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Smoke Customer Care Solutions: Andrew Cook

Customer experience management entrepreneur helps companies retain customers, find new ones, and sell more so they can grow profit.

Monique Verduyn

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Andrew-Cook

It was a burst water pipe that got Andrew Cook thinking about customer experience and how businesses need to listen to the actual voice of the customer if they want to ensure customer satisfaction every time there is any interaction.

“I spent more than an hour-and-a-half at Rand Water Board to sort out the problem, and when I asked if I could give feedback on my experience to the supervisor, I was told that I was not allowed to speak to anyone. It was ludicrous.”

An accountant at KPMG at the time, Cook had always had entrepreneurial flair and had run several small business projects on the side. “I was never a good corporate animal, and I always knew that I would one day get into my own business.

I prepared myself for that by working in as many different departments as I could at KPMG – from marketing to operations and more. For me, it was more about having my own company than it was about any particular product or service.”

That’s why he did some investigating after the water pipe saga. He spoke to a few IT programmers and work began on the development of a post-call Interactive Voice Response (IVR) survey solution which enables organisations to continuously monitor the level of service being delivered in their call centre.

And so the software solution Eyerys was born, funded by Cook’s bond and credit cards. The solution makes it possible for companies to listen to customers at every touch point, and tie the feedback back to a specific interaction, customer and staff member.

“By making it easy for customers to give feedback, companies get valuable information that empowers them to improve their service levels,” says Cook.

Staying focused

Developing the software was one thing. Cook resigned from his job at the end of 2008 and started taking on some high-paying consulting work to help fund the business. “I got a lot of work as a CA and I was able to employ a few people, but I soon realised that it was impossible to consult and run a successful business.

To get Smoke Customer Care Solutions properly off the ground, I had to focus on it 100%.”But as soon as he stopped taking on work, cash flow became an issue as the business was not generating enough income. Consequently, Cook started making about 60 cold calls a day to bring in sales.

Building relationships

One of the companies that agreed to meet with him was Indwe Risk Services. “I presented to the board and although they could see I had a fledgling business, they believed in me. They saw the potential of the software and could see the benefits.

I worked hard to make sure it delivered and that their trust paid off. That was our first major client. Next, we managed to secure Glenrand MIB, ADT and Mutual and Federal.”

The benefits of being early to market

About two years ago, the customer experience management industry started to take the world by storm and more and more companies were paying attention to what customers were saying. “With products having become commoditised, it’s customer service that provides the differentiator in today’s world,” he says.

“That’s when I knew we were on the right track. About a year ago, we started noticing massive growth in the demand for customer experience management solutions in South Africa too. We now employ ten people and conduct surveys with millions of consumers every month.”

Cook says he believes that his business has the lion’s share of the South African market when it comes to automated customer experience management. “Our growth has been exponential. In the last two years we have grown at a rate of 12% per month.”

People with the right approach

Looking back, Cook says hindsight and experience have taught him that it’s important to employ people who are self-starters and empowered to make decisions without needing to be mollycoddled. “In the beginning I focused on employing people with the right skills, but I have learnt that attitude is more important, especially in a small business. If you employ five people and one of them is not pulling their weight, it can have a big impact.”

Broadening the offering

Following the success of the call centre IVR surveys, Smoke Customer Care Solutions developed a further seven channels through which companies can gain insight into how their customers are feeling: distributed email surveys, two-way SMS surveys, trigger based USSD surveys (in countries with GSM networks), social media surveys, scripted agent surveys (field and call centre), computer assisted telephonic interviews and computer assisted personal interviews.

“Eyerys now collects feedback from customers via multiple channels. This means our clients get to hear the voice of their customer at every interaction, no matter how that customer chooses to communicate. It was key to the growth of the business for us to provide the whole range of additional channels so that people can be surveyed at every point, whether that interaction takes place at the call centre or via Facebook. We realised that standalone tools were cumbersome for our clients, which is why we focused on developing one system which collects information from all sources and integrates it.”

A competitive landscape

With the competition growing, Cook has his work cut out for him. However, he points to the fact that Eyerys is locally developed and supported, unlike many overseas products which are being introduced to the market. “Our onsite development team is able to rapidly roll out tailor-made solutions, and because we understand the local market so well, we can predict what trends are developing more accurately.”

Cook and his team are now targeting the banking and insurance industries, cellular network providers and the retail environment. “Switching service providers has become incredibly easy. At the same time, marketing budgets are tight and companies cannot afford to spend more on recruiting new customers. The best way to ensure business growth is to plug the bad service holes through which customers are lost, and actually get them to start referring others to your organisation. That’s what we’re helping organisations to do.”

Business advice

Here’s what you can learn from Andrew Cook’s experiences:

  1. Always keep your eye out for a new opportunity, even if you’re really busy. Although Cook was employed, his goal was to run his own business. He achieved that by engaging with the world around him and watching trends.
  2. Innovation can bring you through tough times. Although Cook had to work long hours to fund the business himself, the payoff was that by bringing a new and unique solution to the local market before his competitors did, his company has built significant market share.
  3. No matter how successful you are, keep growing and don’t get complacent. Despite having developed a very successful solution, Cook has focused on international trends and ensured that his company’s product line has grown and diversified.
  4. Don’t be content with a little success. Instead, use it as a launch pad to the next level. Cook has grown the business and is looking to expand into different market segments and other countries.
  5. You’ll be more successful if you can win customers’ trust. Cook secured his first customers because he took the time to build a relationship of trust with them, so that they felt the risk was shared.

Vital stats

Player: Andrew Cook

Company: Smoke Customer Care Solutions

Launched: 2007

Contact: +27 (0)11 462 9881

smokeccs.com

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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