While different customers favour different contact channels, in most cases consumers will turn to a brand’s website as first port of call if they have a query. Only if they cannot find the information they are looking for on the web will they then call a contact centre or use another contact channel. Indeed, research by Synthetix suggests that as many as 90% of consumers will always check a website first before contacting a company.
And many of these are regular users - according to a poll by NICE, 28% of consumers use the web to interact with their providers at least once a week, with financial services customers the most frequent visitors. All of this emphasises that online support is now a hygiene factor for firms.
There are a variety of different self-service options that websites can offer to help customers help themselves. In his report Determine the True Costs of Web Self-Service, former Gartner analyst Johan Jacobs differentiates between two different but complementary components of web-based customer service functionalities: transactional self-service gives customers access to applications such as billing, bookings and online banking, whilst web customer service provides a knowledge base of information. This ranges from static FAQ functionality (grouping a set of static documents/text under thematic headings), to the traditional search capability (allowing customers to sift through indexed information, based on keywords), through to more sophisticated technologies such as live chat and virtual agents.
And, if done well, any and all of these can serve to greatly benefit both customer and company. Businesses that ensure customers can help themselves to find their own answers online can save their companies the cost of handling calls to their contact centres, while also allowing the customer to resolve their issue on the channel of their choice. Furthermore, sales from prospective customers are less likely to be lost if a query is resolved at the first contact.
“The great thing about web self-service is that it moves the needle on the two key metrics,” notes Kelly Koelliker, global retail expert at KANA Software. “Service organisations are looking to improve. This means reducing costs while improving customer satisfaction. Often we feel that we have to choose between those two competing metrics. With web self-service, customers appreciate the choice of doing things in their preferred channel, especially in today’s anytime/anywhere environment.
“Additionally, the ability to let your customers complete transactions on their own is very cost-effective. Service agents can be deployed where they are most needed and reduce waiting times in other, potentially non-digital channels. In this way, you are able to balance these competing metrics of cost and satisfaction.”
And there are other, wider commercial benefits that businesses that are focusing on web self-service are realising.
“In a 24/7 always-on economy, demand to buy goods is constant. When London is going to bed, Singapore is waking up. Not only do customers expect to be able to purchase goods 24/7 but the benefit of web self-service is that businesses can be making money around the clock too,” suggests Paul Heywood, director, EMEA, at Dyn.
However, there is a caveat.
“No self-service is better than poor self-service,” warns Anand Subramaniam, VP of worldwide marketing at eGain. “Customers will stop using self-service the minute they find that the information is inaccurate and the system returns no answers or irrelevant answers. Implementing the right multichannel knowledge platform and continuously adapting the knowledge base are therefore critical to success.”
With this in mind, organisations must ensure that their web self-service functionality is not only comprehensive and user-friendly, but also consistent with other touchpoints and easily findable. Yet in his report, Jacobs warns that creating and maintaining up-to-date information on the web can be difficult and costly, in both monetary terms and staff resources. Additionally, organisations will have to siphon off spend to accommodate ‘dramatic’ security costs in order to protect this new system from inappropriate public access.
And there's a further obstacle - the move from voice to written-based interactions and the staff's ability to support that change.
Jacobs says: “In the 1960s, most communication with customers was written based – letters, faxes etc. As technology moved, so did making the use of email for writing back. Then in the early 1980s, we started seeing an explosion of call centres, all voice-based. Today, there's not a single large company in the world that does not have a couple of hundred call centre agents tasking calls. But now the communication is moving from a spoken interaction to a written interaction.”
Virtual assistant, webchat, social – all are written-based and need to be ordered, easily understood and consumable by the customer. “The problem is that there's very few call centre agents alive today that can write as well as they can speak,” he continues. “Just because you are going to include writing-based channels, doesn't mean that you can give poorer quality customer service. You cannot use abbreviations or short words - you must provide professional high quality writing-based interaction.”
So how can businesses build a comprehensive, consistent and high quality web self-service system?
In terms of cracking the skills issue, Jacobs argues that companies will need to consider training agents in to the art of business writing. Simultaneously, as employees leave, new staff will have to be recruited according to business writing skills rather than speaking skills.
He explains: “The future of web customer service is all about knowledge. How many suggestions the client finds when they do self-service and the accuracy of the responses depends on the richness and the depth of your knowledge management solution. Knowledge management is the core building block and the most important factor that you need to focus on when you move your interactions from phone-based to web-based. If you do not invest thoroughly and deeply in knowledge, then you might as well not go down the path of trying to remove your interactions from the phone.
