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Inside EDGE JIM GASKIN

IFAs are increasingly asking me how they should differentiate between the

many technology suppliers that are operating in our marketplace. Quality of

product is an obvious factor. IFAs need to be using proven products and

services that exactly match their needs and add value to their business.

However, there are many marketing buzzwords such as portal, CRM and ASP

that can make it difficult to differentiate between offerings.

For IFAs, one of the key objectives of using technology is to improve

their customer service. I think this should also be one of the key

differentiating factors that IFAs consider when comparing technology

suppliers. IFAs are experts at giving financial advice, not operating IT

systems, and will often have little or no internal technical support. The

service they get from IT suppliers is crucial.

A good customer services team must be focused solely on providing support

to customers rather than as a function of a wider role. The external face

of many customer services teams, and the most widely used by IFAs, will

usually be a helpdesk.

I use helpdesk rather than call centre because some people have an out of

date perception of call centres. They are sometimes seen to provide minimum

customer service at minimum cost. They are perceived to be manned by

stressed-out, underpaid personnel with a lack of knowledge of the problems

they are supposed to fix.

The key here is empowerment. Customer care staff must be given the

authority to help their clients immediately. They should not be phone

operators who take messages and get someone else to solve the problem. IFAs

need access to customer care staff with a unique mix of skills that embrace

technology, the financial services market and people handling.

Importantly, these services must be provided free as part of the

commitment by the IT supplier. IFAs need to be able to contact the helpdesk

via phone, email, fax, web or post to suit their preference and it should

not just be a one-way flow. The helpdesk should be predictive and contact

IFAs to update them on service or technology enhancements.

In the future, we may see the helpdesk concept being taken one step

further. With the client&#39s consent, helpdesk agents will be able to take

control of the customer&#39s PC down the phone line. This will enable the

agents to demonstrate functions to IFAs and show them how to resolve their

issues. If this proves successful, and if IFAs want it, it will

revolutionise the way that customer care teams can support IFAs.

Another primary function of a good customer care team should be as the

voice of the IFA in the technology supplier. The feedback from IFAs through

the helpdesk can be instrumental in the development of services.

The helpdesk should not simply take calls and solve problems in isolation.

It needs to group calls on similar issues and produce business reports on

underlying trends. This information can used to create self-help material

such as frequently asked questions and answers, user guides,

troubleshooting guides, online help functions and faxback sheets, giving

hints and tips on subjects. It can also be fed back to the product and

technical development teams.

By being fully aware of how clients use the service, the customer care

team is often first to identify new ideas for service enhancements and can

help predict IFAs&#39 responses to new products, services and interfaces. In

effect, the helpdesk can act as the customer representative in development

and testing of new services.

Without this feedback, product and technical development happens in a

vacuum. By listening to customers, service providers can develop a product

of practical benefit to IFAs.

For IFAs, the customer care team is the human face of a technical service.

There is nothing more frustrating than having problems with technology with

no one to help. Good customer care can alleviate this , enabling IFAs to

take advantage of the benefits technology can deliver.

Jim Gaskin is managing director of The Exchange.

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