Web self-service can reduce operating costs while providing more timely and accurate information to users. But these self-service portals must not be treated as a standalone solution. Unless connected to broader business processes and practices, little may be achieved.
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The customer is king. Or so the mantra goes. But in execution, customer service remains a tenuous balance between improving customer satisfaction and managing the cost to serve. And not all customers are, in fact, equal. Some represent greater revenue or profit potential. Some represent a strategic gateway to new markets or the broader acceptance of new products. Some are willing to pay for premium services that dictate delivery against elevated expectations. Contracts that reflect various levels of commitments -- Service Level Agreements (SLAs) -- need to be respected.
Self-service portals have been held up as the solution to this challenge -- a new means to simultaneously address objectives that can seem at odds: delivering against rising service expectations while reducing operational costs. But many IT strategies seem little more than an elixir -- a magic potion to cure all that ails you, but often failing to deliver financial results. Real-world complications -- information availability in a usable format, systems integration, and the human factor -- all can quickly erase expected benefits.
The cost of handling customer issues is rising, as are service expectations. When well deployed, Web self-service can reduce operating costs while providing more timely and accurate information to users -- whether customers, employees, or trading partners. But these self-service portals must not be treated as a standalone solution. Unless connected to broader business processes and practices, little may be achieved -- other than the creation of an additional workload, numerous Web pages to be maintained, mounds of data to be mined for whatever tidbits of useful information they may contain. Further, potential benefits can be lost -- relationships even harmed -- when such solutions fall short. Customers expect reasonable access and consistent support. This requires more than simply posting reports and canned answers to frequently asked questions on a Web site. It also means that when resolution to queries and issues is not attained through the site, they should seamlessly be able to transition to traditional channels without starting anew.
SELF-SERVICE BUSINESS BENEFITS
A well-designed and deployed self-service strategy provides significant potential benefit, especially when tightly integrated with other service-related processes. The impact can be grouped under three broad but interrelated categories.
Enhanced Knowledge Management
While customers immediately come to mind, other potential beneficiaries to consider include:
Call Center Staff -- enabling greater access to up-to-date product, customer and service histories to enhance support delivery
Field Service Representatives -- linking personnel to 'like' problems and resolutions, as well as pertinent customer files
Trading Partners -- acting as a training arm to speed dissemination of new product information to increase revenue streams or efficiencies
Web self-service provides a means of increasing the quality of support, independent of personnel-specific skills and availability. It also provides a bridge across customer touch points, enabling a more consistent experience regardless of channel. As the recent Gartner report "E-CRM Driving Customer Value through the e-Channel" suggests, "Of the many channels available to the customer, the Web becomes key to an overall customer relationship management (CRM) approach that integrates offline and online activities into a successful, multi-channel CRM implementation." However, this concept is not easily achieved. A September 2002 report from Forrester Research stated that, "delivering consistent cross-channel service is a barrier to success for 97 percent of firms."
Improved Financial Performance
Cost savings result from several areas of impact, including:
Case Volume -- many routine calls are effectively eliminated from contact center interaction. Staff is freed for complex issues and enhanced services for key accounts
Average Cost of Support -- Forrester Research recently examined channel-specific support. Since business model complexity can significantly impact the cost of support, these numbers are best viewed in relative terms. While phone support on a per-case basis costs an average of $33, assisted tools such as email run roughly $10 per case, while automated or self-service is typically less than $1 per incident, less than minimum wage.
Staff Turnover -- reducing burnout helps increase retention, a major issue for such operations. However, while immediate consideration is typically given to cost savings, self-service can also be a gateway to incremental revenues.
Cross- and Up-sell -- customization characteristics and the capture of critical client-specific information open up possibilities of identifying additional needs. However, this push approach needs to be pursued as a secondary objective so as not to alienate users.
Services Revenues -- proper customer care helps ensure that services revenue streams are justified in customers' eyes.
Increased Customer Satisfaction
Additional Channel -- a non-invasive alternative means of communication and collaboration
Convenience -- availability of support around the clock 24x7x365
Resolution Time -- many issues do not need to be interaction-intensive and self-service enables users to circumvent the queues associated with traditional channels
Linkages to Other Value-Added Services -- access to arrange service or maintenance calls, place orders, research new products, make payments, or review account/contract status, as well as the ability to escalate to other forms of support.
