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Selecting self-service CRM software means looking in many places

Self-service software encompasses a wide range of technologies. Finding the right system to serve your needs -- and your customers' -- demands careful consideration.

The types of self-service CRM vary widely -- from online virus scanners to community forums to FAQs -- but all aim to enable customers to help themselves to information or complete a transaction without requiring direct communication with a customer service representative.

"Self service does two things," said Allen Bonde, managing director of Evoke CRM Partners, a social media and self-service CRM consultancy. "It allows you to reach new customers and to do transactions more efficiently than manual processes."

The mix of self-service tools that an organization provides is highly dependent on the market and the preferences of its customers.

No suite has it all

Self-service products are available in suites as well as standalone products. CRM applications may have knowledge bases, user profiles, chat, search and customer databases. Emerging social platforms typically include such things as blogs, forums, and management and analytics tools for overseeing multiple social channels. But unless an organization is adding only a few self-service tools -- or is just plain lucky -- it is unlikely to find everything it needs in one CRM suite.

Juniper Networks’ customer service portal is a case in point. From the outside, it looks like one unified suite of self-service applications. But behind the front end, the site is a mix of homegrown and commercial products, integrated on the back end and with a Juniper-branded interface on front. The portal has user forums, online tutorials and technical courses, blogs, live and archived webcasts, knowledge base articles, technical documentation, bulletins, and customer case management tools to allow Juniper customers to file their own requests for technical help and check the status of existing cases. It also offers software downloads and a “tools” area with several analyzers and configuration tools for popular Juniper products. Juniper also maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“Our general strategy is to build vs. buy, but we’ll also do best-of-breed if we can and integrate them with the other products,” said Keith Redfield, Juniper’s director of online support and technical support infrastructure.  “One of the things we look for [in software] is the degree to which they open up the application logic, to make sure it’s possible to do integration.”


What to look for in self-service tools

Here are six tips from experts on selecting the right mix of self-service technologies.

Canvass your customers: Customers are not all alike in their preferences for self-service vs. live service or in their choice of self-service channels. Some are happy to research a problem in the knowledge base, while others won’t do much more than post their problem to Twitter and wait for help. Still others expect to get a live human on the phone.

Make the user interface a priority. Francoise Tourniaire, owner of FT Works, a consulting firm that specializes in customer support, said that a frequent failing of self-service tools, especially those used in the B2B space, is a poor interface design.

“One incredibly common problem has to do with UI issues. You look at the screen and are bewildered, don’t know what to do or which button to click,” she said.

Upgrade your search. Customers expect to be able to perform global searches of multiple resources at the same time and to do so easily without having to learn complex search rules. Search products today feature sophisticated search capabilities with very user-friendly features, and companies are investing in these new features. An Technology Services Industry Association survey of its members – largely software and IT hardware companies – indicated that 31% planned to buy an intelligent search product.

Leverage social channels. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be leveraged as very effective forms of self-service CRM. One high-tech company in Bedford, Mass. -- iRobot -- posts tutorials on its products on YouTube and a Facebook page for its Roomba vacuuming robot where users can post questions, offer feedback, share tips, read Roomba information, answer surveys, and see videos of the product in action.

Social self-service channels can also be tapped for useful information about customer support needs and behaviors -- if the social software maker has provided APIs or other integration links to major CRM applications and customer analytics applications. Integration between social and traditional CRM is becoming increasingly common.

SMBs should buy, not build. Unless an organization has the IT resources of an IBM -- or maybe a Juniper Networks -- trying to smoothly integrate a collection of standalone products into a cohesive self-service environment is difficult at best. Taking a do-it-yourself approach will also make it difficult to keep up with the latest features in emerging areas such as social media and search. Too often, however, small and midsized companies opt to save money and attempt to build it themselves, often using open source or a basic freeware application as the base, according to John Ragsdale of the Service and Support Professionals Association.

“I’m not a big fan of anything that isn’t off the shelf,” Ragsdale said. “Developing a basic user forum isn’t that difficult, but if you want to add new capabilities such as ‘idea storming,’ customer rating systems, or complex reputation models, you aren’t going to be able to do it with homegrown technology.”

Self-service is more than a website. The idea behind ATMs and kiosks is that they are where the customer can best access them at the point the need assistance. While Web-based self service offers ease of access for most people, there should be other options.

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems offer an alternative for customers who find the phone more convenient than the Web, although the information available via IVR is usually much more limited and structured than what can be put on the Web. Industry experts say, however, that IVR needs to be better integrated with other self-service channels.

“Right now, IVR is the lowest-ranked channel in terms of customer satisfaction,” said Sheryl Kingstone, director of enterprise research for the Yankee Group. She recommends taking the time to analyze what customers want from the IVR -- and possibly overlay new technologies such as virtual agents and support for natural language.

Mobile phone access is also becoming much more common, thanks to smartphones and social media such as Twitter. Hence, more customers expect to access both voice and Web-based support from their mobile phones. According to the Technology Services Industry Association 2010 Member Spending Report, mobile technologies and devices will continue to rise in adoption by field service and technical support organizations. The survey found that 34% of field service organizations plan to invest in mobile technologies. But while social media products often include mobile access, not many traditional CRM applications do, Kingstone said. “You may have to put it together piecemeal.”

Self-help tools are increasingly being embedded into the products themselves as well. Software vendors have been including help wizards in their applications for several years, and now some hardware vendors are doing so. Ragsdale pointed to the copier industry as an example.

“Xerox started embedding self-service articles and video right into their industrial copiers, so instead of flashing E13 error messages at you, it will play a video showing you how to fix the problem,” Ragsdale said, adding that he’s heard of products that even have cameras embedded so the support staff can look over the user’s shoulder while fixing a problem.


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