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Customer Self-Service: Power to the People

Customer Self-Service: Power to the People

"Have it your way." "Help yourself." These are the battle cries from the front lines of today's customer service campaigns. When it comes to knowing exactly what customers want, there are no better authorities than the customers themselves. So why not make it easy for them to help themselves? They'll get the service they want, in just the way that suits their needs.

That's part of the strategy behind customer self-service, a growing trend in customer relationship management (CRM). For consumers, it can mean service that meets their expectations better than ever before, whether they're shopping for a product or service online or in a retail store. For companies, it can mean reduced costs, improved customer satisfaction and the ability to learn more about customers' requirements and preferences, making it feasible to fine-tune subsequent CRM efforts.

Technology is a big piece of the CRM self-service puzzle, one that is slowly falling into place. Two types of technology are capturing the interest of many companies: Web-based and interactive voice recognition (IVR) products. Web technologies such as search engines, chat functions, instant messaging, call center integration and personalisation utilities that create custom pages based on customer preferences are already in use and producing results at both B2B and B2C sites.

Meanwhile, recent developments in IVR technology by Nortel Networks Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc. will let users both within and outside the company use the telephone to execute complex transactions like transferring funds at a financial institution or checking e-mail for incoming sales leads and then immediately calling back the prospective customer. While this technology is still forthcoming, current technology from Periphonics is already in use by airlines to deliver updated flight information, by universities to let students register for classes and by insurance companies to let customers file claims. This IVR technology converts speech into word strings for processing (for example, finding a flight or filing a claim). Once processing is complete, the information is converted back to speech and read to the customer.

Customer self-service on the Web is one of the hottest areas in CRM, according to Peggy Menconi, research director of e-business relationship management at AMR Research in Boston. "The information you gather tells you, for example, what part of the website customers are visiting," says Menconi. "Then you can offer them similar products. Or if lots of customers are looking for service for a certain product, it tells you that you've got a problem with that product. Then you can proactively contact other owners of the product to see if they're also having problems."

Of course, technology isn't an instant cure-all. As always, it's important to do your homework first. "You should figure out how important customer self-service is to your company and then prioritise your investment," says Menconi. With the right planning, though, customer self-service can be a key component of a successful CRM effort.

Such is the case at three of this year's CIO-100 honourees. These companies have made a strong start with customer self-service on the Web, but all three say they've just begun--they are constantly learning how to refine their sites so that customers can do more for themselves. Though the details of their efforts vary, their stories provide excellent examples of customer self-service done right.

Presenting a consistent image across multiple sales channels is a top priority at Eddie Bauer. As a "click-and-mortar" company that sells via catalogue, retail stores and the Web, the Redmond, Wash.-based vendor is creating a familiar customer experience for all shoppers in all channels. "We have a strong brand and mature distribution, and now we want to grow the ability of those channels to work together," says Michael Boyd, director of CRM at Eddiebauer.com.

The company's website features a search engine customised in-house called "Ask Eddie," in the persona of company founder Eddie Bauer. The virtual Eddie helps customers find answers to frequently asked questions. As with other search engines, when the customer types in a word or phrase, the engine searches its database for answers. But Ask Eddie takes it a step further by learning as it goes along. "Ask Eddie learns by measuring the success rate [of providing answers] and the number of clicks needed to drill down to the answer," Boyd says. The company then redesigns the hierarchy so that future customers can reach the same answer more quickly. If a question has no answer in the database, Ask Eddie suggests that the customer send an e-mail to the company. "Right now, Ask Eddie is a one-size-fits-all solution," Boyd says. "We eventually want to offer different interfaces to different customers so that we can present product assortments differently."

Chat technology is also on the horizon for Eddiebauer.com. "Once that capability is in place, the customer might see a message that says, 'Hi, my name is Amy, and here's an item that you might be interested in,'" Boyd says. "At that point, you move from self-service to one-to-one interaction." Besides receiving personalised messages based on previous purchases and activities, customers will also be able to chat directly with customer service representatives.

