As You Like It

Consistency is not the hobgoblin of little minds; it is the essence of the multi-channel customer interface.

Little Britain, the cult British comedy series, features a character too many people have met in real life. It is the middle-ranking bank officer who produces, then enthuses over, marketing material selling a personal loan or a mortgage. However, when the banker inputs the would-be clients' details into the information system she turns and tells them: "The computer says no."

Thirty years ago it would not have been like that. The bank manager would have known you and your banking history intimately, he would have been able to make a value rather than arbitrary judgment. He would probably have said yes. That is customer service.

Delivering not only good but consistent customer service is easy to do when you live in a village where everyone knows one another. In the global village it is much harder. But it can and is being achieved by forward-thinking enterprises.

These are the enterprises that have realized their branch managers need technology to support (not replace) their decision making; that their organizations also interact with customers online, through call centres, via interactive voice response systems, at vending machines and through franchise operations. At each one of those points these smart enterprises know they need to delight the customer to keep them. They know that even if the customer is generally happy online, in the branch or speaking to a call centre operator one bad experience in voicemail hell and the customer may walk.

Delivering good customer service demands a rich, systemic approach to managing all the touch points between company and customer.

Jeffrey Rayport and Bernard Jaworski, founding members of consulting group Marketspace Global, are the authors of Best Face Forward, a book published in January that looks at how technology is both revolutionizing and humanizing service. However, they warn readers that this requires sensitive management.

"[The] cost and complexity of interface proliferation can create unmanageable collections of touch points for companies while resulting in confusion for customers. That's why we see this as an issue that must be subjected to systems thinking. Unless companies operate their interfaces as a system, the interfaces can become a liability," Rayport says. "Every interface, no matter how seemingly trivial, now represents the expression of the firm's brand and reputation. Managed well they allow companies to lower costs while increasing value to customers; managed poorly they can do the opposite a true double-edged sword."

The whole thing can topple as "an interface system is only as good as its weakest link". This is not a place to cut corners. Rayport says that most weak links seem to occur in the hand-offs from one type of interface to another human to machine, branch office to online, Web site to call centre. It is not so much a dodgy interactive voice response system that wrecks things but a failure to take a systemic view of the interface mesh. This throws up a challenge for CIOs who have to install and manage the technology infrastructure because IT cannot hope to secure a systemic vantage point on its own.

"The kind of changes we recommend to the way companies manage the customer experience requires an overall alignment of strategy and execution that touches all faces of the organization," Rayport says. "It's because it's so major that our sense is that it must be driven from the C-level across the entire firm not relegated to particular silos in the marketing and sales organization as is often the case in many organizations. Indeed considering all interfaces with customers as important empowers the entire organization to deliver at the highest quality and helps bring the culture together."

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The ABC Goes Digital

Managing the web of interfaces and reviewing how customers and staff use them must be a cross-discipline task requiring cooperation of marketing, technology and human resources just for starters. It is not an issue that can be quarantined as something fixed either in the back office or in the front office. It requires a more holistic management approach.

It is something that the national broadcaster is tackling.

Colin Knowles is the ABC's executive director of technology and distribution. As such he has oversight of both the broadcast network and the IT network. It makes sense since the distinction is blurring as broadband technologies make their way into the IT space. A further blurring has occurred thanks to the recent launch of the ABC's digital television channel, ABC2, which has given the national broadcaster the opportunity to create new ways of communicating with the public, and to repackage existing content and distribute it in different ways. It is a model that Knowles expects will gather pace in the future.

So now with the digital channel, the ABC meets its customers in even more places through TV, the digital channel, radio, in its enterprise shops, online and through call centres. Once 3G telephones become widespread, expected from July this year when Telstra, Optus and Vodafone join the other company in this space, 3, to provide third-generation telephone services, there will likely be yet another interface to the ABC.

The "creatives" in each division are responsible for the look and feel of the different customer touch points; Knowles's job is to make sure that the technology can support them. Between them they create the customer experience. Forming a bridge between the creatives and Knowles's team are technology specialists in each business unit.

Rob Garnsey is one of those bridges, as head of systems new media and digital services for the ABC. He describes a very collaborative approach with weekly meetings between the creative teams and the IT team ensuring both know what they are up to. "We recently redeveloped the way people contact the ABC with questions or complaints," Garnsey says. "Our corporate affairs group worked with new media and IT to set up a Web form. Using that, people can send comments via e-mail, from where they are imported into a call management database," from where they are distributed to the most appropriate person in the ABC.

