by John Edwards

What’s Your Problem?

Sep 01, 200012 mins
CRM SystemsEnterprise Applications

A combination of CRM and KM software puts answers at the fingertips of 3M call center reps.

A typical day in the life of a 3M call center agent is a lot like spending a not-so-quiet evening with Regis Philbin. The questions keep coming, and the pressure steadily builds.

One caller wants help fixing a laminating machine. Another has a question about the effectiveness of an industrial adhesive. A customer wants to know where she can buy a special type of recording tape. A man in New Jersey needs a copy of 3M’s annual report. The next caller wonders why 3M has discontinued its ScotchGuard fabric protection products. Toss me a lifeline, please!

Many Products, Many Questions

Most famous for its Post-it Notes and Scotch Tape brands, 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.) is a highly diversified company that makes more than 10,000 products. Based in St. Paul, Minn., 3M operates 30 business units, including industrial (advanced adhesives, tapes and abrasives); transportation, graphics and safety (reflective materials, respirators and optical films); health care (drugs, asthma, dental and skin products); consumer and office (tape and Post-it products); electro and communications (insulating products); and specialty material (gases and plastics).

The company’s sweeping product range can make life difficult for call center agents, who collectively are expected to provide fast answers to some 1,400 questions per day. “It takes a special type of person to be able to quickly handle business, financial and technical questions,” says Paul Guanzini, new business development manager for 3M’s Corporate Customer Contact Center.

As 3M began launching more sophisticated and complex products during the 1990s, the scope and pace of customers’ questions began taking a heavy toll on call center agents and managers. Training agents to handle questions relating to software, hardware and consumer goods as well as financial and other miscellaneous queries was becoming impossible, says Guanzini. “It was very difficult for our people to be trained across all those product lines and to be able to talk intelligently with knowledgeable users.” To keep pace with customers’ increasingly complex questions, agents began decorating their workstations with technical bulletins and product literature; some even resorted to using Post-it Notes as memory cues to products, problems and solutions. “Although we’re quite proud of our Post-it Notes, it wasn’t a very efficient way of providing support,” says Guanzini.

Despite their best efforts to each field an average of 52 calls a day, agents had to escalate 18 percent of those calls to experts within the company. Customers were forced to repeat their stories to each agent and expert with whom they spoke, and they complained of incomplete information or answers that varied depending on which agent they talked to. Some calls took days to resolve, frustrating callers and agents alike. With no way of knowing that someone else had found a solution to a problem, agents were duplicating efforts and taking up experts’ time over and over to answer the same questions. The volume of calls escalated to experts in the company’s R&D labs was causing a drain on lab productivity. And for a company whose stated goal is to earn 30 percent of sales from products developed within the past four years, anything that hampers innovation is cause for concern.

A Technology Lifeline

To tackle a problem that was leading to internal frenzy and customer discontent, 3M decided to create a technology “lifeline” for its call center staff by investing in both customer relationship management (CRM) and knowledge management (KM) software. The integrated system would manage most points of customer contact, linking six formerly individual, noninterconnected call centers.

The first step in building the system, recalls Steve Conway, an IT specialist at 3M, was to create a task force to explore the available technology options. “We formed a team of 14 people, representing a cross section of 3M business units,” says Conway. The panel, which included customer service managers, call center agents, IT analysts and documentation developers, quickly settled on Remedy Corp.’s Remedy Action Request System to handle call management tasks. The decision was straightforward because the software is designed to easily integrate with a knowledge management product and doesn’t require additional programming to create database logic, workflow business rules and form layouts.

Finding a knowledge management tool, however, proved to be a more formidable task. After considering more than a dozen products, the panel chose a product now known as Primus eCRM from Primus Knowledge Solutions. Not only was the software compatible with 3M’s existing hardware and software infrastructure, it also provided a flexible workflow that supports individual approaches to problem solving. Perhaps most important, the software allowed immediate sharing of newly created solutions—eliminating the need for a separate, offline knowledge engineering process.

The System at Work

Compared to the way 3M used to handle customer inquiries, the new system is a model of efficiency and simplicity, says Guanzini. When a phone call comes in, the customer service representative checks the Remedy system to view information about the customer and basic data about 3M products the individual or company uses. He or she then types in the details of the customer’s problem. If the representative can’t answer the question with the information at hand, pressing an onscreen button transfers all of the data that has been entered into the Remedy database into Primus eCRM’s eServer software where it can be used as search criteria. The agent can then launch a search for a solution that answers the customer’s question.

The eServer software gives 3M’s customer service representatives intuitive access to critical information. Rather than relying on simple keywords, the agents can use natural language statements to describe a problem. The system lets them define a problem statement as a goal, fact, symptom, change, cause or fix (for example, a symptom might be “The X adhesive isn’t sticking the X tile to the X surface” while a fix statement could be “What is the best adhesive to use for sticking an X tile to an X surface?”). This flexibility allows them to take into account multiple factors when searching the knowledge base for solutions. The system then presents agents with a weighted list of solutions. “It’s not a tree-based, hierarchical system,” explains Shelly Waits, a 3M customer service supervisor. “This is a relational system that’s designed to bubble-up the most appropriate answers for the particular description that’s fed into the system.” Every piece of information generated by eServer is available to 3M’s entire support staff.

