Help Me If You Can

Gathering, analyzing and acting on customer information is an enormous task. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone.

Gathering, analyzing and acting on customer information is an enormous task. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone.

The good news is that the folks upstairs are listening to the right people: They’ve read Martha Rogers’ and Don Peppers’ The 1:1 Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time (CurrencyDoubleday, 1993); they understand Tom Peters’ rant about treating customers as their most important corporate asset. The bad news is that they expect you to start mining that asset today.

Upper management correctly wants to establish electronic relationships with your company’s customers. They want data warehouses for profiling; customer service reps online in real-time for e-mail, chats and bulletin boards; and online analytical processing drill-downs of it all. But nobody is saying anything about new, massively parallel, symmetrical multiprocessor, load-balancing servers. There was no mention of budget to quintuple your Web organization’s head count. There are no classes you can take on how to build a 21st century marketing powerhouse. Who ya gonna call?

There are, of course, products that promise to solve at least some of your problems by keeping track of visitors to your Web site. You’ve heard about the Microsoft Corp. Personalization System. You’ve read about Oracle Corp.’s Project Apollo. You’ve visited Onward Technologies Inc.’s DirectChoice Web site. But you need something that’s been in use, not just on the drawing board. Time to call BroadVision Inc.

The BroadVision One-to-One application system lets Web developers build rules that dictate what editorial content, advertisements, product pricing and promotions are shown to visitors based on their personal profiles. NetRadio Network uses it to let listeners create their own mix of music, news, weather and sports. The Prodigy Shopping Network is using it to serve up product recommendations, merchant incentives and electronic coupons.

But personalization tools don’t help you just to cater to your visitor’s desires; they’re also excellent for gathering data. Sophisticated tools ask users to fill out forms and answer the occasional question, and they track visitor progress through a site via cookies and server logs. By analyzing a handful of data types collected using these tools (and other methods) you can create an amazingly lifelike portrait of individual customers and an accurate landscape of your clientele.

Data Deluge

Of course, with that much information, you might need help crunching the numbers. You’ve got tens of thousands of customers, terabytes of profile particulars and a disc farm that is already full of finance data. Who ya gonna call?

For 27 years, Epsilon has been supplying the big boys with complex, multivariate models of their customers based on enormous stockpiles of statistics. Customer relationship histories and transactional data go in one end; actionable marketing information comes out the other. In its own marketing parlance, Epsilon offers “a single, companywide repository of every contact you have ever had with your customers.” Think of it as the Craig Breedlove of data analysis.

But Epsilon is not just an equipment rental shop with trillion floating-point operations per second (TFLOP) processors that its clients can bend to their will. The company uses regression models, neural networks, fuzzy logic and genetic algorithms to perform financial analysis, marketing program response analysis, trend analysis, life cycle analysis, migration analysis, channel analysis and lifetime value analysis.

Why should Epsilon be on a webmaster’s radar screen? Because it teamed up with BroadVision back in October. That combination allows a company not only to collect details about visits to its Web site but also to correlate that information with data found in its sales-force automation database, customer service records and accounting ledgers. Now think of Epsilon as the Craig Breedlove of customer psychoanalysis.

Customer Interface Outsourcing

But what happens when all your happy site visitors decide they want to become happy customers? What happens when they clamor for closer relationships with you? Who they gonna call?

When one leading computer company put up its Web site three years ago, it offered no e-mail link, no 800 number, no way for customers to contact it directly. Why? Because it was worried about being overrun with interest. Who, the various divisions asked, should be assigned to handle all that e-mail?

John Petrillo, AT&T Corp.’s executive vice president for strategy and new service has an answer: outsource it. Petrillo told Forrester Research Inc. that AT&T is outsourcing 70 percent of the customer service for its WorldNet Internet access service. In Forrester’s September “Media & Technology Strategies” report, Petrillo is quoted as saying that there simply weren’t enough people at AT&T with the right skills to staff the effort. So he turned to an unnamed outside company to handle e-mail cries for help with authentication errors, modem detection problems and connection snafus.

So who can you call? One possibility is Matrixx Marketing Inc. Since 1988 it’s been answering other people’s phones, and many of the products it supports have sophisticated customer service requirements. This $250 million subsidiary of Cincinnati Bell Inc. has 14,000 employees spread across 21 call centers.

Now Matrixx is also answering e-mail. When Gatorade Co. says, “Thanks for taking the time to write to the Cooler Site,” it leaves the driving to Matrixx. “We respond to questions about nutritional value as well as sports statistics, whatever it takes to satisfy Gatorade fans,” says Elizabeth Stites, Matrixx’s director of marketing. “We now train our service reps in the fine arts of netiquette and ‘cybergrammar’ as well as with phone manners and voice coaching.”

Surprisingly few among the Fortune 500 are emphasizing e-mail for customer communication. A casual Matrixx survey of 100 Fortune 500 companies in June 1996 revealed a healthy number of unclear-on-the-concept Web sites, with 48 volunteering no e-mail customer communication option at all.

Seeing such obvious need, Matrixx developed a system called CybeResponse, which manages e-mail by routing it to the appropriate group of “cyberreps” or the individual domain specialist and recording messages for aggregate analysis. Drop-down menus provide staff with preapproved answers to frequently asked questions. A cyberrep can then rework the answers to match the style and demeanor of the inquisitor.

Cyberreps are required to undergo as much as four to six weeks of training, during which they must master customer data, product information, corporate image information and competitive positioning information. Trainees often sit alongside seasoned reps for a week and then switch chairs with them. Finally, the rep trainees are allowed to fly solo.

This sort of training is critical when dealing with e-mail, which after all is a legal document, unlike hearsay compiled from the informal communication that takes place in an 800 number conversation. As Stites puts it, “It’s great to experiment with technology. It’s not OK to experiment with customer service.”