The intent is to use the information gathered during these interactions, such as product preferences and buying patterns, to better target consumers. "We want to expand our ability to use consumer information such as past purchases to differentiate the way we interact with our customers," Boyd says. "We extract data from each legacy system that supports our daily operations and merge that information into a data warehouse for analysis." The company already uses the results to refine contact strategies for the 110 million catalogues it mails out each year and plans to develop additional product promotions. "Our intention is to apply that information across each touch point, such as e-mail campaigns, retail stores and the Web," Boyd says.

Since launching Ask Eddie in 1998, the company has used the results to help identify several consumer categories. For example, solution-oriented shoppers want to purchase items as quickly as possible. This group tends not to worry about prices or fashion as much as the group of consumers who simply love to shop through any channel.

The benefits of customer self-service lie in the big picture rather than quantifiable results, according to Boyd. "When you talk about customer self-service, a businessperson will typically talk about operational efficiencies and getting the salesperson out of the loop," he says. However, those are not the only positive outcomes. "The cost savings is only a small piece of the puzzle. We think customer self-service is about creating a feeling of control and predictability for the customer. It's also about self-directed interactivity."

Although the technology itself is relatively simple, addressing the business issues can be problematic. "Customer self-service is easy to implement," Boyd says. "The biggest challenge is to be disciplined, to recognise this is an iterative process and to try not to predict the end results or do it all at once. There's always a desire to make the maximum change possible to increase revenues and shareholder value. But if you do that, you may not be left with any resources to take the next step."

Over the past 24 months, Yellow Freight has expanded its customer self-service from an 800 number for shipment scheduling and tracking to self-service on the Web. "We want our customers to be able to communicate with us any way they want to. If we were going to migrate to the Web, we knew that it had to be as good as or better than working with a customer service representative," says Paul Marshall, senior director of customer support for the US$3 billion Overland Park, Kan.-based business-to-business shipping company. By the beginning of this year, the number of customers using the site's self-service applications, which were developed in-house, had jumped from about 13,000 per month in August 1998 to about 470,000 per month.

Much of the transition is now complete. "We now have almost all of our applications on the Web--from robust reporting and tracking to requesting pickups and costing shipments," Marshall says. When customising the site to create a "My Yellow" page, customers can specify such parameters as regular shipping time and pickup address.

Chat capabilities also play an important role in the customer's Web experience. "We put chat in areas where customers might run into difficulties," Marshall says. "If necessary, we'll hold the customer's hand. We don't want people to feel abandoned on the Web."

Customers can also access Yellow Freight via America Online Inc.'s instant messaging. "We think that this space will be big," Marshall says. "We're not sure what to do with it now, but we can see real possibilities for selected marketing."

Yellow Freight is already banking on some of the information about customers' Web habits. "We're starting now to track customer calls and spreading that information to the rest of the company to understand customer behaviour and cost," Marshall says. "If we know a customer is consuming a lot of time at the call center every week to request quotes on shipments, we'll ask our account manager to contact the company and suggest they try accessing the Web for that information. The next step is to integrate the website and call center activity databases together on the back end and begin delivering this information to the sales force. When customers contact the call center next year, we'll have a complete view of all of their transactions, including whether they were just on the website."

Customer self-service has given Yellow Freight a strategic advantage, according to Lynn Caddell, the company's CIO. "Customer self-service is key to our moving forward," she says. "It allows us to provide better service, develop new products and target customers in a more proactive manner. Without it, we would be perceived as stodgy and dated." Based on information gathered from its customers over the past two years, for example, the company has developed two new guaranteed on-time delivery products called Exact Express and Definite Delivery.

Nevertheless, justifying the investment vis-a-vis ROI is still an issue. "Finding the financial resources has been the biggest challenge," Marshall says. "I'm not sure that you can look at ROI in self-service. We're saying, "This is the cost of doing business, and we eventually expect a return.' We also had major arguments about deciding on a strategy and getting people involved so that application development and rollout wouldn't be disjointed."

