Brendan Read's Blog


The Necessity of Mastering Omni-Channel Customer Service

04 May 2015

All of us are customers. Whenever we engage with companies we expect them to deliver a consistently high quality experience, regardless of whether we call or Tweet them, or visit their online or bricks-and-mortar stores. In short: omni-channel customer service.

Smart businesses of all sizes understand that the key to growth, competitiveness, and profitability is providing just that, in concert with supplying attractive high quality products and services. Indeed, omni-channel service should be instinctive for any business, and employee. I delivered omni-channel customer service some 40 years ago for a factory sewing machine firm. Only my company and I didn’t call it that. Instead it was called “doing my job.” I handled phone, postal mail, and at-counter billing, customer service and support, order entry, and sales, in addition to taking care of accounts receivable, inventory, making bank deposits, filing liens, and fulfillment: mailing and shipping.

But too many companies are still not offering omni-channel service, even with the advent, availability, and affordability of amazing analytics/BI, customer contact, CRM, ERP, marketing automation, mobile, and multichannel solutions, most of which weren’t even dreamed of 40 years ago. Alas, we too often get disjointed service, like not being able to return an online purchase to a store, even though it is the same company. And are the contact center agents and/or retail staff sufficiently aware of what we customers are saying about their stores and wares on social media, so they can be prepared to handle our issues?

In fairness, “going omni-channel” is not easy to accomplish, especially for established retailers and distributors. These companies still have thick channel silos resting on often long-depreciated technology, along with departments and managers who are used to them, and who may be reluctant to change. Having a business that is truly omni-channel is also a moving target as the channels and tools are continually evolving as are customer needs and markets. And there are sometimes other matters that push omni-channel programs down the project queue.

To help businesses become “omni-channel enabled”, Frost & Sullivan and Salesforce has a webinar on Wednesday May 13 on “Mastering Omni-Channel Customer Service”. Frost & Sullivan global program director Ashwin Iyer and fashion retailer Aldo Group project manager Jonathan Campoli will be presenting in this highly educational and informative event. To register, click here. And let us know about your resulting omni-channel customer service success stories.

Post-Earth Day Resolution: Start Charging For the Environment

24 Apr 2015

Economists point out that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL). That goods are scarce; as more of them are consumed there will be less available. And that prices rise when supply shrinks.

But the logic of TANSTAAFL, and supply and demand, are mistakenly not being applied to life-sustaining environmental goods: air, water, open space, trees, wetlands, and arable land. Instead, economics, and the marketplace, incorrectly treat them as “free goods” that will never run out. Moreover, the costs of when environmental goods are damaged, degraded, and/or destroyed are not accounted for.

The failure to fully charge for using environmental goods and incorporating them into product and service prices, that is the root of the global environmental crisis. By not paying for these costs upfront we are subsidizing our destruction by making unsustainable decisions and purchase choices cheaper.

There are all too many illustrations. Companies that end telework result in more pollutants from commuters’ vehicles, their energy sources, and from transportation system building and upkeep. Firms choosing greenfields for offices, factories, warehouses, and solar parks, while brownfields go empty or existing space (such as parking lots) are underutilized. Homebuyers who pick newly built large houses to accommodate home offices, among other reasons, built on former farmland.

In this distorted marketplace, environmentally efficient goods become overlooked in favor of those that waste resources. Like business travel, instead of unified communications and collaboration solutions, driving instead of transit, and non-recycled goods for recyclables. Our unwise environmental decisions decrease productivity and increase costs and taxes. To illustrate, pollution and sprawl lead to higher healthcare and water wastewater expenses while sprawl slows down highways.

Yet if we continue down this path we will inevitably face the ultimate set of scarcities that will shorten our all too brief existence. While rising prices often lead to more, or substitute products this is not true for the environment. We don’t have an alternative to Earth.

