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Is There a Case for Direct Connect in Today’s World?

by John Hamilton, President, Service Strategies Corp.

Just in the past few years we have noticed a trend where companies are consciously limiting or denying customers direct phone access to technical support staff. They are in fact reverting back to a Call Back support model that was pretty standard back in the early 1980’s. If you can recall how bad support was back then, customers were very unhappy with poor response times, causing them to wait hours if not days before getting a call back from a qualified support person. Proactive companies did listen and restructured their support operations to address the response issue by implementing a Direct Connect model. Customer calls were now answered in real time by qualified technical staff rather than call administrators. Seems like we have forgotten lessons from the past and are about to make the same mistakes.

Services Strategies Corp. analyzed why companies were making this rather dramatic change and were able to categorize their reasons into three areas:

  1. Tactic to drive customer to on-line self service.
  2. Restructuring support teams into specialist groups
  3. Perceived cost reduction

Let’s review each of these reasons and examine the impact it is likely to have on customer satisfaction, efficiency and cost to deliver service.

Tactic to drive customers to on-line self service
The internet has been one of the greatest innovations in the last two decades not only as a phenomenal global information resource and a business marketing tool, but also as a service delivery platform that enables customers to help themselves. Many companies have invested in their websites and have created a customer self service portal. Standard features include a knowledgebase with access to libraries of technical information, downloads of the latest software updates, submittal of service requests and forums to discuss product and technical issues. Ideally customers should be able to find help in seconds, rather than minutes or hours when compared to the traditional phone support.

“Build it and they will come” didn’t hold true and many companies were frustrated because customers were slow to accept this new method of service. In an attempt to drive them to the on-line service portal, companies scaled back their inbound telephone service levels or disabled direct connect to technical staff and in some cases eliminated telephone support as the primary option. Early results indicate high levels of customer dissatisfaction with this approach. One of the biggest problems being that the web self service option was not user friendly and a poor substitute for the human interaction customers were used to experiencing with a Direct Connect model.

The companies that were successful in transitioning clients ran many user pilots before going live to ensure that the self service site was intuitive, user friendly and customers were able to find the solutions they required. Another key success factor was that they migrated at the customers pace, providing hand holding support until they were comfortable with the new self service technology. They also provided rich findable content of “known” issues that customers could quickly access and use to solve or advance their issue.

Customers still prefer responsive human interaction from a Direct Connect phone support model, particularly for complex or critical issues. The importance of this is emphasized by the companies that prominently display on their web site “If you have a priority one issues, please call”

On-line self service definitely has a place in today’s support model. It provides a 24x7 level of convenience and can help reduce unnecessary calls for known issues. Chat also provides an effective  real time service for issues that match the low bandwidth of the channel as well as helping to frame issues and search for solutions.  Combined with remote access tools chat can be a near substitute for a phone dialogue.

A useful extension to your self service offering is to include on-line support communities where customer can interact with each other and in some cases resolve their own issues. These communities required some level of monitoring in the early development stage, however as they evolve and customer see value, they tend to contribute more and take on a self policing role.

Current research does indicate slow growth towards using the on-line channel for submitting service issues, however the phone is still the most dominant channel. The markets you serve and customer environment will generally determine which service channel is most convenient for your customers. If your clients are in an industrial environment such as a factory or machine shop, it’s unlikely they will have easy access to the internet and therefore on-line self help is not a viable option. On the other hand, clients in the Information Technologies business are connected to the web and may prefer to use on-line self help over the phone channel for non critical issues.

Restructuring support into specialist groups
Another key reason why some companies have changed their service model is to re-focus the support operation into specialized teams. This change removes technical staff from handling incoming service calls directly and transitions them into a second tier or backline role. Call administrators now handle all incoming service requests and log them into the designated product queue for call back. The underlying belief is that products have become more complex and by developing deeper levels of specialization, support organizations can better utilize the technical skills to resolve issues sooner and focus on backlog reduction. The fallacy here is that backlog will actually increase because calls previously resolved in real time by generalist technical staff will drop directly into a backline queue, thus inflating backlog. This organizational emphasis on problem resolution often overlooks the importance of responsiveness. Yes, customers want their problems solved quickly, however response is a critical step in the resolution process and the delays created by not connecting customers with qualified support personnel will invariably increase time to resolution. Other inefficiencies such as phone tag are inherent with a Call Back model and will cause frustration and ultimately erode customer satisfaction. Also, the silos formed by the specialists result in cases involving multiple products being bounced around between queues. 

Perceived service cost reduction
Service operations are under constant pressure to reduce cost, especially in the current economic climate. We need to be realistic and balance the costs and revenues related with delivering service against customer retention and loyalty.
There is a perception that adopting a Call Back support model will help lower service costs. In fact the opposite is true. Cost will increase because of the inefficiencies of the model. Resolution times are prolonged which increases the average labor time per call and phone tag wastes hours per day as well as increasing telecommunication costs.

Poorly implemented self help websites can also have the opposite effect of “self help” and end up generating unnecessary support calls. On the other hand, a well designed self help portal can help deflect support issues and provide legitimate cost savings. A substantial upfront investment in design, tools and implementation is required over at least a two year period before you can realize measureable benefits and savings. There is of course the ongoing cost of providing frequently updated content and adequately resourcing forums, and chat sessions.

Distancing support from customers
Have we lost sight of our true purpose, customer service? Unfortunately some companies are creating barriers that distance the very people that the customer needs to talk too, by making access difficult. The Call Back support model is a typical example of creating a structure that is convenient for the company but not for the customer.

We need to maintain a level of intimacy with our customers to fully understand their business environment and how they are using our products. Consequently we need to close the communication gap between them and our support staff that are specifically trained to help them. The on-line self service options can also play a key role in our service delivery strategy. It can’t replace the intimacy from direct human interaction, however it does provide the opposite “one to many” advantage of allowing customers to solve their own issues. Customer satisfaction and loyalty are still the overriding tenets that shape the vision of world class services organizations, not just operational convenience or cost.

In answer to the question “Is Direct Connect dead, or is a hybrid approach which integrates both Direct Connect and on-line self help the optimum model. I would welcome your opinions on this topic. E-mail John by clicking here.

About the Author
John has more than twenty years of software engineering and service industry experience. He has significant international experience from working in both the Asia-Pacific and European regions. In addition to his support management knowledge, John has a well-rounded background from managing engineering, quality control, and training organizations. He successfully re-engineered a number of large support operations - increasing their efficiency and elevating their service to world class. He has also developed RFP's for selecting support automation technology and managed the implementation of the tools, creating a quick return on investment for support operations. He can be reached via e-mail at jhamilton@servicestrategies.com.