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Best practice: Seven questions to consider before you launch customer self-service

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10th Jul 2014

While self-service is warmly welcomed by an increasingly large proportion of customers, if it isn’t executed properly the transference of control can appear less like the business is catering to consumer demand, and more like it is offloading costly front-end activities.

Unless your self-service experience is such that it enables consumers to feel empowered, you will merely leave your customers feeling frustrated and abandoned. And what’s more, you’ll have failed to save yourself any time and resources as customers will still have to dial into your call centre – if they haven’t decided to defect to a competitor, that is.

So what are the key considerations that you need to keep in mind to ensure that your self-service can be a success?

1. Is self-service appropriate for your organisation?

First of all, you need to assess your organisation’s suitability for self-service. Steve Morrell, principal analyst at ContactBabel, and author of The Inner Circle Guide to Self-Service, recommends that when establishing the suitability of self-service, businesses should consider:

  • Whether the average complexity of customers’ requirements make self-service suitable. In general, the greater the number of simple transactional interactions an organisation deals with, for instance balance enquiries and travel information, the more likely they are to benefit from implementing self-service.
  • The proportion of interactions where customers have multiple queries, which could be better answered by agents.
  • What the customer demographic looks like - younger people are happy to try self-service, whereas older people prefer to speak to a live agent.
  • If there is a high turnover of agents, staff may lack deep experience and knowledge, so the of a knowledge base accessible to both customers and agents will reduce training time, improve consistency of information and aid first contact resolution rates.

2. Which service is most appropriate for each interaction?

If, after these considerations, self-service appears a good fit for your organisation, you then need to ensure you strike the right balance with agent assistance.

“The challenge facing today’s and decide correctly which customer interactions should be self-service and which still require agent input?” says Philippe Ougrinov, VP sales & marketing at TELUS International Europe. “Executives need to spend time considering each and every type of interaction customers have with their organisation and then building a matrix of benefit to customer and the organisation taking the self-service route on each interaction.” 

There are, he says, three questions to ask when deciding whether each should be handled by self-service or an agent.

  • How complex is this interaction?

Self-service is most appropriate for customer interactions that are purely transactional rather than interactional (for example, complex or multiple enquiries where the customer requires dialogue and reassurance). Transactional communications can be dealt with effectively by the likes of IVR or web self-service options and their speed appeals to customers, whereas interactional communications require dialogue and discussion with an agent.

“Self-service is well suited to convey simple information such as balances, or to answer simple questions such as the cost of data roaming in a given country,” says Ougrinov. “Many customers would see it as a major benefit to be able to access this information online, and would find it an irritation to have to find the organisation’s phone number, dial it, wait for an agent to be available, then ask the question, and note down the answer. If it involves a series of questions, as opposed to just a single question, or if the question itself and the answers it provokes can be complex then you almost certainly want an agent to be involved in the interaction.”

  • Can you add value to the relationship with the interaction?

Even for some simple transactional queries, customers may still want reassurance that they have the right information (for instance, making an important hospital appointment or checking that tax forms have been filled in correctly), and therefore may prefer to choose live contact over automation. Equally, a human can strike up a rapport and present services or products that are related to the query and so increase revenues.

“If there is potential to take a query and use it to deepen a relationship or offer a new service or product then self-service is not the best route,” notes Ougrinov. “Very few companies are selling merely a service or a product; most are selling an emotion. Divert a customer away from a human interaction and the opportunity to deepen that emotional attachment is lost.”

  • What do customers really want?

“It is essential to consider which solution will give customers what they want. If your customers are predominantly Generation Y then they may be more willing to accept a self-service solution, but older consumers are likely to expect to speak a person and may feel alienated by the introduction of self-service,” advises Ougrinov.

“There are many other factors besides age to consider. So how can you be sure that you are giving your customers what they want? For many organisations the solution is to run a simple survey asking the question.  If nothing else, customers will be pleased that you took the trouble to consult them.”

And businesses must also establish which kind of self-service discipline to use – whether IVR, virtual agents, customer forums or a combination of them. Not all will be appropriate in all cases. 

“Organisations shouldn’t just implement all of the self-service channels," emphasises Aphrodite Brinsmead, senior analyst for customer engagement at Ovum. "They need to consider what type of business they are, who their customers are, what their channels of choice are and what kinds of questions customers will be asking. Then they’ll have a clearer idea of the ideal channels that they can optimise for those customers. In the UK we have seen the telco giffgaff decide that peer-to-peer assistance in forums is their best strategy, because it makes sense for technical queries and support in their case. But it won’t necessarily be the right solution for everyone. It is very dependent on the business and the industry.”