If there is one post-Earth Day resolution we should make and follow it is to find a means by which to effectively and equitably charge for environmental goods. Tapping the power of the marketplace is the most defensible and effective method of limiting pollution and climate change. It shifts the conversation from the false and futile “environment or the economy” to, correctly, “environment and the economy.” This strategy and tactic will help us respond to, and shape, the converging economic, social, technology, and environmental global Mega Trends and ensure a sustainable quality of life.

Making the environment user-pay will not be easy. First, many environmental costs are becoming understood, but they are still difficult to quantify, link to cause and effect, and assign to products and services. Second, there is powerful opposition from producers and users to paying their share. The GOP-controlled U.S. Congress has strongly resisted President Barack Obama’s climate and environmental initiatives. The Canadian Liberal party was crushed by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2008 election after its then-leader, Stephane Dion, proposed a carbon tax.

Yet if we are serious about keeping Earth inhabitable then policymakers have to own up to their primary responsibility of protecting the inhabitants. Here are several steps to consider:

  1. Increase research into environmental cost quantification and attribution with standards-like process engaging all parties to achieve a fair, if compromise, consensus. Value-added tax regimes like Canada’s Goods and Services Tax offers a road map. There are others.
  2. Offset charges with lower general taxes. Insist that imports also include environmental costing; not having it amounts to unfair trade subsidies.
  3. Create an administration means. Utilities offer a well-understood model.
  4. Prod the private sector in developing environment goods costing by withholding development approvals pending cost quantification, including downstream impacts. Give added weight to suppliers who have entered the amounts in their bids.
  5. Have the fees offset present and limit future environmental damage, like remediation, healthcare, setting up recycling, and improving transit.
  6. Identify and phase out direct and indirect subsidies that contribute to environmental damage.

Finally, governments should aggressively communicate environment costing programs on the common sense and fair play economics themes. Let’s quit subsidizing pollution, waste, and sprawl. Time—before it is too late—to end the environmental “free lunch.”

Mural Proves the Value of Support Interaction Optimization (SIO)

23 Apr 2015

As pointed out by Frost & Sullivan Principal Analyst Nancy Jamison in her blog, support interaction optimization (SIO) is a new and powerful tool that helps companies improve their customer experience, lower costs, and measure the results. Case in point is Mural, a Portland, Oregon-based professional services company that specializes in cloud IT sales, onboarding, and support.

Mural has over 40 cloud IT services delivered through communications as a service (CaaS), device as a service (DaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and software as a service (SaaS) applications. Its portfolio includes solutions from CenturyLink (Savvis), Cisco (WebEx), Citrix, Dell, EMC, McAfee, Microsoft (Lync, Office365, SharePoint), and Symantec. Mural serves and supports customers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Australia.

The Situation

Mural’s professional services are “productized”, meaning that each service has a set scope, price, and set of deliverables. Mural’s processes guide the work of its 80 Cloud Technology Advisors (CTAs), who work in Mural’s Customer Experience Center, located in Tucson, Arizona.

Mural CTAs have been using dialogues and scripts in its CRM system as workflow management tools. However, by 2014 this methodology was becoming outmoded. For example, the CTAs needed to perform tasks like on-premise-to-cloud migration faster and more systematically, but the applications would not let them. The company also needed to remotely access users’ devices -- desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones - for application installation, upgrades, service, and support.

“We needed a better solution as the number of products and programs we supported for our customers rapidly increased,” said Steve Zimba, president of Mural. “That now included providing remote service and support.”

The Response

Mural began looking for a new solution and, while investigating various alternatives, learned of Support.com. There the Mural team was introduced to SIO, which is embodied in Support.com’s hosted Nexus application.

Mural signed on with Support.com in summer, 2014, and incorporated Nexus into its MaaXcloud productized service, which is aimed at small to midsized businesses (SMBs). MaaXcloud helps SMBs select cloud solutions and onboard and train staff on their use, and supports them through the whole process.

