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May 1999

Next Month Now logo Total Service To Self-Service: The Evolution Of Customer Assistance


As the e-commerce and e-service revolution picks up speed, enterprises are beginning to realize the scope of the issues that influence the acceptance of Internet-based commerce and customer service solutions. There is a historically proven continuum of acceptance of new technology and interfaces for service; and IP-based self-service has not escaped the rigors of historical precedent.

Technologists tend to dismiss, ignore, or underestimate the influence of several issues that affect the rate of uptake and usability of IP-based commerce and service mechanisms. Some of these are not even technical. The challenge of getting customers to accept the Internet as a self-service medium will be in designing solutions that take into consideration factors such as customer demographics, privacy, engagement expectations, and security.

We're seeing an emerging trend - "assisted service." It walks the middle ground between the full service of the call center and the self-service of the Internet. IP telephony, although relatively new, is a prototype for the "assisted service" model.

First, it is important to define a distinction between total self-service and assisted service. Total self-service is where the customer does everything for himself, i.e., using a Web site shopping cart. Assisted service is engaged when the customer has started to do something for himself and then gets stuck. At this point the customer wants, instinctively, to communicate with someone knowledgeable who comes into the conversation where he is and keeps him from starting over. Or, as is likely today, he just abandons the transaction.

The Internet-based assisted service model can be compared to the voice world's "zero out" option. It would allow customers a way to communicate with companies in real time so the business doesn't lose the sale or worse, lose a problem resolution opportunity. So far, e-mail has emerged as the Internet's version of the "zero out." But due to a lack of proper planning and implementation, e-mail today for most companies is more of a problem than it is an effective channel.

Increasingly the operations manager wants to know: why are you getting enormous amounts of e-mail in the first place? They believe that, in most cases, e-mail is a result of having not provided the online customer enough information in the first place. In effect, companies put up stupendous Web sites that are terrifically entertaining and then they close the door on that prospective customer. At the same time, nearly every enterprise has a Web site with an e-mail address - e-mail that goes to who-knows-where from the customer perspective.

Without the proper planning and implementation - treating e-mail with the same care that companies treat call center voice calls - e-mail is a surprisingly expensive and inefficient way to provide service. Too many marketers have made the mistake of looking at e-mail as a cheap, easy way of communicating with customers. In fact, the real cost to respond to an e-mail is around $18 each. It can take considerable time and resources to track down the right individual to answer an e-mail; and even then, time to respond might not meet the customer'' need. By handling e-mail like voice calls - doing things like routing messages to specific service representatives and monitoring service levels - companies can indeed provide great service and cut down the associated costs.

Still, the emergence of the Internet is breeding consumers who want to communicate with companies in multiple ways. So the best IP-based customer service is the most flexible. Accordingly, voice over the Internet (VoIP) can be an effective addition to the total solution.

The same principles apply with VoIP as with e-mail. Many companies advancing on the service evolution path have mistakenly failed to understand that there is a significant difference between providing good phone service from a call center, and just providing decent VoIP service. Taking current call center best practices -- call routing, reporting, etc. -- and applying them to VoIP minimizes this difference.

VoIP is clearly an area where the enterprise must understand the demographics of the customer they are going after. VoIP is a growing, exciting phenomenon. But even as voice quality becomes more reliable, not everybody is comfortable with it today. Using VoIP in combination with e-mail (and its real-time counterpart, text chat) enables companies to give choices and provide a wider base of customers with assisted service.

Consumers' privacy expectations are another factor enterprises must consider while advancing this model of assisted service. Unlike pure call centers with phone interactions, customers may be skeptical of using a company's Web site in a self-service fashion.

This has a real impact on the effectiveness of the technology. Increasingly, we will be seeing customer service chain executives debating whether or not to monitor their company's Web site and observe customers. They will need to understand the challenges and potential of this kind of technology-based interaction.

While we expect solid guidelines and clear expectations eventually (the promise of this technology is too great for anything else), these issues today are far from being resolved. In the continuum that goes from total self-service to full service, we must understand which media has what expectations of engagement. For example, customers may feel more secure in a real-time conversation (VoIP) than offering personal information in a message (e-mail or chat). Once you get past the problem areas of today which lie primarily with the messaging elements, the real-time elements available from the Internet increasingly fade as problems and become opportunities. These opportunities include expanding the enterprise reach and distribution, increasing market size and providing enhanced customer service.

Call Center-less
Some of the most promising advances in IP-based customer service are coming from companies that do not have call centers in the formal sense of the definition. There is no voice component at all.

One of the revolutionary ideas that the Internet enables is the concept of a company that provides products and services completely devoid of a voice component. One of the reasons that we see this most prevalently in e-business start-ups is that there is little or no legacy investment to be protected.

However, even if an e-business has no need for a traditional voice call center, it would be foolish to discontinue an evolving interest and relationship related to the technologies of call centers. You are small but what happens when you start growing and eventually need a traditional call center voice function? The smart investment is in the solutions being created today that enable a migration path to those functions found in traditional call centers. You do not want to wed your enterprise to a service solution that eventually must be thrown out because it cannot perform fundamental call center functions. You will want to have a migration map that can get you from the non-call center Internet solution to the call center.

As we've seen, the very same capabilities found in formal call center environments are the types of capabilities that will be necessary in the IP-based service environments. These features include intelligent routing and queuing decisions. Like voice calls, you will want to route e-mail or chat sessions to specific service representatives and you will want to be able to measure those engagements. All manipulations of the multiple media - text, chat and video - are skills best adapted from the voice side of the service equation.

ASSISTED SERVICE: A Firm Middle Ground
There is often little consideration given to the human factors and elements that influence the use of technology. Pragmatically, making technology work to enable total self-service will rely on understanding the influence of things we traditionally have never considered.

The challenge of getting customers to accept self-service will be in designing solutions with factors such as customer demographics, privacy, engagement expectations, and security built in. Customer service technologists are going to have to build these solutions in a very careful way so as to avoid wholly miscalculated flare-ups in how customers respond.

The evolutionary middle ground lies with the assisted service model. And, realistically, this is a model that has strong roots and experience from the traditional call center end of the service spectrum.

When the enterprise begins to discuss not how to use technology, but why it uses technology, the evolutionary efficiency and acceptability of assisted self-service becomes apparent. Assisted self-service becomes even more of a viable solution when considering the human elements that influence why customers do certain things or why engagements should be structured in certain ways. The service technology winners will be found in those enterprises that shift from solving problems to engaging solutions.

Laura DiSciullo joined Lucent Technologies in 1996 to lead a team responsible for integrating emerging technologies, such as the Internet, with traditional call centers. Prior to joining Lucent, Ms. DiSciullo held a variety of sales, financial analysis, design and development positions at AT&T. Lucent Technologies, headquartered in Murray Hill, N.J., designs, builds and delivers a wide range of public and private networks, communications systems and software, data networking systems, business telephone systems and microelectronics components. Bell Labs is the research and development arm of the company. For more information about Lucent Technologies, visit its Web site at www.lucent.com.

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