Who's Responsible For Customer Service?
As a result of a formalized customer care initiative, IMR Limited realized its highest gross sales and profit in 2002, and customer retention is at an all-time high.
Like any VAR that has survived more than two decades of technological and economic change, IMR Limited (Harrisburg, PA) wouldn't be in business today if it didn't make customer service a priority. In 2002, the document imaging integrator realized a need to spell out the customer service strategies that had contributed to their success. "We took a close look at all of the things we did right in building our customer base and wanted to replicate them," says Robert Chamberlain Jr., president of IMR.
A pair of factors prompted the self-evaluation at IMR. First, mergers and acquisitions account for much of IMR's growth, and executives wanted consistent customer service commitments across the corporation. In addition, the business model for most imaging VARs is moving toward an emphasis on services as opposed to hardware, especially for those like IMR with roots in microfilm. "A good sale used to be a piece of equipment," says Chamberlain. "Now we are providing solutions that change the customer's operation and workflow and may even eliminate two of four employees in a department. At the very least, it will change the job description of those employees. If things aren't working out on a solution sale three months from now, we can't just go and take it back." VARs also have more invested (and more to lose) in a professional services/consulting sale because the sales cycle is much longer. For example, one hospital required two years of sales effort on the part of IMR, including four to five months just to finalize the contracts. These factors led to a company-wide policy expanding the levels of customer interaction that serves as a written customer guarantee of deliverables before, during, and after a sale.
Imaging Success Stems From Pre-Implementation Planning
IMR examined past strategies for determining customer needs and implementing solutions that had proven most successful. The integrator documented the steps and labeled that procedure as its official IMR Customer Care Program. As is the case with any VAR, IMR salespeople and sales engineers spend a great deal of time discussing customer requirements and which products and services will satisfy them. Prior to the actual installation, however, IMR insists on a formal pre-implementation meeting. "We document what they want us to do and what their specific business needs are as well as identify who the main contact and backup contact will be," says Glenn Byerly, IMR's VP of professional services. This meeting covers the specifics of how the system will be set up. IMR engineers pin down details such as keywords users want to search by and the specific expectations for training, including the job functions of the users. They also gather information about the machines they will be dealing with and where they are located.
The pre-implementation meeting is also the starting point for another level of interaction with the IMR staff - the application engineers who are responsible for the implementation. "Sales reps don't execute the installation process," notes Byerly. "By bringing application engineers to this meeting, we have been able to make better decisions and increase satisfaction and usage." Many VARs create checklists of milestones and deadlines and periodically report on progress. IMR application engineers, however, report on the activities of any given day. "Sometimes the application engineer goes to the site and never sees the contact, so it's hard for the customer to see the effort and progress," notes Byerly. "Application engineers are expected to check in with the contact person identified at the pre-implementation meeting weekly, at least via e-mail or voice mail. Whatever the delivery, the message is the same: I was here, this is what I did."
Extend Responsibility For Customer Care
The application engineers are also responsible for the relationship with IT and the people who have the greatest impact on the success of an imaging solution: end users at the desktops. Studies in a variety of technology segments suggest that lack of end user acceptance is a leading factor in solutions being labeled as failures. "Once the documents are signed, our contact with the people who made the decision is often lessened," comments Byerly. "Then we move on to the people who actually have to make it work and are going to be the day-to-day users. They will also be the ones who complain the loudest if it doesn't work. We have to be sure they don't feel forced into using a solution and that they realize we are there to help."
One way application engineers build that rapport is by providing the training, which requires them to have both technical expertise and the ability to communicate that knowledge. The application engineers customize the training materials to increase the users' comfort level by dropping the customer's screen shots and business terms into existing templates.
Application engineers share the ongoing responsibility of maintaining relationships with customers. "It's not hard to get sales to follow up, but we want the technical staff to do it too," says Byerly. "Just because an installation went well doesn't mean they'll buy again. Engineers build those relationships to ask them how the business has changed and what initiatives might be going on at the company."
IMR executives have also actively increased their roles in maintaining customer relationships and are committed to making scheduled follow-up calls to customers. Based on his experience running a small custom software firm acquired by IMR, Byerly is a proponent of helping customers feel connected to the decision makers in a company and have yet another line of communication through which to funnel comments.
Customer Care Requires Education Investment
The highest cost of providing multilevel customer care is training. "That's one of the hazards of being in IT," comments Byerly. "We need educated employees, and we don't want to be one of those companies that is viewed in the industry as a 'training ground.' We need to provide the training, and we need to make it pay off for the engineers to stay with us." In the past several years, IMR has tripled the number of engineers it employs and increased total salary expenses four-fold. On average, training and education expenses (not including travel and lodging) equal about 20% of professional services salaries.
"Much of it has to do with teaching the application engineers 'soft' skills," says Byerly. "Many of them have gone to the sales overview as well as the technical training for their products. We can't afford to have people who just sit back at the office no matter how skilled they are technically. They have to be able to do both."
The focus on customer service has benefits in both the pre- and post-sales periods. "It's had an impact on everyone at IMR, from entry level up to the president," says Brian Konick, IMR's western division VP. "It used to be that the sales rep was involved in most every step of the process except for installation. Now there are interactions with sales and services during each step of the process, which has eliminated steps for the salespeople. This allows them to focus more time on the sales process itself." The ongoing relationships have bolstered marketing efforts by encouraging more customers to act as reference accounts. For instance, IMR can directly attribute new business to one hospital IT administrator who has spoken at customer seminars and in face-to-face meetings with other prospective healthcare clients.
Konick says post-sales utilization of their solutions is up significantly, indicating customers feel more comfortable using the software, which encourages incremental sales. And the customer retention rate is close to 100%. "In contrast to the overall economy, 2002 was the highest gross sales and profit year in IMR history," says Chamberlain. "So we must be doing something right."