Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Customer Service Reimagined

Davy Kestens

Chief Executive Officer

When was the last time you looked at your phone? According to Moment, the average American picks up their phone 43 times in a day, and analytics firm Flurry says Americans spend nearly three hours per day on their mobile devices. People are obsessed with their phones and brands know that in order to reach customers they need to step up their mobile game. Most brands offer mobile apps but they are missing one key component. Can you guess what it is?

The (Incomplete) Promise of Mobile Apps

Brands quickly got on the mobile app bandwagon but forgot about mobilizing customer experience. Let’s use an example of a frequent experience. You are shopping in your favorite mobile app- scroll, click, add to cart. Alas, you click on your cart to buy your goods but unfortunately notice that the whole time your cart had not been updating. Help! Now you must reach out to customer service but that is easier said than done. You leave your cart, try to find that button with the three lines that someone decided means “menu”, click Contact Us and…oh. You are met with phone numbers for contact centers ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, 28 different emails and an option to fax over your complaint. This may be just my opinion (doubt it) but we have passed the days of calling customer service to order items from a catalog received in the mail. Customers are mobile so shouldn’t customer service be mobile too?

There is an obvious pain in the customer service experience within mobile apps. The need to leave the mobile app to contact customer care is a massive disconnect and an irritatingly negative experience. From 2013-2014, mobile usage grew 76% and shows no signs of stopping. But how can brands turn contacting customer experience into a positive and easy experience? The answer is in mobile customer service.

Fitting Mobile Customer Service into the Contact Center

Sure there are in-app messaging solutions that exist today. But none of them have been specifically designed for the enterprise, until now. Our In-App Messaging solution has been weaved into Sparkcentral’s overall workflow that’s already deployed at many large organizations’ contact centers, such as United, Netflix, Uber, Discover and T-Mobile. Being able to message in-app means that when you have that question about your empty cart, you can click Contact Us and “text” your message to a customer care agent on the other side. An agent can respond to you in minutes which I think we can all agree is better than sitting on hold for 45 minutes until we are re-routed to another agent who may or may not be able to solve our problem.

In-App Messaging isn’t just for brands; it’s for customers too. Brands benefit by being able to scale their contact centers, perform at an accelerated rate and delight their customers, which means creating brand advocacy and lifelong customers. Customers on the other hand, continue frequenting your mobile app because of the additional value concierge-level personalized support brings. At Sparkcentral we believe great customer service makes everyone happy–I’m sure there’s a statistic on that somewhere– so, brands and customers alike, I’d like to introduce you to In-App Messaging.

Welcome to the future of Sparkcentral. The future of customer service.

About the author:
As founder and CEO of Sparkcentral, Davy is leading the customer service revolution. In 2012, immediately after founding the company, Davy moved from Belgium to San Francisco. He can get incredibly excited about Startups, enterprise software, and great food.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Delivering More Efficient, Mission-Critical Digital Services

By Victor Janey
Director, Operations
General Dynamics Information Technology

General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) has been partnering with federal agencies continuously since 1983 to deliver mission-critical customer-facing support services. We have partnered with clients to transform the citizen experience to a web-first, mobile-enabled experience that has transformed services from largely paper-based and labor-intensive systems to more efficient, cost-effective electronic and Web-based systems.

GDIT implemented and operates large-scale, multi-channel contact centers that respond to traditional channels but also mobile interactions via Web Chat, SMS, and social engagement from more than 20 million customers annually who have questions about how to apply for, receive, and change Federal assistance and statutory benefits. For one Federal agency, GDIT innovation has built a service environment where more than 99 percent of 25 million federal benefit applications annually are submitted via the Web with built-in skip logic for faster, more accurate results.

Throughout our 30 plus years of partnership with Federal clients, we have consistently delivered contract services within budget while identifying and applying processing efficiencies and enhancements to reduce the government’s operational costs.   And throughout our performance of contract services, we have consistently met all critical annual and interim start-up deadlines for various projects. Each year, all changes driven by legislation and regulation must be fully developed, tested, accepted by clients with full Federal security  requirements in place, and implemented in time for benefits to be available citizens who rely on critical government program. 

An important aspect of service improvement is to keep pace with evolving citizen preferences and their need to communicate across new devices, platforms, and operating systems, in the channel of their choice, when and where they choose to interact.  The overarching mission is to simplify the customer experience to the highest degree possible, breaking down barriers and thereby reducing burden and time for citizen interactions.  A recent example of how GDIT delivered on this commitment for a key client and its customers comes from our delivery for a U.S. government civilian client, where we provide the application that unlocks access to federal funds for defraying the high costs of post-secondary education.   

