Customer services

As IT becomes inexpensive, human costs will rise, limiting in-person interaction. Smart firms are finding a balance between the two

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By  the Gitex Times Staff Published  September 29, 2005

|~|customer1.jpg|~||~|Customers play an integral role in the success of companies, irrespective of the nature of their business. Due to an increasing demand to provide better customer service, enterprises are leaning towards technology. They are seeking the help of IT solutions that can provide insight into vital customer data, as well as employee and business performance information. This is where customer relationship management (CRM) solutions come into play. There are not many enterprises in the Middle East that are not using CRM solutions in a bid to strengthen relationships with their customers. CRM includes the methodologies, strategies, software and web-based capabilities that help an enterprise organise and manage customer relationships. Enterprises utilise this approach to gain a better understanding of their customer's wants and needs. “Fundamentally, CRM concepts and applications [have] evolved to meet the migration of enterprises from being product oriented to becoming customer- [centric],” says Yasser Refaat, country manager for SAP Arabia Egypt. “CRM software is critical for corporations that are looking at increasing their customer base. They have to collect appropriate information about their customers and pay attention to their needs.”. For enterprises, the benefits of paying attention to customer needs are enormous. It brings in competitive advantages through increased customer knowledge, enhanced service, increased loyalty and positive response to changing market conditions. In addition, it helps enterprises with their bottom line through increased profits and reduced operations costs. This is made possible through streamlined business processes, reduced administrative duties, co-ordinated sales activities and an accurate planning for direct marketing and advertising initiatives. On the other hand, benefits for clients include better service through individualised customer care, smooth order processing, standardised information across all communication channels and prompt responses to inquiries and requests. Refaat says collaborative CRM solutions supplement human interactions, which is an important factor in achieving the targeted level of customer satisfaction and securing client loyalty. More importantly, CRM gauges a corporation's communications ranging from marketing and sales to services, in accordance with the company's objectives and strategies in a way that does not jeopardise the fine balance between face-to-face and computerised customer communications. These solutions also have the ability to help enterprises with their e-commerce initiatives including e-marketing, e-selling, e-services and mobile sales functions, including field sales and service using PDAs and laptops. “The move helps personalise customers’ buying experience. It also provides convenience and most importantly, customer information is always at hand,” explains Refaat. As for the potential demand for CRM solutions in the Middle East, Refaat believes the essence and significance of CRM are directly related to market consolidations where enterprises are competing to gain higher market share. “The markets for mature products and services in the Middle East are becoming highly competitive. They are also merging with global markets, therefore, the demand for CRM solutions that easily integrate with an enterprise's operations and functions is expected to grow considerably over the next few years.” Bashar Kilani, manager for IBM's software business in the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, says the demand for CRM solutions in the Middle East rose from 20% to 30% in 2004. “It started in the Gulf area followed by countries like Egypt and Jordan,” says Kilani. “The global economy is becoming [extremely competitive] and in order to survive, enterprises have to provide better services. Also, corporations cannot treat all their customers in the same way because their needs are different. CRM is the core solution for any business in any field. It is a long-term investment.” The Middle East has a multitude of CRM vendors, which means end users not only have a wide range of products to pick from, but they can also enjoy competitive pricing. However, due to the availability of a wide range of solutions, end users need to make sure they are buying the right solution. “The question is not about using technology, it is about getting the right mix of these solutions. The human interface is only one of the used channels that depends on the data provided by CRM solutions,” Kilani explains. Oracle says businesses in the Middle East are beginning to understand the importance of CRM solutions; hence the increasing demand. “We have witnessed a second wave of demand for CRM solutions in the Middle East as businesses find ways of enhancing their customer care,” says Shane Fernandes, senior business consultant at Oracle, adding this has led to a lot of enterprises across various industries implementing CRM solutions to strengthen their marketing, sales and customer service activities. The vendor says CRM goes beyond automation. Enterprises can benefit from CRM solutions in many different ways because it focuses on driving profitable relationships, not just automation of activities. “The key to effective and profitable CRM is acquiring accurate information about customers, prospects, contracts, products and pricing. We are talking about information available at the right time. It turns customer data into actionable information available in real-time on desktops for everyone in an organisation, helping create business opportunities.” There are essentially four areas where enterprises can use CRM solutions to develop their business: marketing, sales, services and partner relationship management (PRM). “As with any system, face-to-face interaction is important because employees and customers will at some time use the CRM solution to facilitate this,” says Fernandes. “We have customers across various industries that are using our CRM solutions together with human resources. Oracle customers in the Middle East include Al Rajhi Bank, National Bank of Dubai (NBD), Al Rostamani Group, Wataniya Telecom, Nakheel and CIB Egypt.” Microsoft, which is a fairly new player in the CRM space, says there is a growing demand for customer — facing solutions in the region's enterprise sector. In March 2004, the software giant launched Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) CRM 1.2 in the Middle East. It was designed specifically for companies with 25 to 1000 employees. However, the solution is also suitable for business divisions of large corporations. Microsoft says CRM 1.2 is a cost-effective solution that integrates with existing business applications and the return-on-investment (ROI) is immediate. However, the vendor says CRM solutions are not a replacement for face-to-face