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Expert Opinion

What is Customer Service and Support (CSS)?

The underlying philosophy of an organisation in regard to its customers, along with the nature its business, have an influence on the type of customer support and service provided. CSS involves the management of longer-term customer relationships and is closely related to the management of product life cycles. CSS may involve back-up services for maintaining productivity in the event of failures and the provision of replacement parts, critical spares, service contracts, and service level agreements. In this regard Help Desks for information, assistance, and fault management are commonly a key component associated with customer support and service.

The quality of after sales support and the services provided by an organisation can have a significant bearing upon:

  • The acquisition of customers due to purchasing decisions often involving comparisons of the CSS offerings that may be available from various vendors.
  • Business growth, in particular growth that is related to enjoying a good CSS reputation, or strong CSS branding association.
  • Customer loyalty which can be built up through experiencing superior customer support and service.

CSS processes need to be well planned and managed to maximise the ensuing benefits of customer acquisition, growth, and loyalty. Successful CSS systems are closely related to an organisation's culture, policies, and customer focus.

Russ Westcott (2002), president of consulting firm Westcott & Associates states that to maintain a customer focus involves focusing every person and every process in the organisation on customers (both internal and external) in a balanced way, and that to achieve such a customer focus all company actions must be ethically, economically, and socially sound. Westcott presents Table 1 below as a way of viewing the status of customers within an organisation.

Table 1 – Levels of customer satisfaction

Is your customer?
Then your customer:
Has probably departed forever
Marginally satisfied
Is casual (any supplier will do)
Basically satisfied
Is borderline, uncommitted
Is a return customer, (retained)
A committed advocate
Is loyal, appreciates what you do and tells others

Customer Experience Management (CEM)

Customer Experience Management (CEM) systems are designed to discover what customers expect from their suppliers. CEMs aim to meet discovered customer needs, and to guard against customer defections. Oscar Alban, principal market consultant for Witness Systems, (2002) states that as organisations work in highly competitive markets they are seeking to fine-tune business performance management practices in the desire to achieve their strategic goals. And one of the key goals is the provision of optimum customer service levels. Alban writes that, "Providing high-calibre customer experiences remains one of the top priorities for organisations today and to have a truly successful CRM strategy, the front-office contact centre must be bridged to the back-office departments that support the customer experience. Industry experts fully support this, predicting that by 2007 enterprises that have prioritised investments in customer service and support optimisation will grow their market share as much as 35 percent over the industry average".

John Wookey (2003) senior vice president, applications development, of Oracle Corporation writes that gaining a deeper understanding of customer needs, interests, and concerns makes good business sense. Basic survival in competitive markets may depend on keeping existing customers satisfied, and in identifying cross-sell and up sell opportunities. The optimum solution for CSS is to employ a single customer model across an enterprise and to use collaborative CRM technologies which can collect and synchronize data from multiple knowledge sources. System-wide analytics then become possible and can provide information ranging from simple queries through to customer lifetime value assessments. The use of customer segmentation and profiling tools can enable service managers to create multiple levels of service and to factor in a customers relative value. This allows more profitable or influential customers to be treated in line with their value to the organisation. Customer service and support can be greatly improved with the application of collaborative CRM systems e.g. through the provision of automated reporting throughout organisations, and by the provision of improved scheduling of services and for staff visits.

Help Desks

Increasingly, organisations are implementing customer Help Desks in order to provide information, assistance, and fault management over the telephone. These are often considered a more cost effective method than having multiple store or contact points in a customer's local area. The following factors have an important bearing on the quality of the customer service and support offered by help desk personnel:

  • Accessibility
  • Experience, and
  • The information base available

Fault handling services can be enhanced through the use of tracking systems and fault history databases. In addition remote diagnostics and remote control software enable collaborative services to be provided as part of the help desk service. Jason Romney (2004) CEO of a Sydney software technology company gives the following advice concerning running an effective help desk:

  • Clearly define service level agreements (SLAs) to ensure that they incorporate response and resolution time commitments based on the problem severity. Customer input should be sought to determine the appropriateness of these SLAs.
  • Performance results should be regularly published to show how well the help desk is performing and to acknowledge the success of the team.
  • Implement help desk automation software for tracking customer jobs.
  • Use remote management tools.
  • Employ integrated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) reference lists and knowledge management systems.

Web-Based Customer Service

Web-based customer service and support practices are also on the increase, and offer advantages to both customers, in terms of convenience and rapid service, and to business owners in terms of cost savings. Michael Lough (2004), CEO of LiveWire Logic Inc., and Dr. James Lester, co-founder and chief scientist, believe that it is beneficial to offer multiple channels of support to customers, and that they should be given a choice concerning which channel they use. It is also important that the information contained in these various channels is coordinated, and that all front line staff are privy to the information offered on the organisation';s web sites, knowledge management systems, or self-service systems.

Many organisations face the challenge of cutting costs to remain competitive while at the same time enhancing their customer services and improving marketing capabilities. Curt Champion (2003), a senior director at Convergys Corporation relates how web-based self-care can help meet these conflicting requirements. Web self-care is generally less expensive than live agent support, it can help to improve agent productivity, and it is also a useful platform for marketing. Forrester Research was cited in a report showing that some 66 percent of surveyed firms said they have either implemented a web self-care program, are rolling one out, or are running one in the pilot stage. Multiple channels are recommended as being the most appropriate means of providing self service CSS e.g.

