When it comes to customer service, simplicity is critical. Companies can improve customer experiences primarily by limiting the amount of effort it takes for customers to find answers to their questions and accomplish their tasks.
Therein lies the appeal of Web self-service, which for many consumers has become the preferred communication channel.
Instantly available, 24/7 online customer self-service portals are gaining ground over conventional agent-assisted support, marking a significant shift in consumer attitudes toward the technology.
And, contrary to popular belief, interest in Web self-service technologies is not just coming from younger consumers. The technology is so disruptive that it is changing the behavior of consumers of all generations. In fact, a recent study by Forrester Research found that 72 percent of consumers—regardless of age—prefer self-service to picking up the phone or sending email when it comes to resolving support issues.
"Like it or not, customers are moving to nonphone, non-email channels," says Ashley Verrill, a CRM analyst at Software Advice, based in Austin, TX.
This certainly is welcome news for organizations looking to cut customer service costs and maximize revenue. "You want to handle low-value customer interactions as much as possible with self-service and automation, saving your best agents and resources for higher-value customers," says Doug Overton, vice president of consulting and analysis at WDS, a business process outsourcing services firm acquired by Xerox last year.
However, industry insiders suggest it's not only about cutting support costs anymore. When it's done well, customers will recognize the value of lower-cost automated and digital support. "Think of it as customer empowerment rather than call deflection," says Mike Hennessy, vice president of marketing at IntelliResponse, a provider of virtual agent technology.
Prepping for the Web
There are several elements to consider, though, to fully support customers through digital channels.
Regardless of the company’s motivation, ultimately, the success of Web self-service depends on the quality and quantity of the information available and the ease with which it can be accessed. Online customers are extremely impatient and information-hungry, so the material available to customers through self-service needs to be succinct and direct, even in response to queries that aren't.
But, as anyone who's ever tried to use Web-based self-service knows, it can be a bit overwhelming: Pages and pages of questions and answers, reference materials, articles, videos, links, topic discussions, social media streams, blog posts, and more can be difficult to navigate for even the most Web-savvy consumers.
That's a problem that has been going on for years. As early as 2010, the Corporate Executive Board found that a full 57 percent of incoming calls to contact centers were from customers who first attempted to resolve their issues on company Web sites but couldn't. Those customers were 10 percent more likely to be disloyal than customers who were able to fully resolve their issues in their channel of choice.
Little has changed since then, many industry sources contend.
Web self-service has also been plagued by companies that expect too much of it at once. "You can't just flip...a switch and expect to start getting value," Verrill advises.
Verrill and others stress that the self-service option first and foremost has to be easy to find on the Web site. To call more attention to the portal, organizations can prominently place a link to the self-service portal on the homepage and other common support pages that feature company, product, and services information. And, since a self-service portal is an extension of a company's Web site, it should have the same look and feel as the rest of the site.
Once on the portal, many experts advise that the 80/20 rule applies: Assume that 80 percent of site visitors are looking for about 20 percent of the content, so that 20 percent should be easy to find.
As for the content itself, it should be clear, to the point, and easy to understand. This can be achieved by including graphic elements, such as diagrams, charts, and bullet points. When doing so, though, make sure the graphics are optimized for the Web. If they're not, the Web site could take too long to load, which might cause some customers to abandon it for a more costly agent-assisted channel.
Many experts suggest keeping content to an eighth-grade reading level, so the average 13- or 14-year-old can make sense of it.
Ensuring accessibility also means the site should support a variety of Internet browsers, operating systems, assistive technologies for the blind, and, of course, mobile platforms. The latter is becoming more important, especially when one considers that almost a third of all Web traffic today comes from mobile devices, up 73 percent from just a year ago and up 244 percent since 2011, according to the Walker Sands Quarterly Mobile Traffic Report.