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Best practices to ensure the success of contact center self-service

Find out which tasks work best with self-service and learn how to measure the effectiveness of a self-service implementation in the contact center.

When companies think about integrating contact center self-service, they tend to focus on reducing costs and improving agent efficiency, which can lead to short-term gains. Without a smart plan, self-service initiatives that launch with great expectations can often fizzle out, leaving customers confused, angry and looking for new brands. Fortunately, companies that launch with contact center best practices can ensure sustainable success.

The first thing to sort out is which tasks are best suited for live agents and which are best handled through self-service. According to Layne Holley, director of community services for International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), self-service is never going to take the place of live agents.

"What you want is to identify the most repetitive, easily automated transaction types of tasks to shift to self-service channels," she explained. “A good rule of thumb is that if you can do it online in less time than it would take to pick up the phone and complete the transaction with a live agent, it might be a candidate for self-service."

In addition, Holley said there are some common tasks that call center professionals tend to rank highly for self-service solutions:

  • Shopping carts for product and service orders
  • Order confirmation
  • Order tracking
  • Appointment setting and rescheduling
  • Bill pay and funds transfers
  • Customer access to personal accounts and account setup and management
  • Site search
  • Frequently asked questions or help content
  • Opening and checking tickets

Although some of these tasks can be completed efficiently over the phone, customers increasingly expect Web-based self-service options, which represent a prime opportunity for deflecting calls from a contact center. "Basically, if your question can be answered as a self-contained answer -- and answered completely -- Web self-service is great," said Kate Leggett, a senior analyst for Forrester Research Inc. She noted that 80% of questions can usually easily be answered by a straightforward Web self-service offering.

Still, John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research for the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), warned that customers will act in unexpected ways. "Today’s customers use every channel for every problem, including reporting 'priority one' issues via chat, email and self-service [applications]. Would they be better off picking up the phone and calling you? Probably, but you can’t mandate customer behavior," he explained.

The rise of video

Meanwhile, according to Drew Kraus, research vice president for Gartner's Technology & Service Provider Research group, there's a lot of change in the contact center space over what types of tasks are best suited for self-service. "Self-service video -- corporate video applications that let someone get a visual representation of how to do something -- is changing things," he explained.

While video for self-service is still an emerging space, Kraus said the success of self-service videos doesn't have to rely on customers finding them online. Agents can push a Web link to the customer, saving precious time. "With video, an agent wouldn't have to walk a customer through a complex task," he noted.

There are challenges to connecting video with contact centers, though. "In many cases, the contact centers don't own the Web-based self-service activity, so it needs some level of contact and cooperation between the IT Web center and the call center. It's not that they are antagonistic; it's just that it's not standard for the two groups to work closely together," he explained.

Of course, even video doesn't do a good job at everything. "Live agents are better in places where you need consultative service or cross-sell, up-sell efforts," Kraus said.

Arrows to escalation

Poorly implemented contact center self-service applications can come back to haunt a company in multiple ways. Customers might take their business elsewhere, but they may also attempt to immediately bypass self-service applications in favor of finding a live agent immediately. Because much of the point behind self-service solutions is to limit direct agent interaction, what are some of the best practices to handle escalation?

"The best way to handle escalation is to avoid it … but it’s bound to happen. With self-service, it's critical to have an escalation path," Holley said. "It’s inevitable that at least a few customers will abandon a channel, but you don’t want them to abandon your organization."

Still, what about avoidance?

"If you’re looking to limit escalations, make sure your self-service channels are working properly and that they’re updated with all relevant information -- promotions, new products, new service or product features -- just as you would make sure that live agents are armed with the latest info," Holley said.

While traditional call centers have clear escalation paths built into their processes and service-level commitments, Ragsdale said that many companies are missing ways to easily escalate from unassisted to assisted support. To fix this, do not hide access to live agents so that your customers have to spend 20 minutes searching for contact information, he said.

Next, look to Web chat options. "Web chat is hugely popular in consumer support and now has growing popularity for enterprise and B2B support," he explained. "Chat is a great way to offer customers a quick connection to an agent from the Web, and it preserves where they are on the Web page so the agent has context."

Some smart companies know when it's time to initiate escalation themselves. "You can proactively reach out to customers who have been on your self-service site for a long time or who have performed multiple searches and ask if they need help," Ragsdale recommended. "A great thing about proactive chat is you can choose to only offer it when inbound volume is low, to keep your idle agents as productive as possible."

Of course, managing escalation remains a delicate balance for contact center managers. "Customers always want easy escalation paths but not all businesses want it," Kraus noted. "Sometimes they really want to encourage you to use self-service -- some businesses are happy to lose a customer rather than have high call center costs."

Measuring self-service satisfaction

"Unfortunately, nearly half -- 43.6% -- of the contact centers represented in our research don't measure customer feedback on their centers' self-service channels," ICMI's Holley said. "So the first recommendation is measure, measure, measure!

"The best way to measure customer satisfaction is to ask the customer to rate the interaction they had with the channel they used. Were they able to find the information they were looking for? Short, direct survey questions are best, and they should focus on the service transaction and include channel-specific questions -- as opposed to general questions about the company or its products and services," Holley explained.

In addition, ICMI recommends that organizations deliver customer surveys using the channel the customer used. "For example, if the customer comes to your organization via your interactive voice response (IVR), offer them an IVR survey," she said.

Accurate measurement is not without challenges, though.

"The response rates for [survey] prompts are often less than 3% -- sometimes less than 1% -- so you don’t gather enough information that way," Ragsdale noted. "The next approach is emailing a survey to everyone who uses self-service. In the B2B world this is easy -- users typically have a logon or password for self-service in B2B. But for consumers, with no authentication needed to access self-service, you don’t know who they are to follow up to with a survey."

One way to measure potential self-service success online is to look at search patterns, Forrester's Leggett said. Many clicks or abandoned pages might point to a higher likelihood of dissatisfaction in self-service engagements or potential problem areas to enhance.

Regardless of what a contact center manager measures, Leggett recommends that companies find ways to put their survey and measurement information to use on an ongoing basis. "To have a continuous improvement cycle," she said, "you need to route it back to the right people to act on it."


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