Connected Customers: The Value of Leveraging Big Data to Build Customer Conversations

Contributed by: Eric Eriksen

Next Caller is excited to share some information ahead of the upcoming D2C Convention in Las Vegas. At the event, Sam Espinosa and Jeff Kirchick will be speaking on the importance of using big data to increase customer response and maximize contact synchronicity.

Constant connectedness has fundamentally changed the relationship between corporation and customer. Internet usage has generated more actionable data in the past decade than had been created in the previous century. Mobile internet, which has the greatest surveillance potential, increasingly drives data traffic. According to Cisco, more data passed through mobile internet devices in 2014 than passed through the entire internet in 2000. Additionally, wireless data traffic should exceed wired traffic for the first time by the end of this year. Contact with corporations is no longer one-way. In the past, corporations bombarded potential customers indiscriminately with ads, while consumers indicated their feelings solely through purchase decisions. Today, consumers can express their feelings through social media, while corporations can target their messages. Customers and corporations can have “conversations,” with consumers constantly sending data to corporations, and companies constantly modifying and personalizing their messages.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that there were no second acts in American lives. Telephones and rails, cars and radios, these things brought the world together in such a way that a thousand miles could not protect people from their pasts. Today, it seems quaint that our ancestors thought the world had become small. Yes, we can now go to sleep on a plane in New York and wake up in New Delhi, but the real advance has been that acts of connection are no longer intentional. Generating information was once an active process. If you wanted someone to know something about you, you or someone who knew you had to volunteer the information. A mistake could haunt a man in large part because it was one of only a few data points associated with him. Major events made their way into documentation, but the minutiae of daily life passed without notice. To find information, a person needed to undergo a targeted search, traveling to the physical archives of the world. There is simply no way for me to know what my great-great-grandfather’s preferred brand of whiskey was.

Today, data generation is a passive process. An American’s every move is monitored through GPS embedded in devices, with multiple corporations receiving constant location updates. Every Google search and web visit is recorded not only by the website visited but by every other website a person has visited. The result is an enormous feedback loop. As there are more and more data points for every individual, there is more and more reason to search for information, thereby generating more data. Beyond knowing what my favorite whiskey is, it is now possible to determine how often I go to the store to buy it as well as whether I’ve investigated other options online.

People today are connected in a way that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. Nielsen estimated last year that the average American adult spends multiple leisure hours a day between smartphones and the internet, to say nothing of the 64% of employees Forbes estimates use the internet for personal purposes every day. The modern American consumer spends enough of his day interacting with all-knowing social media and shopping platforms like Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter that he develops an assumption that the businesses he patronizes know everything about him. He knows that searching for one pair of boots will haunt him for a month in the form of ads for everything from shoes to country music concerts. As a society, we have normalized constant surveillance, and we expect the positive effects of that surveillance in the form of personalized customer service.

The problem is that most business is not done through Facebook, Google, or Amazon. Business is overwhelmingly done with legacy companies, which are inherently not digital natives. Marketing is still mostly done by traditional marketers, who operate on the assumption of limited data. Rather than targeting Blue Label to affluent customers who regularly consume whiskey, marketers put ads in train stations and the backs of glossy general interest magazines. Most of their efforts are seen by people who would never buy the product. We passively volunteer huge amounts of information, yet many marketers do nothing with it. We no longer feel special and privileged if a company gives us personalized service. We feel cheated if they fail to treat us as individuals, and we express our anger on social media, permanently harming the brand.

This expectation of individuality means that cross-channel inconsistency undermines the brand across all segments. The vast majority of companies fail to recognize that data provided through one source is equally valid when utilized across other media. A customer who lives on Dixie Road when he inputs data online does not live somewhere else when he calls a toll-free number. Forrester estimates that 82% of companies do not have a synchronized view of customer data.  A customer with 50 interactions through social media can make a phone call and be treated as a total unknown. To the customer, this feels like someone he knew forgot his name. In order to overcome this, a company needs an omnichannel customer management solution. Corporations must maintain a consistent, consolidated, and comprehensive customer profile that integrates phone, social profiles, address, and email. Calling should not be a radically different experience from interacting on Twitter. We have seen this repeatedly in the past year, as poor call center experiences resulted in high-profile social media disasters for companies such as Comcast and Southwest Airlines.