“We needed a single tool that would enable remote device access, implement work flows to enforce our repeatable process, and give us a way to measure how effectively we are delivering our services,” said Zimba. “Nexus fit the requirements.”

The Results

Mural and Support.com established a three-phase implementation program for Nexus. The first phase covered remote access, which was completed by August, 2014. The second phase included workflow implementation, which began in October, 2014 and is ongoing as the company adds it to support more services.

Mural has been highly satisfied with how Nexus performs. Prior to adopting the SIO application it had little means to enforce adherence to workflows but with Nexus it achieved 100% compliance.

Mural will be launching the third phase this summer, when the Nexus API will integrate and flow data collected through the Nexus platform into Mural’s hosted Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform.

The company also plans to expand into the APAC and EMEA markets, using Nexus as its primary SIO tool for those new clients.

“The partnership with Support.com has been excellent; the feedback and input we have provided has been incorporated into rapid development of the platform to meet our needs,” said Zimba. “Because the Support.com team has experience delivering services similar to ours, their understanding of our business and expertise in helping us adapt Nexus to improve our business has been a huge value add.”

So Why Does Customer Service Stink?

14 Apr 2015

Almost every day, it seems, there is another report on why enabling an excellent Customer Experience is vital for companies. Here are just a few examples of these albeit motherhood points they make:

--Customers choosing to do business with businesses based on how they are treated. For example, the 2015 inContact Consumer Research Study revealed that 70% of American adults are willing to pay more for good service.

--Customers’ propensity to comment, positively and negatively, on social media about companies based on their Customer Experience.

--That it costs less to retain and grow existing customers than to acquire new ones.

Here’s the rub. For at the same time there is a steady stream of reports on companies delivering a terrible Customer Experience. That includes, according to the stunning ICMI/LiveOps report blogged here, contact centers actually preventing contact center agents from providing excellent service.

So what gives? Why is the Customer Experience seemingly awful in face of the stream of evidence and recommendations that excellent customer service is essential for companies’ livelihoods?

Here are several theories:

  1. Rising expectations. It isn’t the Customer Experience that has changed. Instead, customers are demanding better service from agents, and from retail staff, than they had done in the past. Customers are now much more knowledgeable about products, services and suppliers, and they have this information at their fingertips on their wireless devices. They also have spent their scarce time in self-service before reaching out to company representatives, and they are understandably impatient.
  2. Corporate skepticism. Companies know that when customers decide to lay down their cash, as opposed to answering surveys, customer service is in the back of the line. Need, convenience, features, style, and price matter more. Customers may gripe on Facebook and Twitter about companies, and threaten to leave them. But bottom line they still pass over the bills and the payment card numbers. There are countless examples of this: airlines, cable and telcos, hotels, software publishers, vehicles…
  3. “Market convergence” and maximizing profits. The goal of the free market: competition leading to lower prices and excellent service, is opposite of the goal of the market’s players, which is to maximize profits by raising prices and cutting costs, like customer service. “Market convergence”: where each company mimics their competitors, takes place. Market convergence occurs in maturing markets (like ours) where there is player consolidation, product and service commoditization, flattening of innovation lead times, and higher barriers to entry. The airlines are a great example. If one carrier gets away with a fare hike or cutting seat pitches the others follow suit.
  4. Only the “front of the curtain” counts. George Orwell was right. Some are more equal than others, like the 1%-10% affluent customers who have most of the buying power. Companies naturally cater to them with an excellent Customer Experience. As for the rest, well, here are some peanuts.
  5. Sales is cool. Support is OK. Service is for wimps. Society gives its greatest rewards to aggressive behavior, as in sales, because it brings results, like money. Society also respects those who can fix problems, like customer/IT support. But society places much less value on serving others.

What are your thoughts on whether and why Customer Service stinks?

ICMI/LiveOps Report, Facebook Messenger Raises Questions on Contact Center Value

26 Mar 2015

A new, disquieting, but refreshingly honest, and yet unsurprising International Customer Management Institute (ICMI)/ LiveOps report calls into question the underlying value of having contact centers to support the Customer Experience.

