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Seeing The E-Services Big Picture:
Online Self-Service Can Pay Huge Dividends, But Requires More Than Simple Automation

By Peggy Gritt, Interactive Intelligence
• A special editorial series sponsored by Interactive Intelligence•


"Emerging self-service technologies, such as automated e-mail response, natural language search and knowledge taxonomies, will improve specific aspects of the automation process. Other technologies such as text chat, voice over IP, 'call me back' requests, customer support automation and basic application integration will ease technology integration."

At least that's how the analysts at Gartner, Inc. viewed e-services back in December 2002, having conducted a study on the customer self-service movement. And though automation taking over for contact center agents was still in its business infancy in 2002, there was little reason to think such analyst forecasts wouldn't come to fruition. After all, John and Jane Q. Public had already taken to the self-service automation of bank machines, check-in kiosks at hotels and check-out counters at the supermarket; so why not an automated e-mail response to a few frequently asked questions (FAQs) they submitted via a company's Web site?

At the same time Gartner and other industry forecasters stepped up their focus on self-service trends, multichannel and IP technologies were making waves in business communications circles. Therefore, the verdict more than three years ago that technology integration would eventually enhance e-services automation was a reasonable one. However, Gartner's 'Self-Service from 2003 to 2012' report also said, 'A seamless customer experience across channels will also require internal enterprise priorities, processes and management responsibilities to be redesigned.'

As it turns out, the folks at Gartner were absolutely prophetic, particularly in their assessment about self-service technology and integration. Since their respective introductions, technologies such as multichannel communications, e-mail response automation, Web text chat and VoIP have continued to come together rather nicely. The business side of the e-services prophecy also is coming true in that many companies are finally beginning to understand the implications of consumers wanting service on their terms ' that is, using their media of choice.

Or put the e-services corporate dynamic this way: Customer-driven enterprises are indeed redesigning ' and rethinking ' internal priorities and processes to more fully leverage e-services automation. That's why 70 percent of all contact centers are expected to support Web-based service applications by 2007. Still, meeting consumers' expectations for self-service quality requires a well-planned alignment between a business' selected automation technologies, customer service practices and business rules, which can pay off handsomely when done properly.

Let's take a look at some of the stumbling blocks and myths of implementing self-service initiatives, and why organizations need to consider their business processes as part of the implementation if they want to realize the full potential of e-services automation.

Self-Service Tunnel Vision
Give credit to the 70 percent of contact centers and businesses expected to offer online self-service options within the next couple of years. Give them low scores, however, if they base their e-services objectives primarily on a single departmental goal, like off-loading agent tasks to a Web site to reduce contact center volumes. Why the low marks? Even in cutting costs, focusing on the goals of one or two departments can leave an enterprise to overlook broader corporate objectives for customer service ' and likely jeopardize the loyalty of existing customers. Any business must therefore consider each of these factors as part of its e-services evaluation and implementation.

The Myths Of E-Services
Customers and tunnel vision aside, many organizations see e-services as being somewhat experimental. 'Let's try this self-service thing in Department A first, and if it works, extend it to Department B, then Department C,' etc. This kind of corporate thinking also tends to spawn other myths that presume self-service automation is:

' A quick and easy solution to keep up with competitors;

' A one-size-fits-all process that suits all customers and their needs;

' A means by which to reduce live interactions and eliminate agents; and

' The best way to reduce departmental costs.

The truth is this: Web self-service provides a significant opportunity for any business to both retain current customers and attract new ones ' but only if an organization views e-services automation from the outside in, and implements a strategy for self-service continuity throughout the company. In other words, instead of looking at self-service as a competitive quick fix or a way to reduce one department's expenses, companies must be ready and able to deploy the online and associated multichannel options their customers want, and do so enterprisewide.

Covering Every Channel
Along with traditional phone, fax and voice mail avenues, today's consumer wants online self-service options to verify a current balance with accounting, to access a technical fix posted from tech support, and to get an automatic response to their e-mail inquiry and seamlessly place a product order with sales. Of course, Web strategies can be implemented incrementally, taking the 'Department A, Department B, Department C' route if necessary, although the ultimate objective must be to ultimately extend every interaction type across the organization. Moreover, any e-services objective must be clearly presented to customers and employees alike. That means senior managers, as the analysts at Gartner said, should be willing to retool internal priorities, business rule processes and management responsibilities to make sure their e-services implementation covers every customer service base and interaction type.

Self-Service Automation'The Reality
With the advances in multichannel contact management technologies, there's no question that basic application integration can ease technology integration for e-services. Then again, companies building self-service solutions around an outdated PBX can quickly discover that such implementations require several different systems, as well as multiple administration interfaces and lengthy startup timeframes. They also discover just how complex self-service technology can be when it doesn't integrate to their PBX hardware, let alone an interaction-queuing engine. The result, then, is usually a bunch of contact center agents grouped by interaction type ' phone agents, e-mail agents, text chat agents, etc. ' and shortcomings on the e-services end.

Worse, especially in trying to make the customer experience an enjoyable one, the lack of flexible application and technology integration can force a company to shift customers from their selected medium to another communications channel in midstream. Imagine someone calling with an inquiry and receiving a response in an e-mail. Fortunately, e-services applications like those from Interactive Intelligence integrate all facets of the self-service process, from multimedia queuing and interaction tracking to templates that speed services deployment to complete multichannel integration between Web chat, collaboration, e-mail and telephone calls.

Anchoring those applications is the e-FAQ knowledge management module for total e-services automation. e-FAQ efficiently manages large volumes of e-mail and Web-based inquiries, and also includes a linguistics engine to do a few things: match customer questions with a company's knowledge base; send automated responses to e-mail and Web inquiries; and free up subject matter experts to handle more complex assignments. Use e-FAQ with Interactive Intelligence's pre-integrated Customer Interaction Center IP contact center application suite, and companies can also offer online options for Web chat, Web callback and escalation to a live agent. Even better, and unlike multisystem solutions, e-FAQ and CIC require only a single interface for administration.

E-Services Benefits
Much like making the move to VoIP, the issue of businesses implementing e-service automation is no longer a matter of if, but when. Consider the benefits of customer self-service, as well as the decade of innovation, industry experience and value-enhancing solutions from Interactive Intelligence, and the decision is a no-brainer.

' Address the most critical stages of the customer life cycle: introduction, information gathering, transaction and satisfaction.

' Implement a strategy for all channels of customer communications: Web, e-mail and telephone calls.

' Maintain service levels on each channel, using a streamlined set of business rules for processing.

' Realize higher self-service adoption rates by offering customers the options they insist on.

' Ease deployment and save time over subject matter experts having to build and maintain knowledge databases.

' Speed resolution times by making the same knowledge information available to customers, in addition to agents and business users, for all interaction types.

' Give consumers a consistent interaction channel; if they send an e-mail to ask a question, send the response in an e-mail.

Enterprises that understand the impact of customer self-service can easily complement contact center processes and other departmental functions by integrating automated e-services into their business model. Do so, and customers will find your business far more inviting.

Peggy Gritt is Senior Director, Product Marketing for Interactive Intelligence Inc., a global developer of software for contact centers and the enterprise since 1994. Interactive Intelligence has offered its e-FAQ solution for e-services automation since 1999, and today remains a leading innovator of e-services applications. Contact Interactive Intelligence at 317-872-3000 voice and fax, or visit www.inin.com for more on the company's complete suite of self-service and IP contact center solutions.

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