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By Karen S. Henrie  |  Posted 11-06-2006 Print

A step-wise approach to self-service rollouts will get companies further, faster.

While Gartner's Kolsky acknowledges the potential for self-service to reduce costs and improve service quality, he also says, "it is an extremely complex model to deliver, and takes two to three years [at a minimum] for most companies to figure out." Companies do best when implementing self-service in a step-wise fashion, starting with something as simple as providing answers to frequently asked questions, and moving up to allow customers to execute complex transactions (like changing a flight), on their own.

Self-service capabilities usually require multiple layers of technology across each service channel. Standardizing on a set of packaged CRM applications from Oracle or SAP helps when integrating self-service across channels. But most companies still need to buy best-of-breed "e-service" products to provide the live chat, e-mail response management, customer search, and other key features needed for self-service over the Web.

Yet, according to Kolsky, "technology stopped being the key issue in self-service a long time ago. The main issue is people." Self-service can open a Pandora's box of turf battles and cultural conflicts. For one, self-service is contributing to a general shift in control and resources away from the call center. And at Utility Service Company, some mid-level managers are uncomfortable with the additional transparency that Util-Link provides customers, says Alkhazraji. "We log complaints into the system, and now they show up on the customer portal. Some people think we're giving out information to hang ourselves with."

Last year, Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes Inc., a business-to-business provider of integrated mail, messaging and document-management solutions, with $5.5 billion in 2005 revenues, combined its customer-care organization with its online services group to ameliorate those conflicts. Vice President Rudy Chang, who heads up the newly combined group, says he is looking to deflect more traffic from the company's call center to the Internet, and views call-center reps as key partners in that effort. "If we want to move the needle on Internet adoption by our customers, we need to provide the call center with the knowledge and the incentives to make it happen." He points out, for instance, that call-center reps can sometimes handle problems more productively over live chat than on the phone. "An agent can deal with only one customer at a time over the telephone, but it is quite possible to simultaneously juggle two or three live chat sessions with customers," Chang says.

Mark Angel, chief technology officer at Knova Software Inc., a maker of customer-service tools based in Cupertino, Calif., says that exposing company information can be risky. "Many companies make the mistake of thinking that customer-facing search is just search, when they really need to reorganize their knowledge and content, and put it under one umbrella." He also points out that companies must be prepared to make a reasonable investment in their transaction architecture in order to facilitate self-service and handle the higher volume of interactions with customers.

Companies also need to identify the metrics they'll need to measure their self-service efforts. For the Web, that might mean the number of transactions completed without a customer having to pick up the phone. For an interactive voice response system, that might mean the number of customer calls completed without human assistance. Ultimately, companies need to know if customers found what they needed and went away happy—but answering these simple questions can often mean wading through a disparate mix of clickstream data, e-service usage logs, CRM analytics, business-intelligence reporting and more.

Well-designed applications that are consistent with other self-service channels and integrated with assisted-service channels, such as the telephone or a live-chat feature, are critical, not only for self-service adoption but also for overall company health. "Bad service is the quickest way to lose a customer," says Forrester's Herrell. "If you have high abandonment rates on your Web site, or people are hitting the pound key through your IVR system, you've got problems." In other words, help should never be far away.


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