Tailoring Online Self-help to the B2B User

Serving a customer over the phone costs about $33, according to Forrester Research. Serving a customer through e-mail costs about $10 and only $1.17 using automated Web-based support. But while online self-help may save money, does the practice streamline interactions and result in truly satisfied customers?

Companies tend to misunderstand as cause and effect the phenomenon of customer service costs going up after a company installs online self-help. Properly implemented online self-service will funnel off the more basic inquiries, but the calls coming into your call center will be longer and more complex, demanding more experienced, skilled and expensive personnel.

In reality, though, increases in customer service requests are just the nature of the Web. If a customer has a relatively minor complaint, it's easier to zap it off by e-mail than to call or write. "The ease with which customers can use the Web lowers the barrier to a whole new level of customer interaction--interaction they probably wouldn't have gotten if people were still limited to phone and mail," says Greg Gianforte, CEO and founder of Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies.

Back 2 Basics
Rather than waiting on hold or sending e-mail into a black hole, customers want immediate answers, says Giafonte. B2B customers especially, are, by and large, more sophisticated using databases and are more apt to locate an answer, a workaround or a solution online than would be a consumer.

Another reason customers may prefer self-help to assisted help is that there is no need to repeatedly explain the question, says Ben Treiber, director of customer services for Ft. Lauderdale-based DataCore Software. "Putting people in touch with the knowledge base allows them a better success rate than they would normally have, since they can put the issue in their own words rather than having someone over the phone mistranslate it."

But many B2B customers prefer to talk to someone when placing an order. By far, most B2B buying and selling is done offline. Only 18 percent of B2B businesses with an online presence sell online at all, according to ActivMedia Research. A report released in March by Jupiter Media Metrix found that corporate purchasing agents are planning to make 20 percent of their purchases online. What are the rest of them doing online? Providing information. Answering questions. Serving customers. Even in the B2C retail space, people will go online, research and buy offline, says Paul Hagen, author of a landmark Forrester Research study released last year. "Twice as many people will make Web-influenced purchases offline, as will make purchases online."

Potential Unrealized
Dominique Trempont, CEO of self-service solution provider Kanisa, says there are companies who see online self-help as a way of extending to partners the same sorts of tools customers can access.

But this idea of using online B2B self-help to benefit business partners is still largely unrealized, according to partner relationship guru and FrontLine Solutions CEO Bob Thompson. "When it comes to partners, companies are still focused on marketing and sales, lead management and lead tracking or a portal.... Most companies do such a bad job just taking care of their own customers, forgetting collaborative service."

Most Web sites proclaiming "service" for B2B partners spoon up warmed-over sales and marketing instead of helping customers with something they've already bought, Thompson says. Few companies invest in those kinds of self-help systems--as he says, the technology isn't even included in Partner Relationship Management applications.

Sometimes technology that is offered is not explicitly "partner" oriented. Charlie McCabe, manager of AppleCare Web Publishing, says AppleCare doesn't target enterprise partners as a customer base per se, but as several other computer hardware and software companies are doing, offers higher end or institutional customers a fee-based program that provides more information on service and repair, product updates, online training and other services.

"There are some branding issues," Trempont says. When providing online self-help, he finds, some companies insist on marinating the brand across interactions, whereas others don't want to be held accountable for other companies' content.

Internally, online self-help is a godsend for a sales rep of a company with hundreds of highly complex products who is selling to a design engineer at an electronics firm. When the engineer has a technical problem and someone back at headquarters knows the answer, self-service deployed on an intranet between field people and headquarters is the ideal application. Companies such as Cisco make extensive use of this approach.

In cases where customers make considered purchases and do research before they buy, online support is critical. A B2C example, Gianforte says, is Specialized Bicycles. They have 1,100 bike shops around the country and were getting hundreds of e-mail and phone inquiries daily. They went for self-help as a cost reduction opportunity, and after installation, e-mail inquiries declined 83 percent, but "they also attributed an increase in retail sales to having this self-service capability on the Web site."

Solving Complex Problems
Self-help tools are highly effective where clients have lots of customers and complicated products, such as high-tech or insurance. Allstate's 65,000 agents nationwide were taking 20 minutes per call to get questions answered at headquarters, Gianforte says. The company saved $600,000 a month by offering as many immediate answers online as possible.

Even the much-maligned voice recognition technology is making itself useful here and there. Says Purdue University Professor Jon Anton, a recognized authority on call centers, "When I call Schwab [on the road], I'm not looking for advice. I want to place an order, and voice recognition can handle that."

And you just can't beat online self-help for sheer consistency. "We're considering online videos and training videos, since our market has been expanding rapidly, and consistency of message is one of our top priorities," says Eric Russell, Web Wizard for Tempe, Ariz.-based Rockford. "If we produce a video, we can create content once and distribute it everywhere."

