Web self-service has come a long way since the first attempts at helping customers help themselves online. The concept of self-service represents nirvana. If your customers can solve their problems by themselves, you can see significant and measurable call avoidance numbers. self-service can improve customer satisfaction and reduce costs, potentially negating the need to consider outsourcing operations. But you must be careful to balance your corporate interests with the needs of your customers.
Delivering just the FAQs
One of the byproducts of the dot-com era was the emergence of the corporate web site, which enabled every company, regardless of size, to allow customers and prospects to peer into their corporate “windows” and get a glimpse into their operations. The birth of the web site was soon followed by the emergence of frequently asked questions, published responses that covered almost anything the company wanted its customers to know about it and its services and products. While FAQs were effective at addressing the most common questions, they were not intended to provide answers or solutions to complex end-users requests.
The next wave of innovation enabled users to search based on keywords—asking simple questions and receiving links to relevant documents and information. Much like the web search engines from Google and Yahoo, this focused search capability allows customers to search within a company’s web site, delivering documents related to products and services.
In the case of more complex questions, this search capability often generates a baffling volume of data. Among the many pages and links, you will certainly be pointed to the contact information for the supplier’s support center and possibly a PDF document telling you “How to diagnose your problems.” Needless to say, no customer is likely to read through multiple documents, and the probability of finding a resolution to a customer’s specific problem is low. The sheer volume of data is overwhelming, and the search system doesn’t have the ability to understand the context of the question and what the customer is trying to address.
The growth in use of FAQs and search engines is viewed by many CIOs as a testament to the viability of self-service as a vehicle for achieving higher customer satisfaction. Is this really self-service or just a self-serving way of deflecting calls and avoiding having to take more calls from customers about “real” problems?
What about handling “real” problems?
When faced with a product problem or technical question, few people think to articulate their situation in relevant keywords. They look to solve the problem in the manner that they would speak to a call center agent, if one was available to take their calls.
The latest advances in web self-service solutions, which leverage knowledge management technology, have provided a means of addressing questions presented by “real” customers, providing relevant and appropriate answers to their problems. These systems take the advances in search technology and apply it to case-based reasoning (CBR) solutions, providing a structured means of gathering, analyzing and accessing the appropriate information.
With CBR systems, the dialog is interactive, intuitive and leads customers to solving their problems. The answers or solutions to specific problems are built in a library of similar problems previously resolved by the company. The idea is that the CBR system can “know” as much about a specific subject matter as the most experienced technician in your organization. In addition, the CBR system can continue to “learn” as it goes, while it uncovers new problems and solutions, continuously adding to the library on the fly.
The emergence of CBR systems enables companies to offer customers a conversational and intelligent web interface, through which they can resolve their problems or answer questions. By offering this innovation, they can approach the concept of real self-service, where the customer receives answers to their individual and very specific questions and inquiries.
What CBR technology captures is commonly called “corporate memory”: information handed down over time or, in some companies, information stored in the memory banks of their most senior and experienced employees. This corporate memory is used to solve current problems based on prior experiences. The issue with corporate memory is that, because it is often undocumented, the information is vulnerable and dependent upon the recall of one or few staff members. With the advent of downsizing and outsourcing of resources, particularly in call centers, the significance of corporate memory has increased. Although calls can be diverted to lower-cost centers, once experienced staffers have been reassigned or laid off, their product experience and past history cannot be readily available to the outsourcers.
CBR technologies address the issue of maintaining corporate memory and provide outsourcers a means of addressing customer questions with accurate answers. These new CBR systems allow everyone, even customers, to access corporate memory and to continue to build upon it through a simple web interface.
What defines a good system?
As the use of CBR continues to evolve, the litmus test for the technology and its business applications must be demonstrated through proven value to the system’s end-users. Without tangible value and end-user benefits, the technology will remain a self-serving way to avoid taking live calls and be of minimal value to any one.
So the next time you go to a self-service web site, ask yourself if the interface is intuitive. Can you interact effectively even when your technical knowledge is limited? Do the searches present results relevant to the problem you are trying to solve? How quickly can you get to the right solution? And most importantly, how accurate and relevant to your specific problem are the solutions? If your inquiry generates only a pile of data, with documents that have no relevance to your problem, then you might be using a self-serving web site instead of a truly effective self-service system.