A typical day in the life of a 3M call center agent is a\n lot like spending a not-so-quiet evening with Regis Philbin.\n The questions keep coming, and the pressure steadily\n builds.One caller wants help fixing a laminating machine. Another\n has a question about the effectiveness of an industrial\n adhesive. A customer wants to know where she can buy a special\n type of recording tape. A man in New Jersey needs a copy of\n 3M's annual report. The next caller wonders why 3M has\n discontinued its ScotchGuard fabric protection products. Toss\n me a lifeline, please!\n\n Many Products, Many Questions\n Most famous for its Post-it Notes and Scotch Tape brands, 3M\n (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.) is a highly\n diversified company that makes more than 10,000 products. Based\n in St. Paul, Minn., 3M operates 30 business units, including\n industrial (advanced adhesives, tapes and abrasives);\n transportation, graphics and safety (reflective materials,\n respirators and optical films); health care (drugs, asthma,\n dental and skin products); consumer and office (tape and\n Post-it products); electro and communications (insulating\n products); and specialty material (gases and plastics).The company's sweeping product range can make life difficult\n for call center agents, who collectively are expected to\n provide fast answers to some 1,400 questions per day. "It takes\n a special type of person to be able to quickly handle business,\n financial and technical questions," says Paul Guanzini, new\n business development manager for 3M's Corporate Customer\n Contact Center.As 3M began launching more sophisticated and complex\n products during the 1990s, the scope and pace of customers'\n questions began taking a heavy toll on call center agents and\n managers. Training agents to handle questions relating to\n software, hardware and consumer goods as well as financial and\n other miscellaneous queries was becoming impossible, says\n Guanzini. "It was very difficult for our people to be trained\n across all those product lines and to be able to talk\n intelligently with knowledgeable users." To keep pace with\n customers' increasingly complex questions, agents began\n decorating their workstations with technical bulletins and\n product literature; some even resorted to using Post-it Notes\n as memory cues to products, problems and solutions. "Although\n we're quite proud of our Post-it Notes, it wasn't a very\n efficient way of providing support," says Guanzini.Despite their best efforts to each field an average of 52\n calls a day, agents had to escalate 18 percent of those calls\n to experts within the company. Customers were forced to repeat\n their stories to each agent and expert with whom they spoke,\n and they complained of incomplete information or answers that\n varied depending on which agent they talked to. Some calls took\n days to resolve, frustrating callers and agents alike. With no\n way of knowing that someone else had found a solution to a\n problem, agents were duplicating efforts and taking up experts'\n time over and over to answer the same questions. The volume of\n calls escalated to experts in the company's R&D labs was\n causing a drain on lab productivity. And for a company whose\n stated goal is to earn 30 percent of sales from products\n developed within the past four years, anything that hampers\n innovation is cause for concern.\n\n A Technology Lifeline\n To tackle a problem that was leading to internal frenzy and\n customer discontent, 3M decided to create a technology\n "lifeline" for its call center staff by investing in both\n customer relationship management (CRM) and knowledge management\n (KM) software. The integrated system would manage most points\n of customer contact, linking six formerly individual,\n noninterconnected call centers.The first step in building the system, recalls Steve Conway,\n an IT specialist at 3M, was to create a task force to explore\n the available technology options. "We formed a team of 14\n people, representing a cross section of 3M business units,"\n says Conway. The panel, which included customer service\n managers, call center agents, IT analysts and documentation\n developers, quickly settled on Remedy Corp.'s Remedy Action\n Request System to handle call management tasks. The decision\n was straightforward because the software is designed to easily\n integrate with a knowledge management product and doesn't\n require additional programming to create database logic,\n workflow business rules and form layouts.Finding a knowledge management tool, however, proved to be a\n more formidable task. After considering more than a dozen\n products, the panel chose a product now known as Primus eCRM\n from Primus Knowledge Solutions. Not only was the software\n compatible with 3M's existing hardware and software\n infrastructure, it also provided a flexible workflow that\n supports individual approaches to problem solving. Perhaps most\n important, the software allowed immediate sharing of newly\n created solutions\u2014eliminating the need for a separate,\n offline knowledge engineering process.