Back in 1998, which seems like three lifetimes ago for many IT folks, Los Angeles-based PeopleSupport sprang to life as a company offering advanced customer care services. Having surveyed the market and identified a host of companies that handled voice contacts with customers, this start-up focused on the emerging touch points of e-mail, Web chat, Web collaboration, and self-service. Voice contact would, of course, be part of the company's repertoire, but PeopleSupport would not lead with it like so many outsourced care providers. With this arsenal of customer care offerings in the midst of the Internet boom, PeopleSupport's business model attracted plenty of dot-commers with deep pockets. "When the Internet rush was on, we provided this outsourced service to many of the premier online companies, such as eToys.com," recalls Abby Hossein, CIO and senior VP of global technology at PeopleSupport. "Then, everything changed in a hurry."
Well, not everything. Sure, PeopleSupport watched many of its online clients struggle and then succumb to the forces of economic gravity. But, this was more of a comment on the company's customers than on PeopleSupport's business model and technology. What did not change was the market demand for outsourced customer care. However, that market was now shifting from Internet up-and-comers to long-established enterprises. PeopleSupport's customer base is now dominated by Fortune 500 clients and only dotted with dot-coms.
While the rise and fall of the dot-com empire will be the subject of business and economics classes for generations, no one can dispute that traditional enterprises - both large and mid-level - were not impacted. In the case of customer care, for instance, the concepts of e-mail, chat, and collaboration were pioneered by online companies. Now, many traditional enterprises are integrating these channels of customer contact with the most popular channel of communication - voice. For companies that offer multiple channels of communication, the results are improved customer care, reduced labor costs, less call volume, and a lower cost per call.
Know Your Customers, Know Your Channels
One of the most important aspects of offering multichannel customer support is knowing the customers who are being served and tailoring your solution to their needs. When PeopleSupport's customer base consisted mainly of dot-coms, the company was handling about 40% of contacts through e-mail, 40% through Web chat and collaboration, and 20% through traditional voice. Those numbers have since shifted with its client base. With outsourced call center facilities in both St. Louis and the Philippines, PeopleSupport now handles about 60% of contacts with voice. And, while voice still dominates this landscape, the shift is now on to incorporate additional channels of communication, including self-service. "Voice is still king with our current client base. But they now recognize the importance of offering other channels of communication," states Hossein. "Currently, 20% of their contacts are handled by e-mail and 20% by chat and collaboration. That's a big shift from a couple of years ago, and those numbers will continue to increase."
To substantiate his claim, Hossein points to the investment in his company by CRM (customer relationship management) leader Seibel Systems. One result of the partnership is that PeopleSupport's online support software is integrated with Seibel's package, which supports the voice channel extremely well. "A company's strategy should be to get a complete view of a customer across all touch points. And, obviously, some contacts are handled better in voice and others are not," says Hossein. For the online customer seeking information on a cruise, for example, voice contact can be extremely limited compared to an online multimedia presentation. And, while product specs can be relayed via an agent, an online image with accompanying data sheet is clearly more helpful to customers. PeopleSupport agents make this possible by utilizing online Web collaboration. Additionally, customers can help themselves using PeopleSupport's self-service technology.
B2B Customers Require Delicate Touch (Points)
As managing multichannel touch points becomes more imperative to companies' overall CRM strategy, employees that handle these contacts need to be increasingly more skilled. The days of low-paying, high-turnover CSR (customer service representative) positions have declined like so many Internet stocks. In the case of PeopleSupport's facilities in the Philippines and St. Louis, 98% of their agents are college graduates. They also go through extensive training before becoming a part of a client's customer care operation. Of course, this method is not inexpensive. "It's a dilemma for companies that staff centers within the United States. Attracting quality agents is very expensive, and some companies can't afford to do it," relays Hossein. "That's why we tapped the Philippines market. We are able to lower the cost of customer care, but significantly improve the quality of customer experience by hiring savvy, college-educated employees."
For PeopleSupport, the agents are teamed up to manage accounts and trained in every channel of communication. (Adds Hossein, "Most of our agents are as fast at typing as they are at talking.") From their outsourced facilities, the agents handle both B2C and B2B contacts as well as a variety of e-mail, text, chat, and voice calls. PeopleSupport utilized workforce optimization software from RightForce (Fort Lauderdale, FL) to achieve this effective channel communication. As CRM moves to envelop partner relationships, which include suppliers, B2B customer care takes on an unprecedented role in terms of importance. If a B2C customer call is not handled correctly, a client may lose a customer worth hundreds of dollars in annual revenue. If a B2B contact is botched, the impact may be measured in millions of dollars. "If a B2B service call goes awry, there is the immediate monetary concern. But, you also have the good will that exists between companies that are partners. That is much more difficult to recover," says Hossein. "When you're dealing with a single consumer, you don't have the high stakes. You can afford to identify quality issues and address them."
Self-Help Helps The Bottom Line
While voice still dominates PeopleSupport's customer care channels, self-help continues to be the Holy Grail of service that now seems to be less elusive than ever before. For PeopleSupport's part, the company has developed software that acts as a knowledge base that customers can tap when customer concerns arise. In terms of cost savings, the benefits are enormous. Handling a query by voice versus a customer finding an answer unassisted online can reduce service costs from several dollars to just a few cents per call. At the same time, this self-service can also improve the customer experience. There is an element of instant gratification that cannot be denied. A customer can be directed to and print a 401K enrollment form on an online trading site, or a business traveler can download maps and images of a destination city. If these requests were handled by voice, customers would have to wait for such materials to arrive in the mail. Also, these services are available on a 24/7 basis. "One of our high-tech clients saw a 60% reduction in B2B voice and e-mail contacts after implementing a self-help system," says Hossein. "The reports generated by the self-help system allow you to measure the effectiveness of its answers and constantly improve it. Over time, the self-help system just gets better and better."
Your organization probably has a group of CSRs handling voice contacts. Maybe you even have a smaller, dedicated group of agents fielding e-mail contacts. Odds are, however, they are working independently and their disjointed monthly reports indicate as much. There is plenty about the rise and fall of dot-coms that should not be duplicated - burn rate, anyone. However, companies that do not offer and integrate multichannel touch points did not learn to adopt the best of what online companies had to offer.