Features

Oct
2012

Customer Communication Software



By Alan N. Glazier, OD, FAAO

There are any number of ways for practice management to interact or communicate with patients, but today some of the most directional and useful means fall under the e-marketing umbrella. Here, Dr. Alan Glazier, a thought leader in eyecare industry e-marketing, shares excerpts from his new book, “Understanding Patient Communication Software.”

This past year has witnessed an uptick in patient communication software, yet navigating the various options and features offered by vendors can be a monumental task. In his book (available as a complete e-book at www.jobsonresearch.com/customercommunicationsoftware), Dr. Glazier demystifies the category and offers a practical analysis of existing features as well as an explanation of the value this type of software can add to your business. As an added feature, the publication includes a checklist for practice owners, making it easier to systematically compare and contrast platforms offered by a wide range of vendors. So if you are looking for new and innovative ways to reach out to your patients, it might be time to give e-marketing a try. 


BUSINESS MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

I assume you have in place an enterprise business management system and are trying to find the best, most compatible communication tool to interface with it—not the other way around. Ensuring customer communication software (herein after referred to as "communication software" or "ccs") syncs with your enterprise software is the very first step in deciding which product to purchase. Communication software which lacks an API to interface with a particular enterprise system raises some questions one should pay attention to. For example, a communication software company trying to compete in this incredibly competitive and narrow space that does not sync with one of the enterprise software systems might not have the bandwidth to survive for the long-haul. It can take tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an interface into just one of the enterprise software systems.

Questions to consider:
  • How seamless is integration with my enterprise software?
  • Are there additional setup expenses for initiating the interface with my enterprise software?
  • Are there additional fees for upgrades?
  • What is the potential of the interface to create a problem with my existing files, i.e., corrupt them?
  • Can the communication software’s system crash causing me to be unable to recall or communicate with customers electronically? If so, is there a temporary resolution in place until systems restore?


SURVEY AND CROWDSOURCING FEATURES

Most communication tools offer a system encouraging customers to partake in an experience survey. This is an extremely important feature, but raises many questions. In my opinion, the company with the best survey tool has a significant advantage over the other tools. Businesses who wish to host their own surveys are at risk of poor participation by customers, not asking the right questions or gathering enough information to make the survey useful and may expend huge amounts of time and capital into running a less-than-effective campaign. Traditional marketing firms charge tens of thousands of dollars to perform basic marketing surveys and still need the advice of industry experts to effectively poll a customer population. That said the ability to poll customers and receive feedback of any kind is extremely helpful to any business. With the advent of modern e-communication tools, such as e-mail and social media, this strategy is very much in reach of small business owners.

Questions to consider:
  • Were surveys designed to provide the maximum information about the perception of your services?
  • Are they too long or detailed so people may shy away from completing them?
  • Are the questions simple enough so as not to perplex people?
  • Can you run different types of surveys or only one?
The purpose of surveying customers is to learn customers’ perception of your business practices so that you can improve your policies and performance. In the past, there were only two ways to find out what customers thought about the level of service you were providing.


SYNCHRONIZATION FEATURES

The ability of the communication software to interface with the enterprise software, access information and populate its own database from the enterprise software is called synchronization. Synchronization is important to ensure accurate e-mails, phone numbers and addresses are obtained by the communication software. Some communication software programs are designed to pull data from the enterprise program and some are not. Software that synchronizes saves a tremendous amount of time, expense and energy in the set up.

Questions to consider:
  • Will the sync occur seamlessly?
  • If not, what resolutions are available to ensure the database is not damaged or corrupted?
  • If the sync creates a corruption, what resolution does the communication software company offer to fix it or make things right?
Features to look for:
Customer E-mail Finder. The more demographic data you have collected on your customer, the easier it is to communicate with them. We are still in an era where a significant percentage of businesses don’t actively collect customer e-mail information, or make an effort to have customers’ mobile phone numbers in their demographics, or even check to be sure such data (e-mail and phone numbers) are up-to-date.

Secure E-mail Communication/Encrypted/HIPAA Compliant. Sorry to tell you, but there is no such thing as secure e-mail, and this raises the question about the HIPAA compliance of all of these tools. For example, a communication like an e-mail may be sent out to your customer reminding them of their glaucoma check and seem secure enough, but control is lost once that e-mail is in the customer’s inbox.

Automated Text Recalls and Appointment Reminders Including Past Due Notices, Thank You Notes and Birthday Reminders. Texting is increasing at a dramatic rate as a form of communication, and it has always been the most commented on feature of our CCS.


