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Customer Disservice
Companies are facing stiff, widespread competition in delivering online customer support -- and customer loyalty hangs in the balance.
Posted Oct 23, 2008
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In the communications and high-tech industries, online customer support offered on corporate Web sites has become -- to put it bluntly -- a colossal mess. The main problem is that a growing number of customers are more dissatisfied with, and less loyal to, corporate sites. As a result, a growing number of disenchanted customers are abandoning the corporate sites entirely, in favor of independent Web sites.

The sites they're switching to contain user communities that employ blogs, wikis, and message boards, and offer easier navigation, faster answers to questions, and online experiences that are more satisfying and enjoyable than the ones they'd had using many corporate sites. Furthermore, corporate sites are simply not structured to be a top search result when using general search engines. As a result, users are being trained to go elsewhere.

This trend toward widespread abandonment poses a dangerous threat to customer loyalty -- an all-important factor in generating repeat sales and running a successful business. Research indicates that consumers who had a satisfying experience with a company's customer service were two-and-a-half times more likely to repurchase from that same company. What's more, 81 percent of consumers said they would continue to buy from companies to whom they are loyal.

To overcome this escalating abandonment problem, companies need to rethink and improve their online customer-support sites. As products become more commoditized, service is key to differentiation and repeat business. If companies allow independent third parties to own the service experience, they lessen their ability to improve their brand, create a differentiated experience, and build customer loyalty.

By redirecting consumers back to its own Web site, a company gains an opportunity to:

  • develop a stronger community around its brand;
  • make consumers comfortable with its products and prove its trustworthiness;
  • better understand consumers' needs and intentions;
  • improve its chances of winning the next sale from consumers;
  • potentially sell services from its Web site and monetize some of its site investments; and
  • boost the likelihood that consumers will provide positive testimonials about its products or services.

None of this is as easy to accomplish if customers use independent sites.

Support sites for communications and high-tech companies require various basic capabilities, such as Web-site downloads, warranties, navigation, automated tools, and remote diagnostics. Issues and recommendations for those sites include the following:

First, a company needs to understand the different demographic segments for the customers it serves, the desired customer experience for each segment, and intentions of those customers when they visit the site. With this in mind, one central goal should be to create easy ways for customers to access the site and to satisfy and complete their respective goals. One of the most common intents a consumer-electronics customer has is to download drivers and upgrades. Proactive corporate investments in autodetection capabilities can enable users to find such drivers and upgrades faster and easier. Additionally, user-specific profiles can better align customers to other related training or alerts, improving each customer's experience with the product.

Second, after clear customer segmentation and intents are defined, companies need to get the Web basics right. This includes using heuristic design techniques to develop support portals with intuitive capabilities, clear navigation, and a focus on solving problems. This also encompasses conducting proper usability testing, tight integration with the rest of the site, informing users where they are and have been, and providing them with single-sign-on capabilities. Too many sites are poorly designed, too product-centric, and not sufficiently focused on customer needs.

Third, support portal sites need to have the right answers. This means delivering accurate and robust content created by both the corporation and the community. These portal sites also should:

  • use analytics to understand what content is missing based on user queries;
  • monitor third-party sites and create content to address the chatter found there, in order to redirect participants to the corporate portal instead;
  • provide the answer in various formats, such as video, pictures, and text; and
  • enable customers to get answers quickly using clear navigation and contextual search with dynamic search filters, instead of making people spend lots of time wandering around the site.

Fourth, companies should consider integrating their online support capabilities with other service channels so they have a complete picture of each customer's online support interactions. This visibility enables improvements in each of the service channels. Additionally, companies should consider leveraging the success of multivariant testing, along with traditional Web analytics, to improve the effectiveness of their support sites.

About the author
Brian Sprague leads Accenture's customer service and support program for the communications and high-tech industries. He has extensive experience in CRM strategy, service management, alliance management, and managing the design, development, and implementation of large system initiatives. He can be reached at brian.m.sprague@accenture.com.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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