The Future of Live Service

Posted: October 21, 2005 in CRM

Last week in New York, Salesforce.com improved its position in the CRM suite market when it introduced version 2.0 of its service and support offering. The company has quickly come up the curve to a point where it has approximate parity with other companies offering a range of support options including a knowledge base and FAQ capabilities as well as live agent support, though it looks like the agent desktop will come later.

Suffice it to say that there is now a surplus of application software on the market to enable small to medium companies as well as enterprises to service customers at rates that are far below the costs normally associated with buying a lot of call center hardware e.g. IVR, phone switches and all the rest. With this latest announcement the market place has several products from which to choose including those of RightNow, Siebel CRM OnDemand and Salesforce.com. While there are some obvious differences in functionality, company background and hosting philosophy, a customer has a lot to choose from in service and support software that fits a major criterion of low cost and easy implementation.

Which way the market?

Now there are at least two main ways the market can move. Either it can become a buyers market in which customers choose among good alternatives based on the sole criterion of price OR someone will get smart and take service and support to the next level. But first we might need to define what the next level really is. Let me offer one view.

Given all the effort in the last two years to limit the ability of vendors to make outgoing calls, and given the increasingly competent automated systems available to drive down the cost of service and support, you have to wonder what will become of call centers. With so much technology available to place call center technology into the hands of any person with a PC and an Internet connection you have to believe there is going to be excess capacity which will further drive prices down.

In my mind, what’s needed is a way to provide high value services through this infrastructure. Doing so would rescue what could otherwise become stranded assets and just might possibly result in a new industry.

Professional help

I think the next move in the service industry could be the evolution of a professional position which I will call the Factotum – somebody employed to do a variety of jobs for somebody else. It’s not as far fetched as it might seem. Until recently – i.e. until we invented good, fast, and cheap computing and the Internet – we employed factotums in a variety of situations – anyone who remembers what a real secretary was would understand. And even today the secretary of the CEO in a major corporation still has his or her name on the organization chart and is a power to be reckoned with inside the corporation. Imagine having your own Factotum or the availability of a group of them.

The modern factotum’s power and prestige would come not from a position on an org chart but from what he or she knows. How many routine and non-routine jobs are there in our lives that go undone because we simply don’t have time? Some of those jobs were the exclusive province of one’s spouse back in the day when a single pay check covered all costs. Really, a single pay check.

Your Factotum is on line one

There was a piece on NPR not long ago about a reporter who used what amounted to Factotum services provisioned by a small company in India. The Factotum was like a personal assistant sending notes, arranging meetings, making appointments and the like, all for a monthly retainer fee. While I liked the concept, the execution struck me as too shallow and too much of a throw-back to Edwardian England and it made me ask what a twenty-first century Factotum might be like.

My answer looks more like something Shoshana Zuboff described in "The Support Economy" but with a difference. I don’t expect that in the modern world any single person – even with great software – could provide high level factotum services in everything, the world is simply too complex; moreover, too few people would pay for such a service. But what if people specialized and you bought services more on an ad hoc basis, when you needed them?

How it works

For example, there might be people who specialize in healthcare, education, real estate, or entertainment. Suppose you learn you have cancer you’ll want to ensure you’re getting the most advanced care – that’s the easy part. But what about the more inclusive plan that would include treatment, as well as long term care, and negotiating the maze of insurance forms and options, and government programs when you’re too tired to do it all for yourself? Too often we only get the services we need by trial and error and sometimes we don’t have the energy. We come out of these experiences far wiser, but at what cost?

On a cheerier note, suppose you wanted to plan your entertainment for the next 6 months? Do you have time to peruse the trades to know what plays, movies, concerts, and art exhibits are coming to your area? When is your vacation? Will anything you want to do overlap with something else? Do you have the time to stand in line for the tickets? What if you could work with an entertainment Factotum over the Internet to set all that up? And what if your Factotum could alert you to special events that you might have an interest in?

Frivolous or not?

On one level I am sure many people will say that this kind of service is frivolous – after all these are the kinds of services you should expect from family and friends, your network. To them I say two things. First your network is only as broad and far reaching as your personality permits and at some point we all need to ask how we can come to know what we don’t know. Second, while we all have families, those people are all too often not in the same city as we are or they are as time starved as we are or the relationship comes with baggage of its own. And lastly, life is more complicated than anyone might have imagined even 30 years ago, who couldn’t use a little expert assistance from time to time?

Notice that I have carefully avoided the issues of picking up the dry cleaning and the groceries. Maybe it’s my belief that running those errands are an indication of character, but I believe an individual should maintain some basic competency in attending to the basics of sustenance and cleaning, not to mention maintaining the subtle interpersonal skills needed to get along in the world at all levels. Call it a reality check.

So there it is, the Factotum, someone with specialized expertise who can provide the services that make life more interesting, fun, and less complicated all for a small monthly fee. It could be a growth industry full of smart people with heads full of specialized knowledge, a PC, and an Internet connection. I’d love to get a penny for every transaction they do ten years from now.

So, what did you think?

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