Customer Self-Service: Automat Redux

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

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.

Ask your head of customer strategy:
  • How well do our customer self-service capabilities meet the overall CRM objectives of our company?

    Ask your customers:
  • How satisfied are you with the customer self-service options our company currently provides?



    Good self-service is simple to use, and it anticipates customers' most common mistakes.

    When it comes to customer self-service, most companies seem to have good intentions. In a 2005 survey conducted by CIO Insight, 53 percent of respondents said their company's IT departments supported customer self-service.

    Of those respondents, 71 percent said their companies were investing in self-service technologies to improve service quality, while only 29 percent indicated a desire to reduce costs.

    Yet success at delivering a great customer experience through self-service channels is spotty at best. Gartner Research Director Esteban Kolsky says nearly half of Web-based customer-service transactions must still be completed over the telephone. Additionally, in that same CIO Insight survey mentioned above, 28 percent of respondents said their company's customer-satisfaction levels had declined as a result of customers' inability to reach a live person to discuss a problem. As Bill Hou, vice president of self-service products at Oracle Corp. puts it, "there's a big difference between deflecting a call and deflecting it with a happy customer."

    Customer self-service has been a cornerstone of Queens, N.Y.-based JetBlue Airways Corp.'s business strategy since its first flight back in February 2000. "When we launched this airline," says Eric Brinker, director of brand management and customer experience, "we made a commitment to provide as much technology as possible to make the customer self-sufficient." In 2005, 78 percent of the low-cost carrier's customers booked their flights online at That compares to just 42 percent online bookings for the total U.S. airline industry, according to travel industry consultants PhoCusWright Inc.

    Brinker is responsible for ensuring a consistent experience (and brand image) across all of JetBlue's customer touch points, from the plane itself to the company Web site. The airline has some intrinsic advantages when it comes to providing easy-to-use applications over its self-service channels, which include its airport-based kiosks and phone-based interactive voice response systems. For one, it is unencumbered by decades-old legacy systems built long before anyone was talking about "the customer experience." Brinker says JetBlue's ticket-less reservation system is much more akin to those used by hotels than by most other major airlines: Customers check in simply by providing their names. JetBlue also enjoys favorable customer demographics—skewed toward the young and tech savvy—that have eased widespread adoption of its do-it-yourself approach, for everything from booking flights and printing boarding passes to tracking flights and checking bags.

    JetBlue's distribution costs are also among the lowest in the industry. The airline uses only electronic tickets, which saves paper, postage, employee time and back-office processing expenses. It also requires customers to book directly with JetBlue, rather than going through agents or online reservation systems that charge fees. The company's adherence to e-tickets has made it easier to introduce other innovations—JetBlue is among the first carriers to allow customers to change or cancel flights on their own. Brinker says that changing tickets at other airlines is "like doing a wire transfer with your bank, complete with clearinghouses and multiple agencies involved."

    Brinker sprinkles his conversation with words like "friendly" and "welcoming" to describe JetBlue's Web site and kiosks. "We looked at a lot of best-in-class user interfaces and took our cues from them. Our kiosk is modeled after the ticketing kiosks used in the New York City subway system. We want checking in with JetBlue to be as easy as buying a MetroCard." The airport kiosk interface also mirrors JetBlue's Web site interface, and anticipates customer mistakes. For example, customers often print out the e-mail confirmation of their flight in error, rather than the actual boarding pass they are required to present at the gate. Those e-mail messages include a barcode that passengers can scan at the airport kiosk in order to quickly print the correct boarding pass on the fly.

    JetBlue also rewards self-reliance. Customers are charged $25 to change a ticket on their own, while those who call 1-800-jetblue are charged $30. Members of JetBlue's loyalty program, TrueBlue, receive double points for booking flights online, so they can earn a free flight twice as quickly.

    Despite such rewards, JetBlue is continually challenged in its mission to get customers to embrace self-service. The airline promotes kiosks as the fastest way to check bags before dropping them with an agent, but customers sometimes find a much longer line at the kiosk than at the traditional counter, which erodes the kiosk's value proposition. JetBlue would also like to see more customers printing boarding passes at home.

    Ask your usability experts:
  • What steps are we taking to ensure self-service applications are as easy to use as possible?

    Ask your channel managers:
  • How do we reward customers for completing tasks without assistance?



    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.

    Ask your IT architect:
  • Which transactions and information can we reasonably expose to customers today, and within two years?

    Ask your business intelligence team:
  • How can we measure our self-service efforts in the context of our overall CRM reporting capability?