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Look within when staffing customer self-service programs

Self-service doesn't mean hands-off. Successful self-service and social CRM efforts require committed employees to manage, monitor and develop content.

Juniper Networks, a maker of network hardware and software, services nearly 2 million requests for assistance each...

year on its Customer Support Center website. To ensure that its website can adequately answer a range of questions, most of them fairly technical, the company has an e-support team with as many as 30 employees working on various aspects of self service, from content management to monitoring social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Juniper J-Net user forums. In addition, Juniper’s engineering and software development staff contribute to the knowledge base and forums.

“E-support is one spoke in the overall wheel of customer service,” said Sean Kelly, manager of services marketing, which is concerned with the appearance and usability of the customer service channels. “It’s integral to our whole strategy.”

Juniper’s dedicated staffing of its online self-service channels isn't common. Most organizations make the mistake of understaffing their self-service and social CRM programs, or not staffing them at all, according to John Ragsdale, research director for the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA). He pointed to a recent TSIA survey which found that many organizations have no employee dedicated to self-service channels.

"The majority of members with social media efforts have no dedicated staff assigned to the project," Ragsdale said. "Nineteen percent allocate staff as needed, while 45% have zero dedicated staff, indicating it is everyone's responsibility, or that staff pitches in when time is available. This is clearly dangerous, because if customer questions go unanswered, the channel will lose adoption quickly."

Not having enough staff also creates problems when self-service technologies go awry, such as a download that isn’t working correctly, or a forum that solicits customer feedback but has no one to monitor and respond in a timely manner.

“You need to be able to support everything you do; you need to be there to fix a problem or take some other action,” said Jacob Morgan, CEO of Chess Media Group. “Otherwise, customers will get frustrated.”

Another mistake is assuming self-service and social channels are the exclusive realm of the PR or marketing department. A May 2010 study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism found that more than 25% of companies give administrative and budgetary control of their social channels to their PR department, with 12.6% giving it to marketing.

But people who know only PR don’t necessarily make good support experts. They must also know a lot about the company, what it makes, which departments handle different issues, and how to get help answering support questions.

“Anybody responsible for social media channels needs to understand how the company provides service and support, what customers want, what are the distribution channels for the product [and] what the sales teams are doing in terms of pricing and promotions. And they need to know who to contact if a customer complains about pricing,” Morgan said. “People need to have their hands in multiple departments.”

Recruit from multiple departments

Staffing self service can be more complicated because it’s relatively new and therefore there isn’t a pool of self-service CRM professionals out there ready to be recruited. Most of the time, the work is taken on by existing employees from areas such as tech support or product development, or some other department that has an interest in self-service technology, said Francoise Tourniaire, owner of FT Works, a customer support consulting company.

“Right now, people look around at the support team or engineering team to see who’s interested in doing self service, and then change their jobs," she said. "Recently, a client wanted to hire a knowledge-base manager, and I had to shake my head. It’s still a new thing.”

Tourniaire believes the growth of self-service technologies will fuel the growth of self-service specialists, including knowledge-base owners and self-service professionals adept at managing customer communities, including online forums and Facebook pages.

In the meantime, the best talent may be found within the company. For forum and knowledge base contributors, look to subject-matter experts such as developers or engineers.

“It’s important to get various subject-matter experts involved in the community -- so important to have the right team in place to ask the right questions or provide the right answers,” Morgan said, adding that a community steward, someone with some experience or abilities in social interactions, is also a good idea.

At Drugstore.com, which also owns the sites Beauty.com and VisionDirect.com, a team of beauty experts is available to help customers via the Web chat service. In addition, agents specializing in vision, beauty, and drugstore-related questions monitor Facebook for customer questions.

“We want them to be experienced and to know when to jump in and deal directly with customers -- and when not to,” said Ron Kelly, vice president of customer and pharmacy services at Drugstore.com.

Customers can help

With proper motivation, customers will often eagerly jump into an online community and help out newcomers, share solutions to problems, and generally serve as unpaid monitors for the group, industry experts say.

Achieving that level of participation is often easier with B2B sites than consumer-oriented ones, Tourniaire said. That’s mainly because they’re spending a lot more money on the product and because it’s usually tied to their job.

“B2B customers will come back more often than consumers who may need to visit a support site once – say, to fix a printer – and not visit again for a year. B2B customers will come back over and over again,” she said.

Tourniaire noted that in B2B communities, it’s often the industry consultants who will step up to the plate and carry on active discussions in the forums in order to help get their names out in the industry and possibly garner some new clients down the road.

For consumer-oriented sites, companies can motivate customers to act as online mentors and community leaders by simply awarding them points for participation. The most active or highest-rated posters might be given a “senior guru” status and possibly a small gift or discount as thanks.

But don’t make the mistake of sitting back and letting customers run the show, experts warn. “It’s great if customers are answering questions, but you can’t assume that they will,” Ragsdale said. “You need someone monitoring those forums and answering questions -- or customers are going to get very unhappy.”

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