IBM’s Commerce Unit is Serious about Customer Service (Q&A)

Deepak Advani is no newcomer to IBM, but in his new role as the company’s head of commerce, Advani promises a fresh, experience-centric direction for IBM’s business solutions. With customer expectations rising in all industries, good service is now a requirement for nearly every facet of commerce. And as the traditional silos between sales, marketing, and customer service continue to break down, companies are seeing a growing need for end-to-end solutions that intertwine the three pillars of customer relationship management while bringing a commitment to service and experience to the forefront. IBM  is ready for the challenge, Advani says—here’s how the commerce team is planning to tackle it under his leadership.

Smart Customer Service: Successful companies such as Amazon often say they owe their success to a focus on customer service. Why does service play such a key role in commerce?

Deepak Advani:  What you’re touching on is at the core of IBM’s point of view and my personal point of view. We’ve historically thought about business disciplines in silos. Marketing handled the promotional stuff, then handed it off to commerce or sales to do the selling, then fulfillment and order management took over, and service teams were responsible for everything post-sale. These silos are now breaking down, and what we’re seeing is a shift away from segmented campaign management to experience optimization, which service is a big part of. The world we’re moving to now, if you look at what influences purchase behavior, increasingly it’s the service that brands are offering. The after-sale experience is very important.

SCS: Is this a trend that IBM’s customers are picking up on? What are you hearing from them?

DA: They’re noticing that consumers aren’t just comparing brands to their competitors anymore; they’re making comparisons across industries. For example, if I can check in early for my flight on my mobile device, why can’t I do that for a doctor’s appointment? People are being vocal about their service experiences, and companies are also starting to understand that consumers are on a journey where every touch point has to offer personalized engagements and conversations. That means when they call with a service issue or question, the person that picks up the phone has to know exactly who that customer is and how to deliver the best experience to that customer. Companies are mapping these journeys and realizing that they don’t end with a sale.  

SCS: How are you ensuring that IBM Commerce solutions deliver on the service front?

DA: To deliver solutions that eliminate those existing silos, there has to be a uniting force and for IBM, it’s going to be a focus on analytics. Analytics are going to play a huge role in marketing, sales and service, and offering analytics solutions that reach into every interaction is an important part of our strategy.

SCS: Can you give us an example of how your customers are using analytics to connect customer service to other areas of business?

DA: First Tennessee Bank comes to mind. They actually wanted to revamp their marketing, but in order to do that, they had to take a close looks at their service interactions. With a bank, every time a customer talks to a teller or goes on the Web site to make a transaction, that’s a customer service interaction. And there’s all of this data that comes out of these interactions—there’s demographic, behavioral, attitudinal and other types of data that can emerge. Based on that, you can start having more personalized conversations with the clients. First Tennessee Bank used this insight to create a more personalized marketing campaign, and their return on investment was nearly 600 percent. So while they collected service interaction data, it was used to inform a whole other part of their business.

SCS: Can you expand on the role that you expect analytics will play in the call center?

DA: Companies used to think of a call center as a cost center. That’s why they just wanted to move it to India or Vietnam or Africa. But what a lot of our biggest clients are saying now is ‘Wait a minute—if someone is calling in for support, that’s a big touch point. That’s the place where I can influence my customer’s opinion and use the conversation to build loyalty, cross-sell, and reduce churn.’ A lot of our customers are now deploying our predictive analytics solutions so that when a call comes in, the call center representative immediately knows who it is and has insights on that customer’s past interactions, propensity for churn, and lifetime value. With that level of insight, support agents can guide the conversation towards a resolution more effectively or offer something that is of high value to the individual to reduce churn.

SCS: What’s your next order of business in your new role?

DA: IBM’s real strength is that we have end-to-end capabilities, and one of the things we’re going to continue to focus on is analytics across all of our offerings. You’re going to see us put more and more emphasis on customer journey, not only in terms of software, but also strategy. This is one of the key design points of our new focus on commerce—we are bringing senior domain experts and consultants on to be part of the group, and we’re going to be a software and services group. And of course, we’re also going to be leveraging other bets that IBM has been making, It’s an important time for us.