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Channel companies know technology cold, but they may or may not excel in the human element of running a business: customer communications.
Help desk personnel and technical staff often possess multiple certifications and can troubleshoot a range of problems. But can they relate to customers? Customer-facing employees need timely and accurate information to intelligently talk with clients about their problems and issues. But can they rely on a company's business systems to deliver? Customers may want to communicate via time-tested methods, such as telephone, or newer avenues, such as social media. But do companies offer a sufficient number of communication channels?
A solid channel customer communication regimen is obviously good for the client, but it's also critical for a solution provider's business.
"Customer service is key: You need to make sure you are doing everything to retain your customers," said Vic Berger, principal technologist at Affigent LLC, a Herndon, Va.-based IT solutions provider. "The smart companies realize that it is much more cost effective ... to maintain the customers you have than to go farming for new customers."
Companies can take a number of actions to boost customer care and communications. Hiring techs with a good deskside manner and training staff on the finer points of customer service can help. Technology plays a role as well. Integrated business applications let support staff personalize service. Customer portals and mobile solutions can also keep clients in the loop.
Here are some tips for boosting channel customer communications:
Recognize the problem
The first step toward improving customer communications is recognizing where breakdowns occur. One trouble spot: believing a customer knows a lot more about the technology than he or she actually does.
Being an IT genius doesn't mean much to an office manager with little or no technical background if our technician can't explain our processes in plain English.
co-president, Consuro Managed Technology
"An awful lot of the time, there is an assumption that an end user or customer has an existing level of knowledge, and this is not a safe assumption," said Don Crawley, president and chief technologist at Soundtraining.net, a Seattle-based company that offers customer service training for IT professionals.
Crawley said tech teams may be dealing with smart users who have considerable knowledge in certain fields but may lack expertise in the software they use every day. In such situations, an IT person could become frustrated with the end user. When that sentiment comes across in conversation, an end user might interpret the tone as condescending, he said.
Crawley cited the case of one client where the CIO received repeated complaints from customers about the IT staff. The objections, he said, were rarely about technical skills, but rather about interpersonal and customer service skills. Crawley, author of The Compassionate Geek, said his customer service training program focuses on four components: compassion, empathy, listening and respect. He said one key is to encourage IT personnel to think about the times when they had a less-than-perfect customer service experience.
"They recall those situations where they wished someone would have put themselves in their shoes and understood what they were going through," Crawley said. "We build a learning process on that experience."
Provide customer relations training
Some channel companies are calling on customer relations mavens as part of a training initiative. Affigent brings in outside experts to discuss such topics as the psychology of sales and personality types, Berger said. In addition, he noted that he conducts weekly training sessions with his team, covering both technology and the building and maintaining of customer relationships.
Berger said companies must help employees understand that they are all part of the sales organization. A call to the help desk or an engineer to report a problem or seek assistance is an important event in a continuous sales process. Companies that botch the support call may see the customer walk.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that this is one of the critical points in the sales process," Berger said.
Hire with customer service in mind
Ben Tiblets and Kevin Valadez, co-presidents at Consuro Managed Technology, an MSP based in Ft. Worth, Texas, also pursue a customer-service-centric culture, but focus on the hiring process as opposed to formal training programs. They said the company hires for personality in addition to technical knowledge and experience.
"Being an IT genius doesn't mean much to an office manager with little or no technical background if our technician can't explain our processes in plain English or treat him or her with kindness," Tiblets said.
Don't neglect written communications
Soundtraining's Crawley said the same care companies take regarding the verbal side of customer service must carry over to the written word. He said staffers communicating with customers should take a professional approach and avoid texting abbreviations and misspellings. He said employees engaged in customer service communications should also aim to cover a customer's questions in a single email exchange. Even simple actions such as reading an email message in its entirety -- and responding to all of a client's issues the first time around -- can smooth the task of customer care.
"How many times have you sent an email to somebody and you get a partial reply?" Crawley asked.
Harness technology help
Technology can also lend a hand when it comes to boosting channel customer service. Affigent's Berger pointed to the importance of tight integration between the front-end customer relationship management (CRM) system and the back-end trouble ticket system and knowledge base. With that linkage in place, a support staffer can know something about the customer beyond the immediate problem.
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"It's that personalization with every customer that is the discriminator," Berger said.
Web portals and mobile apps can also contribute to customer service.
"In addition to traditional methods -- phone and email -- we encourage our customers to connect with support through our custom-built customer portal or our support iPhone app," Consuro's Valadez said. "We also monitor our social media in the event a customer needs assistance through that media, primarily Facebook and Twitter."
Consuro's iPhone app, for example, lets customers submit a new help desk ticket and view open ticket status, among other functions.
Take advantage of what's out there
Channel companies can build their own customer-support technology or turn to existing products. TermSync Inc., for example, offers CustomerConnect, a cloud-based B2B portal that companies can provide to their customers. The portal lets customers ask questions and perform tasks such as paying invoices.
Mark Wilson, founder and CEO of TermSync, said customers may feel some questions don't warrant a phone call to the vendor. The portal, however, provides an outlet for those types of inquiries, he noted. TermSync's recently released CARE Package service tracks a vendor's response time to customer questions. A vendor that uses the service agrees to provide a $50 Visa gift card to a customer if its response time goes beyond one business day.
A pre-built service can help channel companies not keen on building their own customer communication technologies.
"A lot of industries we work with don't have a ton of IT resources to build out a customer portal," Wilson said. "Enough people expect an online way to get their questions answered, and companies are falling behind if they are not offering that."
Startup Zappix Inc., meanwhile, offers a mobile customer service platform that gives businesses the ability to translate their phone menu options into a visual interactive voice response (IVR) solution. When a vendor employs the cloud-based IVR service, its customers can download the Zappix customer service app and click through the menu options before they call customer support.
Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst, said technologies such as Zappix's provide the ability to reach out to customers in new ways. But he warns that one technology doesn't provide the entire customer care experience.
"Each customer is different," he said. "Some want to log on, get the answer and log off. Others want to talk to understand. Whatever each customer wants is how you must be there for them. Otherwise you risk losing the customer."