In creating a self-service strategy it is important to consider the types of dynamic content to which users will want or require access. This content should be modified to reflect user's roles -- whether employees, customers, or trading partners. In general, material to be made accessible might include:
Product information that leverages corporate-wide repositories, product catalogs, customer files, service logs, and external resources to facilitate resolution of inquiries, requests, and issues.
Product configuration, pricing, and sales order processes. Ideally this should be customized to reflect a customer's contracted pricing structure
Available to Promise (ATP) information for product, parts, and services reflecting not only inventory levels, but also lead-times with logistics implications and contract commitments
Professional services project tasks, milestones and percent-complete information
Project time and expense billing information
Applicable service contracts, warranties, and Service Level Agreement (SLA) information
Service diagnostic histories
Sites and product configurations reflecting company-specific contracts
Online service requests for technician dispatch
Staff skill set and certification information for field representatives
System and sub-component warranty processing and return authorizations
Ordering for consumable supplies and spare parts -- with front- to back-end integration handled seamlessly, including linkages to order management systems, operations, and finance
This needs to be provided on a highly intuitive, graphical, multilingual, and secure Internet portal.
A challenge that quickly arises is the balance between incorporating fresh content from corporate-wide knowledge pools while maintaining a system in which users can easily locate applicable information. This presents many issues that must be addressed in order to deploy a successful self-service offering.
First, such systems by nature need to embrace a zero-training philosophy. Consider whether a new user will easily be able to determine how to request information, pose a problem, navigate the system, escalate to alternative channels, and the bottom-line, receive an acceptable resolution to their issue. If not, theoretical reductions in cost due to self-service quickly evaporate. Instead, users are left frustrated (with many associated qualitative costs) and are forced to reenter traditional channels, resulting in a cumulative actual cost well above former practices.
Second, such systems need to respect individual customer preferences. This means providing support for natural language interaction with multilingual support. It also means responding to a variety of inquiry types. This includes standard questions, such as my printer is jammed; enhanced inquiries, citing a specific printer as well as service history; and prior remedial actions, as well as structured entries. Responses should be ranked as to relevance, with applicable links for streamlined navigation.
Third, in designing such systems it is important to address potential issues that may arise by reducing the human face of service. One of the most critical is to integrate an emotion detector. The need to escalate an issue, as well as appropriate responses, should be viewed in context, not absolute terms. For example, if I have significant back-up infrastructure, I am likely to view required support from a much different sense of urgency than if downtime is having a direct and significant impact on revenue streams.
Overall, ease-of-use is a cornerstone of a successful self-service process.
PROFITABLE SERVICE LIFECYCLE
The real benefit of Web self-service, however, is attained when viewed from a larger service perspective. Terms such as Service Lifecycle Management (SLM), Service Process Management (SPM) and Enterprise Service Management (ESM) have emerged to embrace the best of traditional Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and meld it with elements of Supply Chain (SCM) to holistically support service-related business practices for financial return. In a recent study of the so-called "aftermarket" industry, "Service Lifecycle Management (Part 1): The Approaches and Technologies to Build Sustainable Competitive Advantage for Services," AMR Research found that while service divisions of manufacturing companies typically generate only about 25 percent of a firm's revenue, they represent 40 to 50 percent of the company's profits, and yet only receive 20 percent of corporate IT investment. "This spending gap originates from the widely held but outdated perception that the service business is just a cash cow... However, leading companies are changing their attitude about services, moving away from the break/fix and spare parts mentality and becoming value-added service providers responsible for improving customer profitability and creating loyalty... To maximize revenue, companies should look at the service opportunity as a lifecycle rather than an event or even a series of discrete events. The lifecycle starts with the initial product sale and continues through the adoption of new products."
When looking at the potential of what they term e-CRM, Gartner Inc. noted in its report "e-CRM Drives Multi-channel Customer Relationships" that, "As customers demand the ability to interact with companies using multiple channels, the need to deliver customer interactions seamlessly across those channels becomes a critical criterion for survival. Enterprises that pursue an unintegrated strategy of e-CRM (that is, segregating their e-channel components of sales, marketing and customer service from their other channels of operation) will fail to address that customer demand and, as a result, will concede market share to those enterprises that pursue multi-channel integration. To succeed, companies must develop a multi-channel strategy of CRM and leverage the efficiencies and rich data capabilities of the e-channel to deliver consistent customer interactions across all channels."