The base level need for online self-help tends to be efficiency improvements in the organization. But as companies review the results, they see these more intangible benefits, like increased customer loyalty, increased revenue, building a community to increase brand recognition and a place for info on a topic. These have higher value than the actual bean-counter cost savings.

David Richards, corporate vice president and chief information officer of Rockford, envisions a B2B scenario that offers customers tracking information and safety and installation tip videos while pushing more training and marketing. "Much of this is driven by what's been wish-listed by our B2B customers."

But be sure you know what you're getting into when you go for it. Companies almost always underestimate the sheer amount of work it takes to build a suitable online knowledge base for self-help. Minneapolis-based principal of High-Yield Marketing Dick Lee says he admires Microsoft's telephone service, but they haven't taken the Internet part seriously. Getting the information together and posted is labor-intensive work, so given that the tendency is to think of the Web as a labor-saver, companies are loath to invest a ton of labor now.

Generally, Gianforte says, investing in online self-help makes sense when either questions to the call center are repetitive, or many customers or users are seeking answers. If you have at least two full-time people answering repetitive questions coming from phone calls or e-mails and you're about to hire the third person, you should look into self-service.

Lee says it's crucial to understand what your customers want before you start throwing mud against the wall. "Ninety percent of the online self-help projects begun in the last 18 months have crashed," he says. "You can lead customers a little, but if you get three, four steps ahead of them, you're in trouble."

The Wrong Way
Naturally there's a wrong way to do online support. "In B2B," Hagen says, "there's a lot more emphasis placed on relationships and pre-existing relationships." Vahid Taj, business analyst for Pixys says, "What often happens is that the self-service sites become just part of the corporate presence as a place to post brochures, since a lot of corporate Web sites are driven by the marketing department."

Then there's the whole question of expectations. "A lot of B2B has done a good job so far in order tracking," Hagen says. Businesses have come to expect almost real-time status of orders. "Those questions are easily answered, but it's a trick to put that up on the site, because it's integrating into ERP (enterprise resource planning). Knowledge-based questions--'Which product is best for me?' or 'There's something wrong with my order,' are also a problem."

Customers' expectations are getting higher, and a lot of self-help fails because the content isn't there, Hagen says. "There's a whole process [companies] ought to be creating to answer, 'Why are people calling me? Can I drive people to the Web site?'"

The number one concern of the more sophisticated B2B customer service providers, such as Dell and Cisco, is staying one step ahead of their customers, who are smarter, more informed and expecting more. "Dell is one of the best in B2B, moving to a direct model, with their premier pages, remote diagnostics and software," Hagen says. "They've done a tremendous job." Bottom line: If you can capture and analyze customers' patterns, you can react to those quickly, even proactively in how you deliver value and services to customers.

Back to the original question: Does the stuff really result in more efficient interactions and more satisfied customers? "A lot of the online help has been successful. Only when we get down to specific questions, drilling down to something very technical, do they need to call us," says Russell of Rockford. "About 92 percent of questions are answered online, which includes technical FAQs, a self-help desk and a knowledge desk."

Sometimes it isn't working, Lee says. "I asked Microsoft a question two weeks ago, and I still don't have an answer. There wasn't an answer on the resource center, so I used the dialogue box to ask a tech a question." He's found that in some companies such as Amazon.com there's a surprising drop-off from B2C to B2B online self-help. Other business users complain that they find the sites too overwhelming in the detail on the first few pages or requiring too many clicks to find the meat.

"It's working as advertised for us," says Treiber of DataCore, which sells storage area networking to lots of old-line businesses such as financial institutions.

In searching for an incident-tracking product, Treiber settled on a Web-enabled solution from RightNow. "Most of our use of the technology is in tracking issues, customers' trouble tickets." Customers are required to have a service contract to access the company's 200-entry knowledge base, and customer support comes with the sale of a product.

The most frequently asked questions DataCore gets are relative to "What's the latest release?" and "How do I use this certain feature?" Like most B2B operations there are few hard numbers to use in analytics for online self-help at this stage, but Treiber says that currently 90 percent of customer visits to their Web site result in finding answers through the knowledge base; 3 percent are helped with a "smart assistant click here" button; and approximately 6 percent rely on personal help, such as picking up the phone and calling.

That 6 percent is unavoidable. "We're not going to have a knowledge base entry that answers a question about a customers' unique network," Treiber says. Hagen agrees: "The key is learning why people are contacting you.

"The last thing you want to do is lose a sale because you don't want to talk to them, and learn from the escalation points. But it's a failure only if you don't learn from the interaction. As long as you've satisfied a customer, you've succeeded."

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