Utilizing New Technologies to Meet Day-to-Day and Special Communications Needs

(Originally published in the July 2001 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

It is arguable whether services or communications came first. What is inarguable, however, is that they must both be conducted in tandem in order to satisfy the customer. This is particularly true in services applications where communications between the services provider, its employees, customers, dealers/distributors, authorized service providers (ASPs), value-added resellers (VARs), suppliers and channel partners, and the media are all so critically important as well as time-sensitive.

While not all communications must necessarily be about service, the services process depends greatly on the ability to communicate - for the customer to indicate that there is a problem; the services organization to acknowledge that it is working toward completing the "fix"; and the services technician to interact with the customer's staff on-site, or via remote means, to perform the repair procedure. No matter what type of communications is used, when it involves service, you can be sure that it will be critical to multiple parties.

The model illustrated in Figure 1 reflects the variety of communications partners that a services organization will need to deal with on a day-to-day or special basis. According to Lizzie Schreier, Director of Marketing at InterCall, Inc., "Communications is a critical component of the overall services process. Everyday, services organizations need to communicate with multiple parties in order to get things done. Sometimes the communications are proactive, initiated from the services provider itself. Sometimes the communications are reactive, where the management responds to one of its employees, customers or vendors. However, the most effective types of communications are those that allow all parties to be interactive with one another. This form of "total" communications is now easily accessible through many new technologies."

Figure 1

The advent of the Internet and the computer modem et al have heightened the importance of communications to its greatest level in history. Today, not only must the services organization communicate to its employees, customers and partners verbally, as in the past, but it must also be able to communicate telephonically and electronically in order to ensure that it can meet its customers' increasing needs and expectations. The numbers and types of people that the services organization needs to communicate with have also "exploded" over the past several years.

Only a decade ago, it was generally good enough for services organizations to be able to communicate with their own field personnel via beeper with a return call made on the customer's business telephone. Customers could contact the services provider primarily by telephone. In fact, field techs would often use the customer's business phone lines to call into their operations center to ask a question or report a completed service call. However, this scenario sounds very archaic today in light of the "explosion" of new technologies that now allow services providers, their field personnel and customers all to communicate via e-mail and cell phones.

However, not only are the types of technologies continually increasing - so are the applications for which communications have become an increasingly important component of service. As a result, services providers are finding that they now need to communicate for an increasing number of reasons, and to an expanding number of parties.

The Many Types of Services Communications
The most common types of communications used by services organizations to support their ongoing business operations may be summarized as follows (Figure 2):

Figure 2

Special Announcements may include anything from news about new product or service launches, to general press releases and other information generally made available through the news or related media. They may also include the dissemination of news and information through the organization's dealer/distributor, ASP, service partner or other indirect channels. Many organizations also use special announcements to communicate upcoming sales and marketing promotions to their customers, partners or the services market as a whole. Service policy or procedure changes are also prevalent among the spate of special announcements made by services organizations on a regular basis.

For the most part, these special announcements are typically communicated between the organization's corporate headquarters and field personnel, including sales and marketing, and service technicians; customers; suppliers and other channel partners; and even the media and trade press.

Sales Training is also an area where communications has become increasingly critical within the services organization. In today's business environment, where time is an expensive commodity, services organizations are constantly looking for opportunities where they can decrease the cost of sales training by utilizing a remote sales force comprised largely of outside sales personnel operating out of a remote business or home office. However, each of these personnel must also be trained, regardless of their location or proximity to the corporate headquarters. Thus, the ability to train large numbers of remote personnel through a comprehensive, easily accessible and cost-effective manner has become an important consideration for many companies.

Whether the sales training involves regularly scheduled sales meetings, seminars or presentations; periodic (e.g., quarterly) review sessions; or merely the communication of new sales tools and procedures, the need to communicate - interactively - but without the necessity of making everyone physically present at a central training facility is of critical importance. This type of sales training may involve any number of full-time, part-time company and/or outsourced personnel including inside sales, field sales, telesales, marketing, human resources and both new hires and longtime personnel.

Technical Training remains the focal point of service. Without adequately trained service technicians, no organization can hope to be able to support its customers on a consistent basis. This type of training may include interactive remote training; the dissemination of new or improved training "tools" and documentation in terms of policies, processes and procedures; or impromptu instructions relating to emergency "fixes" and special alerts for serious situations such as virus infections or disaster recovery.

These types of technical training communications may include company field service technicians, bench techs at multiple depot repair locations, technical customer service representatives (CSRs), and their counterparts employed by authorized service providers (ASPs), dealers/distributors, value-added resellers (VARs) and other service channel partners.

Product/Component Recalls may not be commonplace occurrences to all services organizations, but when they do apply, they become really critical, really fast. For this reason, communications involving emergency recalls, replacement and swap-out guidelines, new product/replacement sales information and parts/components updates become of critical importance throughout the organization's "community" of service partners.

Communications for product/component recalls may include field service technicians, ASPs, dealers/distributors, VARs, customers and the media/trade press.

Performance Measurement will be of critical importance as long as service performance is evaluated by customers - not to mention internal performance audits, contractual performance levels required by key customers, and the often complicated and varied performance requirements administered over a nationwide number of authorized service providers and other channel partners. These types of performance measurements may involve budget reviews, performance reviews, the dissemination and application of new measurement tools and guidelines, financial updates and a variety of planning and forecasting processes.

Performance measurement most commonly includes communications with and between internal services operations, ASPs, dealers/distributors, key partners and VARs, and key customers.