In the direct response space, these factors are even more important. Huge call volume means that connecting the right customers as quickly as possible can boost conversions and revenues, while high levels of online ordering mean that customers calling to ask about Internet orders have to either input long, often forgotten, numbers or go through something almost as long as the initial registration process. Throughout this whole ordeal, direct response customers also have the ability to hang up at any point, making customer service, and every second, count. Plus, no one in Direct Response has to be told how important social media has become in generating a runaway success. The Snuggie became a pop-culture phenomenon in a way that was almost impossible prior to the rise of online communities.

Disaster Planning: Five Tips To Safeguard Your IT Infrastructure

Contributor:

John Fakhoury is the Founder and CEO of Framework Communications. Framework is a single-source Managed IT and Telecommunication firm that makes technology more user-friendly and approachable for businesses. John is a value-driven technology entrepreneur and he works hard to give back to the community.


What’s the real cost of a long-term power outage, server failure or widespread malware attack? According to a recent EMC survey, the double threat of data loss and downtime sets back businesses more than $1.7 trillion each year. What’s more, 71 percent of IT professionals said they’re “not fully confident in their ability” to get back on track after a disaster-type incident. With IT infrastructure now a critical line-of-business asset, protection and planning are key: Here are five tips to help safeguard your technology platform:

Defining Disaster

First up? Decide what constitutes “disaster.” As noted by Small Business Computing, it’s critical for organizations to understand the threats they face and the impacts of specific loss scenarios on the bottom line. For example, financial-sector companies must be especially wary of mobile malware, while health care agencies face compliance and continuity challenges if servers suddenly fail or cloud providers experience a security breach. Managing disaster risk means developing a plan that describes specific events, ranks their likelihood, and describes their impact. This allows IT staff to design targeted responses and prioritize issues — essential if multiple issues emerge concurrently.

Safety in Three Parts

The next step in disaster planning covers three key aspects of IT safety: Prevention, detection and correction. While many recovery systems focus on the last part of this triad — correction — this forces companies to react in the event of disasters, rather than making allowance for proactive efforts. Start with prevention: This could take the form of surge protectors to eliminate the risk of power spikes or off-site data backups to remove the chance of total data loss. Detection is next. Event monitoring tools can warn IT professionals about possible malware threats and resource consumption issues, while physical tools such as fire alarms reduce the chance of total loss.

Testing, Testing

IT Web offers clarity: “If you don’t test it, then it’s not really a disaster recovery plan.” Too often, companies design complex and redundant DR plans but fail to conduct regular tests. The result? When disaster does occur, the system doesn’t work as intended. Often, failure can be traced to one of two causes: Changes in system configuration that seem incidental or innocuous — such as an update to newer server software — or unexpected interactions that prevent DR processes from executing. Bottom line? Regular, end-to-end testing of disaster recovery plans is critical.

Getting Back Up

It’s not about getting your data backed up. It’s about getting your data back up and running. Many back up services guarantee your data is backed up somehow/somewhere but don’t help you actually get back up and running. Eg a new server may need to be set up for the data to be used/usable.“

How do you get your system back up and restore data access after a disaster? Answering this question means identifying two key components: Recovery time objectives (RTO) and your recovery source. Setting an RTO is critical, since this gives you an acceptable “baseline” — how long could systems be unavailable without compromising your bottom line? Achieving this objective means selecting the right recovery option. For some companies, this is off-site storage that can be mobilized and migrated as needed, while others require the on-demand speed and scalability of a cloud backup provider.

Beyond IT

According to Information Age, it’s also important to think beyond IT and consider other aspects of your DR plan that could impact recovery objectives. These might include emergency contact numbers for water, electricity and gas suppliers to your building, or an up-to-date list of IT staff numbers in the event of a weekend or nighttime emergency.  What if the problem isn’t with IT — if a fire or flood cuts off power to your server stack, what’s the game plan and how will services be restored?

Safeguarding your IT infrastructure means creating the best defense for the worst possible outcome. By defining your risks, addressing prevention, detection and backup issues, and devising a regular test schedule that goes beyond IT silos, it’s possible to improve your DR outcome.