COMMUNICATION AND SCHEDULING FEATURES

Communication software enables communication with customers within the enterprise software database in multiple ways. Most communication software vendors enable the user to select any combination of methods to communicate with the customer database, from electronic methods to more traditional methods. Different types of communication that might be available using a communication software include Automated Text Communication, Automated E-mail Communication, and Automated Phone Communication.

Questions to consider:
  • Does the vendor enable the customer to decide how they would prefer to be communicated with? I recommend businesses take the time to ask every customer their communication preference, and if there is any way that they absolutely do NOT want to be contacted and inactivate it. This level of concern for customer preferences impresses the customer, while accidentally communicating with them in a manner that they prefer not to can do the opposite and turn them off to your business.
  • Does the vendor have a system in place to recapture data such as e-mail and phone number at each new customer encounter, and ensure capture of multiple addresses such as home and business as well as multiple e-mails such as home and work if possible? E-mails and phone numbers change, and there can be significant loss of business if you cannot reach your customer database because of old, inaccurate or insufficient data collection.
Features to look for:
Maintains List of People Desiring Last Minute Appointments, and Texts or E-mails Them. This feature benefits both the business and the customer. If you are a busy person and find yourself with an hour or more in between appointments, you might want to get something done you had been putting off, but one thing you may not even try to get done is to check on an appointment at a busy business, especially a medical or dental appointment.

Automatic Phone Recalls and Appointment Reminders—Including Past Due Notices, Thank You Notes and Birthday Reminders. A few vendors will work with your receptionists to manage recall by phone. This typically involves staff from their call centers or outsourced call centers and is offered as an added expense above and beyond the monthly fee.


PROFILE

A profile may be a feature of the software, which will have information about your business, such as address, phone number, e-mail, an “about us” section and other relevant information. It’s kind of a secondary website powered by communication software. The profile is visible by the public under a listing that can be found in search engines, and many vendors help list the profile and enhance the listing in search engines as well as promote it online via other means.

Questions to consider:
  • Do you have the ability to upload a coupon onto the profile page?
  • Do you have the ability to post your own photos? Be sure to ask whether your photos or generic photos populate your profile page.
  • Do you have the ability to post your own videos?
Features to look for:
Customize Profile with Coupons. Some CCS provides the ability to include offers and coupons on your visible profile and/or in customer communications.

Customize Profile with Photos and/or Video. Some CCS provides the ability to include business or other photos and video on your visible profile.

Customer Manage User Preference by Themselves. Is your profile page “fixed”? Does the CCS vendor define what features and information appear on your profile? Or, can you customize your own user profile? Or, can a customer use the profile for their individual benefit and customize it for themselves?


MOBILE FEATURES

It’s annoying to open an e-mail and see skeleton text and a prompt “right click to view pictures” or have to go to the top of the message to “click to view contents in browser.” You don’t want this for your content. Not the best first impression online. It is best to have your marketing visible immediately on all displays, across all browsers, including within the mobile realm, where more and more of your customers are searching for the products and services you hope to be found for. Patience is slim on desktops and slimmer on mobile devices.

Questions to consider:
  • Does the communication tool enable your customers to purchase retail items you sell through your brick-and-mortar business or on your website through their platform?
  • Can customers request appointments through your profile generated by the communication software?
  • Can you post coupons, promotions and promote events through the communication software profile on a mobile device?
  • Can your customers and potential customers view “about us” information so they can get some basic marketing information including business phone number, website URL and location information?
Features to look for:
iPhone and Android Compatible. Smart phone compatibility is very important. Millions of people use these devices, and more are using them on-the-go to connect with businesses. The future is mobile, so it is crucial that your vendor supports the major mobile platforms.

The following features should be supported by the CCS on mobile to enhance capabilities for people who prefer to communicate via these devices:
  • Ability for customer to request an appointment over mobile device
  • Ability for customer to view business information, promotions and events over mobile device


SOCIAL REVIEW AND CUSTOMER TESTIMONIAL FEATURES

One of the most significant selling points of communication software tools is their ability to draw social reviews from customers and post them on the Internet. The most valuable social review is what is known as a “first party” review. A first party review shows attached to a location listing within a search engine like Google or Bing, or a private platform like Facebook or Yelp. While most communication tools either say they provide first party reviews or say they don’t but downplay the importance of first party reviews, no review is more valuable. Most communication software provides “third party” reviews, which populate your business profile provided by the communication software, not your actual listing in Google, Yahoo, Bing, Facebook, Yelp, etc.

