation process to identify the customer and extract his problem from him.
This can be an operation which can rapidly turn customers off if done clumsily.
"We spent a lot of time designing the front end of IVR," says Ramskir. "We set down very tight business parameters with Siemens. For example, we never wanted a call to end up at a voice box."
Keeping customers waiting on-line was another no-no.
"Ten to 15 seconds on the phone can seem like a long time," reminds Ramskir. "We want to move them on to the next layer continuously."
But too many layers - and too many choices at each layer - is no good either.
"We tried to limit them to [navigating] three levels, with a maximum of six options at any time," says Ramskir.
This compares with the USA where, he says, up to 14 options at a time are not seen as unreasonable.
"That's just ridiculous," he says.
Another key user-friendly element is that at any time in the process the caller can hit zero and drop out of IVR and get to a live assistant. This can be an important consideration for a multi-lingual service centre - some European cultures prefer human response to machine-led guidance.
The key navigation routes are to elicit which product customers are calling about, and which module thereof, down to such specifics as Accounts Payable or Receivable, in order to route them to the most appropriate expert on hand. For example, says Ramskir, the sequence may go:
Even as IVR is compiling this profile, Resume Routing is getting to work. As the profile builds, RR starts automatically searching through its database for the most appropriate consultant available, classified by their language and skill set in both the product domain (such as general ledger or manufacturing) and technology platform (such as AS/400, Unix or NT).
Whereas in a human intervention system consultants have to be placed in static groups, the new system allows the call centre to provide the best possible group of resources for each caller - "virtual groups" - on a call-by-call basis.
"The IVR system defines the call types and RR constructs virtual groups of agents to match [the call type] and contacts one or all of them," says Ramskir. "When it finds [the most appropriate] RR rings their phone and posts the call type on their screen so the agent already knows what the customer is calling about."
Identifying the call type and building the customers' call profile is non-trivial.
"We can have a 100 different call types," says Ramskir. Add in the six languages the centre supports, "makes a combination of 600," he says.
That's high for the call centre industry. One mobile phone company, recalls Ramskir, thought it had a complex set up with 12 call types - "though they were high volume," he concedes.
Customer calls also have to be matched against the level of service they have opted for.
"We have three support levels," says Ramskir. "The standard is where they can call their local support centre - us - during office hours. Next is where they can call us seven by 24, and the third is where we provide a special, fixed-price 48-hour weekend service when customers are doing an upgrade."
As it seeks out the best person to solve the problem in the incoming call type, RR can recognise when an appropriate agent is already engaged, and will widen its search for the next best while continuing to try the first choice agent in case they come off the phone. Once the call has been placed, the virtual group is disbanded.
"True skills-based call management provides a significantly enhanced solution for maintaining a unique skill set for each and every consultant," says Ramskir. "For example, the consultant may speak multiple languages, know JD Edwards OneWorld finance applications, and have specific in-depth skills in accounts payable and a good awareness of receivables. With RR each of these skill areas and the skill level can be populated in the telephone system and weighted with appropriate preferences."
If an agent handling a call gets stuck, they can escalate it to a more senior consultant. Ultimately, problems can be referred back to JD Edwards' development centre in Denver.
Once the call is in the system, the queuing mechanism of RR is used to relax requirements automatically in response to undue customer waiting times. This expands the pool of resources available to serve the customer without management intervention. If no agent becomes available after a set period of time the call is channelled back to a member of the administrative team.
One area that may seem trivial on the surface, but can both irritate customers and damage the company's reputation, is in the level of sophistication of the computerised voice response that customers hear when they phone in. JD Edwards turned to a professional recording company, Success On Hold, to select speakers in all six languages to produce recordings with the correct intonation and concatenation.
"We did a lot of research into the accents to choose," recalls Ramskir. "If you've got a serious problem the wrong voice [on the phone] can really wind you up!"
For the English-speaking response, "it was recommended we use a softly spoken Scottish female."
In the end, however, JD Edwards opted for an English accent.
Implementing the system was also done very carefully. Selling the system in-house required assuring staff that it would not lead to an increased workload for more experienced individuals and all customer support staff participated in training workshops.
With a go live in August 1999, a phased switch over was adopted.
"It took quite a bit of time and effort," says Ramskir. "We did a lot of lab testing and for three months [before go live] the admin team acted as a human version of IVR, in order to educate our staff and our customers."
The administrators taking incoming customer calls could hook into the RR database, having identified the call type from a matrix and presenting the appropriate call type code to RR.
Before the new system went live, JD Edwards sent out notification to all customers, starting with a letter, including an information pack and a prompt card in local language.
"We sent out cards to customers translated into every language," says Ramskir.
This ironically, proved a considerable challenge. "When it came to Dutch we couldn't quite translate the sense of what we wanted to say - we spent three weeks trying and gave up!"
The company also had to be aware of nuances of meaning in foreign languages - the Italians interpreted a reference to the JD Edwards sales production module as the company's intention of wanting to sell them something.
"The biggest challenge was getting the translation done," recalls Ramskir. "You can blunder and offend if you're not careful."
Adopting the new technology has also enabled JD Edwards to make more use of its customer support consultants as they come on stream. RR allows managers to gradually increase the exposure of employees as they become more experienced and better trained.