The report, “Own the Moments! Understanding the Customer Journey”, drawn from a survey of over 400 industry professionals, reveals a contradictory set of counterproductive contact center attitudes and practices:

  • 62% cited the agent as the most critical touch point of the customer journey. Yet only 14% empower their agents to provide top-notch customer experiences. And that 42% of contact centers do not investigate the root cause of repeat customer contacts.
  • 98% agree that real-time information is vital. But more than 1/5th of organizations have zero (emphasis mine) visibility into basic information, such as contact history.
  • The metric of greatest commonality among respondents is Abandonment from Queue (68%). Yet it topped the list of “least effective” metrics.

Worse yet, 74% of surveyees “actually admit to preventing their front line from providing the best possible customer experience possible despite the fact that customer engagement and loyalty were identified as important priorities for all respondents.”

Not surprisingly, nearly 80% felt their customers are not “extremely engaged with their company”, says the report’s press release. “As a result, customers view their relationship with such organizations as disposable.”

Well so does the C-suite. Let’s face it, if most senior executives really believed that providing an extremely effective Customer Experience with their contact centers would significantly boost their profits they would be making large enough investments in them to deliver the desired results.

For the hard truth is that when it comes to making buying decisions customers tend to look at product and service necessity, functionality, convenience, and price, with customer service coming in last. And when one company gets away with treating their customers poorly while charging high prices, the rest will follow in order to maximize profits.

There is an entropy play here. When new market entrants arrive on the scene they inevitably offer a superior Customer Experience, both with the products and services, and with customer service, to create and increase market buzz and share. But most eventually follow the pattern of the existing players. Witness JetBlue and its about-face “me too” shrinking customers’ legroom. Customers can whine all they want on Facebook and Twitter but they will still pony up the cash.

Yes, there are leading light organizations who genuinely believe in treating customers like they want to be treated, and who have executed on those beliefs with excellent customer service through empowered contact centers and agents. Amazon, The Hartford, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), QVC, and TD (TD Bank and TD Canada Trust) come to mind from our personal experience. Sadly, such outfits are few and far between. And in all too many cases when the execs that initiated and ensured an excellent Customer Experience have moved on, they have been replaced by those whose missions have been to slice costs, beginning with IT, followed closely by customer service.

Little wonder there has been much fanfare about Facebook’s new Businesses on Msenger play, which promises to replace traditional contact centers with messaging and social media. The Millennials who are now the consumer and business buyer mainstream are already there. They have turned to Web, mobile, and social, even face-to-face in bricks-and-mortar outlets for customer service, before dialing contact centers, and they do so only as a last resort.

In fairness to companies, it is becoming difficult for them to justify investments in live agent centers in especially with continuing release of powerful new self-service and social tools, unless there are direct and solid connections between the customer service agents provide and revenues. For if fewer customers see value in these types of interactions, why should companies continue to support them?

Not that contact centers will disappear altogether, for there will always be a need for people helping people. But they will far smaller and will exist either for enterprise and/or virtualized subject matter experts who are also empowered to respond on social, or for those declining numbers of customers who want agent hand-holding.

LogMeIn’s Rescue Lens Shows the Best Use of Video in the Contact Center

24 Mar 2015

Video in the contact center has long been a “tomorrow technology”. It is an amazing and a cool tool, but its practical and financially justifiable applications somehow never seem to appear or catch on.

Here’s why: there is no real value in looking at someone else’s face in most video business engagements, especially with contact center agents. Sorry Amazon Mayday. It is the same reason why our cool laptop and smartphone lenses remain dark when we interact with companies by voice or by typing. When we do use video we give the same polite if feigned looks of interest, and to express the right amount of emotion at the right times: like we do in face-to-face meetings.

