In how many ways…

For most people, the term “customer service” brings to mind images of crowded call-centers, sounds of yelling customers and feelings of general misery (both for the customer and the agent!). It’s amazing how that term has become a proxy for its very absence. The thing is, of all the ways that your customers can connect with you, the phone has one of the lowest satisfaction ratings (the blog itself makes interesting reading). Its time you look at the many other ways customers can connect with you. Let’s begin with a list of those ways:

  1. Customer Portal
  2. Phone calls from customers
  3. Website Chat with customers
  4. Chat from customers in your mobile app
  5. SMS to/from customers
  6. Twitter interactions with consumers
  7. Facebook/Google+/Pinterest post by consumers
  8. Emails from customers
  9. Email-to-Ticket from customers
  10. Snail Mail (yep, it still exists!).

I’ve listed the ten mechanisms in the order that people generally expect responses in. For example, while people expect your Portal to answer their questions immediately, they’re OK to wait a few seconds on your phone line. They’re willing to wait a bit longer for an agent to to respond to a chat request. And so on – of course, they’ll wait a few days for snail-mail responses! Also, I’ve grouped Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest together only because they share similarities in consumer expectations: people post things, expect them to be shared, will be happy if they get a response soon. On Twitter, when someone says something, they expect to be heard – and fairly quickly!

One of the terms you’ll hear a lot about in this space is this thing called the “omnichannel” model. What’s that, you ask? Consider that you use a number of different services to manage customer interaction: you have a phone system to handle phone calls; you have an online service to manage your corporate Twitter account; you use Facebook for Business to manage your company’s Facebook page. And so on. This is what is generally called a “multi-channel” model, where you interact with customers on multiple “channels” (phone, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Now consider, instead, that you signed up for this one God-given app that does all these things in an integrated manner. Imagine:  when an irritated customer posts as much to your company’s Twitter ID, the tweet appears in someone’s “inbox” in the call center, to make a phone call to the customer and offer a resolution. Now, THAT’s omnichannel, where all the channels that you offer support by are integrated and managed seamlessly.

To get back to my list: my intent in this blog is to just identify the various things that you could be doing to help your customers along: it is not to give you a complete blue-print on what to do in each case (we’ll do that in future writings!). To help you along, below is a diagram that shows the various ways and how effective they’re known to be.

As a good manager, you’re probably thinking: “All this is very well, but what will it COST?” Coming right up: one chart that compares the typical processing cost for each of these channels, on a per-transaction basis (note: mostly American-style costs; your own results may vary!).

Typical processing costs
Typical processing costs

You’ll notice right away that customer support via “digital” channels (Web portal, Website Chat, App Chat, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) is way cheaper than the phone and other traditional methods. The challenge, of course, may be to GET your customers to use these channels, depending on what part of the world you’re and what you’re selling. That’s a whole another conversation for another day.

Would love to hear if your experiences in your business are n line with what you see here!

Do you know who’s calling? … Part 2

Last week, we spoke of two of the four areas to think about in making your call center work for your customer. Here’s an infographic of the issues, with details below.

Call Center Enablement

Work the phone system

Your phone system can tell you a whole lot things that software can’t. And that data can help you connect with customers in very interesting ways. For example, you may want to automate an email/text message to the caller when s/he hangs up – imagine the impact of the caller’s phone pinging with your thank-you message seconds after hanging up. Or, you may want to compare the time spent on the phone with the time spent writing up notes, by specific agents. You can do that kind of thing by getting what’s called CDR (Call Data Record) from your phone system into your app.

CDR data

CDR data is very detailed information about every call that goes through your phone system, maintained by the PBX. At the end of the call, your PBX can be set up deliver that detail to your app, including an ID that uniquely identifies each specific call. Some phone systems will deliver an initial record when the call comes in and then deliver more detail about the same call as the call progresses and when the call ends; some systems will deliver just one record, after the caller hangs up; some systems will deliver multiple records, one for each “forwarding” that may happen within the phone system In any of those cases, you need a way to tie the CDR to the caller, usually based on the phone number, and roll that into your app for reporting.

