Michael Schroeck, Partner, Business Analytics and Optimization, IBM

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"Customer service" ... the term has such a positive ring to it. Yet today most consumers have a less than positive image of customer service.  Like many of you, I call into a help desk or customer service center with low expectations and just hope I can get off the phone with my blood pressure near normal.

We remember a few short years ago the web was going to be the answer to all companies' customer service woes.  “Yes, just go to our website, all the answers should be there.”   The move to web self-service was going to save companies millions and lead to happier customers.

I think we've learned some valuable lessons from that experience.  First, in some cases, the websites with feature rich customer service applications have helped ease the call burden for companies and allowed customers to get help faster.  For example, using instructions found on-line to fix your computer or do simple banking transactions have been huge advancements that benefit both customers and businesses.

More importantly, companies have come to realize how valuable true relationship building is with today's overwhelmed consumer.  The "push to web" age actually made it easier for customers to feel disconnected from the companies with which they do business.  Ultimately leading to a lack of true brand loyalty and the emergence of relationships and decisions based primarily on price.  This trend was characterized in a number of IBM surveys including one from 2008 that found only 21 percent of consumers are advocates for their primary retailers.

As the world gets more-and-more impersonal some companies are trying to seize the opportunity to get "closer" to their customers.  We're seeing new phone-based customer relationships emerging across many industries.  For example, some health-insurance providers are experimenting with personal care guides who establish one-on-one relationships with members.  These trained professionals (often nurses) are being dubbed “health care concierges” and help members navigate the healthcare system.

While not every company can have a dedicated “concierges” for customers, there are other innovative approaches that can increase the odds of a successful interaction.  What about using similar personality and compatibility matching methods popularized by on-line dating sites to match customers with the right customer service representative at a contact center?

Believe it our not, the technology exists and IBM is working with a forward thinking client to do just that.  The Real-Time Analytics Matching Platform (RAMP)  announced today (but in development and testing for a number of years) uses advanced analytics to identify the optimal match between a caller and a company customer service representative (CSR) in real-time.  I like to think of it as "personalized customer service".

IBM was very fortunate to have teamed up with specialty insurance provider Assurant Solutions, part of Assurant, Inc., to develop and deploy RAMP in the company's contact center.  Using RAMP has enabled Assurant Solutions to improve customer retention, increase sales yields and decrease agent attrition while at the same time improving both customer and agent satisfaction.

Here's a quote from Assurant vice president Mike Politz  in today's announcement:

“Assurant Solutions has been using an analytics-based routing approach to increase call center profitability and enhance the customer experience in its call centers for over seven years, increasing retention revenue by 37% and sales revenue by 29% within the first year of implementation.”

What makes RAMP possible is the simply using data that companies have been collecting for efficiency and quality purposes for years.  For example, contact centers monitor the performance of their own agents including the average time they are on the phone and their sales efficiency.  Companies also have tremendous insight into their individual customers including things like common issues you call about, contract expiration dates and average wait time.  What RAMP does is combine this customer and agent information to make real-time matching decisions that will most likely lead to a positive customer experience.

The ultimate goal of customer service has been anticipating your customer's needs and then exceeding them.  Think about the old store keeper who knew what you liked, how you liked it and when you needed it.  It built a form of loyalty and a personal connection that unfortunately has eroded over the last 30 years.  While we're still a long ways from reinventing that experience, it is possible to use the information that's readily available to bring us one step closer to a modern day version of that relationship.