At your own service

The idea of customer self-service – allowing patrons to obtain products or services without interacting with a company employee – is not new. The basic concept is to make the products and services of your company easily accessible without any time or procedural constraints.

This model works well for selling goods or services – look at ATMs and consumer e-commerce sites such as Inc. – but providing customer care is a different story. Try as they may, companies are getting mixed results when applying the self-service approach to support issues because assisting a customer with a problem entails a more complex and less predictable pattern of interactions.

The stakes are high, however: The mandate to reduce cost and improve customer satisfaction in 2003 will push companies even harder to strengthen CRM with a variety of technologies, including enticing portals, sophisticated search engines, and intelligent voice and text-recognition techniques to automate responses to customer requests. In this scenario, self-service CRM becomes a true disruptive technology, pivotal for sales, marketing, and support activities.

By definition, self-service CRM requires a customer, after registering or logging on to a portal, to take action to resolve a service issue by browsing the seller’s Web site, sending e-mail, or querying an online knowledge base. Such actions generate two important benefits: identifying or creating the customer’s profile and recording essential data about the customer from the visit.

For example, in browsing a search engine on a company Web site, a customer has to describe his or her problem in some fashion, however unstructured. In doing so, the customer is providing information that the company can use to sell him or her other goods, in addition to solving the specific issue that prompted the visit.

Compare this with a traditional service call in which attempts by the service rep to get similar information are usually dismissed by annoyed customers, who quickly bring the conversation back to their problem.

A good example of effective self-service CRM implementation comes from Gateway, with its remarkable online support package for consumers and companies, combining an online store and an extensive knowledge base of PC configurations and troubleshooting tips with tools that help customers promptly identify and solve complex technical issues.

Identifying the correct PC model is, of course, essential for proper support, and Gateway’s selfservice site makes that task foolproof with a snippet of ActiveX code that automatically grabs that information from the customer’s computer. It also restricts a search for updated software (or available accessories) to what’s compatible with that machine. A recently added feature, which would likely trigger a customer visit to the site, automatically e-mails customers when new drivers or BIOS become available for their PCs.

Channeling customers through a structured database of PC configurations is relatively easy, but companies in different business sectors have a more challenging task to make their self-service structure work.

The possibilities opened by some recent breakthroughs are encouraging. A recent licensing agreement with FastTalk, for instance (see “The power of voice”), will give VorTecs, a supplier of call center solutions, a more efficient and accurate voice-recognition engine to monitor live and recorded conversations between support agents and customers.

Voice enabling self-service CRM requires that those powerful voice-recognition engines become easily accessible from existing devices (such as PCs, telephones, and PDAs) and applications. In fact, a flurry of activities is in progress to create a proper infrastructure and extend voice applications to browsers and Web services.

The SALT (Speech Application Language Tags) Forum is a group to watch: Its members are developing standard extensions to markup languages that support mixed traditional and voice-driven access to browsers and applications. Imagine offering your customers the option of pointing to an item on their computer screens and requesting additional information by simply saying something such as “Show me the blueprint of that” or “Show me pending orders.”

In 2003, we should see self-service CRM solutions gradually take in those new technologies and assume an increasingly leading role in multi-faceted, customer-oriented activities. Even at its best, self-service CRM won’t solve every imaginable problem a customer might have. However, superior customer service can and will (as it always has) make a difference and give your company a significant competitive advantage without breaking the bank.

CRM vendors make way for self-service

Self-service CRM has arrived. Technologies such as portals, voice recognition, and next-generation search engines have improved so dramatically that they’ve become an indispensable part of the CRM arsenal. Vendors must now figure out how to help enterprises get the most from these new technologies, both to both improve customer experiences and lower costs.

First, vendors will need to open up their solutions to fit enterprises’ heterogeneous infrastructures and self-service environments. CRM portal technology, for example, must plug and play nicely with other vendors’ portals. On the voice recognition side, although these applications are typically linked more tightly to specific CTI (computer-telephony integration) architectures, such as those provided by Genesys, Cisco, and Avaya, CRM vendors will have to provide open APIs or XML interfaces to work with all the players.

Second, vendors will have to help customers better integrate their self-service systems with enterprisewide data. “Right now the problem is the 80 to 90 percent of the data that would be needed to solve a customer’s problem is generally disbursed throughout the organization,” explains Michael Maoz, vice president of Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. Vendors must figure out how to better pull data from multiple sources into one interface so that the user or an agent can solve the problem. “[The answer to] my problem is not in Siebel, it’s in the supply chain or it’s in finance,” Maoz says. “They need workflow that cuts into the whole stack of applications to get to the answer.”

CRM vendors also need to figure out what they should build and what they should license. Some technologies, such as e-mail response and Web self-service, need to be tightly integrated, whereas some, such as voice recognition, are more specialized and may therefore be better outsourced.

Most vendors see themselves as integrators providing a complete solution. “We think our core competency is to provide the framework,” says PeopleSoft’s Barbry McGann, vice president of CRM product strategy in Pleasanton, Calif. “The value-add is being able to bring it into the business process.” But not everyone agrees. “For the next three to five years, it’s going to be the [third-party] integrator or the IT shop” creating the most value, says Gartner’s Maoz. “Especially with Web services, they’re just licking their chops and saying we can put this together ourselves.