Customer Interaction Hubs


Yesterday on Talk of the Nation the lead story was on Medicare's new prescription drug benefit card program. What caught my attention was the way that a government agency in a matter of months was able to put together a very sophisticated customer interaction system from a highly interactive and informative Web site to trained call center agents ready to answer questions.

If you haven't heard much about this program, there are over 70 different cards that a senior can choose from and which one is best depends on a number of circumstances including what drugs they take, where they live, if they're willing to use mail order, and so on. Seniors can call or go online and be walked through a series of questions which, if all goes well, will result in a set of recommendations in a personalized pamphlet.

Its interesting to me that a government agency could be this agile. I suspect that some of that is an "exception mentality." The program is also being pushed hard so that its available well before November elections. Of course, Medicare didn't do this themselves. They outsourced it.

More and more companies outsource their customer service. Over the years, companies that take that business have gone by various names: call center, contact center, and so on. Sento, where I serve on the board, is in the business of providing customer service for other companies, with the aim of creating as many opportunities for customers to self-service as possible. What we're seeing however, is a move toward integrating more and more of the customer touch-points into coordinated systems. Such systems not only integrate a customer service Web site with the contact agent system (including email, chat, and phone) but also customer sales tools. Gartner calls this the "customer interaction hub" or CIH.

As an example of kind of customer sales tool I'm thinking of, the other day, I was on the Comcast site trying to see if they now have service in my neighborhood (they've been digging up streets and lawns for months). I was answering various questions and getting information back from the site. I realized that there was precious little difference, either technically or conceptually, from a pure-play customer service portal and Comcast's pre-sales tool. Pre-sales or post-sales, the customer interaction ought to be coordinated and integrated to give the best experience.

That would indicate that in choosing an outsourcing partner for your customer service, you ought to also ask "can this same company help be build my pre and post sales customer portals, integrate with my CRM tools, and manage a full range of contact options with an eye toward helping my customers have a satisfying experience?" Gartner doesn't think this will happen until 2007. I think we're not very far from it right now.