• October 1, 2007
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Help Them Help Themselves

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There are a bunch of tactics a company can deploy to demonstrate to clients how much it values their patronage. Delivering a Web self-service experience so awful that it causes customers to defect to a chief competitor is not one of them. Just ask CRM magazine Associate Editor Colin Beasty.

Roughly three years ago, Colin bought a new desktop computer that came with six months' free use of an antivirus program. Shortly before the end of the complimentary period, he subscribed for a one-year policy with a sticker price of $39.99. "That's where the issues began," he says.

The automatic protection updates failed to run as promised when he started his PC, essentially leaving his computer vulnerable to infection. Colin turned to the antivirus protection company's Web site to locate repair information, but navigating the site proved impossible. One page in particular, which featured potential problems and ways to remedy them, offered what Colin calls a "laundry list" of information. "It was so difficult to try and discern anything from it, to find information that matched my problem," he says. "It was information overload."

When that resolution attempt failed, he opted to click on an FAQ icon -- but that only led to a page that was equally as garbled as the one he'd come from. Frustrated with coming up empty-handed, Colin abandoned the site, only to return to it a few days later and be let down again. "I never even found an 800 service number," he says. After spending hours hitting wall after wall, Colin had had enough; he removed the antivirus program from his PC and bought a service from that company's archrival. "If I could've gotten service I would've stayed," he says. "After all, I spent money on the subscription. I need a very straightforward Web self-service experience. But that was not it."

Web self-service is far from new, but companies are still grappling with enabling customers to find relevant information online quickly without the aid of a live CSR. Analysts and experts agree: Organizations must learn to view online self-service as a critical component of their customer loyalty initiatives rather than as an implementation intended simply to cut costs.

Web Woes
It's no secret that the number of consumers migrating to the Web -- and subsequently, Web self-service -- continues to trend upward. For instance, 80 percent of the customers in a 2001 JupiterResearch/NPD survey said they'd used self-service search during the prior six months; that figure had risen to 88 percent in a JupiterResearch/Ipsos-Insight survey five years later. FAQs have caught on at an even hotter pace: 83 percent of the 2001 respondents said they used FAQs, compared to 94 percent of those surveyed in 2006. A rise in adoption, however, has yet to translate into much -- if any -- improvement in satisfaction. In fact, while FAQ satisfaction improved a meager three percentage points between 2001 (52 percent) and 2006 (55 percent), satisfaction with self-service search actually fell over the same period, from 56 percent to 51 percent.

Of course, Web self-service has evolved into more than just FAQs and elementary search capabilities -- today's systems include additional functionality, such as increasingly sophisticated natural-language search, guided help, and automated chat. (See "Yackety Clack," May 2007, for more on enterprise chat.) Still, a sizable chunk of customer irritation with Web self-service is the product of two intertwined culprits: shoddy content and barriers to finding relevant information. To make matters even worse, there are times when customers cannot locate information needed to solve their queries and there's no option provided for them to migrate to assisted service -- connecting to a live agent via channels like phone, email, or chat.

This dovetails with the siloed mindset still common among lagging companies and their continued inability to create a seamless experience across channels. Susan Aldrich, senior vice president and senior consultant at the Patricia Seybold Group, puts it this way: "Self-service is owned and designed piecemeal. The result is that the integration of these piecemeal pieces is owned by the customer." Aldrich recommends that companies appoint an executive to be in charge of the self-service experience, someone like a chief customer officer or vice president of customer experience, and invest resources in an information-management team.

A lack of investment in the proper tools can play a major part in weakening online self-service initiatives. "The core problem on the technology side is that companies jumped on the bandwagon, were trying to be early adopters, put out a knowledge base, put out search, and they haven't done a lot since then," says John Ragsdale, vice president of research for the Service & Support Professionals Association. "We need a major technology refresh."