This application has had a reputation for being complex and is even by some to be a barrier to higher education pursuit.  GDIT ingenuity has helped to take the application from one that took upwards of 45 minutes to complete to one that can be completed and submitted in less than 20 minutes, with results provided to the applicant nearly instantaneously.  The simplified and streamlined online application has enabled more citizens to apply for aid.  There has been a 27 percent increase since the simplification effort began in 2010.  The improved form represents a major change from previous versions.

Highlights of the improved form include:

  • Fewer questions. "Enhanced skip logic" lets students skip questions that don't apply
  • Friendlier navigation. The different sections of the form are marked and color-coded, and screens include an easy-to-find "help and hints" section
  • More information for planning. Citizens who express interest in particular kinds of available benefits now get an instant estimate of aid eligibility
  • Less duplication. The form and application process now links to another federal agency whose data are required, vastly simplifying the process and creating a true “one-stop” experience for citizens relying on this essential federal service
  • This inter-agency collaboration has been called a prime example of different government agencies working together in the interest of citizens.  It has resulted in more applications filed accurately, on time, and with higher levels of customer satisfaction.
There is also increased transparency for citizens as to where they are in the application process, essential for fostering trust in the government and ensuring that citizens follow through and get the aid that they are entitled to receive.  The online, mobile-enabled application is designed to allow customers anytime access to their data, to make necessary changes and edits to their online applications, with clear visibility to their status / point-in-process.  They can also receive electronic rather than paper correspondence, greatly increasing processing turnaround times and reducing costs.  In fact, GDIT worked with the federal agency we serve to build a system whereby citizens who interact electronically are thereafter offered online self-help, tutorials and virtual assistance that follows them through the application as they complete it, escorting their journey to ensure accurate completion.

 "Skip logic," which presents only those sections of the application that are determined applicable based on answers to previous questions, speeds completion of the form. Verification of data and security of private information are also built into the design.  The website that features the application for federal aid also serves as a central online reference site for citizens engaged in the process, including one of the largest deployments of electronic signature functionality in the federal government.

The innovations of this web-first, mobile-enabled design has:

  • Increased on-line versus paper applications from zero to more than 99% since 1997
  • Increased application submission success
  • Reduced printing costs by 90% since 2008
In addition, simplification initiatives mean that applicant data are matched against other, multiple agency databases necessary for the eligibility determination and to ensure accuracy of identifier data for the disbursement of federal funds to qualified applicants.  Citizens also can begin the process with a prior year’s submission to reduce errors and the time to complete the application.

Through the simplification initiative, GDIT reduced the number of web screens on the application from 46 down to 10, cut by 50 percent the number of questions the average applicant must answer, and significantly reduced the overall application completion time. The application streamlining and improvements also enabled a streamlined and more efficient web application technology stack, delivering development cost efficiencies and more flexible feature delivery.

Additional, demonstrable, benefits to citizens and clients brought about by this overall improvement initiative include, at the end of the first year of the deployed simplified online application:

The Elimination of Unnecessary Paper Artifacts
These changes eliminated unnecessary paper notifications in the shift to bolster online help and the use of email communication.  Customers who interact electronically are thereafter presented on-line and mobile help experiences and outputs.

Password / ID Enhancements
Password Challenge Question Lockouts decreased 39%

Increased Electronic Application Signatures / Less Paper Processing

  • Application Signature rejects decreased 69%
  • Electronic Signatures increased by 2.4%
  • Blank Signatures decreased by 55%
  • Total Paper signatures decreased by 27%
  • Encouraging Online Help
  • Calls Offered decreased 45%
  • Chats Offered decreased 68%
  • Emails decreased 31%
Eliminate Unnecessary Paper Artifacts
  • Since the changes were implemented, roughly 4.9 million fewer paper notifications were sent, compared to prior year
  • 4.9 million * 40 cents for postage = $1,960,000 in savings
In the words of just one of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have already completed the new online and simplified application process, Janice from Oklahoma said “The process is so easy! It took my daughter and me only a few minutes to complete and it was much easier than before. With so much to worry about it’s good to know that you are all making sure this part of the process isn’t one of them. This was really great!”

Victor Janey is an Operations Director with more than 20 years of experience managing large-scale, high-volume, multi-channel contact center operations in virtual delivery environments. He is an evangelist for best-in-business customer service delivery models, and a key contributor in developing and communicating best service principles and guidelines.

Before becoming Director of Operations at General Dynamic Information Technology, he was an Operations Director at Vangent, Inc., a Program Manager at Pearson Government Solutions and Deputy Program Manager at NCS.

