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Defining Trust in Customer Strategy—Call Centers and Beyond

Art Hall

Vampire Bats and Customer Strategy

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a practitioner-only focus group led by one-to-one marketing and customer strategy guru Don Peppers. We talked about the latest trends in customer strategies, and during the discussion, Don asked an intriguing question: "Does anyone know how vampire bats and human beings are similar?" You can imagine the bewildered look on everyone’s faces around the table. I asked myself, "Am I in a biology class or at a roundtable discussing customer centricity?" I was baffled as to how the similarities between vampire bats and human beings had anything to do with the topic at hand.

But what vampire bats and human beings have in common is not only fascinating, but is also applicable to customer strategy. Except for humans and some other primates, only vampire bats are capable of trusting animals to which they are not related. The commonality that links vampire bats and humans is altruism–the deliberate pursuit of the interest of others.

Global competition is ferocious; for companies to successfully compete in this age, they must know how to acquire and retain customers. For a firm to obtain customer trust, authenticity and advocacy must be a part of its philosophy and culture. Most organizations get it half right—a lot of time and planning goes into defining the mission, vision and core values of the organization, as well as the types of services it intends to deliver to the end customer. Unfortunately, for many organizations, customer authenticity is only theoretical; there is a lack of actual strategy, process, training, budget and incentive compensation plans that are necessary for an organization to deliver on its promises. Consumer trust can be condensed into one simple truth–treat the customer as they would want to be treated.

In other words, firms must ask themselves: What’s in the customer’s best interest?

Balancing Value To and From the Customer

Customers create value in two ways: by generating same period sales and costs, and by changing their propensity to purchase in the future. One of the biggest challenges companies face today is properly balancing value to the customer (VTC) with value from the customer (VFC). Generally, VFC and VTC are valued unequally. Companies do a great job of extracting value from the customer, e.g., charging customers higher prices for contacting call centers, rather than using Web resources to solve problems, but failing to deliver value to customers when they share more of their wallets. Delivering this value, for instance, by offering additional services, will organically create new customers.

In an optimal customer relationship, both the customer and the firm benefit from this interaction.

Profitability is at stake when companies and customers do not perceive VTC in the same way. Typically, there are three general expectations that customers have of companies:

1. Customers Want to be Known

Customers want a company to know who they are and what they need. Firms can work to assure their customers that they understand their needs by targeting customers for specific products, profiling and segmenting customer groups, and analyzing customer revenue and marginal contribution against cost of service.

2. Customers Want to be Heard

Customers want companies to act on feedback they provide. Firms should leverage information received through call center communications as well as implement data collection methods, like customer interviews, focus groups and surveys, to receive input from customers on new initiatives.

3. Customers Want to be Helped, Especially at Call Centers

Companies should help address customers’ unique needs by translating the input they receive from call centers and elsewhere into functional requirements, with the intent of assessing and aligning organizational capabilities, to better assist their customer base. Most of us are familiar with the term Customer Relationship Management (CRM), but when a company is primarily oriented towards its customer interaction, Customer Managed Relationships (CMR) become more important. In other words, companies promote not only products, but also attentiveness to customers’ needs and the balance of VTC and VFC. This dual recognition results in equal empowerment for both customers and companies, and leads to higher levels of profitability and market share.

Recently, an intriguing question was posed to customer practitioners on online professional networking platform LinkedIn: "How do companies define trust as part of their customer strategy?" Simply put: Companies often struggle with defining trust because it is too esoteric. What does trust mean and how can it be integrated as part of customer-focused initiatives?

There are a handful of pioneer companies that have taken steps to define trust and integrate it as part of customer strategy. For example, Ally Bank, a subsidiary of GMAC based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, incorporates trust into its customer relations and call center management by publishing call center hold times on its homepage (see Figure 1). (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

Figure 1 – Ally Bank Homepage - Call Center Hold Time

Particularly in this time of upheaval for banks and financial services companies, publishing call center wait times is a refreshing example of transparency. Long wait times in call centers are a great source of frustration for customers and, usually, result in an unpleasant experience for both the customer and the call center agents. By publishing call center wait times, Ally Bank empowers customers to choose whether to contact the call center or to seek another channel to resolve problems. Valuing the customer’s point of view is essential to creating relationships based on trust; it is also the foundation for providing the highest quality customer service.