If a Level 1 call center agent—the company’s front line of customer support—is unable to solve a problem, she can save all of the data entered during the initial call and escalate the call to a senior support professional. The senior support representative then either synthesizes all of the relevant information in the knowledge base into a new solution or follows up with an appropriate expert to find the answer. The new solution then becomes part of the knowledge base.

Launch Time

3M first implemented the new technology in late 1997 in its internal IT Customer Service Center, which handles more than 15,000 technical questions from 3M employees each month. “We quickly saw a higher percentage of calls resolved on the first point of contact,” says Conway. “Accuracy and consistency improved, and training time for new agents was dramatically reduced.” In 1998, Expert Technical Support, 3M’s post-sales customer support division, adopted the technology in a trial project that involved 3M’s commercial graphics unit. The first attempt to use the system to serve end customers not only proceeded without any major glitches, it duplicated the IT support department’s success. Full-time use of the technology by Expert Technical Support got under way in April 1999. The system now supports 25 of 3M’s 30 business units.

The system’s overall results have been impressive, says Guanzini. Agents are now able to handle an average of 59 questions a day, a 13 percent jump in productivity. “Since the deployment of the software, we have reduced support training time and costs by 35 percent, improved solution accuracy and achieved higher problem resolution rates at the first point of contact,” he says. The first-call completion rate, which once hovered around 85 percent, has increased to about 94 percent. The technology has also cut escalations from Level 1 to Level 2 by 55 percent. That’s important, says Guanzini, because it frees up research and development experts to concentrate on their core work—developing new products. And, perhaps most valuable, 3M is building a repository of knowledge that will help its support operations for years to come.

The big advantage for 3M’s customers, says Guanzini, is the ability to get correct, precise answers to their thorniest problems. “It’s no longer possible to ask the same question of 12 reps and get six or seven different answers,” he notes. “That saves us time and effort and gives our customers the right answer on the first try.” Call center agent Ralph Rella says the system has made his life—and the customer experience of contacting a 3M call center—easier and more pleasant. “The information is literally at my fingertips,” he says. “It makes me feel great to be able to give people, on the spot, the information they need to know.” He says the customers also seem much more relaxed and friendly. Indeed, 95 percent of customers now say they’re satisfied with their call center interactions. (3M did not track this figure before implementing the system.)

An added benefit for 3M is a detailed reporting capability that helps the company monitor the quality and responsiveness of its customer service efforts. “At the end of the month, the system tells our laboratory and marketing people how many people called, who called, which products were involved, what types of problems were encountered and the specific solutions that were offered,” says Guanzini. That information helps the company develop new products and refine existing offerings.

3M is also working to leverage its CRM/KM investment throughout the company. The human resources, purchasing and procurement departments have already adopted the technology to help answer questions posed by 3M employees and business partners. Conway says other departments are evaluating the technology for potential applications.


Over the next several years, 3M plans to add new capabilities to its customer support system. In April, the company began a test allowing customers to question agents via e-mail. But e-mail support can be expensive, since agents and customers often have to bounce messages back and forth several times in order to nail down an answer. So the company is also implementing a self-service extranet with an online troubleshooting option that lets customers access a Web version of the eCRM software. The site will be personalized to focus on products the customer uses or has expressed interest in using. “It looks and feels just like the desktop tool used by our agents. It provides the same knowledge too,” says Guanzini. The self-service extranet is currently available to customers of 3M’s commercial graphics division. Support for other business units is scheduled to be added over the next couple of years.

3M views its customer-service efforts as an ongoing process. “We’ll probably never complete the system, since new and improved technologies will always become available,” says Guanzini. “As long as customers have problems, we’ll be looking for better ways of solving them.”

John Edwards is a freelance writer.

An Analyst’s View on 3M’s Project

Cassandra Millhouse is a senior analyst at Ovum, a London-based consulting and analysis company. A specialist in CRM, she was the lead analyst for the Ovum reports “eCRM:Personalization Technologies for the Web” (2000) and “Ovum Evaluates: CRM in the Front Office” (2000). She gave the following analysis of 3M’s approach:

3M has taken a fairly typical approach to customer service: First, sort out the process of managing inquiries, then apply knowledge management to help agents answer the inquiries themselves. However, most organizations find it difficult to move beyond the first stage, and 3M is to be congratulated for getting as far as it has. Further, 3M has measured its results, which is extremely important. When a technology reduces costs rather than driving revenue, the benefits need to be demonstrated, or they are soon taken for granted.

To continue to reap advantages from its CRM/KM system, 3M must be vigilant about keeping its knowledge base current. Often knowledge management projects achieve success only to fade away after the initial benefits seem to be won. Knowledge management must be an ongoing initiative, and knowledge must be kept up-to-date to be useful. In fact, out-of-date information in a KM system actively discourages use.

Plans to offer self-help to customers over the Web make it even more essential for 3M to keep support knowledge current. Although self-service can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty as well as reduce costs, it needs to be well executed. Customers are not nearly as forgiving with problems and glitches in the system as employees are. Employees often end up fine-tuning their search criteria to find the information they are looking for—and they find that the textual quality of the solutions sometimes hampers their efforts. Self-service makes it imperative that 3M maintain a high level of quality in the solutions in its knowledge base; although employees will persevere in their search, customers won’t.

3M is wise to share its call center activity reports with the marketing and R&D departments. This priceless insight into customers’ needs and requirements gives 3M the ability to continuously respond to customer demand. And in the end, that may be of more value to 3M than the improvements in productivity and training time achieved in the customer service operation.