Article : Cyber Relationships?
|Every so often a story appears in the newspaper about how two people meet in some on-line singles chat parlour, start a cyber relationship and decide to marry before they have even set eyes on each other. For most of us this is just too far fetched; how can these people really know anything about each other or take such an important decision affecting the rest of their lives in this way? Surely relationships are difficult enough at the best of times, but they must be nearly impossible to establish when you are separated by hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles and have never met with the other person face to face
In most cases the process of creating relationships is pretty much the same the world over. People are brought together in someway; they identify each other as individuals and communicate with each other by sharing something about their experiences, lives or feelings. When they meet again they recognise the person, remember the details of what was said in the previous conversation and use this as the basis of the next one. Each new conversation leads to ever more information and personal knowledge being offered and exchanged. Common interests are established, new groups are created, eventually trust develops, bonds are built and true friendships forms. However, we all know that if at any point if that trust is undermined by inappropriate sentiments or if promises are made and not kept, then the whole thing can crumble and fall apart very quickly.
For all businesses and their customers this very basic process presents a huge challenge. For years marketing guru's such as Don Pepper and Martha Rogers have been talking about customer relationship management (CRM) and how important it is to know your customers, but how do organisations go about establishing anything resembling a relationship with thousands or even millions of people? How can they get to know them as individuals, remembering their details, understanding their preferences and forecasting their requirements? How can organisations begin to create that bond with the customer so that trust can be developed and loyalty result? Worse still, these days in many cases the customer contact can be totally impersonal, such as through the web. Here all you have to go on is a disembodied voice or click stream information? How do you go about gauging a person's reaction or interpret what they are really thinking or saying, when all you have is their voice, you can't see their expression, or interpret their body language? In the new Web world, many organisations may never even get as far as even speaking to their customers on a person-to-person basis and e-mail is probably the only means of communication.
Only a few years ago organisations with large numbers of customers had no way of doing little more than segmenting their customer base by location and age and we were all deluged by junk mail trying to sell us things we would never want or need. Today, technology has taken a massive leap forward and is taking over areas that were once the preserve of humans. Machines can't build relationships without humans yet, but they can make the process possible and it is becoming more and more difficult to see where the dividing line is. Technology today is able to aid the relationship process by providing the basic building blocks of recognition, memory and knowledge, better still automation can add things that people aren't so good at, such as reliability and consistency. The trick is to liberate and make available the information held on your customer across the organisation. Integration of the back-end databases, by integration experts such as Unisys, combined with powerful front –end systems that support the agent, means that for the first time a single view of that customer can be created. This then shows details of all the information on that customer, wherever it exists. If this can then be broadcast to every touchpoint in an organisation where customer interaction takes place, it can be used to generate ever-greater levels of customer profitability and loyalty. Technology can also be used to create an "organisational memory" of each customer contact through integration of all the channels available to the customer such as telephone, Internet, Wap and iTV. So no matter how or where contact is made, the details are captured and the relevant information retained.
Many organisations now use this type of information to analyse trends and model behaviour. It is at this point where raw customer data is transformed into customer knowledge which is a much more valuable commodity and it is this that helps to predict future customer behaviour. Predictability is a key element in building any relationship because it demonstrates an understanding of the needs and requirements of a particular individual or group and this key in generating a feeling of trust. For example, if a financial organisation was aware that a particular customer had purchased PEP's and ISA's in the past, then they would almost certainly be interested to hear about new or alternative tax free investment products. The more the customer feels comfortable that their needs are being addressed the more likely they are to remain loyal to that institution. The ability to continually feed the response from various marketing campaigns back into the system builds up an even better picture of an individuals or a group's propensity to buy certain products. This further aids the process of segmentation of the customer base and this in turn means that future offers are even better targeted and cost effective. It is now possible to ensure that a particular offer can be simultaneously broadcast across all the channels, so that whenever or wherever contact is made, such as at the call centre or at the ATM or Internet, the customer is instantly made aware of the opportunity and can capitalise on it there and then. On the web, personalisation on a one to one basis is now happening with organisations like Amazon.com where they create web pages that reflect the preferences of the customer. If you like science fiction or thrillers or both then the latest releases will be displayed for you along with some recommendations as soon as you log on. Memory comes as standard. Moreover, the trend today is towards systems that make real time decisions based on your choices just like humans, so that the capture, analysis and recommendation happens at the moment of interaction.
It is here that it is possible to detect the beginnings of some confusion as to where the lines start and stop and where they have just kept moving. In most industries automation of a process means cheaper running costs and fewer problems than with people. Organisations are often keen to deploy systems that are available twenty-four hours a day and never complain. Nonetheless, while we are happy to have technology support a remote relationship we start to feel uncomfortable if we are obliged to interact with it directly without any choice or knowledge.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) for example is still viewed by many people as second choice and not a very good one at that, because we know it is a machine we are dealing with.
However natural language understanding (NLU) has been around for some time but accuracy has been a problem; this is now improving rapidly. Technology can now allow people to interact with systems using ordinary language and not by depressing buttons on the telephone keypad. It recognises key words in sentences such as "mortgage" or "pizza" and can complete a process based on the options available. These systems are now starting to become much more sophisticated so that they can "learn" how people speak and this can be refined over time to achieve high levels of recognition. If this technology could be combined with the ability to respond in real time using natural language and text to speech production then we could be getting close to machines that could be mistaken for humans. Today, IVR automation is commonplace in call centres and is often used to prompt customers for information before speaking to an agent in a call centre, but if it is done well they may never realise they are talking to a machine. Support is one thing, but competition is another.
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Published: Thursday, August 8, 2002