Self-service apps make comeback

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In an effort to improve customer service, Corporate Communications Broadcast Network Inc., which helps publicly traded organizations disseminate information, sends out a semiannual questionnaire to its customers. Results of a recent survey held a surprise: Customers wanted more automated, self-service options.

"All clients have account management teams, but some of them didn’t want to have to call their account managers to make small changes," said Greg Radner, VP-marketing with Boston-based CCBN. "When we first started doing surveys three years ago, roughly 60% of clients used MyCCBN [a portal that users can personalize with various services]. Now, that number is up to 86%."

CCBN’s experience mirrors a trend confirmed in a June report from Reservoir Partners, a Cambridge, Mass., research and consulting firm.

"Self-service is making inroads because it’s all about how to help the customer find the part or piece of information they need at the time they need it," said Chris Selland, managing director at Reservoir Partners. "One of the biggest challenges is that there’s a lot of potential information out there that customers need, and it’s tough putting just the right information in front of the customer at just the right time."

Self-service redux

The concept of helping customers help themselves is not a new one. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, self-service was touted as a way to reduce the number of call center agents needed, saving money. The execution of the concept, however, was less than perfect in many instances, and customers who used self-service options were often lost in touch-tone hell.

Today, that’s changing. Technology improvements are making self-service hot—and this time it actually works and saves money, according to the Reservoir Partners report. For example, a long-distance call coming into a call center typically costs a vendor $192 in labor costs. By comparison, once a company posts answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) on its Web site, there’s little or no labor cost for customers to find those answers.

There have been other changes as well, according to the report. Significantly, the number of self-service offerings has exploded. There are more than 10 self-service technology categories now, including virtual reps, portals, search, voice self-service and FAQs. The best part, according to the report, is that most companies don’t need more than one or two options to provide excellent service. In addition, because each category has at least three vendors associated with it, companies have more flexibility in choosing one.

Choosing the right path

With so many options available, Selland said it’s not surprising that most companies make one key mistake: spending almost all their self-service budget on Web-based products, even though 44% of customer inquiries still come into the call center. According to the report, only 18% of customer contacts come in via e-mail, and only 28% come in via the Web. Yet only 18% of the companies surveyed said they provide voice self-service; 49% offer Web self-service.

Of course, there are some self-service options that just don’t work. For instance, CCBN added an online help repository that’s rarely used. Reservoir Partners’ Selland said it’s not surprising because static, text-based knowledge bases aren’t always the best match for b-to-b companies.

"B-to-b customers are dealing with important issues that can have a real impact on the bottom line," he said. "If they can’t find what they are looking for right away, they can make a wrong decision, which will affect the business."

Selland said a search engine placed in front of a knowledge base is a better option for b-to-b companies.

The key, Selland said, is to know the customer. And no matter which self-service option companies choose, it should be integrated into their traditional CRM and supply chain management programs.

"The ability to make customer service consistent across channels is certainly going to have an effect on a company’s success," Selland said. He added that companies should make sure traditional service doesn’t suffer.

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