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April 2003

Help Yourself: Proven Methods Of Maximizing Customer Self-Service

By Sean Forbes, RightNow Technologies

Most customer service managers already know the Web can be a great channel for self-service. With a good online knowledge base, they can give their customers immediate answers 24/7 and eliminate expensive call center and e-mail interactions.

Early adopters of Web self-service have learned they can further leverage these same investments in self-service technology and both increase their financial returns and maximize the quality of customer care. Some have even discovered self-service can have a positive impact on their businesses in areas beyond customer care, in particular marketing and product management.

These are lessons gleaned from the first wave of self-service successes.

1. Leverage self-service knowledge bases across all communications channels.
Some customers don't really want to spend lots of time browsing your Web site for answers. But if you apply your knowledge base to your other channels, it can still help ensure the efficiency, timeliness and accuracy of the answers you provide.

For example, your call center operators should also be able to refer to the knowledge base to answer customers' questions. Even relatively inexperienced staff can then give accurate, consistent answers. Many organizations also enable their call center reps to reply to customer e-mail and/or handle online chats. Reps performing this kind of multitasking are better able to easily access knowledge base items to speed their replies to e-mail messages and chats. This way, a single set of answers is leveraged across all channels.

2. Leverage existing content by using self-service as a portal.
Many self-service project managers have found the various business groups within their organizations already have plenty of excellent content for self-service. In such cases, this may eliminate the necessity to create new content for the self-service initiative. It is better to simply use hyperlinks in the self-service area of their site to direct customers to appropriate content. In fact, sometimes this technique can be used to steer customers right into the flow of a purchase or registration transaction.

Such hyperlinks are also very useful for issues where another company's products or services may be involved. Instead of having to create original content to cover these issues, customers can be directed to the appropriate page on the third party's site. Of course, such links have to be carefully monitored in case the third party makes changes to its own Web site.

3. Implement rich content where appropriate
Early self-service adopters have begun to use richer content to improve the 'stickiness' of their online self-service. They're using schematics, photos and even streaming video to show customers how to perform assemblies, troubleshoot common problems and even use the Web site itself. Often, this content can be so useful that when call center operators take a call on the topic, it actually serves them to direct the customer to the site, since a picture is indeed worth a thousand words!

4. Use the Web to continually measure the effectiveness of customer service.
How do you know when you need to provide rich content instead of a simple text answer? How do you know if the text you're using needs improvement? And how do you know how customers feel about the quality of service they got from your call center?

Ask them. The Web makes it easy for customer service organizations to continuously ask for feedback from customers about their level of satisfaction. This can be done with an automatic survey 'pop-up' or an e-mail. You can ask customers about their level of satisfaction with any or all of the communications channels they've used for a particular incident, i.e., if they're satisfied with the specific answers they've viewed, if they received a sufficiently prompt response to their e-mail, if they received courteous service from a service rep, etc. This kind of feedback is essential for optimizing self-service rates, refining e-mail workflow rules and pinpointing potential call center trouble spots.

5. Provide easy escalation, but be smart about it.
If you don't provide easy escalation from the self-service area of your site to a phone call, e-mail or chat session, you're actually training your customers not to use self-service. So it's important to always give customers an 'out.'

It's also wise to control those 'outs,' so you can keep your self-service rates high. One way to do this is to scan the content of customer e-mail, when they abandon self-service and send you a message from your Web site. Before you actually accept that e-mail, it's possible for your self-service system to first point out one or more potentially relevant answers that are right there on your Web site. Such a mechanism has been proven to substantially boost self-service rates and reduce the volume of e-mail that reps have to handle manually.

It's also wise to track exactly when customers are requesting escalations. This information provides implicit feedback about your self-service content that is very complementary to the explicit feedback you get from your pop-up surveys. Is there a particular area of your self-service content that seems to frustrate users? Are there certain questions that always seem to require a phone call? Do customers ask questions about using the self-service content itself? If you can get insight into these issues, you can tweak your site accordingly and significantly boost your overall self-service success rate.

6. Use implicit feedback to maintain a 'top 10' list.
While percentages may vary from company to company, 80 percent of customers' questions typically revolve around 20 percent of any self-service knowledge base. So it makes sense that these knowledge items should be the very first ones that customers encounter when they start to look for answers. That's why experienced self-service managers have learned to put their 'top 10' (or 'top 20' or 'top 25') answers on the very first page so customers see them when they begin their self-service search.