In this way, companies can achieve new levels of performance and competitive advantage by integrating such interdependent business processes as Field Service Automation (FSA), Customer Service & Support (CSS), Sales Force Automation (SFA), Marketing Automation & Campaign Management, and Professional Services Automation (PSA). Each contains critical customer information that can be cross-leveraged to proactively identify new revenue opportunities, gain greater visibility into future demand for product, parts and services enabling inventory and resource balancing, become a more integrated partner to customers thereby reducing pricing sensitivity through value-added services, and improve the overall customer experience.
CONTIUUM OF INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS
With such rich potential from fully integrated self-service initiatives, it is important to understand the means by which this communication channel is driven. The underlying technology represents a continuum that should be matched to the particular business and product complexity to be supported.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
This represents a non-interactive approach in which a published list of routine questions and inquiries is simply posted for review. A low-cost entry point into self-service, FAQs are principally designed to lower traffic, support call avoidance, in contact centers. However, this type of system has a very limited ability to scale to complex businesses and issues. It also presents challenges in terms of usability -- searching and sorting to easily locate 'like' issues.
Rules & Case Based Reasoning
As the complexity of support required grows, many companies turn to rules or case-based reasoning techniques. In this type of system, a decision tree structure is employed respond to users questions. For example, an entry such as 'My printer is jammed' might elicit a response such as 'Remove the cartridge and take out the misfed paper.' A question chain facilitates resolution on a dynamic basis. However, these solutions can present a significant maintenance challenge, even if fed from a variety of knowledge repositories. Both database and decision tree logic needs to be monitored. It is also fairly difficult to represent complex problems in such an application.
Advanced Learning Systems
Sophisticated systems are now available which literally automate system learning. Such solutions draw from existing knowledge stores, both internal and external, as a starting point. Typical sources of information include, but are not limited to, product manuals and catalogs, service and maintenance records, support archives, customer files, work order resolutions, partner and third party databases, and the Internet. The system is then 'trained,' enabling continuous learning without requiring re-programming. Other advanced features of such a solution include:
Intelligent Retrieval and Resolution: access and information feedback appropriate to the specific user and role. This enables support of not only customers, but also partners and staff
Context Sensitive: includes emotion responsiveness in which escalation paths reflect the particular situation and user
Natural Language Support: unlimited by user's language or jargon (e.g. technical or medical)
Tuned through Feedback: users rate the answers impacting future prioritization of responses
CAN YOU WAIT?
In a recent Webinar hosted by Astea International, Inc. speaker Michael Moaz of Gartner Inc. forecast that through 2003, an inability to centrally coordinate customer service across channels will result in less than 20 percent of enterprises being able to present customers with a consistent experience (0.8 probability). He also forecast that enterprises that do not reengineer their systems, operating environment, policies, procedures and staff as they add new channels will see their operating expense increase by 40 to 80 percent for each additional channel (0.7 probability).
As with any significant IT solution, planning for a self-service portal should begin with end in mind. Typical objectives to consider include revenue enhancement opportunities, service deliverables, and cost-cutting initiatives. Factors to quantify might include: percent/incremental offline sales to be migrated to the web, percent/incremental requests to be fulfilled through this channel, customer retention rates, reduction in returned orders, customer acquisition costs, average cost of support on a per contact/case basis.
By coordinating efforts across the enterprise, linking sales, service, support and marketing with a holistic view of the customer, and by providing customers access to preferred company touch points with consistent and coordinated knowledge, self-service provides a gateway to significant corporate performance improvements.
About the Author
Greg Cicio, vice president, strategic planning and corporate development for Astea International works with the sales, marketing, inside sales and research organizations to refine product direction and position value-based customer relationship management solutions for companies that sell and support capital equipment. Having 20 plus years of experience in high-tech solutions that span the factory floor to the boardroom, Greg is extensively familiar with many technologies, applications and implementation paradigms. Greg has also held various management and executive management positions with companies such as Sys-Tech Solutions, Honeywell, ABB, Gensym and Base Ten Systems.