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Effective self-service CRM requires cross-channel consistency

Running an effective customer self-service program means providing consistency across all customer touch-points.

Self-service CRM technologies -- such as knowledge bases, corporate blogs and user forums -- can be a great convenience for customers and a labor-saving strategy for customer support organizations.

That’s the philosophy behind self-service support at Charleston, S.C.-based Blackbaud Inc., a maker of software for nonprofit organizations and the winner of the 2010 Association of Support Professionals award as one of the Ten Best Web Support Sites. The goal of Blackbaud’s support site is to be a central, unified site with a full range of options -- blogs, forums, knowledge bases, user manuals, Facebook, Twitter, and online case management -- that make it easier and faster for customers to get the help they need, explained Jeff Malmgren, Blackbaud’s vice president of customer support.

“We believe that repeat users will service themselves and not create cases, but it’s not just about contact reduction but also about customer satisfaction and giving customers multiple ways to get help,” Malmgren said.

Achieving that goal has meant replacing various silos of content and standalone applications with integrated applications and cross-linking content between different self-service channels. Replacing Blackbaud’s search engine and knowledge base played a big role in unifying the content used by disparate customer channels.

Universal search unifies content

Besides integration support, Blackbaud also wanted a knowledge base and search engine that could be finely tuned to enable it to continually optimize search results based on feedback it gets from users. And Blackbaud wanted an intuitive, user-friendly interface that would encourage customers to use it again and again.

Blackbaud is not alone in recognizing the potential that search applications have for unifying disparate resources. Search is becoming a key tool for unifying disparate support content. A 2010 survey by The Support Industry Association revealed that companies are buying more search engines and that interest in search engines is greater than interest in knowledge bases -- a change from prior years.

“The emphasis of knowledge management programs is moving away from knowledge bases toward a 'knowledge anywhere' approach, using robust search technology,” said John Ragsdale, research director for the Technology Services Industry Association.

To improve the knowledge base’s effectiveness, Blackbaud also edited search tags into all of the product user guides for its many software products – for CRM, fundraising, analytics, direct marketing and nonprofit management applications -- so they could be searched from the knowledge base.

“Our goal is to have one central place for customers to go when they’re searching for information,” Malmgren said, adding that the company is now working to make other self-service channels – namely, the blogs and community forums -- searchable as well.

The knowledge base is also tied to the case management application, so that customers who open a case are presented with a pop-up window providing possible solutions from the knowledge base. The customer can opt to try one or continue filling out the help form.

Blackbaud has reduced calls to the call center by 6% since upgrading its knowledge base and search engine, according to Carolyn Ferrell, manager of support information. “We just compiled the results for May and found that 70% of customers visited the knowledge base last quarter, and 80% visited the website. So it’s been really phenomenal.”

Avoiding dead-ends and islands

Organizations that want their customers to use the self-service tools they provide have to ensure that those tools not only contain a wide range of current, user-friendly content but that they don’t frustrate customers by dropping them into a dead-end, without other options.

A good self-service system should offer many exit strategies. If one type of self-service can’t help a customer, it should provide exits to other types of customer service. For example, an IVR system should have a clear method for getting to a human customer service rep. A Web support site should offer contact information for customers who can’t solve their problems on the Web, including a phone number, email address, and possibly a live chat option to reach customer service.

An escalation process is as important for self service as it is for human customer support, said Thomas Sweeney, co-founder of Service XRG, an IT services research and consulting firm.

“What is the next level of assistance? Is it a pop-up window with an email form, or a phone call? It should spell out the next level, and not leave a dead-end,” Sweeney said.

Transitions between channels should be smooth and integrated. That means data has to be shared between the customer database that call-center reps use and the Web help forms that customers fill out online, or between the IVR and the call center. Without integrated transitions, customers will eventually begin skipping the self-help options and head straight for a human rep in order to save time.

“A certain disconnect between channels hurt [the image of] self service early on. For instance, customers had to retype into a Web form the same information they just gave to an online rep,” said Allen Bonde, of Evoke CRM Partners, a social media and self-service consultancy.

Treat social as part of CRM

 Social sites such as Facebook, Twitter and community forums add a new wrinkle to the problem of customer content. Not all support organizations view social channels as part of the CRM environment. So they may not pay careful attention to the information that is being disseminated. At its worst, that could result in customers or inexperienced employees posting erroneous or outdated information.

While a company may not directly control the content of those sites, it shouldn’t turn a blind eye either, industry experts say. Instead, monitor this content and look for opportunities to update, correct or contribute to it.

“There are customers that know as much as tech support experts, and they’re blogging and writing on forums about your product features,” Ragsdale warned, noting that they could be making valuable contributions but could also be spreading inaccurate information.

Social channels should be treated as simply another part of customer service, he said, which means not only monitoring forums and Facebook but also creating policies, processes and cross-department groups to ensure consistent and optimal responses.

“Companies may see social as something else,” Ragsdale said. “But customers see it as all part of customer service, [irrespective] of the channel they use.”


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