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Finding the ROI in contact center self-service initiatives

Chris Maxcer, Contributor

For years, contact center self-service initiatives were launched simply as a way to cut call center and agent engagement costs. Many have since languished under years of neglect. A recent Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) benchmark study

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indicates a number on the face of this trend: Successful self-service engagements have dropped from 48% in 2003 to just 39% in 2011.

How can a beleaguered contact center manager turn this trend around for better ROI?

The answers, of course, start with a firm grasp of key call center metrics your organization can use to assess the value of self-service initiatives. Also important is knowing how to propose smarter integration of self-service initiatives to business stakeholders to get those efforts on a path to success.

Two key metrics

There are two basic, core self-service contact center metrics that most companies should pay attention to, noted John Ragsdale, vice president of research for TSIA. "The first is self-service success, for example, the percent of customers that attempt self-service and successfully find what they need," he said. Companies can use this metric to determine how effective their self-service endeavors are.

"The second is what percentage of total incident volume is being answered -- or deflected -- via self-service channels," Ragsdale explained. If a company has 10,000 calls a month but can deflect 1,000 calls to a self-service application, those costs associated with the deflections could result in the need for fewer call center staffers or resources.

Measuring customer satisfaction

"The best metrics are customer satisfaction and contact resolution," said Layne Holley, director of community services for International Customer Management Institute (ICMI). "Tracking call resolution, however, seems to be a bit trickier for many call centers.”

Calls fielded by interactive voice response (IVR)are just as tricky. Citing the ICMI 2010 Self-Service and the Multichannel Contact Center Report, Holley said “more than one-fifth of our survey respondents said they do not measure completion rates for IVR-only calls. Sixty-four percent of respondents don’t know if or when a customer has tried to self-serve but then opted for a live rep.”

Overall, recent ICMI research finds that 43.6% of organizations don't measure customer feedback on centers' self-service channels.

"When you don’t measure completion and transfer-out rates, you also can’t measure the ROI of your self-service technologies," Holley said.

"Customers often transfer out of a self-service transaction because they’re not easily able to get what they need. You’re not likely to understand why customers are transferring out or abandoning until you track what’s happening," Holley said.

Computer telephony integration (CTI) systems can enable transactional analysis for self-service channels so that contact centers can know when customers have tried self-service and then opted for a live agent, Holley said. They can also pass customer transaction data from self-service channels back to the agent, reducing customer frustration that can occur when they have to repeat what they’ve already said to a live agent.

Packaging for stakeholder approval

To win stakeholder buy-in, contact center managers should start with ROI, followed by the more nebulous customer satisfaction metrics.

"For the most part, it still comes back to the basics of decreasing agent handle time and operational costs, along with improving customer satisfaction by giving self-service to those who want it," noted Drew Kraus, research vice president for enterprise communications at Gartner Inc.

Although call deflection rates and reducing agent handle time can lead to hard-cost savings, some customers are increasingly looking at self-service as an expected benefit. For example, some customers prefer Web self-service options over live agents when they are sitting in coffee shops or are up late at night and don't want to wake sleeping family members.

"For a lot of companies, part of the justification for IVR is to extend the hours they can support their customers without having to extend agent staffing … but there is a downside: Surveys show that most customers just think they're trying to reduce costs. So even if the rationale is altruistic, the customer impression is, 'Ah, they're just still trying to be cheap,'" Kraus said.

Good knowledge management (KM) has the power to mitigate those pessimistic impressions as long as customers can find answers to their needs. "KM is one of the few areas that investment almost always creates strong ROI. Even a poor KM implementation will pay for itself in a year -- a really good implementation pays for itself in as little as six months," TSIA's Ragsdale noted.

Consider this: "Interaction volumes are increasing year over year by 20% or more for most companies. Since no one wants to fund doubling or tripling the size of support over the next few years, self-service is an easy sell,” Ragsdale explained.

VMware, a provider of virtualization and cloud infrastructure technologies recently updated its self-service efforts. It not only kept customers satisfied with instant access to answers but also managed to deflect calls from its call center, said Kate Leggett, senior analyst for Forrester Research Inc. In 2008, 2.5 million customers accessed Web-based content; in 2010, more than 10 million customers accessed content, said Leggett.

And the results? Since the update, which includes links to a company support blog and a YouTube channel for self-service videos, calls to VMware’s contact center have steadily decreased. The rate is now below 4%, saving VMware more than $10 million a year.

Drawbacks and pitfalls

"The biggest drawback is that a poorly designed application can end up with customer alienation," Gartner's Kraus noted. "The classic is that you spend five minutes in the IVR, get transferred to an agent and then you have to repeat everything."

That's irritating enough, but it becomes far worse when speech-based applications go wrong, he said.

"A poorly developed speech application [alienates more] customers than a poorly developed IVR touch-tone application because now I'm not just pressing the buttons harder, I'm yelling at my phone," Kraus explained. "And the poor agent who gets me after this … I'm sure it increases agent churn, plus it increases average handle time because your customer is whining about the application. A lot of companies don't realize the investment and nuance that's required for speech-type testing and tuning."

There are risks with Web-based self-service, too.

"A poor self-service implementation frustrates customers, who after two-to-three unsuccessful attempts will likely never go back to your self-service site again. For customers who prefer self-service -- and that is becoming a large percentage of customers as younger demographics age into the primary target markets -- having a bad self-service site means they will take their business elsewhere -- it is that important," Ragsdale stressed.

One last common pitfall is risking the relevance of Web knowledge management efforts, Leggett said.

"KM solutions often don't get adequately staffed because companies don't see it as a long-term engagement. They see it as a project to execute so you get executive sponsorship and funding for that project, but there's no funding for the bodies that's needed to maintain it," she explained. "As soon as someone accesses information that doesn't answer their question because it's stale, they're going to pick up the phone."

Chris Maxcer is a freelance writer.


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