“Into the Wild”: Next Caller Camping Trip 2015

Contributed by: Ryan Cash

A few weeks back, the Next Caller team took off for our first (of what we hope will be many) annual “Into the Wild” camping trip.  Sporting matching t-shirts, which displayed a questionable interpretation of the spelling of “Kaatskills,” we boarded the van for a supposed 2 hour drive.  First stop was Wal-Mart to stack up on supplies on the way.  In the name of efficiency, we took a divide-and-conquer approach, splitting into different groups who were responsible for obtaining different items.  And in about half the time, the team bought triple the amount of supplies that would be needed for the weekend.  Luckily, the trunk did end up closing after some skillful suitcase maneuvering by Camp Counselor Sam Espinosa  

Five-and-a-half hours later, the van pulled up to Devil’s Tombstone camp site with a car full of weary campers.  Tents and sleeping bags were distributed, and, in a matter of minutes, the group had set up shop.  Some of the campers were given heavily insulated, sub-zero, military grade, tundra sleeping bags to exacerbate the effects of the oppressive, summer heat, and to test their will.  We’re happy to report that everyone was smart enough just to unzip the bag and lay directly on top.

For health reasons, the team ate a well-balanced meal of grill meats and s’mores the first night, and eventually turned in relatively early to prepare for an intense bout of hiking the next morning.  Sensing the impending crack of dawn, Counselor Sam popped up in the pitch dark and startled everyone from their deep slumbers with a “Rise and Shine” call.  The droopy-eyed campers wolfed down some breakfast and woke themselves up with some instant coffee, which was almost indistinguishable from sweeping a pile of dirt off of the ground and adding it to a cup of hot water.

Everyone piled back into the van and we drove to the trails to begin the hike.  We began with an intermediate difficulty trail up to Sunset Rock.  Jeff Kirchick would argue that it was “advanced” difficulty.  In order to counterbalance the inevitable bulk the seemingly strenuous hike would add to his legs, Jeff made sure to hit copious sets of push-ups to maintain his upside down triangular figure. 

The team hit Sunset Rock without too much struggle, and proceeded to the more difficult trail up to Newman’s Ledge.  While the humans huffed and puffed in the back, team mascot and best friend of co-founder Ian Roncoroni, Muesli, was scaling all of the rocks and leaving the group in the dust.  We attributed Muesli’s success on the trails to her small size of 8 lbs to avoid the embarrassment of realizing that a trip to the gym or 20 was in order for the next week.

Finally we arrived at Newman’s Ledge and took a break to admire the view (catch our breath).  Thankfully, co-founder Gianni Martire insisted on taking photos at every turn, or the trip would have gone almost entirely undocumented.  The group headed down the mountain back towards the camp site to complete the 6 mile loop, which apparently was a walk in the park compared to our camping neighbors, who politely informed Leo that they were engaging in a 13 mile trek, blindfolded, without food or water… Or something like that.

Back at the campsite, Eric and myself began to set up Ladderball, which tested our resolve.  After 30 minutes and a struggling effort, Ladderball was all set up and ready to go, with two broken goal posts held together by used ice bags and tape.  The first and only match up was Ryan & Lucy v. Sam & Colleen, as the dead-even game extended over an hour in duration.  It was basically dark and nobody else even wanted to play by the end of it.  Keeping consistent with the health kick theme, Sam cooked up some Frito Pie’s, which consisted of a bag of Fritos filled with chili and cheese.  The Pies still proved to be insufficient, and Jeff and Ian engaged in a double-hot dog, Frito Pie eating contest.  Leo called a stop to the madness after about 6 hot dogs a piece.  It was called off for “safety reasons,” as everyone was concerned that they would not have enough room to close the night out with some more s’mores.

The campers retired to their tents, while Ian and Muesli retired to the hammock.  Everyone awoke the next morning in severe need of vegetables and showers.  The team cleaned up, packed up and headed back to New York completing their adventure.  After a weekend of great team bonding, the only question remaining was how many days until we go “Into the Wild” again.