If he had to do it all over again, Marshall said he would focus more on speed. "I would try to get more of this technology out there faster," he says.

Hewlett-Packard Co. sat up and listened two years ago when consumers said they would start shopping elsewhere if they couldn't buy online. The company launched HPshopping.com, a site that sells PCs, printers and other hardware and software directly to consumers. The website operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of HP.

From Day 1, self-service has been part of the site. Customers can track their orders, find answers to frequently asked questions, customise PCs, create a personalised printing supply store, apply for financing and get gift ideas online. "Between 90 [percent] and 100 percent of our customers use self-service," says Dave Deasy, former chief operating officer at HPshopping.com.

According to Deasy, HPshopping.com receives more than 1 million unique visitors each month. "That's a jump of between 500 [percent] and 600 percent over this time last year," he says.

Although some of the technology, such as the configurator and the search engine, were built in-house, the core front-end technology for HPshopping.com comes from BroadVision. The order tracking system is a version of Federal Express's tracking system.

Over the past year, the company has extended its self-service applications into the call center so that company representatives can access and update the same database. About 80 percent of customers who telephone the call center have already visited the website and now want additional information. "They could be close to making a purchase or might simply be researching something on the site," Deasy says.

As with the other sites, HPshopping.com encourages customers to call or send an e-mail when they can't find what they need on the website. Call center agents now respond to shoppers' incoming messages. In the future, HPshopping.com may target customers with e-mail reminders that it's time to replace their printer toner or announcements of new products, Deasy says.

Predicting what will appeal to customers is tricky. "When you deal with a wide range of customers, it's difficult to know how to design services that are truly valuable," Deasy says. "You need to be critical about defining your users and their needs. People often come up with ideas that are neat but don't add value for the customer. You can't spend too much time and energy figuring out how to improve the customer experience."

Louise Fickel writes about business and technology. Based in Denver, she can be reached at RiceKid@ix.netcom.com.

Honourees in this story:

Eddie Bauer, Redmond, Wash. www.eddiebauer.com Hpshopping.com, Cupertino, Calif. www.hpshopping.com Yellow Freight System, Overland Park, Kan. www.yellowfreight.com Tips for implementing customer self-service from CIO-100 honorees Eddie Bauer, Yellow Freight and HPshopping.com.

Learn everything about your customers.

Conduct focus groups to ensure that they want self-service.

Define clear business goals.

Evaluate the technology for its technical and financial merits. Does it match your customer base? Will it boost profitability?

Work as a team. Have customer support, IT and other departments involved every step of the way.

Offer training to employees.

Expect this to be an iterative process that requires making changes as you learn more about your customers.

Develop an effective way to measure results.

Underpromise and overdeliver.

Things to avoid:

Knowing that customers want personalised attention, whether they're contacting the website or the call center.

Don't leave customers hanging. Tell them when you'll respond to their questions. And give them an easy way out of the website.

Don't implement Web-collaboration tools such as chat until your call center representatives are adept at using the technology.

Don't reduce everything to ROI. Look instead at the bigger picture of creating customer value.

Don't try to predict what the end results will look like.

Don't try to do everything at once. Implement in stages.

Requirements for effective customer self service from Eddie Bauer, Yellow Freight and HPshopping.com.

Technology, such as a search engine, that helps customers find what they need quickly.

Knowledge management software that identifies each customer and his lifetime value to the company.

Marketing tools like Epiphany that let you track customers and target them with relevant offers.

Tools like Silknet that integrate all your communications channels.

Links to the back office so that you can confirm orders and availability.

Integrate everything. Consider letting an ASP such as eConvergent handle the integration.

Make sure your customer self-service strategy dovetails with your overall service strategy.

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More about America OnlineAMR ResearchBroadvisionFederal ExpressHewlett-Packard AustraliaKnowledge Management SoftwareNetcomNortel NetworksPeriphonicsPersonaSiebel Systems

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