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Early warnings and how to see them

Always pay attention to gurgling noises in customer support

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Workshop IT industry pundits love to talk about “tsunamis” and “paradigm shifts” – huge and sudden changes in the technological landscape. It’s a great way of selling reports like “Warning all users and vendors: paradigm shift imminent!”

But another school of thought reckons paradigm shifts are experienced only by people too too blinkered to spot an underlying trend. Everything depends on having your radar attuned to the right signals.

The industry-wide phenomenon of unexpected change also happens inside most organisations. A few people grumble about a problem but no one listens, so it suddenly blows up into a crisis. This sparks a flurry of remedial activity and a management initiative, often involving P45s or threats thereof.

But many crises can be avoided by smarter use of the data the organisation already has sloshing around in its customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. For IT staff, the trick lies in knowing what nuggets of information act as early warning signs, where to find them and whose desktop to deliver them to.

Say for example Acme Ltd has a best-seller called Product X and receives on average five complaints about the product in a week. Supposing five complaints arrive in one day. And then five more the next day.

In a business-to-consumer company the source of this data might be a customer service desk fielding angry punters, or in business-to-business goods inward handling returns. Whichever, the sudden spike may indicate something wrong with either the manufacturing process or with the supply of a component. The data needs to be flagged up sharpish and fed through to quality control in both manufacturing and procurement.

Help desk staff will be only too familiar with how support calls can reveal an underlying systems failure.

If neither of those checks yields anything, then maybe Product X is being damaged in transit, in which case the logistics manager will need an alert.

Customer gripes can be tracked by type of complaint as well as by product. If there’s a sudden spike in people receiving goods late despite healthy inventory levels, there might be a problem with logistics. Or perhaps there is a glitch in the business process that is holding up orders to manufacturing.

Help desk staff will be only too familiar with how support calls can reveal an underlying systems failure. If a user posts a ticket saying he can’t access email, it might be a problem with his PC. But when two or three others post the same ticket ten minutes later, it’s time to check the mail server before the trickle of red flags becomes a sea.

Analysing data for trends is usually seen as the preserve of business intelligence (BI), but in the case of Acme’s Product X, roasting the monthly call centre report with a hot BI tool won’t do.

Speed is of the essence: every faulty Product X shipped erodes Acme’s reputation. After a week there will be a video on Youtube showing Product X crashing and burning, a Facebook group called “We hate Acme” and more Tweets than the dawn chorus.

If not BI, then what? David Beard, CRM evangelist at Sage, advocates plundering the CRM system for early warnings.

“People think that CRM revolves around sales force automation, but it’s for managing customers, and that means keeping track of issues such as returns and tickets,” he says.

This ties in with what Freeform Dynamics’ Dale Vile has discussed on the Reg about embedding vital information in business processes as a form of decision support.

“This doesn’t require a new BI tool so much as some integration work in-house to make sure that info is embedded in the process,” says Vile. “And to do that you need to know what data is missing at the coal face.”

And where do you find out what data is missing at the coal face? Ask the coal face.

“It’s incumbent on IT to seek out these opportunities to change things for the better,” says Vile.

For Jan Sanderson, customer service manager at Sage, it’s about the quality of the conversation her support technicians have with the systems integrators and customers who call with problems.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get them to walk you through what they are doing,” she says.

You may think of contact centre operatives as an unlikely source of ideas for improving the business. Hanging out in their break room may not seem like good use of IT time.

But they hear the distant gurgling sound of the sea retreating before the company is deluged. Even if they are not sure what it means, you can turn their sense of foreboding into useful embedded information. ®

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