How Good Should Your Customer Service Be?

This is the hardest question I have asked as a blog title, because there just is no easy answer. Before I try to answer the question at all, let me set some parameters. I am talking about smaller companies and not those that operate large call centers. There are dozens of consultants who specialize in software and metrics for large call centers. But most of my clients do not operate call centers and they have a more intimate relationship with customers. So let’s look at this question in terms of smaller companies.

One glib answer I could offer is that your customer service has to be at least good enough to make your customers happy. And there is certainly some truth in that, but that sounds a bit like consultant speak. So let me dig a little deeper and ask: what ought to be the goals for a smaller customer service group? Here are some of the traits a small customer service group needs to have to produce the best results. I have learned these over the years by having worked with literally hundreds of small customer service groups:

  • Friendliness. One of the advantages that small companies have over large ones is that your employees can get to know your customers and form bonds with many of them. This should be encouraged because when somebody knows the person they are talking to on the phone the whole transaction is more likely to go well. So encourage your customer service reps to get to know your customers.
  • Accuracy. Accuracy means just what it says. It means making sure every order you take is accurate so that the customer gets what they asked for. It means giving customers the right answer when they ask a question. It means perfect directory listings. And to be accurate requires training, but more importantly it requires that your reps are graded for paying attention to details.
  • Prompt Responses. Customers love it when a customer service rep has the information they are looking for right at their fingertips. If they call with a billing question they don’t want to be put on hold for five minutes while your rep tries to find the answer to their question. The way to make this happen is to have a good OSS/BSS system. If you want your reps to do a great job you must have great tools. Companies often get very comfortable with a software system and never consider changing. I visit many clients and see them using outdated systems that make it hard for their employees to do a great job. There is no excuse for that these days. There are a number of quality vendors and you should not be afraid to change if your current software is not doing what you need. I always ask the question – who is more important to you, your customers or your vendor? Do not get wedded to a vendor just because you have used them for many years. If they can’t and won’t keep their software current to fit your needs, look for somebody that will.
  • Knowledge. Your customer service reps ought to be able to answer most questions about your products and prices without having to look up basic facts each time. Make knowledge a priority in how you grade their performance each year. They ought to know how your most common features work and should be able to walk a customer through using them. They ought to know the basic troubleshooting steps needed to fix basic problems when they get a trouble call. If they can take care of a problem without having to refer it to a technician, then you will have saved money and have a happier customer.
  • Empowerment. Your customer service reps should be empowered to fix customer’s problems on the spot. Some companies have policies like always requiring higher approval before giving a credit to a customer. Empower your employees to make decisions and take care of customer problems on the spot. You can always review credits that are given out and if you don’t like the way they were done you have a teaching opportunity to do it better the next time. But don’t be afraid to empower your employees to take care of customers so that the customer can get a problem resolved on one phone call, talking to one person.
  • Not Scripted. I don’t know of a person who doesn’t feel marginalized and unimportant when a customer service rep is clearly reading something to them off of a screen instead of talking to them person-to-person. This is something that many large call centers foster, and sometimes calling customer service feels like talking to a robot. I don’t think this works well for large companies and is one of the reasons that people hate large telco and cable company customer service. So don’t fall into this trap and try to put pre-packaged words into your reps mouths. Make sure they know what they need to know and then just let them talk to customers like a person.
  • The Right Policies. Your reps need to be working with policies that are customer friendly, and this is all up to you. I often find policies that make me shake my head. For example, I have one client who required a money order or cash for a customer to reconnect service for non-pay. Of course, this leads to customers just deciding to not come back. The policies you have in place in dealing with customers need to all have the same underlying premise – they must be customer-friendly and they must make it easy for customers to use you as their vendor.

Data Mining – It’s Not What Customers Think

I know that when the public hears that their ISP is engaging in data mining that they assume this means that the ISP is reading their emails and monitoring their website viewing. And ISPs do have the ability to do those things although I don’t know any who spy on their customers in that way.

I can certainly understand why data mining scares the average consumer. Supermarkets get you to sign up for their loyalty programs so that they know everything you buy from them. And I know I get a spooky feeling when I express an interest about some product in one place on the Internet and then see ads for that product pop up on Facebook or my Google search.

But data mining is a valuable tool and every ISP should be using it – just not in the same way that the supermarkets and Facebook do it. In fact, we probably need to come up with a better terminology for doing the things I am suggesting below.

