Off Center
Back in 2008, Allianz Global Assistance (formerly Mondial Assistance) won ICMI’s Global Call Center of the Year Award (large category). I chaired the selection committee during that year’s competition, and was thoroughly impressed by how good Allianz was at customer care and contact center management.

I saw first-hand how the company backed its claims of customer-centricity by focusing intently on things like C-Sat data/feedback and contact quality; how they nailed an ambitious service level goal and other accessibility objectives without hammering agents over the head about Average Handle Time; how they created high levels of agent engagement and retention via an impressive array of rewards & recognition programs; and how they sustained such levels of engagement and retention by empowering staff to participate on teams and task forces aimed at continuous process improvement.

As a contact center, you can’t really do much better than that.

Leave it to Allianz to prove me wrong.

I recently touched base with the good folks at Allianz and discovered they have hardly become complacent since winning the aforementioned coveted award. With a new state-of-the art facility being built as we speak, a burgeoning home agent initiative in place, and a proud culture of corporate social responsibility, Allianz is redefining what it means to be a world-class customer care organization.

Moving on Up

When I heard Allianz had recently outgrown its contact center in Richmond, Va. – with its spacious workstations, ergonomic furniture, stylistic meeting rooms and ample natural light – and was planning to move at the end of this year, I felt bad for the hundreds of employees who will have to say goodbye to the impressive facility.

Until I heard about the new one.

“We have hired a team of leading designers and architects to ensure that this will be the most associate-friendly building of its kind in the area,” says Daniel Durazo, Director of Communications (USA) for Allianz. “The build-out has just begun, but we expect to have an expanded cafeteria, a state of the art fitness facility, a coffee bar, video conference-ready meeting rooms, and much more.”

Employees needn’t worry about any major changes to their commute – the new site is just a hop, skip and a jump from where they work now. “We’ll be moving into the former Circuit City headquarters,” Durazo says, “located a couple of miles from our current location. We can’t wait to move in!”

Remote Agent Program Bringing Home Results

As excited as the Allianz crew is about the new digs, not everyone will be making the move. A team of 75 agents – roughly 15% of the center’s frontline – currently handles customer contacts from home, and are more than happy to be staying right where they are.

That’s a pretty significant number of remote staff, especially considering how new Allianz is to the work-at-home model. “The Remote Agent Program was piloted in December of 2010, and then graduated to an ongoing program in July of 2011,” explains Durazo. He points out the initiative was a direct response to the company’s annual agent survey, which revealed that agents were looking for more job flexibility. “Fortunately, the initiative turned into a win-win situation by ensuring we were meeting the needs of our associates while providing for our growing workspace needs.”

Allianz will likely add more remote agents in the near future, which should come as no surprise considering the positive impact the program has had on engagement and retention throughout the contact center. 

“The feedback we have received has been very positive. This role has been received as a privilege and associates look forward to being able to join this team,” says Durazo. "The home agent program is a very attractive benefit in the eyes of our new hires. It is one of the most frequently asked questions in new-hire training.”

Many agents may ask about home-based work, but only a relatively small number qualify for such popular positions. To do so, an agent must first work at least six months on site, consistently meet or exceed all performance objectives, demonstrate the ability to work independently, and be highly customer focused. Each candidate must also have a home office that is free of noise and interruptions, and that is equipped with high-speed Internet and a hard-wired phone line.

Having such comprehensive selection criteria has paid off thus far, not only in terms of engagement and retention but performance as well. As Durazo explains, “We’ve been able to achieve both a slight increase in quality as well as a reduction in unplanned absenteeism for associates working remotely.”

Not Your Typical “CSR

More than its new facility and remote agent program, Allianz prides itself on the memorable service it provides. Not just to customers, but to the local community and beyond. Where in most organizations CSR stands for “Customer Service Rep”, the acronym stands for something different at Allianz.

“We have a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program that provides opportunities for all associates to become involved,” Durazo says.

Among the CSR initiatives and activities that agents, supervisors and managers participate in include assembling food-kits to be sent to hungry families in developing nations, volunteering at Ronald McDonald house, painting houses for Elder Homes, and more. In addition, whenever an employee gives a donation to their favorite charity or non-profit organization, Allianz matches it.

Durazo doesn’t like to toot the company’s own horn when it comes to social responsibility, but with a program as popular outside the organization as it is inside, it’s hard not to.

