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Salesforce Commerce Solution Guide

The Rise of Online Self-Service

By Elizabeth Millard
Jun 9, 2004 8:28 AM PT

As more consumers and businesses turn to the Internet not just for information, but as a way to run their daily errands, the need for more sophisticated customer service grows unabated. The old one-two punch of call-center representatives and an online Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page does not satisfy customers who are increasingly tech-savvy and information hungry.

The Rise of Online Self-Service

With that demand in mind, many companies are turning to firms that deliver online self-service tools. Selling either in-house software or hosted services, sometimes even both, purveyors of self-service technology are finding their products are in high demand.

Can these companies finally bring the customer-service experience online?

Baby Grows Up

Customer service in some form has been part of e-commerce since online shoppers first began hitting the "Add to Cart" button. But efforts to address customer needs often fell short in the past, especially if customers wanted specific information about products or personal data such as account balances.

Several companies sprouted up to address this situation. According to industry observers, ServiceWare and Primus Knowledge were the original providers, later joined by others including Kana, eGain, RightNow and Participate Systems.

At first, these types of firms beefed up self-service by building robust knowledge banks that sometimes included natural language processing. This technology enables a customer to ask a question, in the same way he would ask a human rep, and get an answer online.

The knowledge banks are still heavily utilized, but they also have been bolstered by other features, such as online communities and message boards.

Future Think

One important step forward is in the advancement of search functionality, according to Scott Schwartzman, COO of ServiceWare.

"It's important for customers to be able to just type their questions," he told CRM Buyer. "For that to be effective, you also have to have a way that the system can learn from questions it can't answer."

ServiceWare sells a product that is self-learning and self-organizing, Schwartzman said, and that delivers suggestions based on advanced natural language processing.

Knowledge Banking

Meanwhile, Participate Systems, which boasts customers like Mercury Interactive, Thomson, Logitech and TiVo, offers a knowledge bank with a community management system. Customers can interact with each other to solve problems and share their experience.

Patrick Saeger, Mercury Interactive's vice president of customer support, told the E-Commerce Times that use of the technology has resulted in more customer satisfaction. "What we try to do is use our site as a communication channel," he said. "By doing this, we can translate that feedback to other parts of the organization.

"You're not just throwing out content and expecting customers to be happy with that," he added. "You have to continue to invest in the system."

Hello, ROI

Customer satisfaction is a compelling reason to implement self-service, but an even more noticeable benefit is the return on investment (ROI). For example, Mercury Interactive has reduced the average cost per customer interaction by 25 percent. Forrester principal analyst John Ragsdale told CRM Buyer that this figure is not surprising and is a standard cost reduction with use of self-service technology.

Alan Warms, CEO of Participate Systems, said in an interview with CRM Buyer that his company often sees its clients save at least 20 percent per interaction. In certain industries, where customer support is most acute, use of self-service has been growing particularly quickly, he said.

Warms noted that the industries expressing the most interest are consumer electronics, technology, medical diagnostic and financial. "These are industries where the customer-service bar keeps getting raised," he said. "They're trying to deliver complex, sophisticated products, and their support needs to keep up with that."

Customers of technology and consumer electronics may have an even keener interest in better online self-support in the future, he added. That is because as companies like Dell charge for their support services, customers will gravitate toward the free support offered online.

A Few Miles To Go

Even though self-service applications and services are gaining ground, however, the field still has some kinks to work out if it is to find future success.

Most notably, self-service must be able to integrate well with other parts of an organization. The strategy also has to be blended with call-center operations in a way that makes sense. Lastly, companies have to be able to adapt to changing customer-support needs with all parts of their customer management.

Karen Lound, customer support manager of self-service at Fourth Shift, told CRM Buyer that in a recent survey, 70 percent of Fourth Shift's customers rated the knowledge bank as the most helpful aspect of customer service. On the other hand, an online message board, which was actually implemented at the suggestion of customers, has been a disappointment.

"It hasn't gotten as much use as I thought it would," she said. "But we're working on changing that."

Solid Road

Despite the adjustments companies may have to make, Ragsdale noted that bolstering self-service efforts is a good way to achieve good ROI and boost customer happiness -- as long as it is done intelligently.

"You can't just throw a site up and assume customers will come," he said. "You have to find out what customers think and what they want. Certainly, the potential for cost-cutting is large with self-service, but you have to invest time and money into making sure you're implementing something that makes sense."

In certain industries, such as telecommunications and consumer technology, self-service will become a differentiator among competitors, he added.

"The use of self-service can be compelling," Ragsdale said, "as long as the company is doing it right."

Has technology made transportation more or less safe?
Traveling by all modes of transportation has become riskier with each passing year.
In general, transportation safety has been improving steadily, despite some failures.
Some modes of transportation have been improving while others have become less safe.
We may have reached a tipping point where more tech means less safety.
Don't blame the tech -- greedy companies haven't done adequate testing.
Government regulators have not been playing a strong enough oversight role.
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