Customer-Centric Web Self-Service (Yes, It Does Exist)

Greg Levin
Greg Levin

While the best contact centers  ensure that they have well-trained, talented and mentally stable e-support agents in place to handle customers’ emails, chats and web calls, the very same organizations also have in place powerful, alluring and user-friendly online self-service applications so that only customers with complex issues or who are extremely lonely require live-agent assistance.

Unfortunately, many less-than-stellar companies get so excited about the potential cost savings offered by self-service that they forget about another critical factor: the customer experience. In these centers, economics alone drive their self-service strategies and, consequently, their self-service strategies drive customers away.

The terms “customer-centric” and “automation” are not mutually exclusive—you can have one with the other. In fact, to succeed in today’s competitive customer care environment, you must. Many customers actually prefer to selfserve rather than wait in a queue or for an agent’s written response to an inquiry. Offering poorly designed and difficult to decipher automated service options online alienates these customers who are so eager for autonomy, thus forcing them to contact the company via a less-preferred channel. This results not only in increased costs to the contact center, but also in decreased satisfaction and loyalty on the part of the customer, and burnout on the part of your agents. It’s a straight up lose-lose-lose.

To flip the typical web self-service script and ensure a win-win-win, top contact centers embrace the following best practices.

Keep online FAQs fresh and diverse—and actively promote them

You should never hear your agents mutter, “If I had a dime every time a caller asked me [fill in monotonous, routine question here].” If you do, it means that the FAQ section of your website either stinks, is non-existent or is under-promoted.

Top contact centers invest in dynamic applications that continuously scan the vast universe of customer contacts—previous calls, email/chat transactions, knowledgebase queries—and track common customer inquiries and issues. This invaluable data is then used to develop rich and relevant FAQs (and responses) that can be posted on the website, thus saving the center thousands of live customer contacts… and agents millions of live brain cells.

To optimize use of their online FAQ feature, smart contact centers go out of their way to promote its existence and strongly encourage customers to take advantage of this valuable resource. Such promotion is typically done via automated messages in the center’s IVR while callers are in queue (e.g., “You can find answers to a wide variety of questions on our website at www.wewouldrathernottalktoyou.com), or by having agents provide links to the FAQ portal during email and chat interactions with customers. On calls, agents can simply remind customers about the FAQ feature and, to truly inspire action, tell the caller that every time they access the FAQs, an angel gets its wings.

Implement powerful search tools/knowledgebase apps featuring natural language capabilities

Today’s search engines and knowledgebase solutions enable customers who visit your website to easily find exactly what they are looking for (assuming your knowledgebase is filled with expansive content) without having to type like a robot or Tarzan. Instead, thanks to natural language technology, customers can enter complete phrases or sentences in the “search” box, and receive relevant content instantly.

Such tools not only help customers to quickly obtain key info without having to contact a live agent in the center, they help to humanize self-service transactions. Some centers take the humanization aspect to the next level, using avatars to give their web self- ervice features a face. These avatars can “converse” with online customers via basic text chat—analyzing the words the customer types into the box and providing answers in natural sentence form: “I see you are looking for more information on express shipping. Here’s a link to a page that will tell you all you need to know…”

Top centers are careful not to get too “cute” with their self-service avatars. When programmed to tell jokes or be overly chatty, avatars can annoy and alienate rather than engage and allure the people with whom they interact—kind of like me after one too many Red Bulls at a party.

Create CRM-powered customer accounts /portals

Even customers who hate people and aim to avoid them like the plague or Matthew McConaughey movies still want their self- ervice experience to be humanized and personal. Most human beings, regardless of how sociopathic some might be, can identify with the lyrics from the theme song for the iconic TV series Cheers:

  • Sometimes you want to go
  • Where everybody knows your name,
  • and they’re always glad you came.

The best customer care organizations satisfy such universal human desires by creating customized, CRM-powered portals for each existing/ returning customer. These portals are, in essence, personalized Web pages where customers can access and view their detailed account information (e.g., balances, past transactions/purchases; pending orders, etc.) by simply entering their username and/or password.

Such CRM applications—embraced by most financial services organizations, online retailers, shipping companies, et al.—are equipped with advanced technology that captures all customer activity and incorporates that data into each customer’s private portal. The customer loves the highly personalized approach, and the organization wins by being able to make targeted offers based on the specific preferences of each individual.

