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Pre-emptive customer contact: The next frontier in successful customer comms?

11th Feb 2013
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Switched-on retailers are looking to embrace not merely automated but 'pre-emptive' customer contact approaches, says Mark Oppermann.

The business imperative to create seamless, multichannel customer service experiences has never been stronger. Why? Because consumers now readily switch between a variety of communication channels. From fixed-line voice and mobile calls to SMS to email to live chat, the alternatives for consumers to engage with a business are expanding.
If retailers and service providers aren’t on top of this, they leave themselves open to greater workloads and increasing costs. Consumers are growing increasingly impatient; they are no longer prepared to be kept endlessly on hold or to wait 48 hours for an email response. Failure to successfully make immediate response on a 24 x 7 basis is a fast path to customer frustration, with the risk of negative exposure through customer forums, posts or tweets, all of which have an impact on the brand.
Organisations need to be more agile and responsive than ever if they are to rise to the challenge of increasing customer satisfaction and protecting brand loyalty. We’re operating in an ultra-competitive market. Compounded by the current economic climate, profit margins are leaner than ever and there is little or no resource to tackle these issues.
The challenge, of course, is to achieve better customer engagement without driving up operating costs. The good news: emerging customer communication service models means companies can get timely, personalised information to a customer in a truly pre-emptive manner. This applies to everything from questions about orders, stock levels, deliveries and returns, to updates on accounts and due payments. If you can get timely, personalised information to your customer, it will stop them calling into your call centre, sending an email – and of course being critical over Twitter.
Reducing service burden
Such techniques can also be used to gently prompt customers to settle their account on time so that the burden on the customer service function is dramatically reduced. Companies can then start matching the medium of the message to the customer, to the nature of the interaction, and to factors such as time of day. Add some customer intelligence, and customer service actions can be increasingly honed.
Catalogue shopping giant Freemans Grattan Holdings (FGH), for instance, has applied a pre-emptive automated customer communications to customer account management - in its case, to reduce the percentage of customers going into arrears on their accounts each month. A subtle nudge by text or automated voice message, carefully timed to happen on day 21 (FGH offers 20-day credit terms) has made all the difference in getting payments in before the interest-free cut-off point of day 28.
FGH also reports that the solution has reduced missed customer payments by up to 25%. This in turn has enabled the group to substantially reduce its bad debt provisioning, plus led to an increase in customer satisfaction as consumers get spared the stress of being contacted by the collections team and are able to spend more.
In addition, FGH can now vary call times to suit each of its target markets – for example, favouring evening calls for young professionals, daytime calls for older customers. Similarly. the company can switch between text messages for younger customers and pre-recorded phone messages for those less likely to carry a mobile. FGH has since expanded the use of its pre-emptive outreach system to encompass delinquent account collection (previously handled solely by diallers in a contact centre), as well as let customers know if an item ordered is not in stock.
Real-time responsiveness
Customer contact flexibility is crucial in the current environment given how agile retailers need to be in responding to changing market requirements and the preferences of all our ever-more demanding customers. Retailers can use the technology to prevent a situation from generating a deluge of incoming customer calls – for example, if a sudden snowfall delays customer deliveries, or a banking IT problem creates payment or account reconciliation issues. The ability to quickly issue a targeted message to affected customers will easily side-step a situation where switchboards and email inboxes are overloaded with repeated queries.
Further benefits can be drawn from analysis of customer contact performance metrics across different customer groups or different types of contact, allowing campaign managers, to fine-tune their proactive customer contact– for example, by altering when and how they make contact, based on previous trends. The more you can match your pre-emptive outbound contact activities to natural customer behaviour the greater the chance of getting a positive first-time result.
Monitoring for trends and identifying inbound call triggers can also save you a lot of money, streamline routine business processes and conserve precious resources, ultimately preserving profits and strengthening brand loyalty.
Horses for courses
It is also worth pointing out that disproportionately favouring ‘modern’ contact methods only such as text-messaging and social network strategies can be a mistake, needlessly alienating whole swathes of customers. Even assuming that younger demographics prefer SMS to voice may be misguided. Recent statistics suggest that voice messages can elicit up to a 30% higher response rate than a text message, as SMS by comparison can seem so flat and impersonal.
The learning is that a carefully targeted voice message can appear more direct, and give more reassurance or increase the sense of urgency - for example prompting the consumer to press * to connect and pay their bill. In fact, the optimum scenario will allow for or combine the different channels, playing to the strengths of each in a given situation. Combining click-to-call facilities with online forms, for example, has been shown to improve the rate of completion for customers browsing before buying online, especially if the purchase is a complex or high-value one.
Real-time, two-way text ‘conversations’ are proving similarly powerful, giving customers instant follow-on information via a channel they often prefer, in a way that makes better use of contact centre agents’ time because they can be dealing with more than one customer at once.
Whichever channels work in a given situation, the important thing is that they are managed via a single central solution which has visibility across all of the different media and offers a single, up-to-date representation of the relationship between you and the customer.
At a time when consumers have never been so demanding nor resources or profits as stretched as they are today, the verdict’s clear. A flexible, automated, pre-emptive, multichannel customer contact, manageable in real time, has got to be the best way forward.
Mark Oppermann is development director at VoiceSage, a company which provides Cloud-based interactive voice messaging (IVM) and SMS solutions.

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