Know thy customer

When Web-based self-service is good, it’s really good. Customer satisfaction soars and call centre costs plummet as customers answer their own questions, enter their own credit card numbers and change their own passwords without expensive live help.

But when Web-based self-service is bad, it’s really bad. Frustrated customers click to a competitor’s site or dial up your call centre – meaning you’ve paid for both a self-service Web site and for a call centre, and the customer is still unhappy.

Greeting self-service users with a confusing menu of options or asking them questions they can’t answer is a sure way to force them to call a help centre. For example, when AT&T Wireless Services Inc. began rolling out its new high-bandwidth wireless networks, its self-service Web site required customers to say whether their phones used the older Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) network or the newer, third-generation network. Most people didn’t know which network they used, only which calling plan they had signed up for, says Scott Cantrell, e-business IT program manager at AT&T Wireless. So AT&T redesigned the site so the customer just enters his user ID and password, “and the application automatically sends you to the right [Web] site,” Cantrell says.

According to Gartner Inc., more than a third of all customers or users who initiate queries over the Web eventually end up calling to get their questions answered. And although health insurers have busily rolled out self-service applications to help policyholders with claims questions, the “great, great majority” of transactions still go through a call centre, says John Distefano, national leader of IT solutions in Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s payor practice.

Whether a self-service application is aimed at external customers or internal users such as employees, the keys to success remain the same: understanding where self-service can save the most money, building flexibility into application interfaces and business rules so the site can be changed as needed, and setting aside money and time for maintaining the site.

Knowing which problems generate calls to expensive staffers is the first step to finding out where the greatest potential savings lie and which costly integration work is worth doing, according to Forrester Research Inc. Analyst Bruce Temkin. Syracuse University in New York, for example, held public forums on the topic in the spring of 2001 before giving students online access to information such as class schedules and the status of tuition payments, says Gary McGinnis, director of client services at the university’s computing and media services department.

Companies can learn a lot about customer needs by analyzing calls coming into their call centres, says Temkin, such as how many times customers call to dispute a single phone call on their bills versus how many times they call because they don’t understand their bills. Most call centre software can gather and present such information. Temkin recommends creating very precise categories to “tag” different calls to provide a detailed view.

The more complex the transaction is, the more expensive the integration. To let customers challenge charges online, says Temkin, a wireless provider must supply links to its billing system, a phone number look-up system to determine the actual recipient of a disputed call, and a rules-based system to evaluate the customer’s claim. Since you may lose any savings if the Web customer winds up calling, he says, “you might as well not bother going down the integration path if you’re not going to integrate all the pieces required to make that a self-service environment.”

Before moving to the Oracle suite of business applications in 2001, McData Corp. estimated that it would take six weeks to load, clean and test the data from its legacy applications, says Debra Morton, director of business systems at the Broomfield, Colo.-based storage vendor. “It ended up taking more like three months and four times the amount budgeted, because we had so many sources of information,” she says.

Rather than buying or building a separate self-service application, McData relied on Oracle Corp.’s business application suite. Using the self-service capabilities within an existing product suite reduces the need for integrating applications, which has doubled or tripled the cost of some application efforts Morton has seen.

McData is implementing self-service capabilities so its suppliers can get up-to-the-minute forecasts of its manufacturing plans. The company is also automating customer support for its software products.

Companies that build their own interfaces among applications often find that they’re not secure or don’t scale well, say analysts. “Many of our new customers over the last year or so are replacing home-grown systems that couldn’t scale,” says Ted Morgan, vice-president of marketing at Edocs Inc. in Natick, Mass.

When AT&T Wireless built a self-service site for its TDMA-based wireless technology, it used the Dynamo Web application suite from Art Technology Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., as well as Edocs’ eaDirect to give customers access to billing information, says Cantrell. The company had to develop its own interfaces to the eight to 10 back-end systems that feed information to the Web application.

In building self-service capabilities for its latest high-speed wireless services, AT&T Wireless will use Siebel Systems Inc. customer relationship management (CRM) software, which wasn’t in production when the company built earlier self-service sites.

Developers must also find a way to embed business rules into their Web self-service environments. Often, as many as half of those rules have never been written down, says Edocs product manager David Chang. To find those missing rules, Edocs gathers experts from throughout a company to walk through processes such as changing an order.

Hard-coding business rules by writing them into the Web application may be easiest in the short run, but it makes the rules harder to change, says Andrew Kass, vice-president of application development at Oracle. Instead, analysts and self-service vendors recommend encapsulating business logic in reusable application components so rules can be changed without every application that uses them having to be rewritten.

To ensure that customer data is current across multiple channels (such as the self-service application and the call centre), many customers are turning to operational data stores, says Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Distefano. The information in them might be 15 minutes to an hour old, he says, which is recent enough to ensure consistency. Another approach taken by vendors like Edocs is using data cataloguing to help the self-service application find data that’s still in transactional systems.

Continually updating the knowledge base of correct answers to customer questions can be one of the largest hidden expenses of self-service applications. Temkin recommends monitoring call centre personnel and providing incentives to encourage them to make their updates clear and understandable.

There is no single tool that can provide end-to-end Web self-service for every company that needs it, according to analysts. Syracuse University, for example, turned to Business Layers Inc., a provider of provisioning software in Rochelle Park, N.J., to provide a directory and a single source of authentication that would let students sign on once to gain access to any online resources. But the Web portal itself, and the links to the school’s PeopleSoft applications, were developed by a consortium of vendors and customers.

Whichever tools you use, “take a more holistic view of the world” when designing your self-service site, says Cantrell. “It’s easy to say we’re focusing on having the customer change a [specific] feature” over the Web, he says, but it’s more important to build in flexibility so customers can help themselves to any other service AT&T offers in the future.

Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass. He can be reached at