Customers Do Not Just Happen

Despite signs of a pending slowdown or recession, companies aren’t giving up on adding to their customer base or improving the quality of their customer service.

For two consecutive years, Ziff Davis Enterprise research has found that delivering better service to customers is the top business priority for IT organizations. According to the recent ZDE Customer Strategies Survey, the top two strategies for improving profitability are acquiring new customers (43 percent) and generating more business from current customers (25 percent). Few of the 179 survey respondents said reducing the costs of customer acquisition and service would be their main approach to profitability in 2008.

The push to improve service and attract new customers is one of the major engines for new IT investments. Nearly half the respondents are adding new IT staff in the next two years to support customer service or sales and marketing; more than 60 percent will develop new proprietary sales and marketing applications in the next two years. Improving customer service is also among the prime movers behind enterprises’ increased spending on business intelligence and data mining. IT managers and staff are being called on to provide new or improved services, analyze customer needs, create a single view of the customer for sales and service staff, and establish a consistent customer experience across channels.

IT leaders and staff—working alongside their business management colleagues—will need to resolve myriad obstacles if they are to achieve their customer service improvement goals and expected ROI. The Customer Strategies Survey shows there is no one overriding difficulty that affects companies across the board.

On a positive note, many of the chronic problems that hinder IT projects don’t exist when it comes to improving customer service initiatives. Organizational, political and managerial problems that can often neutralize IT projects aren’t much of a factor when improving customer service systems, survey respondents said. In fact, the survey indicates high confidence in IT management, which is a reflection of their ability to add staff and resources to support customer service projects. And few survey participants said unrealistic expectations by upper management, sales and marketing were posing an especially tough challenge.

Implementing and deploying new tools, applications and systems often causes confusion and resistance to change among end users—but not in the case of the customer service, sales or marketing department, where few survey respondents cited unwillingness to adopt and use new technology as a problem. In the era of wireless PDAs and laptops, sales and marketing staff generally have come to view technology as a helpful ally, or at least won’t put up as much serious resistance to the rollout of new technologies as in the past.

User acceptance of new systems and technologies is promising, but improved user-friendliness of systems remains an issue. Many participants noted that their customer service staffs are struggling to understand how to use IT tools effectively.

Insufficient funding is repeatedly cited as a challenge to customer service projects. One possible explanation for this is the support for IT and the desire for better systems by business units: Demand may be outstripping IT’s ability to deliver, which could be what the survey results reflect.

Skills are the more common personnel-related problem in customer service. About one-fourth of survey participants said a shortage of skilled IT professionals could hinder customer service projects, causing delays and additional expenses, and risking compromises on functionality and quality. Both problems can be mitigated through investments in training.

The most serious challenge is integrating customer data from various sources. The problem is especially daunting for large enterprises with more than $500 million in revenue, since they must cope with structured and unstructured data that is generated across large, distributed infrastructures. Surprisingly, data quality—or ensuring the integrity of data—was cited by few as a significant integration issue. Rather, managing the scope and scale of information and IT infrastructures remains the bane of many organizations.