How to build a successful customer self-service strategy
Today’s empowered consumers increasingly expect access to the business and its resources 24x7, and so it’s down to you to ensure that you are helping customers to help themselves. Those that don’t, run the risk of alienating those customers that want the efficiency and convenience of self-service – which are a growing proportion. But self-service that is poorly managed can be almost as harmful as not giving the customer the option altogether.
And as a discipline that requires businesses to knit together technology, knowledge management and customer service, there is plenty to manage. Therefore, it is critical that a robust strategy is in place to ensure that all the component parts are coordinated.
“A lack of a well-defined self-service strategy is likely to lead to silo activities across channels and mismatched goals across the business, resulting in reduced benefits, an inability to meet customer needs and an increase in customer churn,” warns Helen Casewell, UX research manager at VoxGen.
Andrew Mennie, VP EMEA at Moxie, adds: “Often, when businesses adopt a tactical approach to self-service and implement it on a project basis, this potentially useful tool dies along with the project it is assigned to. The key to successfully deploying self-service is through careful long-term planning and consideration.
“A tactical standpoint often represents the opposite: the tool is implemented with a single case in mind, rather than a long-term approach that doesn’t take into considering self-service as part of a comprehensive approach to multichannel customer engagement.”
So with this in mind, where does one start when building a self-service strategy?
Planning and people
If you have existing self-service technology in play, it is advisable to benchmark your current offering, as in order to understand what your strategy should be and where it should go, you need to understand its present state.
“Measure customer experience and performance across all existing self-service channels, and if you don’t have self-service capability at the moment, understand how customers complete their tasks and the current experience offered,” recommends Casewell.
“If you don’t have a benchmark of the current state, how will you know the changes you’re making in your new strategy are actually improving things? Benchmarking is a great way for uncovering current weaknesses in the way customers are served, but just as importantly, will highlight where your current contact strategy is working well.”
As part of the preliminary stages of strategy building, it is crucially important to establish precisely what it is that you’re looking to achieve with self-service.
“A large part of this is defining business objectives and making sure the enterprise has something that’s measurable, whether it’s financial or otherwise – this could be something as straightforward as aiming to decrease agent handle-time,” says Mennie. “Whatever measurable you choose, it is vital to have a good foundation of objectives that your business can work through.”
Of course, it’s also vitally important to factor the customer’s needs and wants into your objectives – after all, the customer is the single most important component of the self-service process. And this means you must fully understand your customer and understand what it is they’re trying to do. Only once you take those factors into account, can you start to get a picture of what the optimum customer experience and customer journey look like.
“If you are a business selling computer games for example, your customer base is likely to be young and highly IT-literate. They are typically happy to work out their own answers to questions they have. Providing them with self-service options is likely to be the perfect solution,” explains Jeremy Payne, international group marketing director at Enghouse Interactive.
“On the flip side of this, you may have a customer who is a high net worth individual over 50 years of age, looking for advice on investment. This type of individual is likely to want a high level of personal service and consultancy, typically delivered over the phone on a one-to-one basis.
“So rather than concentrating on keeping down cost, the overriding focus should be on optimising the customer journey and making it as easy as possible for customers to get what they want from the engagement process. In doing this, you will end up stripping out and removing unnecessary steps in the process, and automating as much as you can behind the scenes. If you get the balance right, the result will be an optimised customer engagement process and reduced cost for the business at the same time.”
To help you put yourself into your customer’s shoes, you are recommended to map the end-to-end customer journey. “You really need to have a solid grasp of customer needs, expectations and channel preferences,” advises Casewell. “What do customers need to do, when and how? And what are the most appropriate channels to serve those needs at each stage in the journey? This needs to be a very hands-on rather than theoretical exercise.”
Targets and support
All of this preliminary work will help you to produce a set of goals and targets that are solid enough that you can track performance against them over time.
“You need to identify the steps required to achieve the vision,” agrees Casewell. “So you have your new strategy and goals, but how will you get there? Set a roadmap for achieving that vision with realistic and measurable steps for getting there, but don’t be afraid to review or change paths if you find something isn’t working.”
Chris Hall, VP of product marketing at Transversal, advises: “Not only should deliverables be agreed upon across the business but ensure you have accurate and realistic goals established. The most experienced strategists will set modest goals with the concealed expectation of totally exceeding the metrics.”
Once you have a good idea of what self-service will look like for your customers, and you have a clear idea of the objectives and measurables required to achieve this, it is then important to start getting the pieces in place to turn this vision into a reality. And in many cases, it will require executive buy-in to get things moving.
“Perhaps the most important practical issue to be addressed when developing a self-service strategy is to make sure you get executive sponsorship,” says Mennie. “A number of these strategies begin life as tactical solutions and haven’t been as successful as they haven’t been pushed to the wider business – executive sponsorship will allow you to get the support you need in the first instance and going forward.”
Aiding this process is the appointment of an influential project leader, who understands the importance of people and relationships. “Make sure you have an expert and owner identified for self-service and one who can work collaboratively with other departments,” notes Hall. “This person needs to elevate the importance and success of the project and its strategies to the c-suite so communication is paramount.”
