February 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Beyond Self-Service

Creating great web customer interactions that inform your business

By Blake Cahill and Mike Lande

Web self-service applications are fast becoming the standard for basic customer interactions. Customers are encouraged to use the web as a cost-effective support mechanism to make inquiries about products and services, to place orders, receive technical assistance and resolve questions and service needs.

But how does a company know if its self-service applications are delivering the desired results? Are customers satisfied with the support they receive and are their interactions building loyalty and a deeper customer relationship? From the company perspective, are web and support services such as chat providing the expected cost savings? And, are the interactions feeding the right business analytics back to your sales, marketing and product development teams?

Sole point of direct contact

As companies offer ever-more convenient-and cost-saving-support channels to their customers, web support is seen as a panacea from the company’s point of view. But if not properly monitored and evaluated it can lose the relationship-building aspect of service. As John Ragsdale of Forrester Research Inc. says, “Managers at all levels are coming to realize that service and support interactions are often the only direct contact the company has with the customer, and that the quality of those interactions therefore has a significant impact on long-term business success.” Multi-channel support analytics are the essential bridge that tells you if your web and support services are providing the benefits you are looking for, in both financial and customer relationship arenas.

Knowing how your customers want to communicate under which specific circumstances is critical to their satisfaction-one-size fits all is no longer a sustainable strategy. Your company must also identify how it wants to guide and communicate with customers from a customer value and cost-avoidance perspective. In order to deliver the ideal customer experience and reap the results, then, your company must learn from each and every customer interaction-in a word, analytics.

But incorporating analytics is a complex problem, not solved merely through the application of technology. At the center of your web self-service technology build-out, it’s essential to create a process management structure that gathers behavioral analytics and responds dynamically to customer needs and behavior-both of which will change over time.

Creating the process management structure that will result in online self-service support that meets corporate goals and customer experience standards starts with putting together the right team. This team should include people who understand the organization’s business goals, the departmental functions that impact those goals, and how and what content is used by different support staff and customers across which interaction channels. It should also have representation from areas where content functions intersect.

Mapping the interactions

One approach to identifying these areas-and therefore your team-is to map common customer interactions to customers’ preferred interaction channels. These intersection points will lead you to the internal departments that create the content for each channel-and discovery of potential misinformation and conflicting information that your customers are experiencing within different interaction channels.

Whether extending an existing CRM solution, enhancing a web-based support portal, or creating a new multi-channel delivery model, companies must begin by asking the right questions:

- From which applications do customers access content?

- Which documents do they use, in what frequency and in what order?

- Where is the content stored and in what form?

- Are there gaps or duplications across systems?

- How easy is it to change content based on user patterns?

- What infrastructure is already in place?

- How is each channel currently used?

- Where is there opportunity for improvement?

Once you’ve answered all these questions, you must determine the relative costs of interactions or transactions across various channels.

Ask these questions first from the customer perspective and then from a technology standpoint. Once you understand the patterns and needs, it will be clear whether existing technologies can be adjusted or if new tools are required.

Identify obstacles

What is on the back side of your web-based customer applications will determine how well these applications serve your customers and the extent to which they can be proactively coordinated and managed. Often, this process management piece leads to building paths across existing technology delivery systems rather than the purchase of new technology.

Once you are aware of the internal opportunities and obstacles, optimizing your customer experience requires an understanding of user expectations, needs and roles. While ideally organizations would like to provide a unique service experience tailored to each customer, a more practical and cost-effective approach is to begin by defining groups of customers, such as those making a first purchase or opening a new account versus customers with support needs around a previous purchase or an existing account, and those seeking information about your offerings or terminating services. Identifying all your customer groups along with their typical roles, needs and the preferred channels for various types of interaction requests will give you the insight to drive certain customers to certain channels.

The process management team’s next task is to create a unified content strategy that reaches across multi-channel customer support and the internally facing systems that feed information to customer service personnel. Of course, your telephone service agents should be working from exactly the same information that is offered on your web site. But do your phone agents also have access to the product and marketing information used by your retail sales force throughout all your regions of operation? It’s important to think through all the places where content exists and whether it is in conflict, isolation or duplicated within the existing system. With that knowledge, you have the power to change content and interaction processes as the need arises-and to achieve the dual goal of efficient support systems that match your customer needs.

Putting it all together

The approach to web support-using technology, process management and analytics-presented here is exemplified at Recreational Equipment Inc., a leading outdoor gear retailer, and ranked No. 6 nationally of all retailers for customer support by the National Retail Federation Foundation/American Express 2005 retail survey.

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