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Online Self-Help Grows Up
An examination of the new generation of online self-help technology and how companies are using it to increase the bottom line.
Posted Oct 25, 2000
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Online customer self-service is growing up. And, my, what a difference a year or two makes.

Yesterday's bland text screen has evolved into one of the fastest, most efficient and least expensive ways to keep your customers informed and satisfied. Get past its reputation and get your customers working to help themselves.

"Self-help has traditionally been used so you can answer the most frequent, but mundane, questions," says Katrina Menzigian, program manager for CRM and call center research at IDC. Mundane or not, from the humble FAQ list to the point-and-click product configuration screens that are now a standard part of buying a new PC to conversations with futuristic virtual service reps, Web self-help is everywhere.

And with good reason--there are rewards in store for those who can get it right. According to Menzigian, satisfied Web customers who can get support "when they want it, in the form that suits their interest," are good for business and help shorten your phone queues, resulting in better and more timely service for those still contacting you over copper.

The bottom-line incentive to run a proper Web self-service organization instead of continuing to rely on traditional support channels can be enormous. Put simply, says Rick Fitz, director of CRM product management for Remedy, "It's pennies versus dollars" per support transaction.

For some companies, solid Web self-help is nothing short of a necessity. According to David Fowler, vice president of marketing for Kana Communications, Kana customer Priceline.com recently added 1.5 million customers to its membership list in a span of 90 days. "In order to keep up without hiring a massive number of people to answer phones requires that you build a system with a level of expertise that invites the user to interact with the Web site," he says. In addition to a support site that explains each of its reverse-auction service offerings in detail, Priceline actively answers common questions in order confirmations and offers extensive transaction histories to existing customers.

Not Just Dot Coms

But self-help isn't just for dot coms. Paul Heller, who leads the Defined Contribution line of business for financial services company The Vanguard Group, boasts that his company's entire online presence was built around informative self-service. "From Day One, it was never about marketing and selling something. It was 'How do you make the light turn on, so you can help people create wealth?' "

Heller oversees service and support for Vanguard's 1,400 full-service 401(k) customers, companies representing some 2.5 million individuals. Roughly 20 percent have registered for full online account access, giving them the ability to check balances, transact between retirement plan funds and even initiate loans from their 401(k) holdings.

"Twenty years ago, the way business worked was that people would send us letters. The 1-800 number was breakthrough technology," says Heller. Vanguard does not disclose raw usage data, but claims that nearly 40 percent of all interactions with current and prospective clients are handled on the company's self-service Web site.

Sean Iverson, marketing manager for Cisco's Technical Assistance Center team, says that his company's improvements in self-help were exactly what its real customers--the front-line network engineers of corporate America--were looking for. "[They] wanted self-reliance. They wanted the ability to fix things on their own, quickly, when they have a problem," he says. (See "Your Own Cisco Engineer," this article.)

Matters of pride notwithstanding, don't assume that self-help is inherently "better" or "worse" from the customer's perspective than any other form of service. It is the result, not the delivery, which dictates adoption. "We want to go there when it's a better experience than we could receive otherwise. It's just another method for interacting with an enterprise," says Fitz.

Beyond the FAQ

Want to attract loyalty and enthusiasm for self-help? Go beyond the bland FAQ, and provide features and services that go beyond simply answering basic questions. Telecel, a Portuguese wireless carrier and customer of international customer service developer Altitude Software, allows mobile fleet managers and bookkeepers to check balances and statements online. That, in itself, is unremarkable. But Telecel not only adapts the statement based on how the customer views the data, but offers customizable expense and usage graphs across the entire company's cell phone subscription.

"Instead of a finance person thumbing through individual bills and building her own spreadsheets, it's all there, provided in a self-help manner," says Michael Hearney, vice president of strategic marketing for Altitude. In effect, Telecel rewards customers willing to make account maintenance more convenient for them by making bookkeeping more efficient for the customer.

The most obvious application of online support is solving common problems. "It's always the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the calls come in around the same three to five things," says Vanguard's Heller. Jeffrey Whitney, vice president of marketing for developer Servicesoft, suggests that your initial self-help strategy (whether based on FAQs or on high-tech features and applications) involve a stage where the support staff logs activity with an eye toward identifying the cases that fit the "80/20" rule for your business, and going live with functionality to address those questions first.

But even a lively company-wide three-week brainstorming session sooner or later runs out of ideas, or misses important issues. The FAQs get posted, and perhaps updated by webmasters from time to time, very likely falling out of date in short order if not constantly monitored. That's why FAQ management software is so popular at the entry level of self-help solutions.

Experts Online

Software911, of San Jose, Calif., offers an ASP-hosted software system dubbed WEXpert. The system enables frontline support techs to manage both "flat" text-based FAQ files as well as SuperFAQs, tiered multiple-choice queries that can help customers diagnose problems and get the answer best suited to their situation, be it selecting the right software or properly treating a fish tank. Software911 hosts both the FAQs and customer service e-mail, making it a straightforward process to move customer questions and agent answers into a FAQ without HTML coding or outside intervention. "You empower your workers to [provide content] instantly, without having to go to a webmaster, without having to get anyone else involved," says Laura Snideman, marketing manager at Software911.

Speaking of not getting anyone else involved: When Gary Zilk, product marketing manager for Support.com, says he helps companies help their customers solve problems on the Web, he doesn't mean they get advice or tutorials--he means they get their problems solved with a click. Support.com's Healing Agent resides on an end user's Windows PC and accepts instructions to repair and adjust system and software settings from Support.com customer sites. The technology, used extensively by cable modem provider Excite@Home, can repair software or networking settings to a previous state or install new configurations. All the user has to do is visit the Healing Agent-enabled site and click the proper button on the Web page.