With these components in place, the self-service strategy then needs to tackle the thorny issue of knowledge management. This, in effect, is a strategy in its own right, encompassing people, processes and technology. But given its importance to self-service, it is worth revisiting any existing knowledge management strategy to ensure that it is effective. If such a strategy does not presently exist, then this is the perfect opportunity to build one that will not only benefit your self-service efforts, but also your organisation in a wider capacity.
“Real knowledge management is a collection of best practices and processes for leveraging the know-how that exists in your organisation to better engage with customers,” notes Mennie. “It requires a well thought-out strategy for creating and maintaining the knowledgebase in order to continuously improve its performance, promote its use and meet the expectations of customers.”
As part of this, it is useful to review your organisational structure. After all, even the most comprehensive self-service strategy will be redundant if the structure of your organisation doesn’t support it.
Casewell explains: “One of the biggest hurdles we see companies coming up against again and again when trying to implement a seamless and consistent multichannel (or omnichannel) offering is that the organisation still views those channels in silo. A successful self-service strategy is one where all channel owners share a unified vision and support an end-to-end customer journey that allows customers to self-serve easily and seamlessly across channels.”
Mennie adds: “Businesses need to put a structure in place to provide both employees and customers with the right information at the right time. This means an emphasis on the sharing of information throughout the enterprise and considering the multiple ways to use this knowledge. It’s not just about putting it on a customer portal and expecting customers to stumble upon it – it’s about making it available within all processes – offering contextual information during the customer’s journey rather than merely at a central portal.”
Anand Subramaniam, VP of worldwide marketing at eGain, suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Does your technology include a knowledge management and a customer engagement platform for consistent answers and context continuity across various self-service and assisted service touchpoints?
- Can the knowledge engine understand customer intent and guide them through multiple paths to answers and next best steps in their journey, based on their preference, behaviour, nature of the query and goal?
- Does the knowledge system federate self-service search across multiple content sources, while enabling knowledge harvesting from online forums and social networks and publishing branded content through best-practice knowledge management processes?
- Are there incentives in place to encourage knowledge contribution?
This last point is vital. The strategy needs to outline how it will encourage adoption, as it’s all very well pushing out a service, but you need people who can, and will, use it.
Mennie notes: “The key to adoption is to make sure knowledge is integrated everywhere. Knowledge needs to be behind every channel you support, from the contact centre and IVR to email, online search, SMS, Web chat, virtual assistants and social channels. Also, every business should have steps in place that can drive people’s awareness of the service and how to use it – if no-one uses self-service, it can never improve. An adoption strategy should also include a full and detailed assessment of the user enterprise’s needs. By acquiring all the details from a functional and technical point of view, through assessment, you can target the areas required and implement a thoughtful, cohesive strategy.”
And the human element shouldn’t be overlooked. He adds: “A self-service strategy should take into account the recruitment of the right people – people who are going to take ownership of a self-service tool and who know the business from the inside. Knowledge management is not a part-time job. The trick is to get this knowledge into your knowledge repository and keep it current and accurate. The success of your implementation depends on designating a knowledge worker, who for best chance of success may be redeployed from another function such as the contact centre, whose function is to populate and administer the knowledgebase content, ensuring that the service is relevant and constantly updated.”
Dollars and dates
With the vision, buy-in and people all in place, the remaining components of an actionable strategy are the budget and the timeline – the dollars and dates.
“For the dollars part – it could be either the cost of doing the project or the cost of not doing the project,” says Hall. “The most obvious component is keeping to a budget – how much is the project going to cost the business. But the not so obvious, if the main strategic avenue for the project is cost reduction, is that your biggest selling element is going to be the increasing cost to the business by not doing this project.
“The second component is dates – this includes a proper project management investment with identified sign-off milestones along with targets for measuring achievements. This is one of the hardest areas to manage and often needs continuous communication to keep everyone in check.”
And with these last pieces signed off, you now have the outline of an actionable self-service strategy.
Cormac Twomey, managing director EMEA at Convergys, summarises some of the key elements: “As with any strategy that has the potential to transform a business, it needs strong leadership, measureable goals, a consistent plan and full commitment from the top. Be clear on what should be achieved in terms of positive impact on customer experiences and how this could translate to business performance. Be aware that customer journeys are often broken by non-technology factors, such as the lack of processes, polices, procedures, people and metrics. The goal is to make sure that any self-service strategy is designed to provide a great customer experience, as well as delivering business benefits for the business.”
While this may seem like a mountain to climb, you can be assured that provided this is conducted properly, your hard work will pay off. Self-service is increasingly important to businesses and their customers, and so a properly executed project, which requires a robust strategy underpinning it, is supremely valuable.
“Implementing self-service will be a win-win for most organisations. They will be giving the customer what they want. At the same time, systems will be up-to-date in terms of the technology implemented - and it’s also much cheaper for the business to allow its customers to serve themselves,” emphasises Payne.
“Implementing this kind of customer service approach should never be a tactical decision. Instead, it needs to be part of a coordinated business strategy that is based on an understanding of your customers and a focus on helping to optimise the customer journey.”
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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.