Call control on screen

Another thing you should consider very seriously is to put call-control buttons on screen, for your agents. That way, s/he can answer, forward, hold, mute or hang up the call just by clicking buttons within your app. To do this, though, your phone system needs to provide APIs with the relevant functionality. IP-PBX systems have this kind of capability by default; if you’re using a phone-based PBX, you will need additional hardware. As a productivity-enhancer, this is significant, so you may want to check that price very seriously.

Other PBX possibilities

There are a number of other things you can bring into your app, if your PBX cooperates. For example, if a call drops in the midst of a conversation, you may want the caller to be called back at the click of a button. For another, you may want the PBX to submit missed-calls and off-business-hours calls to your app, so that designated callers can call them back during business hours. In a web-based Lead Gen program, you may want the phone system to call a visitor the moment s/he keys in her phone number on your website. The possibilities are endless!

Get Outbound

OK, so you have the inbound model all trucking along great. Now, how about improving call center effectiveness in an outbound – or even  “blended” – mode? In most phone systems, an outbound is actually two calls – one to the number you called, from the PBX and one to the calling agent, again from the PBX. This gives you a variety of options to use.


A simple button or icon next to every phone number, so the agent can just click on it to make the call, is a real improvement that agents will appreciate. Yes, s/he could cut-and-paste, but why do that when you can save a few minutes – and mis-dial frustrations – when you can enable a click-to-call? Phone-based PBXs are a but of a challenge (you’ll have to talk to the vendor about an add-on for this), but IP-PBXs routinely give you a simple URL that you can stitch into your app, to make this happen. And it’d really cool if you can show an icon next to every phone number, telling the agent if the number is in the Do-Not-Call registry (we’ve doing that in Impel for Indian numbers for years now).

Progressive Dialer

Having saved people minutes for every call, you can now go further in your outbound contact program, getting the phone system to make the call automatically. So you can load up a long list of numbers into the PBX (into something typically called a “hopper”) and the PBX will just go out and make those calls. The neat thing here is, an agent will be brought into such a call only if it starts ringing, so wrong numbers, phones being off, etc. will never even show up in an agent’s radar. Call centers report improvements of 20% to 35% in terms of the number of people contacted daily, so its definitely something to consider. You’ll need to figure out one big thing, though: when the phone is ringing, will the AGENT wait or will the CUSTOMER? The thing is, when the PBX dials out a number, it could either connect an agent immediately as it starts ringing (so the agent waits for the customer to pick up the call) OR it connects the agent after the customer picks up the call. I guess that decision depends on whether you’re making Sales calls (agent waits, obviously) or Support (customer waits, unfortunately) calls! :)

You will also need to figure out how many calls an agent can handle, how much time you want to give him/her between calls and so on – all good things to think about.

Sync Marketing Program data

To really tie it all together, you should consider getting your app to manage the list of people to be called. You can just push that list down to the PBX periodically, so it goes off on its merry way with just the phone numbers, while your app has all the details about customer demographics, calls made, etc. Done well, this throws up a number of interesting possibilities. For example, let’s say you want someone to make a welcome call to every customer within 24 hours after they sign up and  you want to make a follow-up call every 30 days. You could create lists on the PBX side for each of these steps and just update that list every time someone signs up. So the PBX will dial out every new customer when s/he needs to be called, without agents needing to track the details. And the pop-up would show the agent what kind of call this is, so s/he can say the right things!

So there’s a fairly long list of things to think about, when you’re looking to make agents focus on customers instead of calls. And (here comes the plug): we’ve done most of this already in Impel.

Let us know if there are other issues out there that need to be solved!


Do you know who’s calling?

Of late, we’ve been having a  lot of conversations with prospects about their call center. If you’re anything like them:

  • You’re selling products to consumers
  • Your deal-sizes are in the low hundreds of dollars
  • You have a definite repeat-purchase expectation
  • You know that the products you sell are not what wins customer hearts: it’s the service you provide that does
  • You see that your customers have a number of vendors as choices, so “churn” is an important issue.

So you really want to know your customers, beginning with name, email ID, phone number and address, all the way to maybe where they go to dinner on a Saturday night. And you’ve probably invested a fair bit into systems that do various things. But, when one of your customers calls you, your agent responds with the generic “How can I help you?” – no “Thank you for calling, Ms. <whoever>” or “Hello, Mr. <whoever>”. So with all your systems in place, the one point that regularly come into contact with your customers is the one point that had no knowledge about them!