Questions to consider:
  • Does your software vendor claim to provide first party or third party reviews?
  • If they claim first party reviews, be sure you understand how it works; this is very difficult to achieve consistently.
  • What happens to the reviews on my profile if I discontinue the service? If you have accumulated hundreds of great reviews, do they disappear if you cancel your subscription?
Features to look for:
Reviews Get Posted Online. Reviews generated by CCS are either published online by being fed to a review site like Google or Yahoo, or published on your profile page. Some CCS companies do both. Ensure reviews are published at least online.

Customers Make Video Testimonials and Post Online. The only thing better than a positive written review is a positive video review. With today’s mobile technologies, it is easy for someone to record themselves reviewing your business and post it online.


DASHBOARD

Some communication software platforms have a dashboard to view interactions between your staff and customers, read surveys, view survey statistics and perform many more benchmarking functions. Dashboards often help track and monitor.

The Dashboard:
  • Reputation via new surveys filled out, total surveys filled out, an average survey score, total number of reviews posted on the profile and an average rating in terms of five-star maximums.
  • Communications such as how many customers contacted through the system, how many customers in the database opted in for e-mail communications, how many opted in for text messaging communications, how many reminders were sent total and how many referrals were generated from prompts asking people to refer a family member or friend.
Features to look for:
The E-mail and Text Tab. Many communication tools enable you to see who you sent reminder notes to, who opened them, who didn’t open them and who has responded, so you know who to contact for reminders after the initial contact has been made.

The Campaigns Tab. How many contacts have been made with active customers and how many inactive or “lost” customers have been reactivated as a result of the communication tool?


SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING

Social media marketing methods are generally not well-understood and perceived as being difficult to implement, expensive and perhaps ineffective. Many businesses are trying to wrap their heads around using social media marketing to drive customers. People are drawn to communication tools by an apparent promise that the communication tool enables social media marketing automatically and in a more intuitive manner.

Questions to consider
  • Example: Facebook integration
  • Does the tool enhance your Facebook business presence by driving “likes”?
  • Does the tool enable you to post useful information to your Facebook page via an RSS or other type of feed?
  • Does the company provide a Facebook consultant who is available to help enhance your Facebook marketing through the communication tool platform?
Features to look for:
Refer-a-Friend Prompts. Refer-a-friend prompts are a key feature in all outgoing communications from communication software. Nothing should go out to your customers that doesn’t prompt them, somehow, to refer family and friends.

Newsletters.
Most communication software provides the ability to generate e-newsletters. Templates might be available to create and circulate custom newsletters, pre-written industry-specific newsletters or a combination of the two.


MARKETING SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING TOOLS

I spend quite a bit of time on the dashboard of my communication software tool. It would be wonderful to also view other software I use on a daily basis from the dashboard so I could avoid opening and closing browsers or entering passwords and log-in information. I’d love to be able to view my QuickBooks accounts, go to a window to view my business management software and possible electronic records without having to close down and log back on through a different link. As these tools evolve and the market gets more competitive, look for more tools to provide business management functions directly from the dashboard and profile.


Questions to consider
  • Does the communication tool enable clients to pay their bills online through their profile?
  • Can the platform isolate customers who are influencers and raving fans in order to thank them, reward them and encourage them to provide more referrals? This is a very helpful marketing/business management method utilized by many Fortune 500 companies.
  • Is the software able to generate a map showing where the geographic clusters of customers who find you are coming from, enabling you to better target market?
Features to look for:
Benchmarking Dashboard. The benchmarking dashboard is a helpful tool that you and your receptionists can use to monitor responses to communications, launch newsletters and view survey and review feedback.

Online Bill Payment for Customers. Certain CCS offers the ability to distribute billing to customers. This can be a useful function, depending on how you choose to bill.


SUPPORT

Communication tools can be paradigm shifting for a business. Integrating them in your business requires staff training and a change in systems methodology. Change is usually met with consternation and push back by staff, whose plates are already full. This is especially true with receptionists, who are tasked with most of the learning when it comes to these tools and are multitasking all day, answering multiple phone lines, dealing with customers checking in and out, etc.


SUMMING UP

That said, CCS is a growing and evolving technology certain to play a major role in service businesses moving forward. It is not surprising to see major public companies engaging in business relationships with CCS companies. Recently, the industry had its first significant merger: Intuit purchased San Francisco-based Demandforce, one of the leading CCS companies with verticals in eyecare, dental, chiropractic and auto service. With these products still in relative infancy, it will be fascinating to watch their evolution as they pair up with public corporations already deeply rooted in technology. Features are likely to continue to expand to the benefit of the service business, and CCS integrate with existing products on the market. There will also likely be an expansion in verticals, and I expect mergers to increase the ability of products to expand market share in this way.

 

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