While organizations have spent billions on CRM to provide better service and build stronger connections with customers, achievement of CRM objectives remains an elusive goal. A Bain & Company survey of more than 400 executives found that 20 percent thought their CRM initiatives actually damaged customer relationships.Achievement of CRM objectives depends on a customer-centric culture and enterprise-wide strategy, with particular emphasis on building buy-in and shared objectives among employees. While enthusiasm and participation at the top levels of an organization are necessary, it is far from sufficient. It is when employees understand the role they play in a company’s CRM strategy and vision that they can understand the link between their own performance and corporate objectives. Clear expectations, and the opportunity to continuously improve and develop, will build the CRM philosophies of quality, service, and consistent performance into each employee’s day-to-day routine. A CRM strategy cannot succeed unless it is supported by a customer-centric organization, driven by timely, frequent communications and change management efforts.
Since it is the customer-facing employees who play a central role in building and managing customer relationships, they must be proactively involved in a company’s development of this new customer-centric culture and strategy. In particular, successful CRM strategies must develop effective change management efforts based on the needs of the employees who hold the primary responsibility for the customer experience: customer service center agents. Yet, in most organizations, customer service center agents are an undeveloped and overlooked asset in CRM initiatives.
Customer service centers play a critical role in the success or failure of CRM initiatives. Recent studies by the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University confirm that customer service center agents are crucial to the CRM formula because they create the all-important link between a company and its customers. According to the findings, over 90 percent of those surveyed form their perception of a company based on their customer service center experience. In addition, the study indicated that over 60 percent will terminate their relationship based on a bad experience with customer service centers.
A failure to appropriately include customer service agents in change management efforts could be the very reason that customer service centers and agents are not performing to their customers’ expectations. Gartner reports a large gap between an organization’s perception of how well its customer service center meets the needs of its customers and the customer’s reality. Although 70 percent of enterprises believe they have a well-run customer service center that provides their customers with good service, only 46 percent of their customers report satisfaction with that service.
After a CRM strategy has been defined, many organizations look to technology to provide valuable information and functionality to improve customer relationships. Unfortunately, these initiatives can present their own set of challenges. A staggering 55 to 65 percent of CRM projects fail to meet their objectives, according to numerous industry analysts, including Gartner, Meta Group, AMR Research, and Yankee Group.
Why are CRM implementations so dysfunctional? At its core, CRM success is built on a foundation of employee performance, shared goals and objectives, and customer-centric processes and culture - not technological innovation. Although inability to achieve expected benefits from CRM initiatives is an ongoing problem, it is not the technology that is failing. Forrester Research reports a high satisfaction with application functionality and capability.
New technology is only useful when it is put to good use. Yet the people who can use new CRM applications to better serve customers are viewed almost as an afterthought in many CRM deployments. The technology and process change required for CRM success must cascade all the way down into the trenches: to the people who most interact with customers. Unfortunately, the three primary stakeholder groups for a CRM implementation often have different - and even conflicting - goals and motivations. To address the needs of each stakeholder group, technology, processes, and people must be each considered as necessary and complementary elements of a complete solution.
Agents cannot be overlooked in CRM implementations. When companies embrace CRM, their employees - especially their front-line employees like customer service agents - must be introduced to new processes, culture, and technology, while learning how to develop the skills required for relationship building.
Typically, change management and training efforts are too little, too late. Customer service center agents tend to only hear about an upcoming CRM rollout by learning the what without the how or the why. There’s little wonder, then, that Benchmark Portal studies find that customer service center agents do not understand the organization’s CRM strategies, and have even less ability to operationalize that strategy when they are on the phone with the customer.
Getting It Right: The Path to CRM Success
The history of CRM initiatives makes it clear that the missing link is effectively preparing employees - and especially customer service center agents - to be customer focused, to understand the importance of the CRM approach, and to be well-prepared to operate consistently in a manner that is in sync with the overall CRM vision. The best-practice approach to change management surrounding CRM initiatives is not difficult to define. Planning ahead and avoiding the typical pitfalls in CRM implementations will build a solid foundation for sustainable, long-term success. By including change management efforts directed specifically to agents and development of their performance starting early in the project lifecycle and continuing long after deployment, the probability for success is greatly enhanced.
Typical CRM implementations not only delay communications, training, and other change management activities until late in the project lifecycle, they may leave out some of these ¬activities ¬altogether.
Assess People and Process Drivers and Impact
An important first step is to evaluate the current skills, processes, and structure of the customer service center so that organizations can come to an understanding of the impact that the new systems and processes will have on customer service agents and their ¬ability to deliver best performance in their daily interactions with customers. Measures and benchmarks are established to ensure that all future efforts are carefully aligned with CRM strategies. Based on this evaluation, the organization can understand the key areas in which processes must change, as well as what performance development areas are required to bring the agents to perform ¬consistently well.
Conduct Communication and Change Management Activities
Unfortunately, many projects delay communications and training until right before the pilot rollout, setting the CRM initiative up for failure. Lack of user adoption, inconsistent or poorly executed business processes, and misuse of new data or functionality are all common results of not addressing change management issues up front.