Getting In Above the Ground Floor: The Value of Segmenting Customers at First Contact

Contributed by: Eric Eriksen

By some estimates, there are over 2 billion loyalty program memberships active in the United States, meaning that, on average, Americans actively use between 6 and 7 loyalty memberships each. Significantly, these memberships are skewed towards the prime consumer goods demographic of 18-44 year olds. The people buying the most with the most brand flexibility are the same people who have a pile of loyalty cards. Having a regular loyalty program is no longer an advantage; it’s the norm. In order to stand out today, companies need to have outstanding customer service from the start. Pre-purchase analysis is the next great frontier in this evolution. By leveraging data early in a relationship, companies can boost revenues and build brand loyalty.

It’s no secret that the rise of Big Data has reshaped targeted marketing. The ability to analyze a customer’s purchase history and demography to provide personalized products, services, and ad messages has changed the entire game of mass marketing. Data analytics has allowed modern businesses to incorporate the personal aspects of small business with the scale and performance of a major corporation.

Biology dictates that familiarity and positive experiences breed loyalty through an inherent sense of reciprocity. The more a customer feels that a business cares about her, the more she’ll feel an emotional attachment to the service provider. Before mass production and the bureaucratization of business, personalized service and products were the norm. Eventually, this gave way to the “take-it-or-leave-it” product-focused strategy of marketing. Companies turned their products into regularized commodities, and customers responded by becoming more rational consumers and eschewing loyalty.

Today, a business thinking of a single product and a single marketing strategy seems antediluvian. Big Data allows a company with two million customers to treat each one as an individual. Knowing about a customer’s personal life, preferences, and spending habits allows a company to leverage small-business charm on a big-business scale. Unfortunately, most companies fail to take this principle to its logical conclusion and go even further than a small business can.

Too many corporations wait until a customer has already had a number of contact points to begin customization, chiseling out an idea of customer needs from a standard template. Relying on internal data maturation requires a number of inefficient initial experiences, which bleed revenue. By looking outside of an organization for existing customer data, a company is able to skip the rough beginning stages of a relationship. Knowing a target’s demography from the beginning allows a better baseline specialization which the company can enrich to quickly build loyalty. The first few months of a business relationship are vital. In that period, the new customer does not have the tunnel vision that will eventually make a particular company his default option. By giving the customer what he wants from the moment of first contact, it’s possible to build flexible market segments from the beginning and to skip the most difficult stage of a relationship. 

This improved baseline also enhances omnichannel integration. By working in every channel from the same baseline, an organization can boost message conformity and contact points from the start. Making a good first impression through the power of baseline market segmentation means that a company can begin building a customer for life the moment contact is established, gaining an important competitive advantage in an over-saturated loyalty marketing world.

The Resurrection of Robocalling: Once a Relic, Robocalling Has Reemerged as a Threat to Contact Centers

contributed by Eric Eriksen

It goes without saying that the rise of VoIP has revolutionized the Direct Response world. Plummeting costs and enhanced CTI opportunities allow contact centers ever-better customer relationship management and improved bottom lines. By most standards, internet voice communication has been a godsend. However, these advances cut both ways. VoIP has empowered unscrupulous organizations to overcome the regulatory and price hurdles that once laid harassing robocalls to rest. Law-abiding contact centers stand to lose the most from this development, with as much as 10% of inbound call volume at contact centers coming from robocall operations. Increasingly, an agent will find himself answering multiple dead air calls every day, wasting the company’s time and increasing agent frustration and churn.

Traditional robocalling declined precipitously in the 1990s with the expansion of federal regulation under the TCPA. In 2003, robocalling declined further in the wake of the Do Not Call list. FCC powers covered all US telephony, making it relatively easy to track down and punish violators. At the same time, outbound calls from foreign countries were expensive enough to be cost-prohibitive for low-return robocalling operations. For a brief period, the era of harassing robocalls seemed to have ended. As anyone with a phone knows, however, this calm was short-lived.

While VoIP first emerged in the 1970s, protocols initially resembled those of the first telephones, with no standardization and few calling options. Internet calls only became prominent around 2004, about a decade after a standardization process began. Easily integrated VoIP offered the capability to call the full spectrum (mobile, landline, and other VoIP) of devices across the world for rock bottom prices. Shortly thereafter, the deluge began.

