Off Center
Most organizations strive to implement viable web self-service applications so that only customers with highly complex issues or who are extremely lonely require live agent assistance. Unfortunately, many companies get so excited about the potential cost savings offered by self-service that they forget about a very critical factor: the customer experience. In these companies, economics alone drive the self-service strategy and, consequently, the self-service strategy drives customers to more expensive channels – or into the arms of the competition.

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 – particularly those who suffer panic attacks when interacting with people, or who simply despise humanity, or who are electrical engineers – actually prefer to self-serve rather than wait in a queue for a live person to help them.

To ensure that their call center is as cost-effective AND as customer-centric as possible, leading organizations fully embrace – or at least hold hands with – the following web self-service practices:

Keep FAQs fresh and diverse – and actively promote them. You should never hear your agents mutter, “If I had a dime for every time a caller asked me [fill in monotonous, routine question here].” If you do, it means that the FAQ section of your web site either blows, is non-existent, or is under-promoted.

Top call centers invest in dynamic applications that continuously scan the vast universe of customer contacts – previous calls, email/chat transactions, knowledgebase searches – 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 web site, 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 call 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 system while callers are in queue (e.g., “You can find answers to a wide variety of questions on our website at, 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 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 in broken English like Tarzan or a UFC fighter. Instead, thanks to natural language technology, customers can enter complete phrases or sentences in the “search” box, and receive relevant content instantly.

Some centers aim to spice-up self-service via the use of avatars that can “converse” with online customers via basic text chat. These animated figures are able to analyze the words the customer types into the search or chat box and provide answers in natural sentence form. It’s important, however, not to get too “cute’ with your company's self-service avatar. When programmed to tell jokes or be overly chatty, avatars can annoy and alienate rather than engage and captivate the people with whom they interact – kind of like me after one too many vodka Red Bulls at a party or for breakfast.

Create CRM-powered customer accounts/portals.  Even customers who hate people and aim to avoid them like the plague or Adam Sandler movies still want their self-service experience to be humanized and personal.

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 their detailed account information (e.g., balances, past transactions; pending orders, etc.) as well as receive subliminal messages that compel them to buy additional products and services they don’t need.

Make it easy to reach a live agent. Giving online customers easy access to your call 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 transaction is going to find exactly what they are looking for, either because their issue is complex or because they are not very bright. Also, some customers simply don’t feel comfortable completing purchases online. Hiding your email web form, chat/web call-back box, or phone number from online visitors – or, worse, not providing such contact options at all – is no way to foster customer loyalty, and could result in a lot of lost revenue.

Just keep in mind that there will always be those customers who don’t ever want to let go of your call 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 with an agent who 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.

5/23/2011 04:42:28 am

Enjoyed your article and sense of humor! A robust, evolving knowledge base that grows with customer and staff participation in it is something every company should extend. Static FAQs are so yesterday and can annoy those required to read through this laundry list only to conclude that none of the FAQs addresses their question! A great knowledge base gets people to accurate, consistent answers fast. Cutting down on repetitive questions, increasing first call resolution, freeing up valuable staff time for more complex issues and making for happier customers is just the beginning of the value proposition. At the risk of sounding sales-y, it's what my company is all about: making it easy for companies large & small to provide exceptional self-service and assisted-service. Feel free to contact me to learn how.


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