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Can online self-service make contact centers more efficient?

Companies can use online self-service tools to ease the burden on contact center agents. But phone calls are still critical to multichannel service.

A steady stream of repetitive, low-level questions can create inefficiencies for even the most streamlined contact centers. When contact center agents are saddled with repeating the same information, it can take time away from resolving more complex issues that need a human touch.

And contact centers are already costly propositions -- rental costs, agent payroll and phone services can cut into a company's margins quickly. Depending on agent headcount, number of sites and setup, research from Ovum indicated the annual cost of contact centers can range from $100,000 to several million.

So companies are turning to new methods -- such as online self-service -- to cut spending and streamline processes. Forums for frequently asked questions (FAQ) and troubleshooting pages can dramatically promote contact center efficiency and bring better service by ensuring more in-depth questions receive one-on-one interaction with agents. But if self-service options dominate a contact center's service model, customers may defect; they also need higher-touch options to communicate more directly with a company. So human interaction -- typically in the form of phone calls -- will always have a place in the contact center equation. Companies need to decide which mix works best based on their constituencies and the products they offer.

Why self-service is gaining traction

Gartner predicted companies that integrate customer communities into their support offerings could experience a cost reduction of 10% to 50%, mainly from the deflection of calls to an agent. A recent customer survey from Forrester Research indicated customers use FAQ pages on a company websites more than speaking with agents over the phone. Over the past two years, use of such pages increased 9%, while phone-based interaction remained steady. The survey also highlighted increased usage of other Web self-service methods -- including communities and online chat -- while self-service adoption increased among people aged 59 and older.

We have to figure out which interactions are valued by the customer and which ones feel like transactions [that can be done online].
Denise ConnorsTrupanion

"Customer preferences are shifting toward self-service and email versus talking on the phone," said Matthew Turner, founder of corporate strategy and marketing firm Boston Turner Group. "If contact is made over the phone, something has gone wrong and [the customer] wasn't able to find the information [he needed]."

But even with adoption on the rise and the cost-cutting potential it offers, self-service is not an easy sell for some companies.

The benefit of self-service

Self-service is vital to PetHub Inc.'s customer service strategy. PetHub, which provides QR code-based pet ID tags to make it easier to find lost pets, employs a staff of eight agents. Phone calls are rare as PetHub drives its customers online and uses email, chat and a Q&A tab to respond to virtually all customer contacts. The Q&A tab, provided by AnswerDash, is embedded on every page of the company's website, with options for customers to have a live chat, send an email, or peruse commonly asked questions. PetHub uses this as its front line of customer communication.

Maya Starbuck, PetHub's manager of customer care, said most repeat questions center on troubleshooting the technology and are answered by content embedded in the AnswerDash tab. For example, recent answers to questions on an aspect of product technology received 230 views, which represents 230 people who would have emailed or chatted in questions, Starbuck said.

For PetHub, that translates into tangible savings.

"We used to have two full-time support staffers, but this tool saves us money by not having to hire someone … anymore," Starbuck said. "[The Q&A] tab saved us $2,000 in support costs in November [2013] alone."

Old methods die hard

But there are still companies that are wary to dive into self-service strategies.

Trupanion, an online provider of medical insurance for cats and dogs, encourages its customers to call in to resolve their issues, as 80% of the company's contact center traffic comes via the phone. The product is not as well-known as other common forms of insurance, said vice president of customer care Denise Connors.

"The general person that you sit next to on the bus couldn't tell you much about pet insurance like they could about their car insurance," she said. "So we're still educating people on the product itself."

Connors said that answering the same questions repeatedly comprises the majority of the contact center's interactions, as 85% to 90% of calls involve asking about claim issues or how to update personal information. Connors said the company's plan is to look into embedding real-time chat into the website, as well as posting content to suggest different levels of coverage or deductibles.

"It's such a challenge because we're afraid custromers will make the wrong decision if we commit too much to self-service about coverage," Connors said. "But for things like updating credit cards, rescheduling payments, filing a claim, that's alright for self-service and that's on our roadmap." Connors said the company expects major call reductions as a result of introducing certain self-service avenues.

But the company wants to maintain its emphasis on phone calls because 48% of Trupanion's new business is booked through that channel, Connors said. Before it carefully promotes its website's help offerings, the company needs to determine what kind of information is appropriate for that forum.

"We have to figure out which interactions are valued by the customer and which ones feel like transactions [that can be done online]," Connors said.

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