These communications must go beyond simply a series of memos dropped on the agent’s desktop or inclusion in the employee newsletter. Change management communication is too critical to be left to chance; customer service centers need to be able to deliver communications, ensure that they are read and, most importantly, ensure that they are understood. Instead of passive communications, they should be able to engage agents in a way they will be able to clearly understand the value of the upcoming changes and what role they play in transforming the organization.
Create Functional Designs Involving All or Most Users in Providing Design Input
Typical CRM engagements involve few, if any, end users in ¬functional design and requirements for CRM. It is the end users - often customer service center agents - who will use the technology and must make it function in their daily work. Organizations run a high risk for low end-user adoption if those end users feel they were excluded from the design phase and the resulting solution does not meet their needs. Alerting users to planned design ¬features and gathering feedback from each and all agents at their desktop, without impacting day-to-day productivity, can help ensure application usability and help the agents become familiar with future expectations.
This ability to quickly and efficiently test design elements among end users - the agents - leads to more efficient and ¬relevant applications. In addition, it includes the very people who are expected to make the application work effectively in the process, gaining greater acceptance and buy-in, while introducing them to the new expectations, strategies, and the critical nature of their role.
Provide Training to End Users on New Processes, Skills, and Best Practices for Application Usage
It’s unrealistic to expect a CRM application and new customer-centric processes to work if the agents don’t know how to effectively use them. For example, low proficiency in agent use of CRM technology at best means that agents might not use the software effectively, a low blow to expected return on investment. At worst, it means agents are practicing and learning with real customers - and potentially damaging customer relationships while they work out the kinks, live, with the very customers that CRM strategies are supposed to be retaining.
Because of the unique requirements and challenges facing customer service center operations, change management requires a different approach with the customer service agent than what works in the rest of the organization. With productivity top of mind in most customer service centers, costs and service level concerns prohibit pulling agents off the floor and away from the phone often enough to impact the agent’s mindset, build new skills and knowledge, and ensure understanding and retention. Even if this development could occur in the classroom, organizations would not know which agents mastered the information, how long the agents would retain their new knowledge, or how well they would translate classroom content to live interactions with customers.
What is required is a new approach that specifically addresses the needs and operational concerns of a customer service center. Classroom training and passive e-learning solutions have not and cannot meet the challenge. Customer service center agents need a proactive performance support solution designed to individualize learning, set clear direction and expectations, and provide individual feedback on their accomplishments and current level of performance in order to create habits or change behavior, all while minimizing disruption to customer service center productivity.
Measure Results and Continue to Refine Processes, Application Design, and Individualized Training as Needed
Due to the dynamic nature of company offerings, competitive pressures, application upgrades, mergers, organizational changes, shifting corporate priorities, and high employee turnover in the customer service center, change management activities - communication, development, measurement - must occur daily, on an ongoing basis. This ensures that even with frequent changes in the internal and external environment, agents are performing their best and are consistently aligned with the vision of the CRM effort. Delivering a large quantity of shifting and changing content to each agent, and measuring the results of the investments made to accomplish this goal, are overwhelming challenges in most customer service operations.
Even with extensive classroom training - whether for a newly released application or process or for a newly hired agent - when agents leave the classroom, there’s no telling what or how much they retain, how this will vary by team or role, or how well the training will be applied. While few in management would believe that initial classroom training translates into instant proficiency, most executives would be shocked to realize that up to 80 percent of their training investment is lost within 48 hours of training without proper reinforcement. This means that it’s natural for agents to develop knowledge and skill gaps once they go live with customers on the phone, leading to less than satisfactory customer experiences.
By measuring actual on-the-job results based on business ¬objectives and the initial CRM goals, organizations can understand the strengths and weaknesses of each agent and deliver focused support specific to the needs of each agent. Just as a personal trainer focuses a trainee on the most relevant exercises for that ¬person’s abilities and goals, an individualized performance building strategy will ensure that the time each employee spends in development is productive and relevant to the individual’s skill and ¬performance improvement goals, thus reducing time to proficiency.
CRM and Agent Performance: A Partnership for Success
For too long, the human element of CRM, especially in the customer service center, has been ignored. An overwhelming majority of executives cite technology - not people or processes - as the most strategic element in their customer service success, according to Benchmark Portal. Yet all this focus on technology has not led to success. It is the people who are using the technology that can make or break the implementation. The bottom line for CRM - building and managing customer relationships - is that it is people who build relationships, not technology. The customer service center agent represents an untapped resource for realizing an organization’s customer-centric vision. Enhancing agent performance can quickly deliver significant returns - in the form of customer loyalty and revenue growth, and therefore, great profits - to an organization’s bottom line.
One contact at a time. That’s how customers are kept - and how they are lost. As more organizations begin to realize that customer service centers are a strategic player in critical CRM initiatives, optimizing agent performance to deliver consistent, quality service and support has become a strategic factor in meeting corporate financial goals