Help with Search
To make a self-service section even more effective, it can be combined with an automated guidance system that enables site visitors to enter questions and then takes them to specific responses without forcing them to scan an entire database for the answer they need.
One such system is marketed by WalkMe, a San Francisco start-up that enables Web site owners to enhance their online self-service options with interactive on-screen step-by-step instructions displayed as pop-up balloons. The balloons can be programmed to appear automatically when the site visitor rolls his cursor over certain items or when he clicks on a help button.
The appeal of such an app, according to Rafi Sweary, the company's president and cofounder, is that it enables customers to continue self-service on the Web without having to leave the Web site to watch video tutorials, browse through special help pages and forums, or, worse yet, send an email and wait for a response. "People do not want to wait twenty-four hours for a response to an email. By that time, they have already gotten their answer somewhere else or given up," Sweary says.
Customers who can't find answers on their own in a self-help knowledge base might be inclined to call a customer service line, but they are more likely to type their question into a Google search bar, and companies have no control over the results that the Google search returns. Verrill says, "oogle is becoming the default help channel for a lot of people."
This presents a number of problems for a company. "Not only has [the visitor] left your site, but he can find information that you may not want him to see," Sweary cautions.
WalkMe has helped several companies, including Adobe, Autodesk, Cisco, Clarizen, Deloitte, and Planet Soho, with their Web support.
At Planet Soho, a provider of small business management platforms, CEO Ron Daniel credits WalkMe with saving the company 50 percent on support representative costs and increasing user engagement by more than 10 percent.
Ariel Utnik, vice president of research and development at Clarizen, a provider of online project management software, said in a statement that WalkMe "revolutionized the way we teach our users how to utilize our software, saving us hundreds of hours of expensive documentation writing and video tutorial production."
Virtual Agents for Real-Life Help
Virtual agents are another option companies can use to help customers find what they're looking for.
Kobo, a Toronto-based firm that provides e-reading mobile apps and its own line of e-readers, uses IntelliResponse's Virtual Agent technology to simplify its Web self-service options. The software helps site visitors find the single right answer to their questions. To keep information current and relevant, it strips outdated FAQ entries, learns over time how to group and respond to questions, and captures data about customer service queries to find precisely what customers need so Kobo can fine-tune how it presents information on its Web site.
According to Hennessy, the market for virtual agents to assist with Web self-service is growing rapidly and constantly improving as natural language understanding becomes more robust.
"Now, with virtual agents, [customers] can ask [questions naturally] and have intelligent answers delivered back to them," Hennessy says.
Overton expects to one day have virtual agent technology that can handle questions coming in through any number of channels and treat them all the same way. "In the future, questions can be captured through email, an IVR, or the Web, and we will be able to find the answer and get it to the customer without ever tapping into an agent," he says.
Companies can also use Web chat to help customers through the self-service maze. It's a tool that's already widely accepted by consumers and businesses alike.
"It's an excellent mode of communication for our customers to ask a quick question or receive immediate assistance," says Chelsea Rowles, a support communications specialist at CircuiTree Solutions, a camp management software provider and user of Pure Chat software from Axosoft.
"A lot of people don't want to take the time to call, but Pure Chat expedites our support services," Rowles adds.
Nick Aristou, executive director of the Four Seasons Hotel in Limassol, Cyprus, uses the LiveWebAssist chat offering from IceWarp to help customers navigate the many pages of information in his five-star Mediterranean resort's knowledge base, all with the goal of increasing bookings.
In addition to the basic chat functions, LiveWebAssist enables agents to push prepared content (such as the hotel's cancellation policy), photos, graphics, or Web links, to customers on the site with a single click. According to Aristou, this has helped standardize responses and quicken the interactions.
Along with chat and virtual agents, companies can use assisted browsing, or cobrowsing, to move self-service interactions along. This functionality lets the agent—or possibly the virtual agent—temporarily take control of a customer's computer screen. Not only does this improve the self-service experience, but, when interactions move to the contact center through either phone or chat, cobrowsing can reduce the average handling time.
Nonetheless, Verrill and others argue that while it's important to measure average response time, additional metrics need to be used as well. "Companies are using all sorts of metrics [to determine] how they're performing in the contact center," Verrill points out. "The same monitoring that you're doing in your call center should transfer to these digital channels."
Perhaps the most effective measure, she says, is the number of customer questions that are submitted and get a response. This can apply to those questions where the customer finds the answer on her own as well as those that are answered through a social community or by a representative of the company.
And then, as with any customer service channel, it's important to collect user feedback about the self-help experience. As with any other customer service channel, this can be done through customer surveys, Web analytics and search logs, customer interviews and focus groups, usability testing, and collaborative design processes.
In the end, "for self-service to be done right, it should be in the interest of the customer," Sweary states. "You do not want people to use self-service because they are forced to. You want people to use it because it serves their needs."
News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at email@example.com.