However, those 'top 10' issues typically change over time. Before Christmas, for example, retail customers typically have questions about product availability. After Christmas, they're usually more interested in return policies. So, to keep your 'top 10' list current, it's a good idea to use implicit feedback mechanisms that automatically push more-frequently asked questions onto your first self-service page. This can be done by tracking the number of 'hits' your various knowledge items get and positioning them accordingly.

7. Use your self-service area for marketing and promotions.
Companies that are successful at self-service soon find that a large percentage of their customers gravitate towards their main self-service page. If that's the case with your company, then why not take advantage of that traffic to cross-sell, upsell and/or do other special promotions? This can be done by simply adding a banner or link of some sort on the main self-service page.

Some companies actually seed the 'top 10' questions they display on their main self-service page with items that are specifically designed to pique customers' interest in new product or service offerings (i.e., 'How do I sign up for the new...?' or 'Do I qualify for a free upgrade to...?'). These questions have proven to be very effective at guiding customers to marketing-related content. Marketing links can also be used in conjunction with knowledge items most frequently used by customers that fit a particular profile, such as having an older, outdated model or needing some sort of accessories.

8. Loop feedback to product development.
If customers are constantly using a knowledge item that explains how to use a particular product function, then it's probably a sign that the function isn't easy enough to use, or the documentation is inadequate. That's why smart companies take the information they glean about chronic customer service issues from their self-service knowledge item 'hits' ' and additionally from call center and e-mail channels ' and loop it back to product development. This leads to better products, happier customers and less fire-fighting by the customer service team.

9. Use a common incident-tracking system across all channels.
The type of analysis described above is easier to perform if you have all the data about all your customer communications channels ' Web, e-mail, call center and chat ' integrated into a single system. It's also useful if you can view customer and incident histories across all channels as well.

For example, a customer may call about a problem after already having tried Web self-service and engaging in an e-mail exchange with a customer service rep within the last 24 hours. The rep taking such a call could certainly benefit from not having to ask the customer for information about the problem that the customer already provided in the earlier e-mail messages and from seeing which knowledge items were already provided to the customer in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the problem. Armed with this information, the rep can move to resolution more quickly and avoid aggravating a customer who may already be losing patience.

Thus, in a properly integrated customer service environment, self-service and e-mail can do more than shield call center reps from a huge number of commonplace questions. They can also set the stage for faster resolution for the calls they still have to take.

10. Milk the Web.
While the Web is obviously useful as a way to get information to customers, it is also very helpful in making knowledge bases and incident-tracking tools available to reps in multiple locations. That's why many companies are taking advantage of their Web-based customer service systems to:

  • Enable service/support staff to work from home using the same tools they use in the office,
  • Distribute customer service system capabilities across multiple corporate locations in different time zones to create 'follow-the-sun' capabilities that let them service customers on a round-the-clock basis without having to add second or third shifts, and
  • Flexibly add outside contractors who use the same technology as internal reps and are equally accountable.

In other words, Web self-service knowledge bases, in conjunction with Web-based customer service applications, can open up a whole universe of possibilities in terms of staffing and operations.

Self-service offers significant benefits on its own. It can cut costs by reducing the number of e-mail messages and phone calls reps have to handle every day. It can make customers happy by getting them the answers they needs immediately, any time of the day or night. It can free call center operators from having to deal with endless, redundant questions so they can focus their talents and energies on issues that really demand their personal attention.

To increase the richness of its functionality, self-service can also be integrated with a wide range of key business functions, ranging from e-mail and call center management to marketing and product design. With this higher level of technical and business-process integration, companies can reap even greater benefits from their self-service investments. Self-service initiatives that employ this type of integration can do more than reduce the cost of delivering quality customer service. They can actually improve call center efficiency, enhance product development and drive sales. 

Sean Forbes is vice president of marketing and business development at RightNow Technologies, a provider of hosted customer service and support solutions.

[ Return To The April 2003 Table Of Contents ]

Six Steps 
To Delivering Better Self-Service Applications

By Toffer Winslow, Empirix, Inc.

The performance of your company's Web-based self-service applications has a growing impact on how much business your customers choose to do with you. As a result, developers, QA engineers and IT operations teams have an unprecedented opportunity to improve their company's bottom line by enhancing customers' quality of experience (QoE).

QoE improvements can have a big impact on profitability, both by accelerating top-line revenue growth and by eliminating unnecessary costs. According to GartnerGroup, a company's cost for a Web self-service transaction is just 24 cents, versus $5.50 for a phone call. However, poorly designed or implemented applications can wreak havoc on the economics behind self service, as frustrated customers are forced to abandon their self-service efforts in favor of higher-cost channels, or worse, your competitors. According to IT research firm The Yankee Group, 'If self-service is not done right, the results can be worse than not doing it at all.'

