Part V: Self-Service CRM: Where To Go Next?

[The following is part of a six article series on CRM by Ashley Friedlein, CEO of London-based e-consultancy.]

In our service-driven economy, it has long been recognized that the intangible qualities of a company are becoming increasingly important points of competitive advantage and differentiation. In many sectors there is little difference between the products, placing the battle for customers more on brand and other intangibles with customer service being a key component.

Customers are time poor, their service expectations are growing quickly, and on the Web they demand quality and immediacy, knowing they can go elsewhere if they do not get what they want. At the same time--and particularly in current harsh market conditions--companies are striving to cut costs. So the challenge becomes to both improve the quality of customer service and yet make it more cost-efficient. But can that be done?

The Theory

Web-based customer servicing is less about growing revenues and market share, and more about:

•Reducing customer-servicing costs by using more cost-effective channels. Depending on whose analysis you read, costs are claimed to be $10 to $110 more expensive to handle a customer inquiry by phone than via the Web.

•Faster and more effective customer service means increased customer satisfaction and lower customer churn.

•Global 24x7 support at a fraction of the cost of face-to-face and local support.

•Closer customer relationships that give customers control.

•Opening up staff resource to work on more complex customer inquiries and more valuable strategic initiatives.

The Practice

The realities of implementing Web-based customer servicing have produced the following challenges:

•Customer expectations are rising faster than companies' abilities to meet them. That leads to disappointed customers.

•Companies are typically behind on the skills, technology and processes to manage the Internet channel in an efficient and integrated way.

•Companies are avoiding e-service because they fear it will overload their call center, swamping already stretched customer-services staffs.

•Automation may work 90 percent of time, but the 10 percent where it does not work can create frustrated and angry customers who spread the bad word. As Tom Rearick, vice president of product strategy at eGain Communications Corporation, comments, "The most expensive form of service is self-service that doesn't work--you simply train the customer to pick up the phone, assuming that you don't lose the customer altogether."

•Customer data is still not integrated, meaning that delivering a seamless cross-channel service experience is extremely hard.

•Customer queries are often not stored and analyzed, which leads to unnecessary work as staff members respond to the same questions over and over again.

•Organizational and process challenges present themselves. Should you have different agents for voice and data enquiries because of the different skills required? How long can an agent spend on e-mails and text messages? Which should be prioritized?

The Way Forward

Faced with those challenges, how should Web-based customer servicing be approached to ensure both the customer and the business benefit?

The 80/20 rule: It is necessary to look at ways that the Internet can help improve the quality of the customer service you offer, but more importantly you should be seeing the Web as a way to reduce the need for a customer inquiry in the first place. Customer-service demands typically follow the 80/20 rule: Most service demands are for the same things. Use the Web to try and address the most recurrent questions. Do not delay or try to cover everything; you can add and reiterate later.

Focus on site usability: If you are asking customers to proactively service themselves online, you must be proactive in ensuring that their experience is as positive as possible. Before you think about buying expensive software, you should ensure that the Web site itself is doing its job properly. In many cases, the fastest return on investment will come from improving site usability and content. Taking measures like updating your FAQs, analysing customer click paths through key areas of the site to identify bottlenecks, and improving your search function may not help to reduce the number of off-line customers' inquiries, but they will certainly reduce your Web site visit-to-inquiry ratio.

Capture customer needs and build a knowledge base: Customer e-mails are often routed off to separate members of staff without being centrally stored for tracking and analysis purposes. These explicit customer needs must be captured in order to begin the building of a knowledge base that can then be made available to customers online. Further enhance the knowledge base by analyzing implicit customer needs such as terms used in site searches. This knowledge base does not need to be big, complicated, or expensive to start with, but it is a hugely valuable asset that you should build as soon as you can.

Automation--how far can you go? Automation is clearly desirable in reducing unnecessary repetitive work for staff. However, if handled poorly, it can be one of the most annoying things for a customer to be confronted with. Clearly, you should automate processes such as "forgot password," sending registration details, confirming orders, and the like. But where a customer has made a specific inquiry, the only decent way of handling it is through human response. For e-mail inquiries, agent review of automatically suggested answers provides a better level of service than pure auto-respond and retains much of the benefits of automation. If you are going to interact with a customer using an automated tool you must tell them up front that it is automated and let them know how to contact a human if they wish.

Recognize and reward best customers: Retaining high-value customers is a key CRM concept and customer service has a large part to play. As a first step you need to define, identify, and then recognize your "best" customers online. In terms of rewarding them, you might offer them guaranteed response times, special contact numbers, or access to premium support content.

Offer multichannel contact options: Clients may ask, "Why put our call center number so prominently on our site if we are trying to divert customer servicing to the Web to reduce costs and relieve call center backlogs?" Offering clear, multiple contact options to customers online reassures them. Knowing that if help is there if needed actually emboldens them to try and succeed using the Web site first. Often they are online at home and need to disconnect to phone, which is undesirable. Incidentally, the sense of trust this approach provides also improves browse-to-buy conversion rates. Some may still want to use the phone route, but many site users will not resort to calling unless they become frustrated with your site. In that case, you need to know about it and quickly improve things.

Cross-channel customer data integration is key: Cross-channel customer data integration also is vital. As Alf Saggese, a managing director, with Kana Inc., points out, "One of the most frustrating aspects of customer service is the need for customers to repeat their account details and the nature of their query at every turn. Cross-channel and interdepartmental integration has long been regarded as ‘blue-sky' technology, but customers are increasingly expecting it and leading vendors are now providing solutions that address this issue. Integrated, enterprisewide, cross-channel CRM will become increasingly important as a competitive differentiator in 2002."

Software vendors vary in their approach to that goal, and it is an area where some CRM deployments come unstuck. A system architecture based on open standards, like Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java 2 Enterprise Edition, is vital for successful cross-channel integration. The easier you make it for the various components of your organization to relate to each other, the easier it will be to create a truly seamless customer-service operation.


The bottom line is that you cannot afford to do customer service badly. You cannot make excuses like introducing e-servicing would overburden your company. That would only be so if your site was implemented poorly. It should, in fact, reduce the burden on all fronts as customers begin to help themselves. Frankly, even if it did increase the load, if customers want to begin a dialogue with you then that should be welcomed and prioritised, not avoided.

There is much that can be done in the short term to address customer needs. Companies can devise appropriate and cost-effective customer service by analyzing and categorising their customer inquiries, and investing in ways to address those inquiries via Web self-service and e-mail. Such strategies should always offer escalation paths to agent-based service.

As always with CRM, the biggest, long-term challenges are not technological, but focused on bringing your people and processes up to speed. It must be done because customer service is ultimately about customers' trust in you--about your brand--and that is essential for business survival and success.

CRM Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues
Buyer's Guide Companies Mentioned