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Bringing Online Help to the B2B World
The potential for online self-help is largely unrealized in the B2B arena, but with spiraling support costs, that's likely to change.
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According to Forrester Research it costs about $33 to serve a customer over the phone, $9.99 through e-mail and $1.17 using automated Web-based support. There...that's all the argument you're going to get on how online self-help saves money. On to unplowed fields: Does the stuff really result in more efficient interactions and more satisfied customers?

Quick caveat: There is the reported phenomenon of customer service costs going up after a company installs online self-help, which is frequently misunderstood as cause and effect. Briefly put, when you implement online self-service effectively, that will funnel off the more time-consuming calls that are along the vein of, "Does the XP-83 model come in cranberry?" However, the calls coming into your call center will be longer and more complex, demanding more experienced, skilled and expensive personnel. Customers will say, "Yeah that answers my question, thanks. You seem to know what you're talking about, so as long as I've got you on the line, on page 47 of the manual it says..."

In reality, though, such increases are just the nature of the Web. If someone buys a pint of Rainbow Warrior Kiwi Blast ice cream that's filled with Baby Seal Blubber Blueberry instead, he might or might not call or write. But zapping off an e-mail is easy. "The ease with which customers can use the Web lowers the barrier to a whole new level of customer interaction--interaction they probably wouldn't have gotten if people were still limited to phone and mail," says Greg Gianforte, CEO and founder of Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies.

Back 2 Basics

Gianforte believes that the basics of online self-help are just that--basic. "When self-help is done properly, customers prefer it. I can sit in a call queue for 15 minutes or send an e-mail that goes in a black hole somewhere, but what I want is to get the answer now." Compared to consumer customers, B2B customers are, by and large, more sophisticated using databases and are more apt to locate an answer, a workaround or a solution online.

Ben Treiber, director of customer services for Ft. Lauderdale-based DataCore Software gives another reason to prefer self-help to assisted help. "When you talk to a human, maybe they have a hard time getting exactly what you're thinking. Putting people in touch with the knowledge base allows them a better success rate since they can put the issue in their own words rather than have someone over the phone mistranslate it."

But while some B2C and B2B customers prefer online self-help, many B2B customers want to talk to someone when placing an order. If you're buying a stapler (B2C), you have no problems doing so by clicking around online. If you're buying 15,000 staplers (B2B), you want to talk to someone. "Companies are struggling with 'How do I move these people-intensive interactions online?'" says Paul Hagen, author of a landmark Forrester Research study released a year ago titled Tier Zero Customer Support.

By far, most B2B buying and selling is done offline. A recent study by ActivMedia Research found that only 18 percent of B2B businesses with an online presence actually sell online. A report released in March by Jupiter Media Metrix found that corporate purchasing agents are planning to make 20 percent of their purchases online. What are the rest of them doing online? Providing information. Answering questions. Serving customers. Even in the B2C retail space, Hagen says, people will go online, research and then buy offline. "Twice as many people will make Web-influenced purchases offline, as will make purchases online."

Dominique Trempont, CEO of self-service solution provider Kanisa, says there are companies who see online self-help as a way of extending to partners the same sorts of tools customers can access. "There's no relationship between one customer and one company anymore. People come to Apple Computer to complain about their Epson printer or Adobe software," he says.

Potential Unrealized

This idea of using online B2B self-help to benefit business partners is still largely unrealized, according to partner relationship guru and FrontLine Solutions CEO Bob Thompson, who admits that businesses rarely view service and support functions as strategic assets. "I don't think very much self-help has been directed towards partners," he says. "When it comes to partners, companies are still focused on marketing and sales, lead management and lead tracking or a portal. There hasn't been the focus on service that you'd like to think would be there." Thompson doesn't see it improving anytime soon, either, since "most companies do such a bad job just taking care of their own customers, forgetting collaborative service."

Most Web sites proclaiming "service" for B2B partners spoon up warmed-over sales and marketing, not meaningful self-service, Thompson says. "Meaningful self-service happens when you have an existing relationship with a customer, and they have a problem with something you sold them, and they come to your Web site after the sale to solve that problem." Few companies invest in those kinds of self-help systems--as he says, the technology isn't even included in Partner Relationship Management applications. "Channels are the stepchildren of most companies, and service is the stepchildren of stepchildren, so it's not a priority."