“Our CSR program is well liked [by agents], and the community recognizes us as a responsible corporate citizen.”

Allianz Global Assistance – the Big Picture:
Location: Richmond, Va.
Hours of operation: 24/7/365
Number of agents: Approximately 500
Products/services provided/supported: Provide support for a number of products/services, such as travel insurance, event ticket protector, concierge and third party administrator services.
Channels handled: Phone, email, web self-service
What’s so great about them? Their focus on contact center facility design, a burgeoning home agent program, and a culture of social responsibility keep staff inspired and performing at optimal levels.    

Everybody is talking about “social customer care”, but few companies are able to provide specific examples of how they’ve embraced social media to improve customer service and sentiment.

Don’t lump Lenovo in with those merely talking the talk. When it comes to social customer care, the personal technology giant is most certainly walking the walk.

I recently interviewed Lenovo’s Community Manager, Mark Hopkins, and posed a host of questions regarding the company’s social customer care strategies and practices. Read on to see his comprehensive and insightful responses.

Does Lenovo monitor conversations about the brand on social sites across the web?

Yes, we monitor broadly across the web, and consider multiple types of social content – whether on Twitter, blogs, discussion forums or our Facebook pages. Content matters regardless of venue, however customer behavior and participation dynamics can and do vary by channel.

How does Lenovo track the hottest discussion topics and use that info to make product/service improvements?

Tracking and trending hot topics broadly helps us guide our focus on the issues that matter most. Discussion forums are particularly valuable in bringing multiple customers together to share information, opinions and experiences related common issues.

The Lenovo discussion forums – available in English, Spanish and German – are strategic in this regard. Through them we are able to recognize important issues and better understand those issues to help us improve our products and services. Many of these interactions lead to updates delivered via software downloads, such as updated drivers, basic input/output system (BIOS) and software features. Some lead to changes in PC hardware, or changes to design and test specifications for future products.  

For example, we heard from the community how important our automated update application – ThinkVantage System Update – is to our customers. Knowing that, we made a strategic course change to continue it. Most recently, we entered the tablet market with several new products and discussions of these Android based devices have been particularly helpful in understanding the customer experience and improvements via over the air updates.

In what ways does Lenovo interact/engage with individual social customers to answer their questions and address their issues and complaints?

We’re focused primarily on enabling peer-to-peer support by encouraging our most knowledgeable, helpful and prolific contributors to build knowledge that can be shared with other social networks. Since we deployed the knowledgebase feature in 2010, the community has built nearly 2,000 articles and more than 12,000 discussions have been identified with a proven solution. We also receive feedback from individual customers, and we prioritize our efforts to address these opportunities.

Please discuss Lenovo’s use of blogs, tutorials and other useful content on social sites to keep customers informed and to proactively address common issues. 

Lenovo blogs feature commentary on upcoming technologies, design innovation, event news and highlight new products and services that are available. Through the blogs, and increasingly our Facebook Wall, we solicit customer feedback. Sometimes it is in general terms about which features customers love, or love to hate, and sometimes it is in structured ways that collect results that we incorporate into products. Some examples include putting stripes back on the ThinkPad trackpoint buttons and introducing a BIOS feature to allow Function (FN) and Control (Ctrl) keys to be swapped. 

How long has your online user community been in place, and how active is it?

The community launched in December 2007 as a worldwide English site. We added German and Spanish communities in 2010 along with the integrated knowledgebase and integrations with Facebook and Twitter. 

The community has grown quickly with more than 120,000 users registered. It’s important to note that interactions from those just browsing can often be 100 times that of those who log in to post, so considering this, the effective audience is likely above one million users. We believe good content and a rewarding experience attracts the best members, and we recognize and empower some of our most trusted members to help us manage the community by serving as volunteer moderators. As with most communities, content contribution is often highly disproportionate to the user base. We’ve found that over the past three years, slightly more than 40% of the proven solutions have come from a highly engaged core group of approximately 30 members. 

We’ve recently started to run special events in the community. These are short duration (a week or less) events where a panel of experts lead a discussion and answer customer questions about new technologies, our products or common customer needs. In November we brought together a panel of experts to talk about malware and security and to field questions on everything from smart phone vulnerability to whether it’s beneficial to have more than one anti-virus package on a PC. 

What impact, if any, has the online community had on call volumes and the bottom line in your contact center?