Customer Experience Challenges for Large Organizations


By Burges Karkaria
Chief Technical Officer, Customer Experience


The statement ‘The bigger you are, the harder you fall’ (or fail in this case) is very applicable while talking about “Customer Experience” challenges faced by large corporations. Big corporations understand the value of providing superior Customer Experience very well. They also have immense resources at their disposal to tackle the problem. Yet somehow they find immense hurdles in nailing the customer experience challenge.

What is Customer Experience?

Customer Experience is several different things, but simply put, encompasses every interaction your customer has with your company. This could involve a retail shopping experience and the lines at the Point of Sale, or calling the help desk or trying to find some information about your products online. I will however focus on the digital experience portion in this article. The digital experience the customer has with your company spans many digital assets. Some assets are owned by you while some assets are not (think of review sites, or search engines or online stores selling your products). It also spans all parts of the customer journey. Right from researching products (both your and competitors’ products), to going through the inquiry and purchase cycles to actually using your products and dealing with any issues while doing so. For large corporations the “customer” could be a complex labyrinth of B2B customers, B2C customers, partners etc.

Why is Unified Customer Experience Important?

Well for starters, Digital Experience is the brand! Let’s say you are selling a wearable and your site is slow or complicated, customers will associate that with you and your products. They start thinking your wearable itself will maybe slow or complicated and may instead choose a competitor’s product. First impressions are the most lasting sometimes and the first interaction that the customer has with your company is generally before they have ever touched your product.

Customer Experience further needs to have a unified feel. Whether customers are researching or buying or looking for help your digital experience needs to be contiguous, consistent and familiar. Kim Kopetz, Director of Customer Experience Office at Intel, calls out the importance of Customer Experience via two vantage points. “From the company perspective, a unified customer experience is important so that we can better understand a customer’s end-to-end journey, and use that data to optimize engagement strategies and execution plans.  From the customer perspective, a unified experience provides a seamless, integrated, and ideally intuitive way to interact with a company that fulfills individual needs and desires.”

Why is Unifying Customer Experience so Hard- Especially for Big Companies?

Any big company starts off with a smorgasbord of customers as mentioned above. The requirements and needs of different segments are different. More importantly, the internal factors make the vision of a world class customer experience even harder. Most companies have different people responsible for different parts of the business, who touch customers at different points in their journey. The engineering teams expose the technical documentation, the marketing teams handle the marketing messaging, the sales teams handle the e-Commerce and order management, and customer support teams provide technical support.

Further systems used for these are based off of multiple vendor offerings each having a separate customer experience, out of box. For example the communities or service cloud experience offered by SalesForce (out of box) will be completely different compared to say the e-Commerce experience offered by IBM Websphere Commerce engine and so on. Changing the “skin” to rebrand and normalize is not trivial or cheap. Add to that the multitude of legacy systems, custom home grown systems etc. and the fact that the solution stack keeps morphing over the years and you have an interesting Frankenstein-ish setup as far as your customers are concerned. Trying to align funding models to change these systems in lock step is a huge challenge in itself.

Again, Kim summarizes this very well: “Unifying a customer experience is hard because organizations are often designed and optimized around functional silos, such as sales, marketing, support.  Getting siloed groups to align to a common “outside-in” perspective and understanding baton passes between groups is difficult, not to mention the challenge of comprehending the required integration of customer-facing systems, processes and communications.”

Strategies to Help Unify Customer Experience

Large Companies have finally started to recognize and address this problem with more vigor than ever. Following are some key considerations:

  1. The first step is to acknowledge the problem and establish a central Customer Experience office that is empowered to guide a unified customer experience across the silos.
  2. Next is identifying the clear areas where improving customer experience has direct ROI benefits. For example, simplifying the digital support that’s integrated with the order history, reduces support calls, resulting in huge savings. Or, integrating order history with technical documentation may provide ease of product use while helping cross sell opportunities. These then need to be comprehended as a collective roadmap impacting multiple siloed systems that change in tandem. 
  3. Key vendors need to be brought together in partnership with your company to help shape their offerings to work well with each other.
In summary “Customer at the center” needs to move from rhetoric to practical implementation with Unified Customer Experience being thought of as a core differentiator for your brand.
Burges Karkaria is the Chief Technical Officer for Customer Experience at Intel. You can follow him on @IntelMktCTO or @BurgesKarkaria on twitter. The views expressed by the author are his own and don’t represent any official company views.

Intel, IBM and Salesforce are registered trademarks and reference to their products are just used as an illustrative example.