Finally, the General Communication that makes it all come together is essentially based on an ongoing channel of input and feedback between and among all of the participants in the overall service process. It often involves continuing interactive discussions between headquarters and the field, vendor and customer updates, "real time" polling and the like. One of the great benefits of the new technology is that businesses can now get instant feedback on their teleconferences, presentations, training and related communications through the use of online "polling". For example, a multiparty planning conference can instantly reach consensus on key issues by polling the conference members online, and presenting the tabulated results - instantly and graphically - right on each participant's PC screen.

The Many Types of Communications Solutions
The number of viable communications solutions is, mercifully, less complicated than the number of applications to which they apply. However, the use of new technologies provides users with a great many options for quicker, more efficient and increasingly effective communications than what has generally been available in the past (Figure 3).

Figure 3

For example, there is no longer any need for a services organization, or the personnel, partners and customers it supports, to have to wait to make Special Announcements on a timely basis. Through the use of special dial-in announcements or online remote presentations, the organization's entire "community" of support personnel, customers and vendors can instantly be apprised of any special news or service alerts.

Recent technology has also made it possible to record and "archive" these important communications so that service technicians, channel partners and customers all across the country, or around the world, can listen to them on a 24 x 7 basis, at their own convenience, and in their respective timeframes. These types of solutions are most suitable for a wide range of applications from service alerts, to new product/service announcements, to the dissemination of pre-sales support information to customers, dealers/VARs and ASPs.

The communications solutions for Sales Training applications are even greater because of the visual nature of most training materials. Sales training solutions may include regularly scheduled training sessions and workshops comprised of formal presentations, interactive discussion and, perhaps, instant audience polling with respect to the effectiveness of the training materials. Training presentations may be made simultaneously to sales personnel all over the country, or world, again on either a "live" or recorded/archived basis, accessible after the fact on a 24 x 7 basis as best fits the individual's personal training schedule. This mode of training is equally suitable for long-term sales staff, new company hires, outsourced telesales personnel or channel partner sales staffs.

The beauty of the technology is that these sales training activities, whether experienced in "real time" or recorded/archived, need not be relegated solely to teleconferences, but may now also include PowerPoint, Corel or Freelance Graphics presentations as well. These are not just "slide-after-slide" presentations, but presentations containing highlight, whiteboard and pointer notations, interactive participant chat, and audience polling. Through this new technology a full spectrum of remote presentation capabilities are readily available, without the need for either the trainer or the participants to leave their respective desktops or notebooks.

Similar solutions are also available with respect to Technical Training. These same types of solutions can be implemented on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, all conducted remotely through the students' own desktops or notebooks, and with the ability to view the training materials at their own pace, and in their own time. All of the same benefits listed for the sales training applications also apply for technical training as well. For technical training in particular, the use of visuals is an extremely important feature.

The principal communications solutions relating to Product Recalls are the dissemination of recall guidelines to all appropriate parties, special announcements and instructions for handling ship backs or other related matters, channel partner policies and guidelines for complying with the recall regulations, and customer product or part return information.

Performance Measurement solutions primarily focus on daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly et al updates for Services Sales, Marketing and Operations Management; scheduled performance reviews; headquarters/field planning and forecasting meetings; and explanations of new or topical performance metrics to the "troops" just before annual budget cycles or other key planning times. Here too, the use of visuals goes a long way to facilitate overall communications.

Implementing the Appropriate Solutions
Conference communications providers like InterCall recognize that customer service is vital to maintaining strong client relationships. Schreier believes that "a basic conference call can help bridge the gap between management and field personnel whether it involves special announcements, sales or technical training, product recalls, performance measurement or any other services-related topic." She further believes that "communications are paramount within the organization, regardless of how many types of participants are involved," and that "it is critical for the solution to match the need - especially when it involves communications. That is why it is so important for services organizations to have the most effective communications tools available to them, along with the guidance to understand how they may best be applied."

The bottom line is that information can, and must, be made available to all of the key players at the same time. This will ultimately lead to better-trained field technicians, more effective sales staffs, quicker response times, less disruption due to product recalls, better managed service channels, and - oh yes - more satisfied customers.

Products like Encore, InterCall's digital recording feature, allow managers and trainers to conduct conference calls that are digitally recorded for later use. Participants may call the recorded conference any time, any day, to listen to the information provided. The Encore feature is most useful for new product training and updates, recalls, and general product information.

Encore is appropriate for both expert presenters as well as for the convenience of those participants otherwise unable to join the telephone meeting "live." It is also extremely effective as a training tool, where listeners can pause, rewind and fast forward at their own pace, so it is easy for them to assimilate complex material and cope with unexpected interruptions.

However, in many cases it is difficult to relay information to the field without the use of visual aids. Present OnlineĀ®, InterCall's web-based presentation tool, allows the leader of the meeting to guide the field participants through visuals via the Internet, simultaneous with the teleconference meeting. The conference leader has complete control of the presentation at all times, because the changing of the slides is controlled from his or her own PC. The best feature of Present Online is that the participants can see, as well as hear, the speaker's ideas throughout the entirety of the presentation. This increases content retention and also makes the meeting both more interactive and lively. Especially when a technical issue is concerned, Products like InterCall's Present Online may be extremely effective communications tools.

Each of these types of conferencing products and services are ideal for the field services segment. The need for more efficient communications between management and field personnel is certain to grow greater over time. The most effective communications solutions will ultimately be made available through the appropriate mixture of voice, data, and Internet technologies. The successful implementation of these types of communications solutions has borne out, time and time again, that "better communications = better service".

William K. Pollock is President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a Westtown, Pennsylvania USA-based consulting firm specializing in business planning, customer service and customer satisfaction research. He may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

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