This tactic is epitomized by Amazon.com, where customers don’t even need to log in—they are remembered and greeted by name upon arrival at the company’s website, and are given access to a slew of personalized options, including product recommendations and gift ideas based on past purchases and searches.

NOTE: Sometimes Amazon.com’s powerful self-service model inadvertently aids in enlightenment and self-actualization. I once bought a book on volunteering and community activism, but then started dating my future wife and became so occupied with impressing her that I forgot about helping others. A year or so later—after I had convinced her to try hypnosis and subsequently gotten her to agree to marry me—I was visiting Amazon.com and saw a list of “Books we think you might enjoy” (based on my prior purchases). The list contained several titles of books with philanthropic themes, and reminded me that I wasn’t always a self-centered jerk, that I actually used to care about helping those less fortunate than I and bringing about positive social change. I didn’t purchase any of the suggested books, but it felt good to know that somebody at Amazon. com believed that I might.

Make it easy to reach a live agent

Giving online customers easy access to your contact center agents isn’t the ultimate objective of your web self-service strategy, but it still must be a part of it. Not every customer who begins a self-service search or transactions is going to find exactly what they are looking for or feel comfortable enough to complete a purchase online. Hiding your email web form, chat/web call-back box or 800 number from online visitors—or, worse, not providing such contact options at all—is no way to create customer advocacy, and could result in a lot of lost revenue. After all, sometimes all it takes is a little reassurance or clarification from a live agent for a customer to not abandon their virtual shopping cart.

And even if an online purchase isn’t involved, making it easy for customers to access an agent via the website greatly increases their comfort level and can raise their understanding of the self-service options available to them, thus enhancing the chances that they will become more autonomous—thus saving the center from unnecessary expenses down the road.

Just keep in mind that there will always be those customers who don’t ever want to let go of your contact center’s hand—even for the most routine transactions that could be done online. If you have a lot of customers like this, consider implementing a “leave the nest” strategy, where such callers are routed to a special pool of agents trained to provide abysmal service. Once these customers endure a few calls where the agent incessantly stutters and lisps while babbling on about their love of model trains and kite building, the customers are likely to give web self-service another shot.

Continuously test and monitor the web self-service apps

The best contact centers do more than just invest in the right web self-service tools/features and embrace best practices in system design; they keep a close eye on each web self-service app to ensure optimal online customer experiences and minimal customer conniptions.

This involves frequent internal testing—not just prior to web self-service implementation, but during regular intervals after each app is up and running. As part of a solid self-service testing strategy, leading customer care organizations carefully evaluate:

  • Site and account security
  • Accuracy and relevance of FAQ responses
  • Performance/functioning of search engines and knowledge bases
  • Ease of access to personal accounts and ability to complete transactions

In addition to proactive testing internally, leading contact centers monitor actual customer web self-service interactions and transactions for quality assurance purposes. Many centers have invested in advanced multimedia customer interaction tools that can capture online customer activity, while others have contracted with thirdparty firms specializing in self-service testing and monitoring. Either way, the centers are able to gain clear insight into:

  • How smoothly customers are able to navigate the web site
  • What information customer are looking for, and how easy it is to find
  • How easy it is to complete transactions (e.g., order a product, make a payment, etc.)
  • How well the “checkout” process works (e.g., when, where and why error messages occur)
  • What roadblocks or issues cause customers to abandon their transaction before completion
  • How often customers contact an agent (via phone, email or chat) rather than continue to serve themselves

As with other contact channels, smart contact centers don’t just gauge customers’ self-service experiences via monitoring; they solicit direct customer feedback following an online interaction—typically via email immediately or very soon after the interaction is completed.

Think People over Profits (and the Latter Will Follow)

Top contact centers do not think about web self-service from a mere profit-perspective; they think about it from a customer’s perspective. Embrace and implement the practices and strategies cited in this article, and your organization will vastly improve customer autonomy, satisfaction and advocacy—not to mention agent sanity.

Greg Levin is Principal and Founder of OFF CENTER, and is author of the ebook,
Full Contact: Contact Center Practices and Strategies that Make an Impact.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, www.contactcenterpipeline.com

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