The community, along with other online support initiatives, provides an alternate source of solutions instead of calling a contact center. The volumes of calls we’ve received relative to our rapidly growing market share have been declining by about 20% the first year after the community launched. While this metric flattens out, the overall trends are encouraging.

Communities allow a company to move beyond one-to-one support delivery mechanisms like chat and phone and shift to “many-to-many” support formats by drawing upon community experts as well as company support resources to provide answers that have a long shelf life in the community and pay dividends through the power of Internet search. 

While this is considered call deflection, people have an opportunity to preempt the need to call Lenovo entirely by leveraging the community to identify and escalate issues faster than they would otherwise bubble up from the contact center or the field as a coherent and actionable issue. Over the past year, we’ve dedicated resources to this effort and have reduced the cycle time to resolve issues escalated from the forums by an average of 60%. 

How involved is your contact center with Lenovo’s social customer care strategy? Do they “own” it, or is social customer care more the responsibility of your Marketing or other dept.?

Today, social support and our community teams reside within our service organization, however they aren’t owned by the contact centers. Our social marketing teams are an important resource in growing our engaged audience with a clear focus on our brand.  Opportunities for social support scale along with this. 

As for our traditional contact centers, we see a natural convergence over time. It’s an opportunity to involve senior support agents working collaboratively with our customers to arrive at a solution and have that become a part of the community rather than hidden in an internal database. We want to make this a resource for all support agents along with the formal knowledge available through support site. We also see synergy with agents becoming more active in the social space as customers begin to shift their own preference from voice to electronic interactions. Consider how many people use their smartphone for voice alone versus other interactions like texting or tweeting. 

What special social media management solutions/tools does Lenovo have in place? (For monitoring, interacting, posting, etc.)

Over the years we’ve used multiple paid tools and many free tools. None seem to do everything perfectly, which is probably why there is a marketplace of perhaps 200+ competing tools. Today our marketing and services social media teams use several monitoring tools as well as others that help co-ordinate responses on Twitter and Facebook. We continue to evaluate the capability of multiple tools/platforms and look for opportunities to coordinate our support efforts across multiple teams, business functions, social networks and languages. 

What would you say are the biggest challenges involved in implementing and managing a solid social customer care strategy? What has Lenovo done to overcome/minimize such challenges? 

There are several challenges as social support becomes increasingly mainstream. As the volume of customer requests grows, companies need a scalable strategy. A community platform, especially with Twitter and other networks integrated, helps in enabling many to many support collaboration and in providing persistence of content and accessibility to the big search engines. This allows every successful support engagement to build knowledge equity that can potentially offset future requests.   

Another challenge is language – providing social support in the languages that support your customers. For example, monthly community traffic from Germany has grown 250% since the German community launched. Certainly, many Germans were already interacting in English, but providing native language support accelerated use in a dramatic manner. 

Customer expectations of social support have changed dramatically over the past five years. In 2006 or 2007, customers were pleasantly surprised if a company replied to a post on their personal blog and offered support. The mainstream adoption of Twitter, Facebook and smartphones have enabled customers to post about their experiences in real time. This presents a growing challenge to not only engage, but to manage these to a successful outcome.  Back end processes, resources and logistics all must accelerate to support the new speed of social – this is a transformation in progress.

What are the biggest benefits of social customer care?

Immediate visibility to emerging concerns – especially those shared by multiple customers – provides an opportunity to address issues earlier, thus reducing total support costs and providing a better customer experience. Demonstrating the brand in action – how a company responds to support issues – is important and when done well, can be a differentiator. 

How do you see social customer care evolving?

Social support is becoming increasingly mainstream and a community-centric strategy scales better than one based solely on dedicated direct engagement by contact center resources, especially for companies with complex consumer product portfolios. Facebook and Twitter are dominant today, but other social networks may be more relevant for certain customer segments or geographical regions. Social tools that allow collaboration and preserve content and reputation equity will be the long term winners. There can be opportunities for support collaboration across business relationships where there is a mutual customer. Likely scenarios could be complex consumer goods companies and big box store / online distributors, or points where multiple companies are working together to deliver a solution – hardware and software vendors or phone handset-makers and wireless carriers.  A current example of this collaborative intersection is Microsoft outreach teams and MVPs engaging in PC manufacturer communities as well as Microsoft hosted communities to provide support for mutual customers who have operating system questions.