Worse yet, because video tends to be one-to-one with no other activities or individuals, we soon begin looking for distractions. Let’s be honest here: we do end up staring (and Tweeting about) at the zits on the faces, the strands of dyed or greying hair over the eyeballs, and checking out the tacky decorations in the cubes.

So when I heard about and had a presentation on LogMeIn’s new Rescue Lens solution my reaction was “Eureka! Someone in the contact center space gets it!”

LogMeIn offers with Rescue Lens what vendors should have been doing, and stepped on the gas when cell phones became fitted with cameras. And that is to allow the agents to see customers’ issues, coupled with the ability to act on them, not the customers seeing the agents.

Rescue Lens enables customers to utilize their smartphones or tablet cameras to stream live video back to the agents. To start it, customers simply download apps from Google Play or the iOS App Store, enters their PIN codes, and points their cameras. The net result is a shorter, more effective, and customer-satisfying resolution of problems than which can be accomplished by phone, chat, email, or text alone.

Rescue Lens also has “smart whiteboarding” to show product setup, configuration, and possible solutions. And it integrates video in the customer service and support workflow through the LogMeIn Rescue product.

There are few limits to the use cases with Rescue Lens. It can be used not just for individual product or service issues—LogMeIn’s blog shows an amusing and informative clip about a customer having a problem with their garage door opener—but also for insurance claims, and in assisting field staff diagnose and fix problems with the help of engineers in the office.

On that last item don’t be surprised if LogMeIn eventually integrates its Xively Internet of Things (IoT) offering with Rescue (and Rescue Lens), and its other solutions to create a truly end to end IoT support platform. IoT is hot: Frost & Sullivan predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Frost & Sullivan will be publishing new Market Insight report on IoT and customer service sometime this spring.

But the big value-proposition market for video, and for the technology behind Rescue Lens, is retail. This is the play where LogMeIn should really be taking a hard look at. Support, after all, is a necessary cost that does not get a lot of companies excited. But sales, like of higher end apparel and furniture, is a different game altogether.

Video--and by extension the contact center—can then become an integral profit-and-loyalty enhancing part of the omnichannel Customer Experience. How? Imagine consumers aiming their smartphones at their clothes, shoes, or accessories while asking their online “fashion consultants” to get their opinions on whether the on-sale designer dresses or suits will match. Or asking their virtual “design assistants” if the sofas’ colors, styles, and perhaps most critically their sizes will fit inside their living rooms.

In turn, video in sales is also a winning proposition for the contact centers. Agents would have to be trained and paid more: and they would be able to earn nice commissions. The centers could then attract better quality staff while reducing costly turnover. They may also be given increased budgets (and respect) by proving their revenue-generating value to the C-Suites.

ROE(2) Instead of ROI for Measuring Marketing Results by Accounting for Customer Experience

12 Mar 2015

I recently came across a thought-provoking article in AdAge that suggests replacing return on investment (ROI) with a new metric, ROE2 (return on experience x engagement) for measuring marketing results. The author, Andy Frawley, CEO of Epsilon, a global marketing company believes that the digital revolution has rendered ROI irrelevant because it has enabled new, powerful, and personal relationships between brands and consumers that did not exist before.

ROI simply measures short term marketing campaigns. But it does not take into account customers’ experiences with the brands. This is a critical shortcoming for as Frawley says: “there's a point at which a customer's positive or negative experience is so strong that it can transcend the rational aspects of a brand (e.g., quality, price, service).

Customers are engaged with brands, the Epsilon chief executive points out. Actions like downloading and using apps or referring others to brands “is evidence that the consumer has invited the brand to be a part of his or her life.”

The alternative and arguably more comprehensive ROE2 metric, Frawley says, “represents a longer-term, holistic measure of consumers' total brand experience and their level of engagement.”

Epsilon’s Frawley’s arguments make considerable sense. Marketing, and sales, have  treated customers like military objectives, like that 'hill to be taken', then moving on to the next one, and not looking back to what happens afterward. The glory, and the cash, lay in achieving in those goals.

