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Make the agent the last option

Free up your contact center staff with self-service automation. Some say customers are just as satisfied and the CFO is even happier.

Despite all the attention given to outsourcing contact center work, self-service automation is a cheaper alternative that can actually improve customer satisfaction rates, according to one analyst.

A recent research note by Forrester Research analyst Elizabeth Herrell concluded that "automated services can be as effective as agent-assisted transactions." To get the benefits, she recommended that organizations give customers an intuitive interface, encourage them to use self-service options and send service reminders before customers initiate the contact.

When Cloudmark Inc., an antispam software provider in San Francisco, decided to deploy an e-mail deflection application, it was concerned with "turning off" its customers, said Travis Murdock, a customer service agent. A few months ago, Cloudmark selected Contact Us software from Cambridge, Mass.-based iPhrase Technologies Inc.

Now, when customers with questions visit Cloudmark's Web site they are asked to fill out a "request for help" form. Before that request is sent to a customer service agent, Contact Us scans the form and replies to the customer with a list of the top five answers to the query. If the customer does not find an appropriate answer, he can click to submit the form to an agent at the customer service center.

The system deflected 30% of incoming customer e-mail on the first day it went live. After some adjustments, Cloudmark said that figure hit 38% and that Contact Us hasn't lengthened the time for customers to get a reply.

"It was important to not add extra steps," Murdock said. "Because [the software] integrates with our own customized Web site, it allowed us to keep [the process] streamlined. The customer flow from question to response is almost the same number of clicks as it would be without it."

According to Herrell's report, companies can also save on agent expenses and make customers more loyal by anticipating service calls before they come in. Using rules-based notification, for example, an insurance company might remind a customer that coverage is about to expire, preventing the account from lapsing and agents from having to make renewal calls.

Self-service applications have received a lot of attention in recent years, according to Christian Airth, analyst with the Allen Bonde Group in Wellesley Hills, Mass., and call deflection has been particularly popular. Companies have primarily viewed self service as a way to trim costs in tough economic times. Yet, as businesses look to grow, Airth predicts they'll invest more in marketing through self service.

Real-time marketing analytics applications are starting to provide that connection, according to Herrell. Companies are beginning to make customized offers across several self-service channels such as the Web, interactive voice response and speech applications.

Ultimately, the customer satisfaction and cost savings success of a self-service application rests in customers actually using it. One way to boost awareness is to promote self-service applications to customers currently relying on other channels. For instance, while customers are holding for an agent, airlines often advise them to make their reservations or check for flight delays online.

But Herrell suggests doing more. Organizations should offer rewards, including monetary incentives, faster service or special delivery options, for customers who use self service. Additionally, agents who field live calls should be measured on their ability to direct customers to self-service channels rather than on call-completion rates, she said.


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