Technology Can Help Win Fight For Customers' Hearts

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There is an epic war shaping up. On the side of "good" are the advocates for privacy. They are the ones who say that our privacy, including our private time, is being eroded. While the entire business community is being held responsible for the decline in respect for personal time and information, we in the teleservices industry are looked at, in particular, as among those on the "bad" side.


In our desire to reach people when they are most likely to be home, we tend to interrupt them during the family dinner hour. In our desire to cost-effectively target those consumers most likely to buy, we want to know everything, including their annual income and other personal information.


Many concerns of privacy advocates were addressed by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1992 Telephone Consumer Protection Act and by the Federal Trade Commission in the 1996 Telemarketing Sales Rule.


However, as is often the case with divisive issues, a victory represents only a single battle, not the entire war. The next privacy battle focuses on a subject that is the lifeblood of direct marketers: access by third parties to personal data. Legislation is pending in several states to control the sharing of information.


In California, State Bill 129 would require organizations that create, maintain, use or disseminate records about persons to take reasonable precautions to protect the records from alteration, destruction, loss and unauthorized access or disclosure.


In Delaware, State Bill 140 would prohibit the Division of Motor Vehicles from disclosing personal information without a subject's express permission.


In Michigan, House Bill 4115 would prohibit the brokering of personal information by consumer credit agencies without a subject's consent.


The approaching legislative session is likely to see additional bills of a similar nature.


Many of the weapons employed in this war are technology-based. Telemarketers utilize predictive dialers; and consumers respond with Caller ID. Telemarketers up the ante with more sophisticated outbound calling algorithms; and consumers turn to services that block telemarketing calls altogether.


At the root of this war is the perception by consumers that outbound calls to consumers are an intrusion, and inbound calls from consumers are a time-consuming ordeal. However, for the teleservices industry to continue to be successful, we must change that perception so consumers see what we provide as a convenience.


Fortunately, technology can again be the weapon of choice.


A good place to start is with advanced data storage and data management. As the price of storing data has dramatically decreased, and the speed of transmitting data has increased, it is easier then ever to store information about each customer.


In a paradigm where teleservices truly is a convenience, telemarketers would call each customer at a time most convenient to the customer. Sales pitches would be matched to a customer's buying habits and propensity-to-buy profiles. Payment information would be stored securely in the database so the customer wouldn't have to give credit-card information to a stranger. On inbound calls, database technology can put the customer's buying history and preferences on the agent's screen, saving the customer from having to provide information already on record.


E-commerce is another area where technology can help to make teleservices more convenient for customers. For example, "Click-To-Talk" buttons on Web sites allow customers to talk to a live agent while the customer is still on the Web site. This makes it easier for the customer to make a decision, while benefiting marketers by facilitating customer interaction at the moment of opportunity.


Information-rich databases make shopping easier. By storing their measurements in the database, customers shopping for clothes online need never order the wrong size again. They would simply need to indicate whether they wish the garment to fit snugly or loosely, and the technology would determine which size would work best.


A third area where technology can add convenience is in skills-based routing. When integrating with the database, and used to its fullest potential, skills-based routing can assure that nearly every customer is routed to an agent who can handle the call quickly and efficiently.


The first generation of telemarketers achieved a great deal in creating a new industry. However, their efforts tended to lean toward the side of the marketers. As teleservices evolves, the next generation will have to find ways to meet marketers' goals while putting customers' needs first. A customer-relationship management strategy and creative use of the technology weapons in our arsenal will create an advantage that results in both sides winning the "war."
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