As a result customer care and service, but too often product and service quality, was ‘someone else’s problem’. Little wonder that customer service and support teams and contact centers have been treated—corporate blandishments to the contrary—as the ‘rear’ in resources, respect, and career paths.

All well and good when there are limitless horizons of new customers to be ‘taken’. But at some point there will be declining numbers of fresh prospects, particularly in today’s slow growth era. Moreover, customers are much better ‘armed’, with the Internet and social media to uncover others’ experiences with companies before doing business with them.

Therefore, customer retention through customer delight and engagement has become paramount in this market environment. Smart companies’ marketing campaign strategies reflect that by targeting existing delighted customers who have expressed this opinion to contact center agents, in surveys, and on social media.

Even so, there are a few caveats to Frawley’s points. They also apply to the value of the Customer Experience and engagement in determining customer loyalty and repeat sales.

First, price, convenience, and necessity often outweigh product and service quality and in how customers are treated.

Customers will continue to buy even when the offerings are barely tolerable. These situations occurs when there is little elasticity in demand, few substitutes, high barriers to entry, there are a limited number of market players, and the players mimic each other i.e. if one gets away with lousy service to reduce costs, without seeing appreciable loss of sale, so will the others. Cases in point are the airlines and also utilities and certain large software vendors.

Second, the universe of customers where loyalty is valued has been shrinking as a result of accelerated income concentration in the socioeconomic elite.

For most products and services only the top 10% of the marketplace matters when it comes to focusing customer retention resources. That is why only they are being catered to, with the greatest choices and service quality.

Third, the Marketing and sales culture,rewards the aggressive achieving of results.

ROI is like the military 'taking the hill'. For many organizations turning marketing and salespeople into 'customer cultivators' is going to be difficult, though not impossible.

Caveats aside, changing the metrics, and by definition the goals, as Epsilon’s Frawley has proposed with ROE2   is an excellent potential route forward to shift Marketing and sales towards accounting for the Customer Experience in their strategies and campaigns. Companies should look at it and at other tools, such as giving more weight to customer referral value in assessing customer lifetime value, in shaping how they approach their markets and customers.

In the Chat’s Innovative Social and SMS Solutions

02 Mar 2015

I had an interesting conversation the other day with John Huehn, founder and CEO of In the Chat, a customer contact solutions company based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada’s tech hub.

John’s company’s flagship product is ITC Enterprise, which has two very innovative solutions that meet key customer contact needs:

  1. ITC Enterprise Social Media. This application listens for, gathers, analyzes, and intelligently routes social media comments and posts to the right agents. Agents respond to customers with general answers, or with invitations to chat, email, call (with embedded call links), or SMS/text. A case management feature allows issues to be tracked and updated independent of channel. It also enables companies to build and manage customer social profiles, and to see if there are matches with named customer profiles built from interactions in other channels.
  2. ITC Text Messaging. This platform smartly routes SMS/texts to the right agents. It utilizes efficient “short code” SMS which companies publish on their Web sites, in mobile apps, and which they can post (to Facebook) or Tweet. In the Chat has built secure web applications through which agents and customers can exchange confidential data. Agents can also send links to the apps in the texts. SMS provides a level of personalization, confidentiality, and security that falls between social media, chat, and email. For example, (and coincidentally) TD Bank Group became the first major Canadian bank to offer SMS customer service.

(I’m not surprised with TD Bank’s launching the SMS service. TD has long had a reputation for great, personable, and leading edge customer care. My wife and I are TD Bank customers in both countries. Other banks would do well to emulate TD Bank.)

In both solutions In the Chat is making SMS and social function much like “traditional” contact center IVR/voice, with the goal of improving the Customer Experience in these channels. These applications use text mining and analytics software for routing and they also connect to CRM applications.