You’re probably thinking “Yes, I know all that, but how can I fix that?” Well, I could tell you that you should just buy Impel and all will be well, but I must admit that that’s a simplistic answer. I’ll get into some of the gory details of call pop-up here, in a two-part blog post. In Part 1 (this one), I’ll cover two critical issues: the “app” that the agent uses and the pop-up screen in it. In the second part (next week!), I’ll cover the intricacies of phone-system integration and the possibilities of outbound calling.

Bear with me – there’s a lot of interesting possibilities out there!

Integrate, Integrate, IntegrateImpel Call Center pop-up

Like I said, you probably have multiple systems in place already. There’s definitely one that handles your sales, maybe one that handles inventory, possibly even one that tracks customer-reported issues. And, I’m sure, there are a number of Excel files floating around. The first thing you should do is to tie them all together in some way, so agents can access data from multiple systems seamlessly. This means at least the following things:

  • Sign in once. Make sure agents need to sign in ONLY ONCE, to access all the systems they need access to. IMHO, this is critical: signing into – and being signed out of – multiple systems is a significant point of frustration, both for the agent and for the caller.
  • Keep it all together. For agents to be able to handle the 80-to-120 calls a day, they need to spend as little time as possible LOOKING for data. The thing is, in most cases, the data they need is a fairly short list – name, email ID, phone number, address, recent conversations, recent transactions, maybe recent tickets. Make sure all that’s available on one single page, maybe as tabs or as a long, scrollable page.
  • Give them buttons to push. Customers – not cuss-tomers! – mostly call to get issues resolved, hopefully to order new stuff. Give your agents ways to do the related things – add a new ticket, add a new order, etc. – all from that one single page, via buttons. If possible, make those functions pop up in separate in-browser “windows” that close when the agent is done with them. My own preference is to not use separate browser windows but use “virtual” windows within the browser, allowing the user to minimize them when not in use, but you may find the other model more effective.
  • Keep it simple. You probably have anything from 5 to 25 “processes” that you’ve organized, triggered from the call center. That’s good, but I’ll bet all those processes can be combined into, say, half a dozen fields on screen and 4 buttons that agents would use. Keep the agent’s life simple – let the system do all the heavy lifting. For example, if the agent has to process a refund but needs someone’s approval, set a workflow rule that’ll let that someone know, so that the agent can key in the data and then forget about it.

Pop it up

If you have at least some limited integration in place, or if you just have one system (the “app”, as I will call it hereon) that agents will need, you can make that one screen pop up fairly quickly, with most PBX systems. Of course, if you’ve got one of those fancy Avaya or Siemens systems in place, you’re in for some serious money to integrate the phone line and the network connection, but that apart, you’ll still need ways to do two things in parallel:

Route the call to a specific agent. This is easy - that’s what the phone system does anyway.
Send a request to that agent’s desktop to show that specific page in your app. Now, this is where things get hairy. First of all, getting this done  depends on what your agents use to for taking calls, meaning, do they use their desktop with VoIP or do they use regular phones?

Using VoIP

With a VoIP-based call center, you will have software on the desktop, called the “VoIP client”, that fields the routed call and makes it possible for the agent to answer and talk. That software, in most cases, can be configured to not just field the call but also get a “URL” (i.e. the address of a page in your app or on the web) to open on the desktop. And that URL can include the caller’s phone number. So when the agent accepts the call, the VoIP client also makes sure that the caller’s record in your app is shown on screen. So your inbound-call pop-up works right away. The problem, though, is that each time a new call comes in, a new page pops up. So the agent needs to close the popped-up page every time s/he finishes a conversation – not the best of solutions.

