Online Service: Better for Customers, Or for the Bottom Line?

Online self-service has provided both companies and customers with the freedom to interact anywhere, anytime. But in the rush to lower costs, some feel that firms have overlooked both the effectiveness and the customer satisfaction created (or eroded) by online service. "If the box is on, they assume they are giving good service," says Bob Davis, CEO of online performance management firm Peakstone. This clearly becomes evident when customers are cut off from other service options. "The normal company, selling to a spectrum of customers, can make rules about what service options are given to customers and in what sequence," says Joe Outlaw, president of Outlaw Research. "Don't try to push customers to a particular channel that's more convenient to you or lower cost to you." One of the major challenges for serious adopters of online self-service is the fact that the quality of the interaction is very dependent on the customer's ability to use the self-help system. While support agents can be trained to a reliable minimum standard, companies have no such hold over their customers. "This is a key shortcoming of not only self-service systems, but agent systems. They throw it on a Web site, throw it to agents, they may populate it with content, and say 'figure out when and how to use it,'" says Ben Kaplan, vice president of marketing and products for Kanisa. "You have to know a lot about the customer, and make the site learn and proactively change the point of interactions, and you can only do that with a sophisticated analytics engine and an integrated view of the customer," says Sheryl Kingstone, CRM program manager at The Yankee Group. The surprise for self-service adopters is that doing it right and reaching the nirvana of high-quality, low-cost customer touches requires substantial investment. "That only comes with integration, and high costs." Some of the value pitches for online service boast of self-learning artificial intelligence that improves interaction quality as time goes on, but even those adaptive technologies cannot operate properly without oversight and intervention from the customer support organization. "The IT staff becomes your customer support organization [if] there's no fallback," Peakstone's Davis says. Firms employing online self-service not only need to maintain an assisted service operation, but also must aggressively measure the results of the online system. "The line-of-business [manager] needs a real-time view of the actual performance the Web site is delivering to customers." Online self-service can also erode brands--one Web site ends up looking very much like another, and the consumer is always at the controls. Kingstone says companies must learn from other interactions that have evolved to almost exclusively self-service models in recent years: "Gas stations have broadened to have more of the experience in the store," she says. Similarly, firms guiding customers to self-service must look for new ways to reinforce their value with customers.
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