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Helping customers help themselves

According to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., 92% of customer interactions go through call centers at an average cost of $6.17 per incident, while self-service costs less than $2. That's if the self-service is done right. SearchCRM sat down with Kevin Laracey CEO and president of Natick, Mass.-based Edocs Inc., a self-service software vendor with a focus on billing, to discuss the future of self-service and best practices.

What are some of the benefits of self-service? We're sort of the Web equivalent of the ATM, or the self-service...

gas station, the high-end mode. A lot of customers would really prefer to help themselves than go through the overhead of having a conversation with someone. That may sound antisocial, but I'm referring to dialing the phone, wading through the IVR [interactive voice response], sitting on hold, exchanging pleasantries, getting to the wrong person and getting transferred. That's what people want to avoid. If you can provide them with an intuitive tool that's feature rich and performs well when they're online, they're going to go back to it. It sounds straightforward. But there are a number of elements in these deployments that, if you get one of them wrong, it can drive up calls to the call center. What are some of those elements?

 A few of the key ingredients to success are No. 1, it has to perform well in the eyes of the user. You don't sit in front of Google or Yahoo and say, 'Gee, it took a long time to display that home page.' It generally performs pretty well. If you're a company and you've got a slow self-service application, a user might tolerate that once or twice, but then they're never coming back. You've basically taken one of the key benefits of expediency and immediacy out of the equation for them. The other thing is the application needs to be available all the time. If a customer logs on at 1 a.m., that's a convenience for them. If they go there and get the 'server not found' error, that's a disappointment. It's a real hit to the perceived convenience. You might lose the customer. Another thing that we think is pretty critical is the application has to have enough functionality to encompass the 80/20 rule. At least provide the end user with 80% of the functionality they need to take care of the 80% of things they need to do. Fail that and you're going to get one of these adoption curves where it drops off. The other thing is ease of use and user interface. What kind of issues does integration with back-end transactional systems raise?
With back-end data, particularly in the telco world, customers ask, 'how do I handle five or six terabytes of data?' There are scalability issues from the standpoint of sheer volumes of data. Also there are scalability issues from the number of users who hit these sites. We have sites where it's not unusual during a day for the site to peak at 50,000 simultaneous users, which is a very significant system. It's a different type of problem from a scalability standpoint. The thing that's surprising to a lot of people is these transactional self-service systems -- the ones that we sell -- are really real-time systems and they're real-time systems for a company's customers. If they slow down, if the functionality doesn't work, you'd better believe customers are angry. Where are the next big advancements or big trends in self-service?
I think you're going to see integration between self-service and assisted care, more seamless escalation paths, perhaps more intelligent escalation. If I have some best customers in terms of profitability and I can detect what they're doing online via Web self-service, I might proactively contact them and ask if they want to speak with somebody. I think those are coming down the road. It's still a very nascent industry.

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 Is this market headed for consolidation?
It's happening. There's actually been a huge amount of capital invested in this space, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I think you'll continue to see consolidation. It's the way of all markets. How do you help companies drive their customers to self-service?
We'll tell them how to enroll customers the right way versus the wrong way, how to let customers know about the existence of the solution, how to use the solution -- things like putting a flash demo on the site or migrating customers from an older solution on the site. We'll share little things like when you launch -- on the IVR, -- tell people if they want their account balance or to pay their bill, go to www dot whatever dot com. Or we tell them to print the URL to the online site on the flap of the bill. One of my favorite ROI killing maneuvers is companies walk you through two or three pages of enrollment forms and at the end they say, 'thanks we'll e-mail you in a month when you're information is available online.' There's no immediate gratification. It's almost a guaranteed support call generation. You get an e-mail saying your account is ready, but people have forgotten their ID and password. Are customers asking you about selling via self-service?
Sure, what we've been doing is trying to leverage promotions. We definitely have a lot of interesting data for our customers. We'll hang on to transaction data. That can be used, say in a telco paradigm, to serve up to the customer the offer for the right rate plan while they're examining a bill. Wireless telcos are realizing that it costs me more to acquire that customer than it would to just put them on the right rate plan. What else are you hearing from customers?
As a company's customers do more business from the online channel, online becomes the main repository of data. The print side is becoming a secondary channel. Companies are saying we've made this big investment in the online channel, [so] can't that be used as the central hub of information distribution and be used to print printed documents.

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