There are a number of tools around that let you look at data about customer usage and these tools allow an ISP to do the following:

  • Spambots. There is a wide array of spambots and other malware on the web that can infect customers’ computers. The worst of these, from a network perspective are spambots, which take over your customer’s computers and use it to send out spam. Most ISPs monitor email usage from their own domain and can spot when one of their users has been taken over by a spambot. But most customers these days do not use the email names and domains assigned by their ISP. Instead they web email addresses such as gmail or even the older AOL. And some spambots create new email addresses that the customer doesn’t even know about. And so data mining can be used to look for customers with unusual upload traffic. No customer is going to be offended if you ask them if they are uploading traffic 24 hours per day if in the process you help eliminate Trojan horses and spambots from their computer.
118 - Another File Sharing Session

118 – Another File Sharing Session (Photo credit: erickespinosa)

  • Web servers. Most ISPs do not want a customer to be using a residential ISP account to run a commercial web server. A web server is a device that is being used to run a website or service that drives a large amount of download traffic. Such a website might be used for e-commerce for example. But far too often web servers are used to run porn sites. ISPs are not against web servers, but they do expect people who operate them to buy the proper business level service. A web server can be full 24-hours per day, and that is generally not the level of service that is intended for a shared residential product. Data mining can be used to identify web servers and the customer can be directed to a more appropriate (and appropriately priced) service.
  • Data Caps. Most ISPs have set some cap on the amount of usage that a customer can download in a month. And these caps do not have to be small. I have one client that has a 2 terabyte cap each month for residential downloads. But there is no sense in having a data cap if you can’t actually measure how much bandwidth each customer is using. Data mining tools are the way to measure customers’ usage.
  • File sharing. Most ISPs have terms of service that prohibit customers from sharing copyrighted materials with others. But realistically an ISP is not going to know what customers are sharing with each other unless you get a complaint from a copyright holder. But many ISPs still like to get a handle on file-sharing because such traffic can eat up a lot of system bandwidth. Data mining can help you identify customers who are probably involved in one of the common file sharing programs.  An awful lot of file sharing is done by teenagers. I have clients who send out friendly reminders to customers who they think are file sharing that say something like: “We notice by your internet usage that you are probably running a file sharing program. We would just like to remind you that it is illegal to share copyrighted material and that there have been cases where copyright owners have gotten significant settlements by suing people who were sharing their property.” Such notices cut down on a lot of file sharing traffic as parent pressure kids into doing the right thing.

So you should be data mining. But perhaps the things I have described could all better be classified as network management, a term that would not dismay your customers.

“Dumb Pipe” versus Full-Service Provider

Broadband and cable TV companies have been looking at their long-term strategy and they are going to have to decide if they are going to be what we at CCG call either a “dumb pipe” provider or a full-service provider.

A “dumb pipe” provider is a broadband company that sells a very fast Internet connection as its primary product and not much of anything else. A perfect example of this is what Google is doing in Kansas City. Google is selling a 1 Gbps Internet connection there for $70 per month. That is far more speed than is possible from the competition, but it is also more expensive. The only other product available from Google is one cable TV package that is bundled with the data for $120. Google only offers one other data package for low-income homes. Google doesn’t offer different size cable packages. They don’t offer voice. They don’t offer security, or cloud services or any of the panoply of new services that can be provided over fiber.

In my opinion Google has looked into the future and they believe that most of the other services that they could be selling will be available to customers over the very fast Internet connection that Google is selling them. One of the primary advantages to Google of the dumb pipe strategy is that they have a very simple product mix to sell. Fewer products means less staff needed to market, sell, provision and support customers.

The downside to the dumb pipe provider is that they will have a much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) than the full service provider. But both types of providers have a very similar cost of the network. And this is at the heart of the discussion that many of my clients are having about the long-term trends in the industry.

Most providers in the industry today are full-service providers. They support the full residential triple-play, have multiple options for cable TV, have multiple options for voice. They also sell a wide range of other products and their marketing strategy is aimed at getting the highest ARPU from customers they can.

But the full-service providers are worried when they look at some of the trends in the industry. They have already seen a lot of voice customers drop off the network. They are starting to see cable customers leave the network and they look ten years down the road and see a very different cable market. And so full-service providers are faced with figuring out how to go from where they are today to where they think they must be in the future.

I am starting to see evidence of the shift in the strategy of full-service providers. In the last year I have seen data prices being increased all over the country for the first time. And this is not because the cost of providing data is growing, because the margins on data have grown steadily each year over the last decade and are still growing. I think the service  providers have embarked on a long-term upward shift in data prices so that they will be getting more revenue from the one product that is likely to survive into the future.

