Customer Self-Service: Automat Redux
Customer self-service can make small companies seem bigger, and big companies more personal.
Amid the wreckage of countless failed CRM rollouts, a bright spot is emerging. Companies that grossly underestimated, by orders of magnitude, the cost, complexity and wrenching change required to realize the benefits promised by CRM, are finding one aspect of the plan that actually works: customer self-service. By 2010, Gartner Inc. projects that self-service interactions will account for 58 percent of all service interactions, up from 35 percent in 2005. The self-service trend is real, and getting more real all the time.
According to Elizabeth Herrell, a Forrester Inc. vice president, self-service applications are now "an essential component of any CRM strategy. Customers are demanding it as a choice. They want to be able to interact with a company using self-service, assisted service, or a combination of the two." And, she adds, companies need self-service to remain competitive: "While many customers may prefer them, fully assisted services are the most expensive services to provide, and they really aren't necessary for many basic interactions," Herrell says.
Utility Service Company Inc., based in Perry, Ga., services and maintains the large water storage tanks that dot the U.S. landscape from coast to coast. The 300-employee firm has over 4,000 customers, including municipalities and industrial firms. In 2005, USCI launched a customer self-service portal, dubbed Util-Link, "to differentiate us from our competitors," according to IT director David Alkhazraji. "During the sales cycle, some of the largest customers, those with 500 or 600 tanks in their systems, expressed concern about our ability to satisfy their 'large-company requirements' for updated account and asset-management information, online bill payment and the like. So we initially sold the portal as a concept to address that concern," he says.
Alkhazraji cites American Water Co., USCI's largest customer, as an example. "American Water wanted to make sure we could provide transparency and accountability, especially with respect to billing," he explains. The company also wanted access to information about tank maintenance to continually manage its budget and monitor cash flow. USCI now provides those capabilities, along with many others, over Util-Link, which is free and available 24/7. Customers can access all components of their accounts and pay bills online. They can access Web sites that discuss water quality or provide Environmental Protection Agency information, and download "asset detail reports" used for internal auditing purposes. They can also place requests for service and check the status of work in progress, due to tight integration between the customer portal and USCI's backend systems.
Alkhazraji says the portal was instrumental in closing a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract with American Water, and was a key factor in acquiring other large accounts. Meanwhile, incoming customer requests have declined 9 percent from last year, as more customers turn to the Web portal for information.