The call management centre uses the same system so that there is a consistent "feel" about the interaction. This is useful for the ABC viewer or listener, but also provides prompt audience feedback. It can also be used to gauge patterns of interaction identifying how audiences shift between the ABC's different outlets such as TV, radio or online. Some of that feeds into the back-end information systems.

"We have audience response units where we capture the incoming call information, we capture all e-mails that come in and information from the Web site. So we capture various statistics about the audience and identify when we get a new unique customer. We have not got a fully-fledged CRM in place as they are too damn expensive. But we do have a system so that we know if Mr Smith called and it's his 430,000th time. He might tell us about a problem and we might be able to fix it," Knowles says.

The ABC's "CRM lite" is important but remains just one element of the mesh of technology and interfaces that delivers the entire ABC experience.

On the content and creative side of the relationship at the ABC is Lisa Mitchell, manager of marketing and communications for new media and digital services. She sees the development of the ABC's online systems as an opportunity to foster online communities. "We see this as an extension of the opportunity to engage with content," giving ABC's audience a greater opportunity to interact with program makers and to some extent steer them. Mitchell says this is important given that more than a third of the population is 25 or under and have changing needs. This group, she says, sees television as less important than the ability to multitask perhaps accessing information online or from their phone.

With ABC2, the digital channel, Mitchell says it will be possible to package content more flexibly so that you can have a half-hour show, content from which can be moulded into a one-minute broadband transmission. Great ideas but resource intensive.

As head of systems new media and digital services, Garnsey acknowledges there can be some tension in the marketing/IT mix. "It often comes down to a question of resources, in a situation where resources are not abundant," he says. "On the one hand the creative and imaginative people come up with new ideas, while on the other hand the technology providers are struggling to provide a service at a satisfactory level to support them. To an extent we're the ideas policeman."

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The Buying Experience

Availability of resources will ultimately decree how much can be invested in anything. But the customer interface is not a place for parsimony. A cheap interactive voice response system that creates hurdles for customers will ultimately lose customers and that makes it a very expensive interactive voice system. Far better to invest in superior interface technology that customers enjoy using and continue using.

Francis Buttle is professor of marketing and CRM at Macquarie Graduate School of Management and he believes that as companies get larger and more remote from the markets they serve then the role of technology at all the touch points becomes much more important. "Technology is a function of size and remoteness," he says. Yet Buttle says not many traditional company marketing departments understand these things. "The notion of customer experience has only been around for four or five years."

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore wrote their book The Experience Economy in 2000. It suggested that in a competitive world, consumers would make purchasing decisions based on not just what they were buying, but also the experience of buying it. The authors have now gone a step further and are promoting the notion of a new breed of C-level executive the so called CXO or Chief eXperience Officer.

Supporting the CXO will be the CIO, who will be called upon to create the infrastructure and manage the data. And the CIO will need to deliver not just sectoral best practice but cross-industry best practice, as Buttle believes that consumers will demand industry sectors to match one another. "Customers will begin to compare the experience in one industry to that in another," he says. "If I give a package to DHL I can then use the technology to find out where it is. Why can't other service providers do that? How come bags get lost on aeroplanes?"

The challenge will be compounded as companies expand the number of touch points. For example, a retailer might have a home shopping channel, with a call centre, and it might have an online presence and stores. Buttle confirms that, "consistency of the experience is phenomenally difficult to achieve, but if you create a good experience, which is consistent, then word of that will spread". In Australia, he says, there are some organizations that are cottoning on to the power of the experience. He nominates airline Virgin Blue with its "fun" approach and hardware chain Bunnings as the two obvious pioneers.

Virgin Blue declined to be interviewed for this article, and Bunnings's general manager of IT, Rodney Boys, while "flattered" that Buttle had selected the company, felt it was a bit premature to speak about the company's efforts. "We do have some initiatives and know where we'd like to end up." However, with those developments expected over the coming three years, Boys said he was not prepared to go into detail for another 18 months.

Nevertheless, Boys did say that the Bunnings culture of having a very customer-centric focus would be core to the new plans. It is not hard to imagine what might be on Bunnings's blueprint: it already hires tradespeople as salespeople in its stores. You can buy your products from someone who has used them professionally. What if they were supported with handheld computers that acted as a wireless catalogue detailing every product available, prices and stock levels? What if these computers could also be used to generate a printout about how to use the product while the customer was standing there?

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