Customers in the e-business equation

Ron Perrotta

Vantive Corp.

More and more utilities are realizing the Web can help them acquire and retain customers and manage their business more effectively and efficiently. The electric power industry has learned from deregulation of the airline, long-distance telephone and local phone service industries-customer service is winning value proposition.

As customers become more accustomed to buying and shopping online, they expect to do more online-for example, communicate with their utilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Companies have always been concerned about acquiring and keeping customers, but now more than ever, utilities turn to customer relationship management (CRM) solutions to increase loyalty and retention in their customer base. Forrester Research predicts CRM as the biggest growth area in application software revenue, rising by 465 percent from $0.2 billion in 1996 to $3.5 billion by 2000, making it the fastest growing segment of business enterprise software. Customer service is a big piece of the e-business equation.

Personalized interaction

For most companies, e-business is synonymous with e-commerce, but e-commerce is only the transaction component. E-business means leveraging the Internet to connect vendors, suppliers and employees together to create a personalized interaction that drives a customer`s buying decisions and loyalty (Figure 1).

E-business solutions that are set up as islands in the IS landscape will frustrate prospects, turn away customers and disappoint management. To maximize the opportunity that comes with e-business, companies should integrate their e-commerce functions with traditional call center operations. The following are essential customer integration areas for building a customer-friendly e-business solution:

– Integration with back office data-Information stored in traditional back-office applications, such as credit, inventory and personal account information is essential to maintaining a seamless customer experience on the Web.

– Integration with the contact center-Tying the contact center into the e-commerce application allows companies to leverage internal systems and customer information to provide more consistent customer interactions regardless of the channel of communication.

– Integration with internal business processes-The ability to map a complex application into a utility`s business process provides tremendous flexibility, accountability and growth potential to a company. By notifying related departments-such as sales when a top customer has a support problem-customers feel as though companies are treating them like individuals.

Today`s e-customer

The problem with the Web alone is it does not inherently build customer relationships. Unlike doing business face-to-face or via the phone, there is no human-to-human interaction. This combined with the fact that competitors are just a click away, means customer loyalty is more difficult than ever to achieve.

The moment of truth for customers or prospects often occurs when they move beyond passively viewing web pages to actually doing something-such as placing an order or talking to an agent while looking at a site. Companies who demonstrate they can handle these web interactions are rewarded with loyal customers. In contrast, otherwise happy customers get annoyed when their web interactions don`t measure up to their expectations or to the level of customer service they have come to expect from talking to a call center agent.

An e-business application will inevitably bring more customers in touch with a company. Processing these orders efficiently, profitably and securely must be design requirements for any e-business solution. However, just as important is ensuring customer satisfaction. Integrating the contact center with the e-commerce solution will enable companies to provide the same level of customer service to web customers that is offered to phone or face-to-face customers.

Expanding the reach of the contact center is an immense task, but it does not require massive investment. Below are some issues to consider when approaching this task:

1. First, do no harm. For companies with existing contact centers, treating the integration with an e-commerce solution casually will have disastrous results not only with on-line customers, but with traditional contact center callers as well.

2. Plan the work. Three key elements should be addressed when crafting a commerce/ contact center plan: the solution (hardware and software), the promise (message to customers), and the process (internal workflow).

3. Work the plan. Coordination of otherwise disparate systems is essential in order for a smooth implementation to be possible. Don`t forget a testing phase, since these systems may work well in isolation, but system performance may be drastically different in real-world scenarios.

4. Plan for the upside. Forecasting is difficult on the Web-usage can jump from 1,000 users to 100,000 users in a day, or an hour. Systems need to be able to scale without bringing down the entire operation.

5. Performance counts. Keeping people on hold doesn`t create customer loyalty in today`s contact center, neither does slow response time online. Set performance benchmarks and build staff to reach them.

6. Put customers first. Customers are the lifeblood of a company. Design the system around the needs of this biggest corporate asset. Analyze customer`s needs for information, access and corporate data, such as inventory or shipping status, and empower the agent to provide customers the information they need.

7. Customers want self-service. That`s why they do e-business in the first place. Make sure solutions can deliver web self-service capabilities. Plan to let them help themselves with the functions contact center agents traditionally help with. It will make them happier, and in the long run, reduce costs.

8. Integrate workflow. Why have different escalation and reporting procedures for different systems? Efficiency comes from consolidation of systems into a single process and then ensuring all applications feed that single system. Don`t build applications and procedures that are islands.

9. Create new metrics. Existing metrics for the contact center are based on handling 100 percent of calls via the telephone. Since e-business support will originate on the Web and will require a different formula to determine traffic, revised metrics are necessary for the contact center.

10. Opportunity knocking. Taking care of customers via the Web may feel like a burden, but it provides an opportunity to better understand customer needs and preferences, information marketing and sales teams pay handsomely for.

E-business is a relatively new idea for most companies, and is increasingly gaining support throughout the electric power industry. Since the tasks involved in implementation can be challenging, some companies have concentrated on integrating their e-commerce solutions with their contact center or other enterprise applications. To deliver the same consistent service to contact center customers that they do on-line customers, companies are tying together the two systems to provide both a single, seamless face to customers (Figure 2).

Just as traditional business won`t survive without an e-business strategy, web businesses won`t survive without a strong contact center. The key to success for every business today is to ensure their web site and e-business initiative is backed by, and seamlessly integrated with, an industrial strength contact center for optimal customer satisfaction.

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