Convinced that your customer-facing Web applications already deliver a great experience to your customers? Think again. A recent study on the performance of eight leading bank's self-service applications revealed that Web transaction failure rates were as high as seven percent ' that's one out of every 14 transactions. Chances are there's room for improvement at your company too.

Before you can improve the QoE of your Web applications, you need to understand how they perform right now. After all, if you can't measure it, you can't improve it. Here are six simple steps that you can take immediately to:

  • Measure the performance of your Web self-service applications from your customers' perspective,
  • See how that performance stacks up against your competitors' applications,
  • Understand the variables that you control that determine your customers' quality of experience, and
  • Focus on the most important, easy-to-fix things that will improve your customers' quality of experience.

Step 1: Pick A Critical Transaction
If you're going to measure something, make it important. Pick a Web-based transaction that your customers care about. For a retailer, it may be the ability for a customer to add an item to a shopping cart and pay for it. For a bank, it may be the ability for your customers to look up their account balances. There's no need to pick anything too elaborate; what you really need is a transaction that your customers expect to be able to complete reliably and quickly every time they visit your site.

Step 2: Define Your Competitors
Since you're going to benchmark the performance of this transaction, you need to pick a few competitors that offer self-service Web applications with similar functionality. In order to have an apples-to-apples comparison, make sure the benchmark transaction is as consistent as possible from company to company.

Step 3: Measure The Performance
To make a meaningful evaluation of performance, you need an acceptably large set of data. Over the course of a week or two, measure the performance of your Web apps and those of your competitors by repeatedly trying to execute the benchmark transaction every few minutes during the hours that customers would expect to be able to use the sites. To do this, you'll need an automated testing software or service. Once set up, the automated testing will run with virtually no intervention required on your part.

Step 4: Evaluate The Results
An effective transaction monitoring strategy will yield a rich set of data at the end of your benchmarking period. There are four hard metrics that you can look at to evaluate the quality of experience offered by your Web apps and those of your competitors. In order of importance, they are: 

Reliability. What percentage of the attempted transactions failed to go through? If a particular Web page takes too long to load or if the system is not available or delivers internal errors, then customer QoE is seriously damaged. The best performing Web applications reach the famous 'Five Nines,' or 99.999 percent availability.

Accuracy. Does the application always return the right information? Is the customer always presented with accurate, up-to-date account information? Are the prices and product descriptions correct? If not, these discrepancies will eventually be uncovered, and will detract from the QoE.

Efficiency. How long does it take for your customers to complete the benchmark transaction at your site? If customers can achieve their goals far more efficiently using a competitors' self-service Web application, you are at a competitive disadvantage.

Consistency. Are your systems able to execute the benchmark transaction in about the same amount of time on a consistent basis? Or are they sometimes blazingly fast and other times agonizingly slow? High levels of transaction length variability undermine customer confidence in your self-service Web applications and may cause them to switch to another vendor. It's not good enough to provide high-quality service some of the time.

Step 5: Share The Findings
The performance benchmarking information that you have gathered and evaluated can be an enormously powerful tool for building organizational momentum to tackle application performance problems. Once your company understands that its applications are not delivering as good a QoE as those of your competitors, you may find that you have new resources at your disposal to improve the situation.

Keep in mind that there are no magic numbers to shoot for. Customers' tolerance may be higher in some industries than in others. Consider banking, where relationships are established and switching costs are high, versus retail or travel, where it's easy to click to another site to get what you need. Banking customers may be willing to wait 15 seconds for a page to load, where research has shown that in general consumers are only willing to wait for eight seconds before abandoning a site. 

Step 6: Connect The Dots
Now that you understand the reasons that your customer-facing Web applications are not delivering the best possible customer QoE, you can focus your efforts on the highest leverage areas to improve performance. Pay careful attention to areas where your company's performance is significantly behind the competition. By bringing specific information about the nature of customers' experience to the developers, QA engineers and IT operations staff who can enhance application performance, you're now in a position to make real improvements.

Companies that offer a great customer experience have an important competitive advantage. As the customer experience is increasingly determined by the performance of self-service Web-based applications, smart companies are proactively testing, measuring, managing and improving the quality of experience as a way to differentiate themselves.

Toffer Winslow ([email protected]) is director of product management for Web application performance testing products for Empirix, Inc. He is also the author of the Empirix Web-Voice Benchmark Report, a study that analyzed the performance of major U.S. banks' customer-facing self-service applications. 

[ Return To The April 2003 Table Of Contents ]

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