There’s a Difference Between Fast and Timely

Time is the scarcest resource in our lives. Data may be the oil of the digital economy, but the timeliness and contextual delivery of that data is what creates real value.  One of the things we learned early in our first business — we provided market-based vehicle valuations to the auto insurance industry — is that it didn’t matter how fresh and accurate our data was, or how quickly we responded to inbound inquiries. What mattered is whether the folks asking for the answers were accessible and available when we got back to them with the info. The when and where of the data delivery (context) is just as important as the what (content) in the final analysis.

In addition, many of the traditional management tools we initially employed turned out to be poorly aligned with the real needs of the business. Driving our people crazy to meet certain performance standards, arbitrary operating metrics, turn-around times, or other contractually mandated service levels was simply stupid if the end results didn’t matter to the customers. Not everything needed to be instantly available or be made into a crisis or a fire drill if no one was going to appreciate, recognize or compensate us for the extra effort. Youthful and aggressive enthusiasm eventually yielded to painful experience.  

It took a while to get the flow and timing correct in that business, but the core offering – real-time and precise valuation information as opposed to the stale, generalized historical data that was the industry standard – radically changed the way in which claims for lost or stolen vehicles were settled in the auto insurance game.  Today, 40 years later, that business is still operating as the unquestioned industry leader, works with every major insurer, and is worth billions. The most important lesson we learned is that a one-dimensional emphasis on speed alone often creates more undue stress rather than building value.

The best and most valuable data-centric startups understand how to add substantial value to their offerings by managing and compressing time as they constantly move forward on the continuum from old news and after-the-fact analysis to the real time delivery of current information. Shrinking the space between the creation, measurement and evaluation of relevant activity — capturing it in the moment, at the edge, and from both employees and their customers (bi-directional) — and then converting and communicating it back to the team members as immediate, actionable instruction is now the name of the game. The more immediate that any strategic inputs can be, the more accurate and valuable the decisions relying upon them will become. The only right time is real time and right now.

Many old-line data-based businesses, including mine, sought to increase the availability and immediacy of decision-making information. But now we’re seeing the emergence of companies that are developing on-site systems to provide real-time feedback that can be used effectively to inform and improve employees’ qualitative behaviors rather than simply their quantitative decisions.  

This is the new wave of augmented human intelligence tools, which focus on creating and supporting better informed, more aware, and readily reactive workers as opposed to those long-promised and largely unsuccessful systems that propose to use artificial intelligence to actually replace humans. The goal today is to make all your people smart fast. And nothing improves learning more effectively than instant, on-the-job feedback.

I believe that we’re going to see an explosion of real-time guidance in almost every customer-facing service business. And there’s probably no more challenging an environment in which to try to implement consistent and ongoing behavioral change than the world of call centers, whatever industry they support. Call centers overall suffer 100% annual agent attrition, difficulty in properly deploying and scaling their coaching resources, recurring and repeated agent errors, and an inability to quickly share changes and improvements across their workforce.

While there are plenty of players in this space, one of the most interesting young companies is St. Louis-based Balto, which is focused on using conversational intelligence to provide real-time guidance for call center agents and managers. You can check out their products and services but noting their pitch and the problems they identify will be far more valuable for you because these are universal concerns. Investing a little time will help you create a significant knowledge advantage. The key to the most effective innovation is very often “borrowing” new ideas and approaches from other people in adjacent industries and applying them to your own business.

Solution migration, cross-industry pollination, and inexpensive adaption are all great ways to boost your business without spending big bucks. Originality and invention are often overrated, time-consuming and costly.  Find the best ideas, figure out how they apply and make sense for your company, and get busy making them work for you.  

Here are  four key concepts that I borrowed from Balto’s materials and I’ll bet that thinking about how to deal with each of them in the context of your own company can help you build a better business – whether it’s claims, sales, logistics, health care, insurance or any other direct-to-customer product or service – especially at present when so many of your team members are still likely to be working remotely.

(1)   A Small Number of Recurring Problems and Errors Cause the Bulk of the Issues with Customers.

As many times as you tell your team how, when and what to say, they still forget, quit, freelance, get bored, and get upset or distracted. Automated and interactive scripts, dynamic checklists, sidebar chats and prompts can constantly provide and reinforce the right messages, paths and online responses to issues and objections. Training and practice are helpful, but not as valuable or effective as real-world experiences and immediate feedback.

(2)   The Best Time to Keep a Customer is Before They Leave.

Once a conversation is over, it’s almost always too late to retrieve or recover the customer. Automated bi-lateral conversation monitoring with key word triggers and timely alerts permits next-level personnel to join, interrupt or intercede and work instantly to salvage and restore the precarious relationship before it ends. A supervisor can only listen in on one discussion at a time while the right system can be listening into all of the ongoing discussions at the same time and alert the supervisor or manager when prompt action is necessary.

(3)   Problems are Rarely Unique to Individual, Unhappy  Customers. Solutions Need to Address Root Causes and then Be Quickly Circulated to the Entire Team.

Solving one-off problems with unhappy customers is necessary, but it’s not sufficient over the long run as a strategy for overall improvements in deficient processes and unsatisfactory agent behaviors. Even more importantly, once a broader fix is determined and in place and applicable to all customers, it’s critical that the solution (either what’s working or what’s not working) be immediately transmitted to the entire team and incorporated in all of the supportive tools and materials and all future interactions.

(4)   All of Us are Smarter than Any One of Us.

It’s hard to overstate the value of aggregated, collated, and carefully analyzed data collected from literally millions of conversations, transactions, interactions and dispositions when you’re trying to continually enrich the customer experience. While your particular situation may have specific variations, there’s no question that the best practices, hints, directions and standard responses derived from the daily activities of hundreds of businesses and then gathered into a common database of instructions and directions will be largely applicable and extremely useful in your particular use cases as well. Customers may come in all sizes and shapes, but their basic needs and desires are remarkably similar in almost every respect. You can try to learn these things over a lifetime or have them at your fingertips overnight.   

The best entrepreneurs aren’t too proud or too busy to look, listen and learn– or to beg, borrow and steal the best ideas from wherever they might be found. In the final analysis, a successful enterprise is never about who did it first, but about who does it best.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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