The umbrella issues, however, appear to be the undervaluing of Web self-service (and service in general) as a competitive differentiator and lack of a clear strategy. "One area of struggle we often see is a lack of self-service vision or plan," says Bob Peery, director of knowledge base product management at Talisma. "And, all too often, if there is a vision it's nebulous and has no clear plan as to who is targeted, the channel leveraged, or the type of service provided -- whether it be purely knowledge base content or a mix of content and escalation into assisted service."

Analyze This
Developing a plan for bolstering Web self-service requires companies to go back to basics: Determine what you're trying to accomplish with self-service and identify key performance indicators (KPIs) your company will use to define success. Does your definition of Web self-service success revolve strictly around diverting customers who intended to phone your contact center, enabling them to find answers directly from the Web without the help of a live rep? Or does your definition expand beyond service issues to incorporate the ability to carry out e-commerce transactions?

"Define what the metrics are that mean that the interaction was effective for your organization and then measure it against those metrics you've defined," says David Vap, vice president of products at RightNow Technologies. (See sidebar, "Break Out the Measuring Tape," for a partial list of recommended KPIs for Web self-service effectiveness.)

According to Talisma's Peery, when it comes to measuring Web self-service success, the first instinct is to expect a decrease in interaction volumes -- although how quickly this happens, if it happens at all, depends on a company's offerings and customers. As an example: Data management software provider Vision Solutions uses Knova Software's adaptive search functionality, which includes guided search, direct answer, resolutions flows, and adaptive navigation capabilities coupled with a centralized knowledge base. As a result, Vision has trimmed the number of incoming customer calls by 10 percent.

Peery notes other items that are typically tracked: customer satisfaction surveys, number of issues resolved, mean time to resolution, first-contact resolution, and customers who repeat (and how often). All of these are useful, he says, but the important thing to remember is that decisions can rarely be made on the basis of one report. "The value comes from a balance of objective and subjective data, or observed and perceived," he says. "For example, customer satisfaction surveys are mostly subjective and give us a strong sense of a customer's perception of value. If customers report that it takes too long to solve issues then there's a problem regardless of what internal 'mean time to resolution' metrics are reporting."

Monitoring customers' self-service activities can help organizations paint a picture of why those interactions fail--and then enable the company to take corrective action. Tom Sweeny, a principal at industry research firm ServiceXRG, notes that many packaged-search options have good tracking and analytics that record data such as search terms and documents opened, while some companies also collect session data such as clickstream.

Often, though, "there's a big gap in understanding what customers actually do when on a self-service site," he says. Service-focused vendors such as InQuira and Knova deliver analytics-based Web self-service platforms, while more-traditional Web analytics vendors such as Coremetrics, Omniture, Visual Sciences (formerly WebSideStory), and WebTrends can also extract intelligence, enabling organizations to tweak the online experiences they provide. "The data is there," says Tim Shelter, vice president of marketing at InQuira. "The best companies are monitoring their analytics and Web logs on pretty much a daily basis to try and spot issues and trends, and are actually looking for selling opportunities in addition to support issues."

Sales opportunities aren't the only added benefit of solid self-service. The "new" AT&T is an example of how drastically a successful project can impact the bottom line. Before AT&T and Cingular Wireless merged, Cingular sought to strengthen its Web presence, integrating self-service options into its ATG Commerce deployment. Realizing that most inbound calls were equipment inquiries, the company added a self-service link to "phone and device support." From this section of the site, a customer could select the make and model of her phone and link directly into tutorials and knowledge-base solutions. According to a 2006 report, nearly 45 percent of Cingular customers using ATG's self-service offerings found their desired information and had no intentions of phoning the contact center. Leveraging that deflection rate and an average industry cost per call, the company estimated that the self-service initiative realized annual cost savings of more than $4 million.

Another important component of any successful self-service project is capturing (and continually evaluating) the voice of the customer. "Companies will often run or send surveys, but they just won't do anything with it," says RightNow's Vap. "Measure for areas that are working, and measure for areas that aren't working."