Despite increasing calls for a government response, little headway has been made. This is in large part because VoIP regulation is nearly impossible without private-sector cooperation. VoIP, especially in combination with ANI spoofing (a process in which the apparent number of a caller is altered,) allows overseas robocalling operations to cheaply place calls to American lines of any type. Shutting down a VoIP robocalling number takes time, by which point thousands of useless calls have probably been made. Additionally, the FCC has no authority over telecommunications in the robocalling centers of Eastern Europe and Asia. The result is a totally unregulated industry with low financial barriers to entry and no risk. It’s easy to see why robocalling is increasing at an enormous rate.

Many of these new robocalls differ from those of the past in that they are not meant to harass, inform, or sell. The purpose of these calls is simply to collect a cut of a tiny “CNAM Dip Fee” attached to the call. Essentially, whenever someone makes a call, the phone company on the terminating end of the call must pay a fraction of a penny to the company on the originating end. Robocalling operations take advantage of the new VoIP environment to profit from this through revenue sharing agreements with VoIP providers. The robocall center doesn’t want a real call center’s time or interest, they only want their fraction of the dip fee. Prior to VoIP, the costs for this kind of operation far exceeded the potential benefits, but today, it is possible to make millions of calls (or in some cases, billions,) at almost no cost. The dead air call has turned into an industry in its own right, and it is here to stay.

Top Advantages of SIP Trunking for Businesses

Companies often hear about the benefits of voice over IP (VoIP) communications as a way to increase corporate efficiency and deliver enhanced ROI. Yet, VoIP is just the beginning; as noted by Markets Morning, SIP trunking — which uses VoIP to facilitate a PBX connection — has been growing steadily over the past few years, with almost 60 percent of businesses now leveraging SIP in some form. Despite increased adoption, however, there’s still confusion about exactly how SIP trunking works and the specific advantages it offers your company. Here’s what you need to know:

SIP?

Before you can make best use of a SIP system, it’s important to understand the basics. According to Tech Target, session initiation protocol (SIP) is an IETF standard for initiating multimedia user sessions — in other words, it carries voice, video and data transmissions. This protocol allows companies to link their internal private branch exchange (PBX) with an Internet service telephony provider (ITSP) to provide worldwide VoIP-based communications.

Communication Unification

The ability of SIP trunks to combine data, voice and video streams into a single line offers the most obvious benefit — by leveraging SIP solutions, companies can make and receive local and long distance calls, use both mobile and fixed line telephones along with sending emails and texts. What’s more, the protocol also supports audio and video conferencing; together, these features provide the basis for what’s known as unified communications (UC), which eliminates the need for separate physical media for each type of connection. Often, this results in improved ROI thanks to reduced management costs and more efficient use of corporate PBX systems.

Enhanced Mobility

SIP trunks also provide the benefit of mobility. With companies quickly on-boarding BYOD and cloud-based communications, it’s easy for local networks to become fragmented, leaving IT to deal with a blend of plain old telephone service (POTS) lines connected to fledgling VoIP networks, while also managing the unique access and permissions requirements of BYOD deployments. SIP trunking, meanwhile, allows companies to easily connect any device — mobile, fixed or cloud based — to their network, in turn simplifying management and oversight.

Scale on Demand

POTS and T1 lines are often considered less expensive ways to empower global communications, with SIP detractors pointing to the costs of deployment and integration as potentially limiting returns. Though choosing a SIP trunk offers a significant advantage: scalability on demand. With POTS and T1 solutions, companies must be constantly prepared with extra bandwidth in case of a sudden upswing in demand — this is both costly if unused and many prove insufficient if demand exceeds prediction. SIP trunking services, meanwhile, scale up on the fly to meet demand in real time and scale down when demand fades. The result? You only pay for what you need, and never for bandwidth you don’t use.

Choose Your Benefits

According to No Jitter, one of the biggest mistakes companies make when transitioning to SIP is investing because they “should” instead of defining specific reasons for the move. Best bet? Leverage a call center that relies on SIP. This provides all the benefits of SIP trunking and allows you to enjoy specific benefits — such as real-time call analytics or voice recognition — without the need to add extra services at a local level.

Considering a move to SIP? It comes with benefits: Unified communications and mobility to start, along with the ability to scale on demand and choose the best mix of services to suit your business needs.

Sheldon Smith is a Senior Product Manager at XO Communications. XO is a SIP Provider and also provides many types of cloud solutions. Sheldon has an extensive background in unified communications and process management.