  • Web self-care can accommodate complex information
  • Simpler tasks can be efficiently handled over the telephone through interactive voice response (IVR) systems.
  • For complex tasks which required interaction web collaboration may be appropriate. Web chat can be used to interact with customer service representatives (CSRs), and they can perhaps take control of the consumer's web browser or push enhanced content to complete a customer's request. The service level provided is high however, the cost to the company can be less than one-on-one telephone connections.

Web self-care needs to be marketed just like any other product. The reasons why a customer would want to return should be understood. By offering 'Web only'; special pricing customers can be attracted to use this mechanism. Oganisations need to ensure that all products and services are covered on the Web site. The first visit by a customer to a self-care Web site will influence their desire to return, and for this reason the services need to be easy to use, understandable and focused on the user experience. Forrester Research is cited as providing the following comparative costs for self-care transactions:

  • Web self-care averages US$1.17 per transaction
  • E-mail US$9.99
  • Chat US$7.80, and
  • Message boards US$4.57

Virtual Call Centres

Achieving customer service excellence whilst minimising costs is a continuing challenge for businesses. The integration of the various services offered has become possible through the use of virtual call centres. These call centres are based on the IP (Internet Protocol) technology which is readily available and can be implemented for global availability. Steve Kaish (2004), CosmoCom's vice president of sales, Americas and Japan, states that IP-based virtual call centres represent a vehicle which is well placed to address common organisation needs, i.e. to:

  • Move operations offshore wherever possible
  • Integrate multiple stand-alone operations into a single entity
  • Provide universal customer access via telephone, e-mail, and Internet via less costly and more convenient interaction channels, while preserving quality and consistency across all.

Staffing resources may be optimised and experts can be made available to any caller by using location-independent skills-based routing. Virtualisation is more cost-effective and easier to justify with IP-based architecture than with any other technology. Because standard personal computer equipment may be used from multiple locations, including their home, agents may be located almost anywhere in the world. These disparate parts of the virtual call centres may be managed as a single system image. Managers are able to retain complete operational visibility and control across the globe via Web-based administrative and reporting tools. All interactions with the organisation can be tracked in a unified way, enabling all incoming channels to be tracked and reported on using the same methodology. These tools can improve efficiency and control, increase agent productivity, and enhance customer satisfaction

Remote Control Tools

Eric Jensen (2004), GoToAssist product marketing manager writes that organisations are finding remote support technologies more productive and easier to use than traditional phone and e-mail support methods when resolving technical support incidents. Remote support tools fall into the following broad categories:

  • Remote control tools that provide the ability for a distant technical support representative to access and control an end user's device for technical problem diagnosis and troubleshooting,
  • Remote monitoring and management tools that enable an application or infrastructure vendor to receive problem alarms and initiate action without end user intervention, and
  • Remote diagnostics which enable a technical support representative to chat with an end user, run diagnostics, and obtain a report.

The primary drivers for adopting remote support systems have been to improve customer satisfaction whilst achieving a positive return on investment (ROI).

Multi-channel Support Services

Many customers now expect multiple levels of service provided via multiple channels to meet their various needs for support. This includes:

  • Telephone support,
  • Web based alternatives,
  • e-Mail,
  • Web chat,
  • Search utilities,
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) lists, and
  • Automated agents (interactive voice response technology systems which model live agents.)

By offering a wide breadth of customer service and support options it was believed that customer retention and satisfaction would improve, and that this would impact on revenue and repeat business. An objective of multi-channel CSS is to serve customers' needs as efficiently as possible at the lowest cost. A key to ensuring the effectiveness of this strategy is to integrate self-service solutions with other options. With multi-channel CSS a customer's query may be escalated, along with previous contact information, to the most appropriate level.

CSS Performance Measurement

Techniques that may be used to measure CSS performance include the following:

  • Customer Complaint information provides valuable data about customer requirements, opinions, and viewpoints. This information can be used to better manage customer interactions, adapt products and services, and modify/better control specific processes.
    Dr Robert Ramsey (2003) writes that customer complaint handling is an important aspect of CSS, and that responding to serious complaints can be the quickest, easiest way to pinpoint products, services, systems, or employees who are not operating as intended. By tracking the effectiveness of complaint handling systems a reality check of an organisation's response times and capacity to correct mistakes can be gauged. Complaints offer an opportunity to find weak links that otherwise would have gone unnoticed until perhaps a serious problem redeveloped. Usually complaining customers are valued messengers.
  • Servqual, which is a measurement scale employing five dimensions i.e. reliability, tangibles, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy to assess customer perceptions of service.
  • Customer Satisfaction Index which is an aggregate of various customer satisfaction measures and can provide a comparative measure between organisations.
  • Customer Expectation Scorecards which provide a means of measuring how well an organisation meets its customers' key requirements.
  • Mystery Shopper Surveys which are used to measure employees selling techniques and the quality of service and support offered to customers.
  • Service Level Agreements (or a performance agreement) between a service or product provider and a customer.


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