interactions. “They are there to help enterprises conduct their business affairs in an efficient way. While CRM systems can automate some functions or enquiries, a good solution does not seek to remove human interaction. They should empower customer service agents to provide service in the most efficient manner. If used appropriately, CRM applications will help organisations to become more organised and efficient,” says Haider Salloum, marketing manager for Microsoft South Gulf. Furthermore, in a bid to draw more clients and strengthen its position in the CRM market, Microsoft is offering a peek at its latest CRM software, which features several improvements over the company's previous offerings. These improvements include new configuration, customisation and integration capabilities designed to help users deploy stronger customer-related applications. Shrugging off the “weak functionality” criticism that was levelled at early versions of its CRM software, the vendor has focused on improving its product. In addition to enhanced features, Microsoft will introduce new subscription-based licensing models for customers that prefer a hosted offering. Since the same code is used in both models, customers can change their preferred deployment model from hosted to on-site (or vice versa) as their business and IT needs change. For Microsoft's partners, the update will help reduce the effort required to create vertical applications. Microsoft CRM 3.0 will be available in Q405. In the software, the Outlook and Web interfaces have been redesigned for improved integration with other applications. In addition, users will be able to get a better understanding of sales trends and related data in real-time.||**|||~|customer2.jpg|~|If used appropriately, CRM help firms become more efficient, says Microsoft’s Haider Salloum.|~|Tamer Elhamy, MBS partner and sales manager at Microsoft Egypt, believes CRM software is more than just a plain technology. According to Elham, it is also a business strategy. “For this reason, there will always be a need for human resources. The strategy has to be enforced and followed up, which is a responsibility for employees,” he explains. “However, although human interactions remain important in the Middle East, we are seeing that in some Western countries businesses prefer automated methods. It really depends on the industry and the type of business. As for the Middle East, face-to-face interaction will play an important role.” Mercedes Benz manufacturer DaimlerChrysler shares Microsoft's sentiments. Human interaction is critical for the success of businesses in the Middle East, according to DaimlerChrysler. “The CRM software enables collecting data and information about customers, however, it can never replace face-to-face communication. While the demand for CRM solutions is growing worldwide, it is relatively low in the Middle East,” states Ahmed Tawfik, senior service marketing manager at DaimlerChrysler. “The Mercedes Benz is a known brand in the Middle East and most of its customers are senior business executives, who need special care. This is where the human element part comes into play. We have to carefully train our staff to ensure they provide the best customer service. These solutions can be quite helpful because they are able to provide the much-needed customer data. We need that information to understand the needs of our clients,” he adds. Daimler Chrysler, which has offices in Dubai and Egypt, has deployed a range of CRM solutions to manage its rapidly increasing customer base. The company is also paying special attention to strengthening its customer service in the Middle East. “Direct profits are important but there are more than one goal for us. We would like to increase our market reach and attract new customers,” says Tawfik. According to DaimlerChrysler, the demand for luxury cars in the Middle East is huge. Sekem Group, which has invested in CRM solutions, says these solutions should act as tools to manage and facilitate the relationship between an enterprise and its customers. “Sometimes automating the entire system minimises human errors in sales orders. For example, one of Sekem Group’s companies uses CRM applications to automate the chain offer quotation and order instead of sending an e-mail” says Maged Asaad, IT associate director for Sekem Group. However, Asaad views CRM apps as a short-term solution rather than a long-term investment. Technology is only a small part of an equation and it cannot replace human resources. “These solutions are there to facilitate business process. They cannot be compared with human resources,” he notes. Epicor Scala says CRM solutions help businesses attract customers and deliver a consistent and acceptable level of service, thus helping them to retain customers. “CRM tools can be used by various departments, but they are usually utilised by marketing, sales and customer service departments,” says Basil Daniells, channel manager for Epicor Scala MEA. “They also enable companies to better cater to the needs of both prospects and customers,” he notes. Epicor Scala, like others, also believes there is an increasing demand for CRM solutions in the Middle East. The vendor says telecoms and banking sectors were the early adopters of CRM solutions in the region. However, today, an increasing number of firms of all sizes are deploying these apps. “The [region’s competitive business environment] is driving companies to enhance their customer relationship management through software solutions,” Daniells states. The vendor also believes these solutions should be integrated with other apps to optimise the benefits. “Integrated CRM is now becoming a key differentiator for many enterprises in different industries,” he says. “CRM systems integrated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems at the back-end provide an end-to-end platform for a smooth and continuous flow of market and customer information,” Daniells adds. As for the human aspect, Epicor Scala views CRM technologies as enablers for mundane activities, thus freeing up time for employees to pursue critical business activities. The solutions also help corporations prioritise customers and focus on those clients who may require greater attention. Call centres may have found the perfect balance between CRM technology and human interaction. Xceed, which provides services to multinationals such as Microsoft, says there should be a balance between technology and human resources. “Our core business is customer service,” says Ahmed Refky, vice president of business development at Xceed, emphasising that both technology and human interactions are essential when it comes to working with customers. “Both are equally important. A lack of technology or an absence of call agents will not provide the expected level of customer service,” stresses Refky. “The call agents need as much information as they can in order to provide customer requests and technology plays an important role in that equation. Technology is only a catalyst.”||**||

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