\n\n The System at Work\n Compared to the way 3M used to handle customer inquiries, the\n new system is a model of efficiency and simplicity, says\n Guanzini. When a phone call comes in, the customer service\n representative checks the Remedy system to view information\n about the customer and basic data about 3M products the\n individual or company uses. He or she then types in the details\n of the customer's problem. If the representative can't answer\n the question with the information at hand, pressing an onscreen\n button transfers all of the data that has been entered into the\n Remedy database into Primus eCRM's eServer software where it\n can be used as search criteria. The agent can then launch a\n search for a solution that answers the customer's question.The eServer software gives 3M's customer service\n representatives intuitive access to critical information.\n Rather than relying on simple keywords, the agents can use\n natural language statements to describe a problem. The system\n lets them define a problem statement as a goal, fact, symptom,\n change, cause or fix (for example, a symptom might be "The X\n adhesive isn't sticking the X tile to the X surface" while a\n fix statement could be "What is the best adhesive to use for\n sticking an X tile to an X surface?"). This flexibility allows\n them to take into account multiple factors when searching the\n knowledge base for solutions. The system then presents agents\n with a weighted list of solutions. "It's not a tree-based,\n hierarchical system," explains Shelly Waits, a 3M customer\n service supervisor. "This is a relational system that's\n designed to bubble-up the most appropriate answers for the\n particular description that's fed into the system." Every piece\n of information generated by eServer is available to 3M's entire\n support staff.If a Level 1 call center agent\u2014the company's front\n line of customer support\u2014is unable to solve a problem,\n she can save all of the data entered during the initial call\n and escalate the call to a senior support professional. The\n senior support representative then either synthesizes all of\n the relevant information in the knowledge base into a new\n solution or follows up with an appropriate expert to find the\n answer. The new solution then becomes part of the knowledge\n base.\n\n Launch Time\n 3M first implemented the new technology in late 1997 in its\n internal IT Customer Service Center, which handles more than\n 15,000 technical questions from 3M employees each month. "We\n quickly saw a higher percentage of calls resolved on the first\n point of contact," says Conway. "Accuracy and consistency\n improved, and training time for new agents was dramatically\n reduced." In 1998, Expert Technical Support, 3M's post-sales\n customer support division, adopted the technology in a trial\n project that involved 3M's commercial graphics unit. The first\n attempt to use the system to serve end customers not only\n proceeded without any major glitches, it duplicated the IT\n support department's success. Full-time use of the technology\n by Expert Technical Support got under way in April 1999. The\n system now supports 25 of 3M's 30 business units.The system's overall results have been impressive, says\n Guanzini. Agents are now able to handle an average of 59\n questions a day, a 13 percent jump in productivity. "Since the\n deployment of the software, we have reduced support training\n time and costs by 35 percent, improved solution accuracy and\n achieved higher problem resolution rates at the first point of\n contact," he says. The first-call completion rate, which once\n hovered around 85 percent, has increased to about 94 percent.\n The technology has also cut escalations from Level 1 to Level 2\n by 55 percent. That's important, says Guanzini, because it\n frees up research and development experts to concentrate on\n their core work\u2014developing new products. And, perhaps\n most valuable, 3M is building a repository of knowledge that\n will help its support operations for years to come.The big advantage for 3M's customers, says Guanzini, is the\n ability to get correct, precise answers to their thorniest\n problems. "It's no longer possible to ask the same question of\n 12 reps and get six or seven different answers," he notes.