Consider the experience of Big Fish Games, a developer, publisher, and distributor of games via the Internet. The company uses the RightNow Service application to analyze customer activity on its site's help section. When Big Fish relaunched its Web site in May 2007, the company was able to monitor in real time the types of queries that were trickling in. "[A] number of issues emerged that we were able to identify in RightNow and respond and create new knowledge-base articles, literally going from issue identification to publishing useful self-service information within a matter of minutes," says Cory Finnell, vice president of consumer products at Big Fish. The company constantly analyzes how customers are using the site's service section, but also shares that information with its engineering, game operations, and product management teams. "To do this well you have to take a holistic approach and engage the entire organization."

Escalating with Ease
The self-service interface must enable customers to quickly access the information they're hunting for; not surprisingly, the harder it is to find the right resolution, the higher the dropout rate becomes. As InQuira's Shelter says, if organizations viewed "service as another business interaction, just like selling something -- and treated it the same way in terms of 'findability,' analytics, and the effort and the money they invest in making sure that it has the right structures -- that would go a long way in terms of encouraging customers to use that channel and to trust it as the first point of contact."

Full personalization and audience-appropriate content are also particularly important. "If you focus the experience that they have to the context of the relationship they have with you, you eliminate all the other noise that exists and you also have the ability to tailor the experience to that customer type," Sweeny says. Similarly, understanding intent and context can further help companies provide the proper information.

When customers appear to have hit a self-service impasse, the key is to provide them a way to regain their footing on the path to resolution. Ensure that they can easily escalate to additional channels: Enable them to fire off an email, phone a live rep, or join a chat session -- a method that is progressively gaining traction.

"Escalation adds cost to the transaction, but it provides the user with a higher probability of a successful and satisfactory transaction," Sweeny says. "Plus, if, on the back end, you're doing your homework, you have the ability to track and determine why the self-service transaction failed and what can be done about it."

Ashu Roy, chairman and CEO of eGain Communications, stresses the importance of eliminating silos across self-service and agent service. Even if a company only invests a tiny bit to make sure self- and agent service are connected, Roy says, "the fact that they are joined up [at all] makes the customer experience a lot more pleasant in the long haul."

Help Me Help You
There is no single way that all customers will ask questions. But it's a company's job to deduce the customer's quest and produce the right information. Aldrich, of the Patricia Seybold Group, remembers well what one Web self-service user told her: "No matter what I type in I should be guided to what I need."

Guided help is one way to make a Web self-service interaction more dynamic and effective. Wizards can "step the customer through each particular point in the process and make it absolutely clear, easy, and simple to understand what's required," says Mark Angel, senior vice president of corporate development and strategy at Kana Software.

Fusing structured navigation with search can help guide customers whose inquiries are too broad or too specific, and direct them to the right information, says Zachary McGeary, a research associate at JupiterResearch. "Intelligent search is moving beyond just basic word associations to actually really try to understand and discover what the consumer is asking," McGeary says. "It has to do with identifying their particular intent," he adds, noting that the process requires looking at the relationship between words in the query and what he calls "the attitudinal part." Also, more companies are warming up to the notion of injecting collaboration techniques, such as discussion forums, into their online self-help initiatives. (See "Wise Guide," June 2007, for more on online communities.)

Kana's Angel notes that companies often get stuck on the overall appearance of the self-service environment, the search engine itself, and the content therein. These are important, he acknowledges, but they're not the only factors. "There's something in between those two things, and it's this idea of information architecture," Angel says. "It's really about how to organize the pages in your Web site and the links and navigation between those pages, and how you present the overall self-service process to customers."

One of the keys there is to craft an interaction that mirrors customers' needs. "Self-service ultimately is successful when it becomes the choice customers make versus the only alternative they're given," Sweeny says. "In the last five years we've created an environment where people are very comfortable to go and look for their own information. But now it becomes incumbent upon us to provide the customer with an experience that will bring them back. That's the bar that's been set: to create an experience that draws people to come back in the future."

Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com.

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