Off Center
With 57 percent of customers calling contact centers for support after attempting to find answers online first (according to the Customer Contact Council), it makes sense (and cents) for your organization to look for ways to optimize web self-service.

Now, you’re probably getting tired of my take on everything, so I’ve brought in a knowledgeable guest – someone even smarter than I think I am. Following is my exchange with Ashley Verrill, a call center analyst and self-service expert with Software Advice, who was happy to discuss some of the winning online self-support practices of top customer care organizations.

What is the most important web self-service feature, and how does not offering this feature impact the customer experience?

I would say having a really effective search bar is crucial. Often, customers will land directly on an article because they typed their question into Google and your self-service content was among the results returned. However, if the article they navigate to doesn’t directly answer their question, you’ll want to provide them a simple “out” for quickly finding the right content – otherwise you risk them switching to a more labor-intensive channel, such as phone or email. Also, the longer it takes for customers to find the answer, the more likely they are to become frustrated. There’s nothing worse than landing on a self-service support homepage only to find a long list of FAQs or discussion threads. It doesn’t leave the impression that finding the right solution will be easy or fast.

I’ve heard (and read) you mention that it’s essential to offer an “escape” – an easy way for the customer to chat with a live agent if he or she can’t find an answer. But what about proactively “chatting up” users once they arrive to your site? Which of these is a more critical feature to offer?

It really depends. Proactively chatting with every website visitor can be really labor intensive – particularly for websites that experience thousands of visits on any given day. I would recommend a proactive chat feature only if it could be used to directly drive more revenue, like if you’re able to offer more consultative advice to new opportunities that could lead to a sale, or if existing customers have the potential to become return customers. Some very large organizations have the ability to dynamically offer proactive chat based on characteristics about the site visitor. For example, I’ve seen proactive chat solutions that can be programmed only to appear if the site visitor is recognized as being in their marketing “sweet spot” – based on data from their IP address, social, potentially mobile and other sources.

Another alternative might be having your contact center agents proactively serve up chat only to visitors who navigate to your support pages. This wouldn’t help you generate more revenue in a direct way, but at least it’s a way to more exclusively target those people looking for support…and it might improve the customer experience by not having them sit on hold or wait for an emailed reply.

What are the best ways to showcase an online community moderator, and how should he or she go about identifying customer service opportunities? Does having a community moderator impact the customer’s perception, or does it simply ensure that questions get answered?

I think having a community moderator is imperative. One of the biggest obstacles companies face in driving engagement in an online community is the perception that customers won’t actually get an answer, or at least they won’t get one quickly. So, if they dive into a discussion thread that matches their question only to find no one has responded, they probably won’t ever try the channel again.

For this reason, moderators should be present to proactively provide an answer if it doesn’t come from the community. As far as how long a moderator should wait before intervening, I’ve heard average response time ranges between 1-3 hours. Many tools provide features that can automatically notify a moderating agent if a community question goes unanswered. I’ve also seen a lot of communities that will add some kind of visual indicator to call out moderators so it’s really obvious. This usually comes in the form of a branded icon or color-coded indicator.

With 67 percent of customers preferring to find answers online (according to Nuance), what are some quick tips for improving web self-service with minimal effort?

I’d say first you need to make sure that your community is stocked with answers to your most common customer questions. So, take a survey within your contact center and identify the top 20 most popular questions. Write solid content that answers those questions, then add them to your community. Then, ask agents to record instances where customers said they tried to find an answer online. This will identify gaps in your content or improvements that could be made to the presentation of your content.

For additional info on web self-service, you can check out my post from a couple of years ago:
“Web Self-Service that Won’t Self-Destruct”. Keep in mind I drink more than Ashley does.

Most conversations about contact center evolution revolve around technology. We often hear about how some advanced new system, application or channel is going to “reinvent” the way contact centers operate and the way customer care is carried out.

While such advances can be exciting and, occasionally, even influential, in my opinion contact center evolution should be measured in terms of talent, not technology.

For me, the real sign that the contact center has truly evolved will be when employees from other areas within the organization routinely start applying for agent positions.

Yeah, I said it.

Let’s face it, customer care can’t be taken to the “next level” until companies stop viewing the contact center and the agent job as purely entry level. In other words, the contact center should strive to be a step up – not just a stepladder – in the organization.

If the customer experience is as critical as corporations and business analysts say it is, then the contact center is, indeed, a highly valuable component of any company. No other department or area within an enterprise has as much direct contact with customers, can glean as much useful customer data, or has as much of an impact on customer sentiment as the contact center. So why aren’t we doing more to enhance the image of the contact center and the agent position, and why aren’t we paying agents what they are truly worth?

Once companies stop viewing the contact center as a back-office operation and start viewing – and promoting – it is a dynamic hub of invaluable customer influence and revenue generation/protection, it will cease to be merely a pit stop for employees and start to become an attractive destination for them… especially if they know they can earn a damn sight more than $9.00-$10.00 per hour to start.

This isn’t just a pipe dream. I see a future where ambitious, creative, caring and analytical employees from Marketing, Sales, IT and other key departments scramble to get their resume and cover letter ready whenever an opening on the frontline of the company’s contact center is announced. And I see a future where existing agents happily stay put whenever those aforementioned departments announce job openings of their own.

This is the Age of the Customer. Organizations that don’t do everything they can to attract and retain the level of talent needed to consistently delight and engage the customer will soon find themselves lagging far behind their competitors.

So, you can continue to rush through the hiring process to fill contact center seats with whomever has a pulse and deal with the customer defection and agent turnover that results, or you can strive to create the type of culture and environment that attracts proficient knowledge workers who are committed to delivering the level of service and support the customer deserves – and demands.      

This piece originally appeared as a guest post by Greg on the FurstPerson blog. (The original title was “Attracting Agent Talent from Within the Organization”.)