There is an excellent reason for In the Chat’s strong Customer Experience focus. The company’s roots are in the contact center industry. After graduating from Queen’s University, in 1997, John started out as an agent for Rogers Communications, which is one of Canada’s largest (and famous) multimedia firms. He worked himself up to become vice president, client management before leaving in 2009 to start In the Chat in early 2010.

For too long social and SMS in particular have been underutilized as channels. In the Chat has the potential to stir up the industry with its solutions, enabled by its deep understanding on how customers interact with companies through their contact centers.

SIO: Enabling Support Agents to Cost-Effectively Provide Excellent “Level 1-Plus” Support

25 Feb 2015

Frost & Sullivan Principal Analyst Nancy Jamison made a powerful case for Support Interaction Optimization (SIO) in her recent blog, which references a white paper published on this topic. The blog and white paper discuss how SIO allows companies to resolve complex issues in less time and at less cost by providing agents with step-by-step guidance. An important additional benefit is that analytical tools built into SIO applications provide timely insights into agent performance, support processes and product behavior.

What SIO essentially does is create a new and a more effective support level, “Level 1-Plus," that allows Level 1 agents to provide faster and more complete resolution of problems by following SIO guided resolution paths. As a result, Level 1-Plus leads to higher first contact resolution rates, with fewer contacts being escalated to Level 2. That outcome leads to lower staffing costs by equipping Level 1 agents to fix most of the problems that normally would be handled by more expensive Level 2 agents.

Customers will spend less time (and aggravation) getting their problems resolved while experiencing lower downtime with their products and services and thereby obtain greater value from them. This can translate into greater customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as increased business as a result of customer raves on social media.

There is much new information about SIO that is becoming available. Frost & Sullivan had a very informative webinar Feb.17 with Support.com, a leading SIO supplier. It featured Shiva Ramani, founder and CEO of iOPEX, a San Jose, California based business services provider who revealed that SIO improved agent productivity and shrank costs both by double digits. The webinar can be accessed by clicking here. Frost & Sullivan and Support.com is also having a second SIO webinar, on March 24 with Steve Zimba, president of Mural, a Portland, Oregon-headquartered firm which supplies cloud IT solutions for service providers. Click here for free registration.

Help 2 Belmar, New Jersey Hurricane Sandy Victim Families Get Home by Summer

03 Feb 2015

Belmar, New Jersey was hit hard by Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy in October, 2012. I live in Belmar and recounted the terrifying experience in one of my blogs. Last year Frost & Sullivan published a Market Insight report on how Belmar effectively used social media to inform residents before, during, and after the horrible event.

Belmar was one of the first communities to clean up and rebuild after Sandy. This is thanks to the determination, resourcefulness, and teamwork of its residents, community organizations, and governments of all levels, both staff and officials, partnering with outside agencies.

Unfortunately there are still two families of our approximately 5,800 year-round residents who have not been able to return home since Sandy struck over 2 years ago. Each family needs a minimum of $100,000 each to get back home. This money is the bare amount the contractors need to finish the jobs for each house. But while there is additional funds waiting for them it has been snarled in red tape. Alas there are no other resources: from non-profits, relatives, or governments available to help them.

In response the Borough of Belmar and St. Rose Church/St. Vincent DePaul Society has launched a fundraising campaign to bring these families home by summer. They are seeking donations online through PayPal or by check (made out to "Home by Summer"), and mailed to the Borough of Belmar, Attn: Home by Summer, P.O. Box A, Belmar, NJ 07719.

Please take the time to check out the campaign, and please donate.

Thank you.

Employers: Insist on Contagious Disease Vaccinations for Employees and Families

03 Feb 2015

Communicable deadly and debilitating diseases like the measles cause immense havoc, not only to individuals and their families, but to the economy and society as a whole. The resulting costs: in suffering but also in healthcare expenses, and in lost productivity from stricken employees and their family members are immense.