There is an alternative to this mechanism. If you have a VoIP-based PBX (IP-PBX,as it is called), your agents probably log into it using a web page. Your PBX vendor will tell you that they can set up things such that a part of that web page shows the page from your app, with the details of the caller. That’s good – for some things. The multiple-page issue goes away. And the agent sees a consistent page (the PBX’s web page) all the time. The problem is, the way these pages are usually laid out, nearly a fourth of the page will be taken by the PBX’s “call controls” – buttons for Hang Up, Forward and so on. Packing customer-related information in the rest of the screen-space is a challenge. Also, depending on where the PBX is hosted, your app response may seem a lot slower than it really is, since it will be “i-framed” in the PBX’s page. So the agent is left really focusing on the call, not on the customer. Not a great alternative, but possibly the better one, under the circumstances.

Using a regular phone

If your call center uses regular phones without VoIP, possibly with Cloud-based phone systems like Knowlarity, you’ll need to roll out some additional tech. Two things need to happen here:

  1. When a call is routed to an agent, the phone system needs to tell your app about that agent and about the calling number.
  2. Your app now needs to automatically take the relevant agent to the page with the caller’s details.

Most phone systems worth their money can do do item 1 with a few hours of work (although, with the older or or more “eminent” ones, it’ll cost you a fair bit!). For item 2, there are a number of technologies out there. Impel, for example, uses something called Node.js to do this.

Disposition Delay for the next call

One under-appreciated problem with the pop-up mechanism is what I call the “Disposition Delay”. When an agent finishes talking to the caller, you’d expect him/her to be ready to take the next call. The problem is, in a number of cases (60%, we’ve seen), the customer would have hung up, but the agent will still be  making notes about the call for a few minutes. So s/he can’t really take the call yet, although the phone system thinks s/he can (because his/her phone line is free). One way to solve this problem is to “hard-code” a delay in the phone system, such that ALL calls, once hung up, give the agent (say) five minutes to update your app. This actually is a BAD idea: it now uniformly slows your call center, since it adds 5 minutes in 40% of the cases where that’s NOT needed AND 5 minutes may be too much or too little in a number of the other cases. You really need a mechanism where, after the customer hangs up, the agent can somehow tell your phone system “OK, I’m done”. With the better phone systems, that’s certainly possible. For example, we have that kind of stuff worked out already with Asterisk, Knowlarity and Ozonetel.

There are a few other things to think through, but if you get these two major areas covered – the app and the pop-up – you’re pretty much set to get agents focusing on customers instead of on calls.

Next week, we’ll talk about some of the more interesting things you can do with a good PBX and how you can leverage all this for outbound contact, too.

Are there other big tech issues you’ve had to deal with in enabling a call center? Let me know!

Do you know who’s calling? Part 2.

UI Design: 3 things that have nothing to do with Design

The traditional wisdom for User Interface (heretofore called the “UI”, thank you) Design is all about looking good while being effective. And I have nothing against that. The only problem is, doing that in a business app like Impel has very few real-life examples to follow. Don’t get me wrong – products like HighRiseHQ are very good to look at and work with, but we could not see how that could apply to a product that has everything from sales automation to customer support to order management. So when we decided to rebuild our UI a few months ago, we had to develop our own “methodology,” so to speak, to figure out what would work and how to make it happen. Here are three things we learnt along the way.

Choose your battles

One of the first things we decided was: No “responsive” UI. You’re probably thinking: “What planet is this guy from? Phones and tablets are where its at!” I agree, but since we have a separate offline app for the Android, we have a workaround for other devices. More importantly, we looked at the current set of users and decided that, if we wanted more of the same in the short term, we could make the first round of UI changes without a “responsive” model but come back to it at a later date. This may sound like a cop-out, but there you have it – a decision based as much on current user behaviour as on available resources. Another decision driven by similar considerations is the one to stay away from a “social” look. I’m talking of the very nice look that products like Nutshell have – very appealing, but not something we could easily figure out how to adapt to, say, someone filling orders in a warehouse. Bottom line, we decided NOT to do a number of things, at least in the short term, and chose the things that we WOULD do quite carefully.

