Voice-Mail Hell Is Only Part of the Customer Service Problem

Customer Relationship Management
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Companies need to look at their processes to really improve the customer experience.


Editor's note: This article is an excerpt from the free white paper "Paperless Customer Service: Streamlining the Customer Service Process," which is available at the MC White Paper Center.


If you have never experienced the frustration of spending seemingly endless minutes waiting for a human voice to answer your call about your credit card bill, cable TV service, newspaper or magazine subscription, or recent online purchase, odds are you have been living in a cave these past few years.

"Your Call Is Very Important to Us"

What most people refer to "voice-mail hell" is referred to by corporations at home and abroad as their "interactive voice response system." They call it IVR for short. With the advent of the Internet, however, users have found a vehicle to vent their frustrations about such systems, and in most cases, rail against the companies that implement them. Sites such as the Get Human Database now provide lists of companies and the associated numbers to call and codes to punch to bypass all the menus and go directly to a person.


Millions of dollars are spent on IVR systems annually, the logic being that if people can serve themselves, then the company will save money by not having to hire as many call operators. It does make sense if you think about it. Look at how many companies have implemented Web-based FAQs and knowledge bases for their customers and how many people use them. Wouldn't you rather get the information you are looking for with a few keystrokes rather than wait on the phone for tech support to locate in their database the precise problem you are describing? You might hear the support rep say, "Sir (or ma'am), could you please unplug your laptop from the power outlet, wait for five seconds, and turn it on again? Oh, you've already done that? OK, let me see if there are any additional steps you need to take.... What? Oh, you say you're running Windows Vista? OK, then please hold while I search for a solution...."


This is a simple example. Let's try something more common on a corporate level. Imagine that one of your best customers calls you to find out what has happened with an order worth several hundred thousand dollars. How long will it take your call center operator to a) answer the phone, b) locate the customer's file, c) find the original purchase order, d) find the order history, including estimated delivery date, and e) get back to the customer with the answer he is looking for?


The scenario is too often not very different from the voice-mail hell we described earlier or the tech support call we all have had multiple times during the past year. The key for companies to improve customer service and customer satisfaction levels is to think of customer service as a multi-step process, where answering the call is only the first step. Customer service actually goes much deeper into the organizational processes, policies, and procedures, and it ends only when the appropriate information (or action) is delivered to the customer's satisfaction.

The Problem and the Processes

When organizations look only at the front line, meaning the IVR systems and the staff manning the phones, they neglect the back-office processes that comprise the core of the customer experience. How are call operators going to find the information they need? Where are the customer's files? Is the order history easily accessible? Does the service rep need to put the customer on hold for several minutes while an expedition to the filing cabinet takes place? Can order confirmations be immediately faxed or emailed to the customer?


All these actions are critical to delivering a positive customer service experience. Many companies, however, spend money on voice-mail systems and complex ERP applications only to end up manually faxing acknowledgements, printing purchase orders, mailing customer files between locations, filing paper folders in cabinets, and using offsite storage facilities because of the amount of paper they generate.


After studying the inner workings of a few typical customer-service operations at major companies, one can't help but conclude that the automation and technology being used throughout the organization aren't helping improve its overall effectiveness. Think about it for a moment. The customer doesn't care that you have just implemented the latest ERP solution and are now on V6R1 with the latest build and patches and everything that the CIO desires. If your employees still have to get up from their desks and manually search for a customer's orders in an old filing cabinet, then all that expense for your system upgrade might as well have been saved to purchase a very expensive coffee machine.


The weakest link in your customer service process is what will ultimately spoil the experience for your customer, and it is what will be most memorable after all is said and done. Remember the last time you tried to cancel your cable subscription and you still received a bill the next month? Or the time when your vendor sent you an order acknowledgement via fax after you had already received the materials you ordered? Those are lasting impressions.

Fixing the Customer Experience

The key to companies' improving their customer service processes is for managers to think of them as multi-step processes that go well beyond the phone system. The customer service process really starts from the moment the customer's order is received (fax, email, or phone are the likely vehicles) and continues through the process of filling out the order, shipping the goods, invoicing, collecting payment, and finally giving any post-sale support. In between these steps, there's also the process for answering customer's questions and concerns about order status, payment terms, and anything else that may arise as a result of the order being placed with your company.


Once you realize that all those processes are intertwined, you should start asking what is really involved in each step. Who is involved in each step? When does each step happen, and how is each step handled? Let's look at these in order:


What: This is the action being taken--for example, collecting and distributing incoming faxed orders.


Who: This is the person or team responsible for the action. For example, the customer service clerk is responsible for collecting and distributing incoming faxed orders.


When: This is the time element dictating when the action happens. For example, early every morning, right before lunch, and in the middle of the afternoon, the customer service clerk collects and distributes incoming fax orders.


How: This is a detailed explanation of what is actually happening and whether any technology is involved. For example, early every morning, right before lunch, and in the middle of the afternoon, the customer service clerk walks over to the fax machines, collects incoming faxes, manually sorts them by region and by product, and distributes each order into the appropriate in-box tray for retrieval by a customer-service representative.


As you can see, you start small and keep building the elements of the action until you have a complete picture of what is happening. If you proceed this way through all the steps, you will suddenly realize that the customer service process is more complex than you originally thought.


The next step is to identify areas for improvement, and this is where technology can be a great help.

Paperless Customer Service

As you map out your customer service process, you will start to see common threads, such as the manual, time-intensive tasks associated with retrieving documents, sorting and distributing files, sending documents to other departments, and searching for and retrieving such documents. Paper, after all, is a big enemy of efficiency.


What if you could eliminate some of the steps associated with the paper handling? Going back to our example of incoming fax orders, what if those orders (or any customer order for that matter) arrived in electronic format directly at the appropriate customer service representative, right on the computer screen? You would have eliminated the need for the clerk to walk to the mailroom, the time spent sorting and distributing orders, and the minutes that the customer service rep spends retrieving orders and preparing them for processing.


The elimination of paper from one step of the process, however, is only part of the solution. To really spread the benefit throughout the process, you have to keep identifying areas where paper is being generated and replace that paper with electronic images (this is where document imaging technology comes in). Instead of the paper distribution, you will use technology to electronically route those images to the appropriate personnel (this is where workflow technology comes in). In the end, you will be supplying the customer service reps and all others who interact with that process with all the information they need in electronic format. This is called "paperless process management," and it is a reality that is available today for organizations of all sizes.


Going further with your paper elimination task, the next big step is to make sure that the IT architecture (mainly the ERP system in most cases) is also part of the paperless processing. When acknowledgements are generated, they should be automatically and electronically emailed or faxed to the customer, thus eliminating the need for a person to print them and manually send them via fax. When a customer calls to inquire about the order status or to discuss the invoice just received, the customer service staff should be able to quickly pull up that customer's record from the ERP application and retrieve the order history with all associated documents (purchase order, acknowledgement, packing slips, bill of lading, proof of delivery, invoice, etc.), which are now in electronic format.


Technology for paperless processing can streamline customer service operations, increase customer satisfaction, and save your company money. By mapping out your process, identifying areas for improvement, using technology to eliminate paper, and integrating that technology with your existing IT infrastructure, you will be doing your customers and your staff a favor, not to mention improving your bottom line.


To learn more about paperless process management within customer service, download the free white paper "Paperless Customer Service: Streamlining the Customer Service Process."