Benefits of Web-based customer self-service
"Most cost savings [from online self-service], including deflecting calls, come from automating and streamlining the customer response process and replacing human intervention with functions that are available directly to customers," says Allen Bonde, a senior vice president at eVergance Partners LLC, an Overland Park, Kan.-based customer relationship management (CRM) systems integrator.
An effective online self-service system typically eliminates 50% to 70% of incoming customer e-mails and 10% to 30% of call center volume, according to Greg Gianforte, CEO of RightNow Technologies Inc., based in Bozeman, Mont.
"Enlightened SMBs are beginning to realize that the real value of self-service is not only from cost savings but from better insight into what customers want, for competitive advantage," Bonde noted.
A knowledge base aggregates data about customer activity on the Web, including purchases, queries, URL clicks, complaints and product searches. Businesses can then use this data to fine-tune customer response, both on and off the Web. For example, Art Technology Group Inc.'s Customer Care OnDemand hosted service enables both Web self-service systems and customer agents to access the same information.
In addition, if the self-service application is part of an integrated CRM suite, the knowledge base can also be used by internal employees. For example, salespeople can use purchase histories to do cross-product selling, while executives can measure the response to marketing campaigns.
CRM vendors have increasingly targeted small and midsized businesses (SMBs) with lower-priced plug-and-play packages and on-demand hosted solutions.
"An on-demand subscription model makes CRM easier to justify," Bonde said. "Plus, vendors have simplified the process of setting up and managing the knowledge base that feeds information into automated customer self-help solutions."
For example, Bellevue, Wash.-based Talisma Corp. recently introduced Professional Edition, available hosted or on-site. It includes "snap in portals," which are self-service mechanisms such as search windows that IT users can cut and paste anywhere on their Web sites.
A company can use existing FAQs to seed RightNow's knowledge base in a couple of days, according to Gianforte. Because the base is self-learning, "Within a couple of weeks, accuracy will be in the low 90% range, and quite often, 50% of your (customer) e-mail volume will be gone," he said.
Another recent trend is the emergence of portal-based CRM products that include, or can be integrated with, self-service. Third-party partners have integrated Microsoft's Windows SharePoint Services with CRM offerings, including Microsoft's own SMB-oriented Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0, according to Kevin Faulkner, Microsoft's CRM product marketing director.
San Jose, Calif.-based Business Objects SA's business intelligence platform, Crystal Report Server, can deliver information to the Web via a pre-built portal, or through a customized link to SharePoint.
Portals extend self-service far beyond FAQs and Web searches. A Web page or dashboard can provide customers, or internal users, with the ability to submit and track trouble tickets, look up past purchases and receive alerts. Portals can be tailored to the needs of different user groups, such as platinum customers, business customers in a particular industry, salespeople or executives.
Costs of Web-based customer self-service
On-demand vendors determine a monthly rate on the basis of a variety of factors that may include the number of concurrent users, number of pages viewed per month or number of articles in a knowledge base that can be accessed by users.
RightNow's on-demand Web self-service, with no e-mail or call center support, can cost more than $50,000 for two years, depending on the volume of Web interactions.
Portal-based CRM systems are typically designed to provide a rich array of information and services to a limited number of users, including internal sales employees and business partners. Per-user charges can prove excessive for companies that want to support a general customer base. Soffront Software Inc. in Fremont, Calif., charges a one-time $200 fee per portal, with unlimited access. Its portal-based CRM application, however, costs $60 per month per dedicated user. The on-site version costs $12,000 for 10 users.
Business Object's Crystal Report Server starts at $7,500 for five concurrent users.
Tips and gotchas
While basic Web-based customer response services such as FAQs and keyword searches are comparatively simple to set up and maintain, Bonde said, you can't get around the need to do some spidering or authoring to create business rules that define processes that get the right response to a customer query. And you have to keep refining those rules to ensure and improve effective responses over time.
Ask vendors what type of consulting and technical support is available, and what are the initial and long-term costs.
Also ask the vendor if the platform provides integrated knowledge base support for all customer response channels -- including call centers and e-mail.
Don't expect Web based customer self-service to replace your call center entirely. "In most organizations, 60% to 90% of customer interactions still take place over the phone," Gianforte said.
Expert viewpoint: Allen Bonde, senior vice president, eVergance
"Start by figuring out your business goals. Do you want to take fewer phone calls? Get insight about customers? Keep customers happy? Sell more online? The answers determine the approaches and technologies you should use, and the extent to which you need to change user and customer behavior to achieve your goals.
"You don't need anywhere near total customer online interaction to get a good payback. For certain high-volume consumer applications, a 3% to 5% call deflection is fantastic. For those with less volume, we suggest shooting for 10% to 20%.
"SMBs often don't need to pay for sophisticated features like natural language search and deep analytics, especially at the start. There are relatively easy steps you can take for a quick payback: FAQs, automating repeatable processes, like order-taking through a simple Web form, which saves time and eliminates data errors that occur by phone.
"Don't inflict too much change or complexity on customers. This only works if they use it. You need to provide at least equivalent if not superior value [to a call center]: special offers, special content and other added value.
"We recommend a structured planning approach, an incremental investment, with checkpoints and a way to get immediate feedback. If you put up content or a search engine, you'll get either a bunch of complaints such as 'I can't find information,' or your call volume starts dropping."
Elisabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer in Waban, Mass. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.