Make it look good – on newer screens, particularly

Looking at our users – and at the world at large – we saw that display sizes have moved from the 4:3 (i.e. 1024 X 768) screens to, mostly, 16:9 (you can see details on the Steam Hardware Survey here). Our new UI obviously had to be able to address that. But apart from screen sizes, there were a few other things we addressed:

  • Pixels matter. Since screens were wider than higher, we decided to “hide” our second=level menu, bringing it back on hover (we set up a pin to retain the screen, if the user so wanted). That saved us 5% on the page – makes a difference!menu_pin
  • Clicks matter. Thanks to the additional width,; we could now add functions on the right that did not exist before. So we promoted al the sub-tab-level functions – adding related data, relating current data to other objects and so on – as links on the right, next to the data itself. This right away gives the user a huge enhancement: everything’s available in one click. And that matters.
  • “Social” matters. We introduced a new feature – a way for users to comment on data – via a generic back-end mechanism, but shown in the UI as a specific set of comments for each record. We packed that function right on the view page, making it easy for users to collaborate and comment on everything from Contacts to Collections. So this is “social”, but in a purely business context.
  • Lines matter – in all the wrong ways. The more lines you have, the worse the page seems to look. Add to that an innate desire to show everything in bold and the Indian penchant for Random Capitalization and you have a boxy, bold, loud UI. We made Serious Effort to Stay Away from All That.

Be true to the Basics

Impel has always been an “industrial-looking” app. We’ve added a lot of front-end capabilities, via JSON and JavaScript, but the overall “look” has remained one of tables and cells. That’s probably true of most large systems anyway, since users regularly deal with lots of data – lots of records, lots of columns. And, there are various “types” of users – from operational people receiving inventory to CEOs looking at trends. Given all that, we had no intention of changing that basic look, so while we added a lot of collaborative and quasi-social functions, we retained our overall grid-like look. When we added the user-chat capability, for example, we chose to pack it into the banner, where users can get to it no matter what business function they’re working on.

Makreting Programs - JSON UI

After three months of Engineering and a few hundred back-and-forths on various parts of the UI, we finally rolled it out to users two weeks ago. And the general response has been very, very positive. I know we can do a lot more – and we will! – but I think we’ve come a long way from where we were. Sign up and see for yourself!




Accelerate your business processes with a 360-degree view

No piece of data stands alone – you know that for sure. When you are looking at a Customer, you want to know how many times you’ve spoke to her, what she’s bought from you, maybe even the details of the actual collections you’ve made. When you’re looking at an invoice, maybe you want to see payments and the product batches that were delivered against it. Armed with that holistic view of everything, you can make decisions faster, easier. Impel’s 360-degree view does exactly that, making it easy for you to manage all your data the way you want it. So on one page, you could integrate Account details, Contact details, Activity details, Opportunity details, Emails, Attachments and other operational info. Supporting your users on different modes like mobile, SMS and Web, Impel therefore offers a single platform to manage the entire Business process. Imagine what you could do with, say, check-ins by your field personnel showing up against each dealer, with sales to that dealer, possibly even secondary dales to consumers, all in one place. Getting such a 360-degree view brings real strategic value to organizations that want to deliver high quality customer service and support, to optimize marketing and product development.

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Some of the major things you could include in a 360View are:

  • Sales Automation: Opportunities |Quotation | CTI Integration | Invoices| Activities
  • Support : Alert |Tickets |Email to Ticket |Ticket escalation | Ticket Status
  • Operations: Multi Branch Inventory | Orders| Coupons |
  • Marketing : Mailers | Campaigns |

On the customer front-end, when a customer interacts with your organization, it is vital that the richness of that interaction become available to people in various teams. And the availability of past information can make that interaction itself very effective and efficient.
Beginning from a customer interaction to analyzing payment patterns,; the 360 View makes a huge impact. In a call-center situation, for example, some of the most obvious advantages are:

  • Improved customer service and Sales productivity
  •  Significant Up-Sell and Cross-Sell Potential during interactions
  •  Constructive and profitable relationships with customers
  • Easy and efficient collaboration among internal teams via a comprehensive view
  • Time saved by reducing response-time without having to switch between screens
  • A consistent and satisfying service experience for customers
  • Increased call quality, reduced call duration
  • Money saved on long conversations and customers being on Hold

A 360 degree or a complete view of the Customer brings in a win-win situation for both the customer as well your organization. Better service and efficiency helps you drive higher customer loyalty and thereafter, more repeat business from existing customers.

Come talk to us about how you can make this work for your company!