Beyond FAQs

Online self-service capabilities—in which customers can make inquiries, check transaction status, or even resolve an issue without going through live customer service agents—have made the leap from phone-based interactive voice response systems to the Web. For many organizations, the Web has become the primary first point of interaction for consumers, who can now seek answers to their commonly asked questions without having to pick up the phone or wait for an emailed response.

This is one of the findings of a new survey conducted by CRM magazine. The survey, conducted in partnership with IntelliResponse, included input from 520 call center executives, managers, or supervisors.

Close to half of CRM managers and professionals responding to the survey say they have Web or mobile-based self-service capabilities. The self-service channel is growing, with three-fifths of respondents expecting to increase its use over the coming year. Many have had Web self-service capabilities for a number of years now, and six out of 10 are also moving into mobile.

While interest in Web and mobile is running high, most of these capabilities are limited to customer portals with FAQs or the use of site search in a customer service environment. About half of these systems share the same technology and data with their customer service center.

The benefits of self-service are tangible. About half of executives with Web or mobile self-service capabilities report measurable reductions in phone inquiries, as well as less email traffic. A majority of respondents have also seen increased sales through their customer self-service channel. In addition, customer self-service has helped divert emails away from the contact center—two-fifths of respondents report a decrease in the volume of emails sent to their live contact center. A similar number have even introduced or plan to soon incorporate upselling and cross-selling to customers who are online or on the phone.

There are management challenges with the move to greater self-service capabilities as well. When moving to Web or mobile self-service, most executives are concerned with the rising complexity of their Web sites, as well as the need to integrate these systems and the associated data with existing customer service channels. A majority also report increased Web traffic since launching online self-service on the Web or mobile.

Most executives do not foresee their live-agent customer care centers going away any time soon as a result of more self-service capabilities. If anything, more than 40 percent expect their live contact centers to keep expanding, reflecting an increasing escalation of representatives' roles, from fielding routine inquiries to greater specialization and high-level customer care.

Self-service channels are generating enormous amounts of data on customer trends and preferences, but this is still an untapped resource. While most companies capture some customer self-service interaction data, most are not yet applying the data to improving their customers' experiences, the survey finds.

The customer self-service realm is poised to begin expanding beyond simple FAQ pages. Up-and-coming features expected to be added over the next three years include interactive videos, social media channels for customer forums, and interactive, real-time chat options. There is an overarching movement toward the notion of providing "answers" to natural language questions and doing so across a variety of online channels.

Ultimately, customers can and will go to competitors if they feel they need to "jump through hoops" to get the answer they want from a company. No matter how well-trained and friendly call center staff may be, customers will only be frustrated if they have to wait extended periods of time on the phone to get the information they need, resulting in a clear impact on the bottom line.

Findings from the 2013 IntelliResponse Web Customer Service Survey indicate numerous operational and cost-saving advantages to self-service, and that managers are just beginning to tap into the opportunities for richer customer relationships that these technologies offer. In an era in which competitive differentiation is achieved through better understanding and better serving customers, most organizations are only beginning to grasp the ways more automated customer service platforms can help achieve such differentiation. Delivering a superior customer experience is essential these days, and doing so online has become both necessary and very achievable.

Joe McKendrick is a research analyst at Unisphere, a division of Information Today, Inc.

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