3. How will you effectively escalate to assisted service?

However, it is important to understand that although you should identify which interactions you should be encouraging to take place on a self-service platform, these shouldn’t represent a dead-end. Even on a self-service interaction, the customer must be able to escalate into live service if required.

Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, explains: “Anyone who comes into contact with the self-service site should be able to say ‘this didn’t work’. Not all questions will be able to be answered over self-service. If they are complicated, if they need a lot of back and forth between customer and agent, or if they need some back-end research, self-service is not the optimal engagement mode. Don’t think of self-service as an island unto itself. Think of it as a component of a broader engagement strategy.”

Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Research, recommends building a strategy map to identify where the hand-offs are going to be between self-service and assisted service, and also considering how you will transition customers without there being a gap in the experience.

“One of the issues we see today is that if folks are using a virtual assistant or IVR and they cannot find the right answer, you then have to leave that form, make a phone call and repeat yourself. And you don’t want that to happen because they will trust your self-service less and they become more aggravated,” says Maoz.

He suggests organisations should be looking to create a system that can migrate from the unassisted channel to the assisted channel so that customers feel more comfortable using it. 

4. Have you integrated your data systems?

An important component of this is data integration. Consumers don’t like to repeat themselves during service interactions, and so they expect companies to centralise and keep track of all of their interactions.

“The challenge for businesses is to organise themselves around the customer and understand that even if you have four business units, you only have one customer relationship,” says Steven van Belleghem, professor at Vlerick Business School and author of ‘The Conversation Company’. “This has a big impact on the way that you manage your data on the back end, because lot of companies still have different customer databases.

“You need to get a single central database. That is the strength of Apple - you can go wherever you like in Apple stores around the world and they recognise you based on your credit card, because they have one database, and you have one Apple account. A lot of companies are now discovering that they created a mess in their back end with their data and one of the first things they have to do before they can be successful on the external part of their company is to get their data right and to make sure that they have one data set across all departments and by doing so you get over the silo structure.”

5. How will you update your knowledge set?

The other aspect of data management that needs to be tended in order to optimise self-service performance is the knowledge base, which should be constantly updated and improved to adapt to customer requirements.

Leggett notes: “You want to capture the knowledge and content and then kick it back to the ops room team to be able to create content – the best practice programme for this is called knowledge centre support (KCS). You need to allow agents to recommend new knowledge or changes to existing content, to keep content in line with customer demand. You also want to allow customers to rate and recommend changes or new content to the company. So you have a feedback box that it agent-facing as well as customer-facing that allows the content to be rated regarding whether it answered the query and if not, why not, and what could be recommended to improve it.

“The other way to do it is to pull out reports every day or every week and you look at what the customers are searching on and see if there’s content that is found, or what search terms returned no results, and how frequently were those search terms were entered. You then create content based on those findings.”

6. Can you be proactive with your self-service?

With research by Cranfield University indicating that a large proportion of calls into organisations are preventable, it is also worth considering whether a system of proactive self-service could benefit your organisation as part of your wider self-service initiative. The likes of outbound SMS, for instance, can help reduce contact, delivering a proactive approach through the likes of confirmations, reminders, updates and feedback.

van Belleghem has also noticed the emergence of mobile technology that identifies when a customer may have failed to complete the task they were seeking to achieve, proactively sending them a message that offers to help them resolve their issue.

“There is a fantastic little app called NICE Assistant that detects when people are doing a transaction for instance on a financial app, such as a money transfer, and if it doesn’t work for some reason, that technology detects it and sends a pop up message offering to help you either by email or they can connect you by phone for help right away. So there is technology available now that can help customers resolve issues in real-time proactively.”

7. How will you promote your self-service capability?

And a final important piece of advice to ensure you optimise the success of your self-service initiative is to make sure you promote the capability – because of course self-service can’t be very effective if no-one knows about.

“The most effective self-service rollouts have included promoting this new service on IVR hold messages, email awareness campaigns, product documentation/literature updates and lastly proper identification and menu option on your website,” suggests Chris Hall, VP of product marketing at Transversal. “Newer generation solutions also ensure that all of your self-service content is stored for organic search engine optimisation. Search engines like Google, Yahoo or Bing can spider your public knowledgebase content, enabling customers to find relevant knowledgebase answers through their favourite search engines. The result is an improved self-service journey for your customer and increased traffic to your website.”

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