Customer support, the new sales force

During downturn, support agents' expertise at satisfying customers can also be tapped to generate sales leads, says service operations head.
Written by Sol E. Solomon, Contributor

During the current hard times, a company's customer support organization also has a role to generate revenue for an organization, said a support operations practitioner.

Toni Ruotanen, customer service and support director for the Asia-Pacific and Greater China region, Microsoft, said call center staff could, for example, provide lead generation through telesales activities during the downturn.

In fact, Microsoft's customer service agents are currently doing this, said Ruotanen who is responsible for the software company's customer support strategy in the region. By understanding a customer's problems, the agents are better able to link the customer to a relevant sales partner for follow-up.

"Our customer service representatives are well-trained in the basic skills of understanding customer pain points and product/technology needs in the pre-sales process. So the task at hand, really, is how we build on what is already available versus training from scratch," Ruotanen told ZDNet Asia.

For companies with support staff who are not trained to sell, preparing them for this extra role requires additional expenses such as training costs, which could be an issue in an era of cost-cutting and budget constraints.

In such a situation, Ruotanen suggested that companies take a close, hard look at their current operations to see if the costs justify the expected returns on investments.

It is a "hard but healthy conversation" that companies must have when considering innovative ways to generate more business. Through such discussions, "ultimately, you are given the opportunity to analyze the strengths and weaknesses in the current operations, and to look at what needs to be replaced or filled", he said.

"We've always advocated for companies to take a long-term view on investing for long-term success [so they are ready] when the market picks up. The concept of using our pre-sales process to generate leads is about innovating talent and resources, together with refining the sales and marketing approach," Ruotanen said.

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