Sometimes it's not explicitly "partner" oriented, however. According to Charlie McCabe, manager of AppleCare Web Publishing, AppleCare doesn't target enterprise partners as a customer base per se. Rather, as several other computer hardware and software companies are doing, the company offers higher end or institutional customers a fee-based program called Professional Support, "which gives them access to more information, mostly service and repair information and instructions, proactive e-mail about current hot issues or new software downloads, online training on new products, a private discussion forum and software recovery CDs."

"There are some branding issues," Trempont says. "To what extent does the computer manufacturer want to maintain its brand, or at what point does it hand off to the printer company and say good luck--or do you want to keep it transparent?" When providing online self-help, he finds, some companies insist on marinating the brand across interactions. Converseky, others don't want to be held accountable for another companies' content. "If there are large synergies, the companies are comfortable. If there's competitive pressure, companies want to control the journey."

Internally, online self-help is a godsend for the poor sales rep of a company with hundreds of highly complex products, who is selling to a design engineer at an electronics firm who just needs to make the thing work and design it into his products. When the engineer has a technical problem and someone back at headquarters knows the answer, self-service deployed on an intranet between field people and headquarters is the ideal application. Companies such as Cisco make extensive use of this approach.

In cases where customers make considered purchases and do research before they buy, online support is critical. A B2C example, Gianforte says, is Specialized Bicycles. They have 1,100 bike shops around the country and were getting 200 inquires by phone and 300 by e-mail daily, and that number was growing. They went for self-help as a cost reduction opportunity, and after installation, e-mail inquiries declined 83 percent. However, Gianforte adds, "They also attributed an increase in retail sales to having this self-service capability on the Web site."

In its clearest form such online research works like this: Go to Fred's Tires, tell Fred your band's got a '78 Volkswagen microbus pounding out 15,000 highway miles a year in lots of snow and rain, and ask Fred who's got the best tires for your bus. Fred goes to the Web to get you an answer. If Michelin can provide answers on its Web site, but Pirelli and Goodyear make Fred wait for an e-mail answer or for a rep to contact him, chances are Michelin's going to get the sale.

Solving Complex Problems

Self-help tools are highly effective where clients have lots of customers and complicated products, such as high-tech or insurance--"Allstate has 65,000 agents in 9,000 agencies around the country and they were calling headquarters to get answers. The average wait time was 20 minutes," Gianforte says. "Allstate saved $600,000 a month by offering as many answers online as possible--plus they were getting ancillary benefits such as being able to give immediate answers to agents."

Even the much-maligned voice recognition technology is making itself useful here and there. Says Purdue University Professor Jon Anton, a recognized authority on call centers, "When I call Schwab, I'm not looking for advice. I want to place an order and voice recognition can handle that. Web-based is fine when I'm in front of a computer, but if I'm traveling, voice recognition is an attractive alternative to waiting in the queue. Remember how klutzy early ATMs were? So try to forgive the IVR experiences you've probably had."

And, you just can't beat online self-help for sheer consistency. "We're considering online videos and training videos, since our market has been expanding rapidly, and consistency of message is one of our top priorities," says Eric Russell, Web Wizard for Tempe, Ariz.-based Rockford. "If we produce a video, we can create content once and distribute it everywhere." Russell sees online self-help expanding into actual training, maybe offering an online process for being certified to deal with certain Rockford products.

The base level need for online self-help tends to be efficiency improvements in the organization. But as companies review the results, they see more intangible benefits--increased customer loyalty, increased revenue, building a community to increase brand recognition and a place for info on a topic. These have higher value than the actual bean-counter cost savings.

"In our B2B scenario," says David Richards, corporate vice president and chief information officer of Rockford, "customers can order placement, tracking and other information. We'll offer more push in training and education and marketing. We're also looking to get into audio and video. Some customers asked for safety hint videos, guided installs, putting an installer through a series of questions and earn certification. Much of this is driven by what's been wish-listed by our B2B customers."

But be sure you know what you're getting into when you go for it--companies almost always underestimate the sheer amount of work it takes to build a suitable online knowledge base for self-help. Minneapolis-based principal of High-Yield Marketing Dick Lee says he admires Microsoft's telephone service, but they haven't taken the Internet part seriously. Getting the information together and posted is labor-intensive work, so given that the tendency is to think of the Web as a labor-saver, companies are loath to invest a ton of labor now.

Generally, Gianforte says, investing in online self-help makes sense when either "questions coming to the call center are repetitive in nature, or there are lots of customers or users seeking answers." If you have at least two full-time people answering repetitive questions coming from phone calls or e-mail and you're about to hire the third person, you should look into self-service.