Vaccinations are a long-proven tool to prevent, limit the propagation, and the impact of contagious diseases. Vaccination, in these instances, is a public health matter. An unvaccinated individual is a danger to everyone. Individuals should only be exempt from vaccination if there is a clinically proven risk of serious harm to them from the vaccines. These persons should be identified, and if there are outbreaks strict precautions should be taken to prevent them from contracting and spreading the illnesses.

Forbes magazine ran a great piece on suing parents who didn’t get their kids vaccinated. But how about employers requiring employees and families to be (or get) vaccinated for communicable diseases as a condition of receiving health insurance? No vaccinations. No coverage.

Or better yet, mandate vaccinations for employees and also their households as conditions of employment? Employees would still have “choices”: elect not to receive employer-provided insurance, or get a job with a less stringent company, or become self-employed.

When I was growing up vaccinations weren’t a big issue. You weren’t allowed to register to school unless you had them, and you were taught why. I remember the lineups for the nurse in my school. I also have smallpox inoculation scars, though they are faint compared to those on my grandmother’s arm.

We need to return to a common sense approach to vaccination, one that stresses the greater good, before the next deadly disease outbreak. Employers should do their part to ensure vaccination to protect their workforces, their customers, and themselves. Only when the population is healthy is it truly productive, and provides a profitable market.

The Whys (and Caveats) of Contact Center Outsourcers Leveraging Operations and Technologies as Services

30 Jan 2015

Outsourcing of any kind is a notoriously highly competitive thin-margin business. Not surprisingly, outsourcers are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to grow their volumes, expand margins, and increase client loyalty.

So it is not surprising that outsourcers are being urged to leverage contact center technologies with their clients to reach those goals. This includes managing non-voice channels and improving agent performance. Frost & Sullivan’s reports have made that point.

That sounds fine. In fact I heard the same points 20 years ago when I began covering and working in this industry.

But there are three caveats that deserve mention here:

  1. Hosting has made contact center technologies less “special”. Any company can access cloud solutions without sinking huge sums on licenses and installation.
  2. The big driver of new equipment investments has always been to cut costs: principally labor.  But customer interaction management is the prime product that contact center outsourcers have to sell. The growing demand for automated self-service and productivity-enhancing solutions may shrink the need for in-house and outsourced agents.
  3. Outsourcers have technology-enabled solutions as well as operational expertise to sell. After all they “walk the walk” every day with their contact centers. Outsourcers are highly experienced in evaluating new solutions and in optimizing existing ones to obtain the highest degree of reliability and functionality from these tools for the money. Their business depends on delivering strong results for their clients at high levels of agent productivity.

But advising other companies to improve their contact centers, while a logical business move, risks undercutting outsourcers’ core business. Why should companies have outsourcers handle their customers when they can provide them with their “secret sauce” to improve in-house people, processes, and technologies?

This is the same dilemma faced by outsourcers in the hosting market. Moreover, filling agents’ screens and seats is a vastly different product set and sale compared with filling network pipes. The hosting market is also becoming very competitive with the OEMs finally getting into the game. They can undercut reseller third parties like outsourcers: while offering updates sooner and direct access to engineering to solve critical issues. OEMs also can manage companies’ hosted to on-premise (or vice-versa) solutions migrations.

Contact center outsourcers have three principal value propositions: cost savings, flexibility, and trained and experienced teams handling non-core or highly specialized contacts. Outsourcers who specialize in fulfillment and returns management, in addition to contact center services, offer these same reasons for companies to do business with them.

(It is those fulfillment outsourcers who potentially stand to benefit the most from the omnichannel trend as they have the proven ability to handle products, which enables them to serve online and bricks-and-mortar retailers.)

Outsourcers have to stay on top of technologies and operations best practices in their contact centers to stay competitive. But outsourcers should also offer consulting, systems integration, hosting, and omnichannel programs only if they can be executed exceptionally well, are sufficiently profitable to merit the investments, and there is a long-term commitment to support them from the C-suite.

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