The maxim of automated, self-service technology goes something like this: Help others, help thyself. Whether it's an airline kiosk, employee-benefits intranet or Web-based customer support site, when users solve their own problems, big cost savings and greater efficiency follows for forward-thinking companies.
Self-service success stories speak for themselves. Take this case study: The internal help desk at Microsoft supports more than 105,000 clients -- employees, vendors and contractors -- with five international call centers. Two years ago, in an attempt to reduce call volumes, the company deployed a number of self-service tools, including an online support website that offered chat capabilities and access to knowledge-based articles. The result? Calls were reduced by 15.4%, at a savings of about $30 a call. These are hard savings that show the value of self-service, said Microsoft senior program manager Jeremy Eubanks.
Microsoft's story is not unusual. Research conducted by eVergance Partners LLC, a management consulting and systems integration firm based in Overland Park, Kan., shows that answering a question online costs a company from four to 40 times less than responding through a call center or help desk.
End user expectations
But when it comes to considering self-service applications, beware of inflated expectations, as well as a track record of some bungled attempts. Who, for example, hasn't been stuck in computerized telephone-based Interactive Voice Response (IVR) hell, hoping to talk with a live agent?
And a complicated Web site can frustrate consumers, leading them to a competitor. In another study of self-service applications, JupiterResearch in New York noted that a large percentage of online customers surveyed could be turned off by a bad experience, never to return. Sophisticated end users are accustomed to graphical user interfaces and demand 24/7 customer service, driving the investment toward self-service.
Power to the people
The ability to access and control information raises customer satisfaction, whether it's conducting a banking transaction, checking cellular minutes, ordering an on-demand movie or requesting time off. "Self-service empowers people to do things on their own," said Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.
Shifting data management to the customer also lowers a company's overhead costs by reducing the number of customer service agents needed and allowing existing personnel to focus on higher-value activities, such as targeted marketing.
Self-service tools of the trade
The tools of self-service -- Web browsing, broadband, email response management services, intelligent search engines, IVR and Short Message Service (SMS) -- are often incremental IT investments that can be added to existing platforms. "Take advantage of the plumbing that you have built up over the last decade," said Allen Bonde, senior vice president, strategy and marketing, at eVergance. Multiple layers of security technologies and intelligence are mandatory parts of such additions, he added, to protect critical information from threats.
Self-service applications abound. Internal corporate functions include automated interfaces for human resources, payroll business processes and call dispatch requests for mobile field service teams. But it's companies that conduct outward-facing customer interactions -- including the banking, travel and retail industries -- that have embraced self-service technology with particular gusto. "Self-service is better for companies with high-volume, low-complexity products and services," said Ian Jacobs, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. The classic example of self-service, of course, is the automated teller machine, which provides convenience to customers while lowering the cost of transactions or interactions.
But the benefits of self-service extend beyond cost savings and improving the end-user experience. With the use of customer analytics, self-service products can actually deliver greater insight about customers than other channels. "You can get a 360 [degree] view of customers' wants and needs," said Alan Hubbard, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, "as well as break down walls between brick and mortar, Web and voice silos, which reduce duplication." With detailed customer information, companies can personalize Web site functionality, for example, recommending specific products or "remembering" a user's former issue or problem and guiding the new interaction.
Tailor to your needs
Is self-service the heavenly solution it appears to be? Only if you ignore the hype and tailor self-service technology to work for your customers and your company, said Esteban Kolsky, an analyst at Stamford-Conn.-based Gartner Inc. When evaluating self-service technology, companies need to consider all costs related to implementation, not simply development and deployment. Count on a long-term commitment to maintenance, and create a feedback system that tracks the self-service products customers use to resolve their issues, Kolsky added.
Microsoft's Eubanks said, "We are always going to be in a tweaking mode, changing self-help scripts, refining our knowledge bases, Web sites and other self-service technology. We're continually educating our users about it, trying to get people away from calling the help desk and helping themselves instead."
Don't assume that just because "you build it, they will come," Bonde said.
Cindy Atoji is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.