Not all customer service inquiries have a fixed, repeatable, one-size-fits-all answer, however. A growing number of software products, both from support vendors and marketing automation firms, are taking aim at the goal of providing fast, automated answers to common questions, using "natural language" technology, which at its core involves recognizing keywords and common phrases and comparing the relevant content of the message to rules defined by the support staff. Natural language is an exciting emerging
technology, but not without risks. Whitney believes that companies tend to overestimate the accuracy percentage they can achieve with keyword matching, and "the harm in providing a wrong answer can be painful," he says.

Enter the CyberAgent

eGain Communication, of Sunnyvale, Calif., believes that natural language technology is the key to the future of support. Although the company's cornerstone eGain Inform system offers traditional FAQ management, the company is more excited about the prospects of their eGain Assist "cyberagent." Cyberagents, often represented by a picture of a real person, accept customer queries and statements and attempt to put together intelligent, lifelike responses by polling an elaborate knowledge base.

eGain president Gunjan Sinha looks forward to the day when his cyberagents can not only provide company and product information, but can accept complex instructions and make intelligent decisions out of sight of the customer to make the right deal. "Right now, the technology is about co-navigation and helping you as a sales agent," he says. "Down the road, it could do things on your behalf, like buy a car for you." Shades of AT&T's "You Will" ad campaign abound.
Kana Communications, which offers the Kana Advisor cyberagent, says that end users quickly embrace the concept of automated assistance. "It's not unusual for 'Jill' at CompUSA to get a thank you note saying, 'Oh, Jill, thank you very much, I just received my laptop and it was everything you said it was going to be--by the way, how was your weekend?'" says Kana's Fowler. Jill, of course, is actually a Kana Advisor construct, not a real woman.

The key, says Fowler, is using CRM integration concepts to identify the type of customer requesting cyberagent assistance and adapting the dialogue to suit their tastes. In the case of buying a laptop, a veteran portable buyer would receive authoritative facts, figures and rankings from the advisor, while a first-time buyer or computer novice would get tutorial-level advice.

While a long technology mile separates a plaintext FAQ from the proactive cyberagent of the future, the entire range of options is simply technologies aimed at a common goal. "The challenge is creating systems that are very customer-friendly, easy to use, work rapidly and give you specific answers," says IDC's Menzigian. Despite humanizing touches like a cyberagent whose expression changes to suit the mood of the conversation or chides you for not buying enough flowers for your mother, "People don't want to be engaged in long, drawn-out conversations with these electronic entities," she says. Getting caught up in the face of the technology to the detriment of top-quality customer service helps no one.

What Price Self-Help?

As with any major software undertaking, the fixed or capital costs associated with an efficient self-service system are not insignificant--even ASP-based solutions like Software911 cost thousands per month. But the marginal costs per satisfied customer are extremely low.

Although providing and editing the actual support materials requires an investment of time and personnel, if the self-service system is doing its job and reducing overall call volume, support staff should have more time to spend developing and augmenting the content, making it part of their salaried job description. "We have customers who believe each [successful] self-help session saves them between $5 and $25," says Servicesoft's Whitney.

With such dramatic potential savings, it would be easy to assume that self-service software providers swagger into client presentations proclaiming the end of the 800 number and the immediate slashing of contact center budgets. On the contrary, virtually every expert and software company executive we spoke with expressed their belief, in no uncertain terms, that live support remains as important as ever to a complete customer service strategy.

Think twice before you plan to discourage customers from escalating their questions and concerns from the Web site to the contact center. As Forrester Research thoroughly documented in a 1999 report, the "stick" approach to guiding service channel selection has been a failure for banks that have experimented with teller and even call center access fees. According to the report, rather than seamlessly saving on transaction costs, the policies have done little but alienate customers.

Some firms, notably but by no means exclusively in the dot com space, believe they are being subtle when they make their customer service phone numbers difficult to locate on the Web site, pushing out an e-mail address instead. But
e-mail, often with a 24 hour or more turnaround time, is a retreat from the Web (and phone) advantage of immediate service. Even more importantly, customers know when they are being avoided and justifiably resent it.

"You don't want to make it difficult for someone to contact your service center," says Remedy's Fitz, a veteran of contact center management. "Two years ago, call center managers would intentionally try to make it difficult to contact their centers so that self-help was the preferred method. We used to go to seminars on this," he jokes.

Keeping Them Satisfied

Between the expense of maintaining a powerful Web service conduit as well as an easy-to-reach traditional contact center, is it a wonder anyone can make money in the wired age? Kana's Fowler says that keeping the customer satisfied, and therefore more likely to make a deal, is the only thing that matters. "When you're working with mass audiences, you don't have to increase your close rate by much in order to increase your profitability dramatically," he says, noting that some of his customers have doubled or tripled shopping-cart close rates after jacking up the quality of self-help and integrated escalation.

Even Vanguard, famous for being a low-cost leader, doesn't try to cut online users off from live support. Heller explains that the company encourages customers to use the Web to save money in other ways, such as downloading statements from the Web instead of requesting frequent mailings. Hearney's recommendation to obsessive service-cost number-crunchers is to look at the bigger picture.

"If I have this escalation, it's only a cost unless I don't learn from it," he says. At the same time the live agent works through the problem with the customer, he should be identifying and reporting the failures in the Web service system so the system can be adjusted promptly, hopefully cutting down on customer escalations for the same problem in the future. "I can engage in a one-to-one dialogue in the escalation session, then leverage that on a one-to-many basis by improving the way my self-service interfaces work."

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