Lee says it's crucial to understand what your customers want before you start throwing mud against the wall. "Ninety percent of the online self-help projects begun in the last 18 months have crashed," he says. "That's strong evidence that the people developing the stuff haven't been listening to customers. You can lead customers a little, but if you get three, four steps ahead of them, you're in trouble. They won't take quantum leaps. That's human nature."

The Wrong Way

Naturally there's a wrong way to do online support. "In B2B," Hagen says, "there's a lot more emphasis placed on relationships and pre-existing relationships. Companies that don't think about integration of channels don't understand." Vahid Taj, business analyst for Pixys says, "If a self-help Web site is truly effective, customers will come back. But what often happens is that the self-service sites become just part of the corporate presence as a place to post brochures, since a lot of corporate Web sites are driven by the marketing department."

Then there's the whole question of expectations. "A lot of B2B has done a good job so far in order tracking, since a lot of calls that come in are 'what's the status of my order?' Hagen says. Businesses have come to expect almost real-time status of orders. "Those questions are easily answered, but it's a trick to put that up on the site, because it's integrating into ERP (enterprise resource planning). Knowledge-based questions--'which product is best for me?' or 'there's something wrong with my order,' are also a problem."

Customers expectations are getting higher and a lot of self-help fails because the content isn't there. "My sense is that 50 percent of what's up there isn't what people want," Hagen says. "Companies need to look at their e-mail, chat and search logs, and give you all kinds of information about what people are coming to the site for, capture that info and drive answers back onto the Web site. There's a whole process people ought to be creating to answer, 'Why are people calling me? Can I drive people to the Web site?'"

With the more sophisticated B2B customer service providers, such as Dell and Cisco, the number one concern is staying one step ahead of their customers, who are smarter, more informed and expecting more. "Their customers know which way the wind's blowing," Hagen says, "and these companies want to understand where they're heading. That's what those guys are after. Dell is one of the best in B2B, moving to a direct model with their premier pages, remote diagnostics and software. They've done a tremendous job." Bottom line: If you can capture and analyze customers' patterns, you can react to those quickly, even proactively, in how you deliver value and services to customers.

Back to the original question: Does the stuff really result in more efficient interactions and more satisfied customers? "A lot of the online help has been successful. Only when we get down to specific questions--drilling down to something very technical--do they need to call us," says Russell of Rockford. "About 92 percent of questions are answered online, which includes technical FAQs, a self-help desk and a knowledge desk."

Sometimes it isn't working, Lee says. "I asked Microsoft a question two weeks ago, and I still don't have an answer. There wasn't an answer on the resource center, so I used the dialogue box to ask a tech a question." He's found that in some companies such as Amazon.com there's a surprising drop-off from B2C to B2B online self-help. Other business users complain that they find the sites too overwhelming in the detail on the first few pages or requiring too many clicks to find the meat.

"It's working as advertised for us," says Treiber of DataCore. DataCore sells storage area networking to lots of old-line businesses, such as financial institutions, which probably need more handholding than the average client when it comes to buying such abstract concepts as virtual storage.

"When I came on board, my job was to find an incident-tracking product. We decided we needed something Web-enabled," Treiber says, and settled on a product from RightNow. "Most of our use of the technology is in tracking issues, customers' trouble tickets. We have a 200-knowledge entry database which has what we think customers need to know." Customers are required to have a service contract to access the knowledge base, and customer support comes with the sale of a product. It's particularly important for DataCore, Treiber says, since "our space and storage virtualization is so new we want everyone to know what we do."

The most frequently asked questions DataCore gets are relative to "What's the latest release," and "How do I use this certain feature?" Like most B2B operations there are few hard numbers to use in analytics for online self-help at this stage, but "we're going to start measuring effectiveness. Anecdotally, I do have comments from large companies, who say our customer service exceeds expectations in effectiveness and speed." Treiber says that currently 90 percent of customer visits to their Web site result in finding answers through the knowledge base; 3 percent are helped with a "smart assistant click here" button; and approximately 6 percent rely on personal help, such as picking up the phone and calling.

That 6 percent is unavoidable. "We're not going to have a knowledge base entry that answers a question about a customers' unique network," Treiber says. Hagen agrees: "The key is learning why people are contacting you.

"The last thing you want to do is lose a sale because you don't want to talk to them, and learn from the escalation points. But it's only a failure if you don't learn from the interaction. As long as you've satisfied a customer, you've succeeded."

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