4.Help Customers Help Themselves

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2006-12-15 Print this article Print

Midsize companies are replacing sticky notes and spreadsheets with software to analyze customer data. Here are five technology strategies for attracting and retaining customers.

4. Help Customers Help Themselves

Progressive medical is a kind of medical matchmaker: Working with a network of 1,500 medical equipment providers and 50,000 pharmacies, it helps customers—claims adjusters at insurance companies—track down and arrange delivery for medical supplies such as crutches, wheelchairs and medication, and it also schedules doctor's appointments for insurance claimants.

The $140 million Westerville, Ohio, business wanted a way for customers like Liberty Mutual to gain access to claimant and medical support information without having to call Progressive's customer service center, according to CIO Angelo Mazzocco.

To improve customer service, the technology staff developed the Online Information Exchange (IFX), a Web portal written in Perl programming language on Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition, a software development platform.

The secure portal allows claims adjusters to view information about injured claimants recorded on Progressive's own Oracle database servers. Plus, adjusters can use IFX to track down medical supplies, such as a wheelchair for an injured claimant in South Dakota, or a pharmacy within a few blocks of a Cleveland apartment.

Mazzocco can't say exactly how much the portal has boosted revenue, but it is able to keep pace with the 48% growth the company has experienced in the last three years.

Midsize companies like Progressive are under pressure from customers to establish online service offerings. AMR's Gaughan says that for some customers, a well-designed system for interacting with a company is a requirement for building customer satisfaction.

Still, businesses can succeed at using self-service tools to attract new business—and limit operating costs.

Five years ago, Pacific Coast Feather adjusted its customer strategy to adapt to the changing marketplace. The $320 million company was selling its line of pillows, comforters and other home products primarily to large retailers such as JC Penney and Linens 'N Things, says CIO Gwen Babcock. But retailer consolidation and an increasingly competitive environment prompted PCF to focus on attracting smaller distributors, which were plentiful and offered higher profit margins.

In 2002, the company launched the first of four business-to-business Web sites. Each one is targeted to a different customer segment, such as hospitality (hotels and motels) and small retailers (fewer than a dozen locations), and allows customers to place and replenish orders online. Over the course of about six months, nearly all of PCF's 700 small and medium-size customers moved from faxing or calling in orders to placing them on the sites.

"We've doubled revenue in this channel over the past four years," Babcock says, adding that at least 20% can be attributed to the business-to-business sites. And eliminating nearly all call-center ordering has cut costs significantly: Despite steep customer and revenue growth among small and medium-size customers, PCF has not had to add sales staff.

Next page: Put the Customer First

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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