The companies with the biggest dilemma are these just entering the market for the first time. Do they make the leap straight to being a dumb pipe provider, like Google, or do they become a full-service provider and enjoy the remaining years of high ARPU before voice and cable TV losses pull those numbers downward? It is a hard decision and a conversation I am now having with every new service provider.

Launching a New Product

At CCG we often introduce clients to new products. Historically our clients had the leisure to introduce products slowly since they were not operating in highly competitive markets. However, today we see speed to market being a major factor in being successful. Since there are many steps needed to launch a new product and because it will touch every part of your organization, it is mandatory that you are organized and have a plan to develop and launch a complex product on time and do it well. Lack of organization will inevitably lead to delays, or worse, to a product that is half-baked and full of problems.

At CCG we are experts at the process of launching new products and many of our clients now include CCG as part of the new product development and launch team. We can provide the needed discipline and the extra manpower and expertise needed to insure that a product is launched on time and is customer-ready.

The following (using the example of launching IP Centrex) is  a list of the basic steps required to launch a new product. This list is abbreviated but demonstrates how launching a new product will touch every part of your organization. Without a clear plan it is easy to get bogged down and delayed.

Steps needed to launch IP Centrex

Define the Product. Define the specific market for the product. In the case of IP Centrex, should you have different packages to reach different parts of the market? (For instance there might be a version for typical small business, a more complex product for more businesses like doctor’s offices, and a product for businesses with a centralized receptionist). Define the equipment and software needed to launch the product. What kind of handsets / functionality do you want to offer? Will you let subscribers use their own devices like smart phones and tablets? Will you support integration of phones and computer systems (Outlook, etc,)? Will you be supporting 911 portability (supporting 911 when the customer moves the phone off-premises)?

Determine Technical Readiness. Is your switch ready to support the product or do you need an upgrade? Will your OSS/BSS support the new product’s billing and operational requirements? If you are going to launch using something other than a softswitch, take the steps needed to choose the right gear and/or partner. Find a 911 mobility vendor to support remote 911 if you go this route. How are you willing to distribute the product – over your own network, over leased facilities, or over the open internet. Anticipate and address any IP addressing issues. Analyze the customer premise network requirements –  premise wiring alternatives, customer demarcation points, VoIP quality assurance capabilities, etc.

Product Pricing. Create a name and branding for the product. Determine the market prices of competing products (trunks for existing PBXs, B1s, traditional Centrex, other VoIP providers, etc.). Determine your pricing strategy (one price fits all vs. pricing based upon what the subscriber is using today). Determine your pricing elements (individual service elements like stations, talk paths, features and calling plans or a more all-inclusive element). Determine if you are going to sell and/or lease handsets as part of the product. Will this be bundled with other products like data or long distance?

Testing. Buy test handsets/stations. Activate and then test each switch feature with the handsets. Create a common or custom profile configuration for supported and chosen handset types. Make sure that you have an easy way to load the profile configurations into handsets/stations. Make sure the chosen features will work with each other (a common problem when combining multiple complex features). Test OSS and billing system.

Regulatory. Are tariff updates needed? If you are going into new markets will you need to open new 911 PSAPs? If sold as a regulated product, how does SLC charge apply? Are there any CALEA issues?

Sales and Marketing Readiness. Define the value proposition for the subscriber. Develop marketing literature. Update website. Develop order form that will capture the complexities of the product.

Internal Training. Train salespeople and CSRs on how to use the product. Train help-desk staff. Train anybody who will install or train on the product. Should your own company be the first test customer?

Customer Training. Develop customer training material/manuals.  Consider a web tool andor video tool. Develop training plan. Will you train every employee or train the trainers? How much will you charge for training? How do future subscriber employees get trained?

Implementation. Develop installation plan/checklist. Order IP stations. Perform any customer premise network changes required. Install and verify data connection(s). Install stations and any managed network equipment required. Develop plan to verify that every station is updated and provisioned correctly. Conduct subscriber training sessions. Ask for subscriber feedback on the quality of the implementation. Render and verify first bill.

NOC/Customer Support/Troubleshooting. How will you handle customer support? Will the first level of trouble shooting be done at the CSR level or by specially trained individuals? Who will have access to the tools and training required to assist subscribers?  Will billing issues and technical issues be handled by different employees or by the same employees?

Ongoing Product Maintenance. How do you stay abreast of new features, services and apps that may benefit your subscribers?  How and when do you introduce updates to subscribers?