“The best practice is that you have to invest extensively in, is building a deep knowledge depository that can be used by agents and by external customers.”
Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, provides advice on how to populate this knowledge base with the most important information.
“You have to mine your calls for it – what are the most commonly asked questions from your customers?” she advises. “Most customer service organisations will already know that because they put a resolution on their ticket. So you can easily report on that. If you don’t have that, talk to your customer service agents and have them document the top 10 queries that they get.
“But you don't have to create all the knowledge – adhere to the 80-20 rule, where 20% of content will answer 80% of the questions. Then you can build out your knowledge base very pragmatically. Even if you’re able to knock off a portion of incoming calls from contacts via web self-service it is a real win for the organisation.”
Chris Hall, VP of product marketing for Transversal, agrees that you must ensure you use up-to-date relevant content with good contextual structure, as having your customers search vast amounts of SharePoint repositories or use federated search tools to find crucial information on the web is not the answer.
“Large successful enterprise self-service deployments have found that, with proper content clean up and structuring, a subset (15-20%) of their internal support content has proven to be the best initial approach to rolling out a successful web self-service deployment,” he says. “Many have found that over time only 14-17% of their overall customer support content solves 80-90% of all internal inquires. The best practice lesson here is that rolling out a richer subset of mature content is a key enabler to doubling online customer satisfaction and prolonged self-service adoption.”
During the development process it is also important to ensure that self-service isn’t being constructed in isolation.
“If you are implementing a new knowledge tool on the web without some level of training or rollout to internal contact centre stakeholders it can negatively impact service level performance in your contact centres,” warns Hall. “Essentially, what you have done is made your customers more knowledgeable than your staff. Doing this in isolation can adversely increase call times up to 15% as caller sophistication has increased. Level two case escalations may increase on average between 8-12% and agent confidence levels may drop. The best practice lesson here is if you are implanting a new knowledge tool on the web as part of your self-service strategy, be sure to include a roll-out plan of the new tool to your internal staff as well.”
Unsurprisingly, the technical framework supporting the knowledge is also a vital component of a successful self-service project. Subramaniam has the following advice.
“Businesses can take self-service ROI and success to the next level by offering multiple ways to search for answers like a GPS does by presenting multiple paths to a destination and letting the driver choose the path he or she might prefer,” he explains. “Technologies such as case-based reasoning can add human-like intelligence to self-service by having deeper self-service conversations with customers even when the customer query or goal is complex.
He continues: “Leveraging common knowledge across touchpoints is key for consistency of answers and a unified customer engagement platform enables context-ware transition of self-service to agent-assisted service, which might very well be needed for many customer journeys. And offering mobile access to self-service through an app or mobile browser is also critical to expanding ROI, while offering convenience to the customer.”
Quick and clear
Web self-service needs to be quick and clear if it is to be successful. Sites that take more than a few seconds to load and that push the organisational agenda, rather than cater to the customer needs, will not succeed.
Yossi Zohar, head of product and partner marketing for Amdocs Customer Management, says: “Service providers need to map out what the customer should be able to do on the site. See that it works easily. Don’t let the silos in the organisation dictate what self-service should be, it should be designed from the customer point of view and tested on real customers.”
This can mean ‘mystery shopping’ yourself with self-service, pretending you’re the customer or finding people in your organisation that are representative of your customers to ‘test-drive’ with these ‘personas’ before you go live.
And even once it is live, you should still continue the process of testing and refining, to ensure that it evolves and improves over time.
“Using business analytics in the background to try to determine where an expected outcome is not being achieved can help the business identify areas for improvement,” notes Jeremy Payne, group VP marketing & alliances at Enghouse Interactive.
“Having Voice of the Customer mechanisms in place to gauge whether customers are happy with the service can also be key. Looking at the time it takes for people to get what they want from your self-service mechanisms is important too. Again, the idea here is to reduce the effort the customer has to personally invest from finding what they want to getting what they want.”
“You should constantly be measuring success, both through accurate reporting as well as direct customer feedback to determine the success of your implementation,” agrees Koelliker.
And he emphasises the point that self-service shouldn’t be a static project: “Consider your web self-service implementation more of a constant evolution, rather than a one-off project. Your products and services are always changing, as are your customer’s needs and wants.”
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 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.