"The learning curve is sometimes three to six months before we can place an agent comfortably on to the phones," says JD Edwards senior manager, EMEA Customer Support Services, Colin Balmforth. "With RR we can now deploy an agent within one week because their skill set can be tightly controlled and they will not receive calls outside their knowledge area."
The new system also contains in-built reporting tools which provide crucial feedback as to how customers are behaving and how agent availability, gathering metrics on such things as customer call abandonment rate - giving up in despair - agent availability, length of call and time to resolution.
Metrics is an area that Ramskir wants to expand.
"The reporting side [of RR] is not a massive strength - we want more sophisticated call reporting, for example to understand WHY customers abandon calls," he says.
The overall direction for the centre's new technology generation is, says Ramskir, "very much towards full customer relationship management."
"At the moment we're still using a proprietary system developed in house which is no where near enough - we're working with Siemens now on this and expect to have it in place in the autumn."
Eventually, with comprehensive, deep understanding of customer behaviour when calling the support centre, Ramskir says JD Edwards will be in a good position to complete a virtuous circle, feeding back the centre's findings to each customer's account manager in order to throw up any gaps, say, in areas such as initial customer training.
With a corporate strategy of turning customer support from a cost base to a revenue earner, has the new generation call centre technology earned its keep and won return on investment?
"Yes," says Ramskir. "We now have a leading edge, award winning call centre to support our customers."
At a glance
The Organisation: JD Edwards is a $934m company based in Denver, Colorado that provides integrated software for managing the enterprise and supply chain. JD Edwards' Customer Support Centre is based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
The Challenge: How does a software system support call centre with more than 100 employees and a "follow the sun", multi-lingual operation, deal with the problem of 26% of calls being misplaced in the call centre?
The Solution: By tearing up the most fundamental paradigm in call centre technology, the placement of agents into static groups defined by function or skill. In its place, it has implemented a design concept that creates the best possible group of resources for each caller - virtual groups on a call-by-call basis.
The Computer Weekly/Buy IT case studies offer an in-depth analysis of a successful IT project, with expert comment from a panel. BuyIT was launched in 1995 by the DTI and an alliance of top industry bodies. BuyIT has selected best practice examples on a range of projects. Each case study is scrutinised by the BuyIT team of experts who make their recommendations and comments. The BuyIT Computer Weekly Best Practice Series is endorsed by Fit for the Future, a CBI-led, government-backed campaign to get business learning from business.
Resume Routing from Siemens Communications is built on the company's Hicom communication server and works in combination with a fully integrated, six-language Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. The IVR system uses voice prompts digitally recorded and converted into Intervoice file format (a professional interface that ensures consistency across all voice platforms) by Success On Hold, a supplier of IVR tailored recordings.
What they did right
What the Buy IT experts say
Chairman, BuyIT Best Practice Group
We selected this case study as it illustrated very well how IT can be used to improve customer satisfaction while making much more efficient use of expensive staff resources.
The company turned to a supplier which clearly understood the complexity of the problem: 600 possible combinations of content and language and a highly demanding set of customers that required immediate answers to their problems.
Kevin Ramskir used the highest standards in specifying his requirements, from the care needed in recording the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) announcements, to the design of the IVR, limiting levels and options for callers.
He took the same care in implementing the system, dealing with staff concerns, training the staff, running a three month "rehearsal" before going live and notifying his customers.
The benefits of this approach are that JD Edwards is now making much better use of its consultants, both in terms of the significant improvement from 26% of misplaced calls and their ability to bring staff online in a far shorter time.
Inevitably this improved use of resources has led to a raising of expectations and the firm is now looking for more sophisticated call reporting tools to provide better metrics on customer calling and needs.
It is not surprising that JD Edwards is happy with the return on its investment.
Member of BuyIT Marketing and Communications Working Group and managing director, IT communications consultancy, Kaizo
IDC expects worldwide spending on customer relationship management services such as call centres and online computer helpdesks to reach $90bn a year within three years. By 2003, call centres will be the primary customer communication channel for a great many organisations - and a critical link in the brand promise value chain. Finding ways of providing fast, efficient call routing and specialist agent expertise on-demand will be central concerns for companies which are serious about attracting, retaining and expanding their most profitable customer relationships.
Using technology to better understand customer needs and short-circuit the abandoned call scenario is a really big step forward in call centre customer management. By delivering true skills-based call management, the JD Edwards solution should help to significantly reduce customer frustrations with poor service - which is the most often cited reason for customers to abandon call centres.(Call Center Enterprises & The Forum Group, 5/98)
Equally as important, it should also go some way in helping to eliminate call centre agent stress, which contributes heavily to the industry's high staff churn rate and inevitably leads to loss of business.
The E-Procurement Best Practice Network, 14 June 2000, Millennium Dome
BuyIT has come together with the UK Government's e-envoy, Alex Allen to create the e-Procurement Best Practice Network. The initiative aims to help UK companies implement an effective e-procurement strategy by providing a platform for top-level dialogue.
You are invited to join senior managers from the UK's leading companies and public sector organisations in an informal networking evening on 14 June at the Millennium Dome to share information and experience about e-procurement.
The launch dinner is the first in a series of regular facilitated dialogue events to help you realise the benefits of this global revolution.
The two keynote speakers giving their views on the impact and implications of e-procurement on private and public sector organisations will be Tim Morrison, vice president, E-Shell and Brian Rigby, deputy chief executive officer, Office of Government Commerce.
The event offers you the opportunity to discuss with your peers: