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Web self-service: The final frontier in customer support?

30th Aug 2012
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Gartner analyst Johan Jacobs discusses the adoption of web self-service, best practices and its future among traditional channels. 

With technology facilitating a rise in the number of customer touch points, multichannel customer service is no longer a strategy of the future. Businesses must deliver the right message on the right channel at the right time if they went to provide exceptional customer experience and get ahead of the competition. Channel-hopping customers are demanding a seamless experience between traditional channels – such as telephone, email and post – and the emergence of recent channels such as apps and social media, driven by the rise in social and mobile.

Increasingly, consumers are turning to web self-service for their customer service entry point. According to NICE's poll of 1,200 adults across the UK, US and Australia, 28% of consumers use the web to interact with their providers at least once a week with financial services customers the most regular visitors. And financial services firms are meeting those demands with one in five organisations in the sector planning to implement instant messaging/web chat and/or online self-service in 2013.

Web self-service

So what is web self-service? Gartner analyst Johan Jacobs, in his report Determine the True Costs of Web Self-Service, refers to 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 knowledgebase of information via web chat and email response management.

Fuelled by customer demand, organisations are escalating their web self-service deployments as they see the cost saving and productivity benefits of offering non-voice channels. Speaking to, Jacobs explains that revenue for web self-service was previously reported at $600m during Gartner’s last two magic quadrants but the latest update for 2012 pits revenue at $1bn – the market is expanding by an average of $100m a year.

He says: “The key in this case behind web customer service is taking phone calls out of the call centre. If you think about a call centre, the cost of the telephone service is tremendously high, it adds up to anything between $27-55 per call on average. Whereas if you have a web chat, you'll be running five or six chats at a time with an agent, you can have anything between a $2-5 cost for a web chat.”

However, Jacobs adds that whilst web self-service is becoming the first port of call for the majority of customers, if transactions are too complex they will leave the web channel and return to old faithful – customer service via the telephone – which is likely to result in increased cost for the organisation. Approximately 65% of web self-service deployments see an operational cost increase after the deployment of web self-service channels, because more staff is employed to handle the additional channels, he estimates. 

Adoption challenges

So what challenges organisations face when deploying web- self-service? In his report, Jacobs explains that creating and maintaining up-to-date information on the web is difficult and costly, not just in monetary terms but also applying to 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. But the biggest obstacle to web self-service adoption is the move from voice to written-based interactions and staff ability to placate 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.”

Email, virtual assistant chat box, 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 says. “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 or use a capital ‘R’ instead of writing out ‘are’ - you must provide professional high quality writing-based interaction.”

Jacobs argues that companies moving towards web customer service need to retrain speaking agents in to the art of business writing. Simultaneously, as employees leave, new staff should be recruited according to business writing skills rather than speaking skills.

He adds: “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 building a deep knowledge depository that can be used by agents and by external customers.”

The final frontier?

So as more and more organisations embark on adopting web self-service technologies, where does this leave traditional channels and does the death bell toll for the call centre?

Jacobs thinks not: “Voice calls will never go away; there will always be a voice. But web interaction channels is a much lower cost. That plus the fact that a new generation of 35 and younger prefer to do things on the web as opposed to picking up the phone.

“The phrase we are starting to hear a lot at the moment is 'customer democracy' – we want to give customers the choice of which channel they use to contact and give them the choice to vote on  which channels they want to use. We see a high growth continuing in this area and accelerating as we move forward as more organisation put customer interaction channels on the web.”


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