When people think about customer service, the first thing that may come to mind is dreading that call to their bank or their mobile provider. After a machine answers your phone call, you have to wade through endless prompts and messages that don’t apply to your problem before you eventually end up speaking with a live human representative anyway.
PV Kannan is out to deliver solutions to those automated customer service issues. Kannan has an extensive background in customer service technology companies. He was on the ground floor of the revolutionary concept of offshoring and helped pioneer chat and email as customer service technologies.
In early 2000, Kannan co-founded 7, a customer service technology company to combine his first two experiences with the industry and improve upon those ideas.
“The goal in starting 7 is how do you make it truly enjoyable and how do you give an experience that’s outstanding,” says Kannan, CEO of 7. “The reason I started this company was to make 800 numbers easier for me to use. I wanted to figure out ways to make it an enjoyable experience.”
Today, the 10,000-employee 7 tallies more than $200 million in annual revenue. Many of the challenges 7 faces involve the market and how to get the message across as to what the business does in a way where adoption by large enterprises is easier.
“Even though our business is designed for consumers to get more joy out of customer service, ultimately the ones cutting the check to us are large enterprises,” Kannan says. “For us, the market challenge is getting the message across on why customer service needs to be rethought.”
Here’s how Kannan and 7 are rethinking the customer service experience.
Create an innovative culture
In the last couple of years, 7 has been looking at customer service technology and finding ways to make changes “bite size” so an enterprise can take a bite without trying to change the world.
“No matter the size of the company, change is a tough thing to do,” Kannan says. “How do we make it easy enough for them to try something different and then slowly expand on that? That’s what we have worked on — making it easy to adopt and not so inclusive into their systems so it’s not viewed as a big change program.”
Kannan is cautious that his company isn’t just innovating for innovation sake. The business is very driven by making sure enterprises get what they want.
“There’s no point in having an innovation that is cool and awesome, but serves no purpose,” he says. “Companies want to improve customer experience, but cost is a big deal for enterprises. It costs a lot of money to service customers. If you’re one of the top five banks, you’re spending somewhere between $300 million and $600 million in terms of people and technology to serve customers.”
The way 7 approaches it is to look at the cost equation. It has to be simple to adopt and save money. It cannot require a big upfront capital investment or people investment, because that typically reduces the chance for adoption in a large enterprise.
“Those are the design criteria on our mind,” he says. “Whatever innovation comes up has to meet that criteria. The underlying mission is it should make it easy for consumers to do business with companies.”
The key to 7’s innovation success over the years has been the creation of a culture that fosters innovation.
“A CEO cannot delegate innovation to some department,” Kannan says. “It has to be a cultural absorption of the idea that innovation is something you do. If that’s done, it catches on like fire.”
That culture starts with questioning your own strategy in creative ways.
“People know that I’m the kind of guy that even if I signed off on a decision, I’m willing to relook at it in an interesting way if there is substance behind it,” he says. “Once you create that kind of culture, it makes it easier for people to challenge.”
As the company grows bigger, one of the challenges for people who are new to the system is trying to get a feel for the place. They have to figure out how things get done, who makes the decisions and what the criteria is behind it.
“If it’s established based on transparency, fairness and a willingness to look at things in a fresh way, it becomes easier for people to come in and contribute,” he says. “That’s what we try to foster.”
In the last year, Kannan and his team at 7 have invested deeply in design to rethink customer experience from a design standpoint. The company hired a senior designer who had a design background with Apple Inc. and Yahoo Inc.
“That’s something very new, and it’s unconventional for a technology company to take that perspective,” Kannan says. “If you look at companies in our space, technology companies that improve customer service, you don’t have that perspective at all. It’s all about how great is the technology. What is so cool about it? How does it disappear in the background for consumers to interact with it?”
Kannan wants to change the way customer service technology interacts with its user.
“You’re pretty used to dialing an 800 number and hearing two or three messages that we all hear and are sick to death of hearing,” he says. “One is about English and Spanish — press one if you speak English, press two if you speak Spanish. The other is how much we care about you and we’re going to put you on hold. The third is that this conversation is going to be recorded for quality purposes.”
What 7 is striving to do is connect that phone call to an Internet-connected device, if and when applicable.
“Suddenly an 800 number experience comes alive with video, pictures and text, and you’re able to do that transaction easier than if you had to download an app,” he says. “You’re still on the phone, so you’re actually speaking.
“The rethinking and design comes in for things like how do you effectively use speech? When do you give instructions? When do you stand back and let the customer do what they need to do? How many degrees of freedom do you give customers so they can do it on their own terms?”
Most often people are used to service in a straight, single-channel mode, so either you’re dealing with an automated system, or you’re passed to a human being.
“What we’re saying is could you enhance that experience using a device?” Kannan says. “Could we mix speech versus text on a screen? Where does video play a role? How do you get moving to your end objective sooner rather than later? Those are the open-ended questions we’re asking.”
7 has been creating solutions for airlines, banks and credit card companies where the company has brought a different design element to the customer service table.
“One of the things we do is we recognize you based on your mobile number, greet you by name and actually tell you what you’re probably looking for,” he says.
If you’re calling an airline and it’s the day of your travel, data shows that there are only two reasons travelers call within six hours of a flight — either you’re cancelling your flight or you want to change the flight.
“So we would say, ‘Hey Greg, looks like you’re travelling today from Cincinnati to destination X, and is this what you’re trying to do,’” Kannan says. “Think about the difference in greeting you that way as opposed to saying, ‘Thanks for calling X airline, press one for English.’”
Similarly, 7 redesigned how credit card company’s customer service technology interacts with users. Take the example of having your card put on hold for suspicious charges.
“What 7 did is we can tell if you’re calling from a smartphone and the credit card company can send the charges by text and the customer service person will stay on the line while you check the charges and help you,” he says.
“Instead of an automated system painfully relaying line-by-line the last six charges you did, you get to see it in one shot and you can say, ‘Yes, those charges are mine, or no, this one for $50 isn’t me.’”
Kannan and his team rolled that out last year and the adoption rate is very high. The company also asks customers at the end of the call to answer a simple five-star rating survey about the experience via text.
“About 80 percent of people fill it out,” he says. “More than 95 percent give it a five-star rating. That’s a practical example of how you would use a smartphone and use the ability to display data or screen information while you’re on a phone call without downloading an app.”
No matter how you get there, at the end of the day you want the resolution on what that user set out to do.
“We measure how many people succeed in doing it themselves,” Kannan says. “If 20 percent succeeded in automation and 80 percent had to talk to a real human being to get a result, that system is not doing its job.
“That’s what we look at — what’s the current success rate, how much time does it take, how many people really like that experience? Then you measure your solution design and whether it’s going to improve it. Sometimes you have to just try it out.” •
- Create a culture that fosters innovation.
- Rethink the standard ways of delivering an experience to consumers.
- Measure whether your solution is solving the problem.
The Kannan File:
Name: PV Kannan
Title: co-founder and CEO
Born: Chennai, India
Education: He has degrees in finance and accounting from the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I did bookkeeping for my dad when I was 11. The takeaway from that job was you don’t get free money.
Who do you admire in business? A lot of my inspiration came from my dad and watching him build a business.
What annoys you most about dialing an 800 number? The thing that annoys me most is the fact that you still have to say “one” for English when you never even selected two — why even ask that? Out of 100 things that annoy me, that’s probably the easiest to solve.
What is a customer service solution that you’re most proud of at 7? I would say it’s the work we are doing for banks uniting their Web, interactive voice response and mobile services.
How to reach: 7, (650) 385-2247 or www.247-inc.com