\n "That saves us time and effort and gives our customers the\n right answer on the first try." Call center agent Ralph Rella\n says the system has made his life\u2014and the customer\n experience of contacting a 3M call center\u2014easier and more\n pleasant. "The information is literally at my fingertips," he\n says. "It makes me feel great to be able to give people, on the\n spot, the information they need to know." He says the customers\n also seem much more relaxed and friendly. Indeed, 95 percent of\n customers now say they're satisfied with their call center\n interactions. (3M did not track this figure before implementing\n the system.)An added benefit for 3M is a detailed reporting capability\n that helps the company monitor the quality and responsiveness\n of its customer service efforts. "At the end of the month, the\n system tells our laboratory and marketing people how many\n people called, who called, which products were involved, what\n types of problems were encountered and the specific solutions\n that were offered," says Guanzini. That information helps the\n company develop new products and refine existing offerings.3M is also working to leverage its CRM\/KM investment\n throughout the company. The human resources, purchasing and\n procurement departments have already adopted the technology to\n help answer questions posed by 3M employees and business\n partners. Conway says other departments are evaluating the\n technology for potential applications.\n\n Self-Service\n Over the next several years, 3M plans to add new capabilities\n to its customer support system. In April, the company began a\n test allowing customers to question agents via e-mail. But\n e-mail support can be expensive, since agents and customers\n often have to bounce messages back and forth several times in\n order to nail down an answer. So the company is also\n implementing a self-service extranet with an online\n troubleshooting option that lets customers access a Web version\n of the eCRM software. The site will be personalized to focus on\n products the customer uses or has expressed interest in using.\n "It looks and feels just like the desktop tool used by our\n agents. It provides the same knowledge too," says Guanzini. The\n self-service extranet is currently available to customers of\n 3M's commercial graphics division. Support for other business\n units is scheduled to be added over the next couple of\n years.3M views its customer-service efforts as an ongoing process.\n "We'll probably never complete the system, since new and\n improved technologies will always become available," says\n Guanzini. "As long as customers have problems, we'll be looking\n for better ways of solving them."John Edwards is a freelance writer.\n An Analyst's View on 3M's Project\n Cassandra Millhouse is a senior analyst at Ovum, a\n London-based consulting and analysis company. A\n specialist in CRM, she was the lead analyst for the\n Ovum reports "eCRM:Personalization Technologies for the\n Web" (2000) and "Ovum Evaluates: CRM in the Front\n Office" (2000). She gave the following analysis of 3M's\n approach:3M has taken a fairly typical approach to customer\n service: First, sort out the process of managing\n inquiries, then apply knowledge management to help\n agents answer the inquiries themselves. However, most\n organizations find it difficult to move beyond the\n first stage, and 3M is to be congratulated for getting\n as far as it has. Further, 3M has measured its results,\n which is extremely important. When a technology reduces\n costs rather than driving revenue, the benefits need to\n be demonstrated, or they are soon taken for\n granted.To continue to reap advantages from its CRM\/KM\n system, 3M must be vigilant about keeping its knowledge\n base current. Often knowledge management projects\n achieve success only to fade away after the initial\n benefits seem to be won. Knowledge management must be\n an ongoing initiative, and knowledge must be kept\n up-to-date to be useful. In fact, out-of-date\n information in a KM system actively discourages\n use.Plans to offer self-help to customers over the Web\n make it even more essential for 3M to keep support\n knowledge current. Although self-service can increase\n customer satisfaction and loyalty as well as reduce\n costs, it needs to be well executed. Customers are not\n nearly as forgiving with problems and glitches in the\n system as employees are. Employees often end up\n fine-tuning their search criteria to find the\n information they are looking for\u2014and they find\n that the textual quality of the solutions sometimes\n hampers their efforts. Self-service makes it imperative\n that 3M maintain a high level of quality in the\n solutions in its knowledge base; although employees\n will persevere in their search, customers won't.3M is wise to share its call center activity reports\n with the marketing and R&D departments. This\n priceless insight into customers' needs and\n requirements gives 3M the ability to continuously\n respond to customer demand. And in the end, that may be\n of more value to 3M than the improvements in\n productivity and training time achieved in the customer\n service operation.