Old habits

Barbara Kelly wasn’t about to let a US$250,000 investment in self-service technology at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina go to waste.

As vice-president of human resources, she had spent four long months overseeing the health insurer’s implementation of a Web-based software system that lets employees perform tasks such as making coverage changes to medical plans and updating emergency contact information with the click of a mouse.

The goal was to move the Columbia, S.C.-based firm from paper-predicated mayhem to browser-based efficiency. But Kelly knew that success ultimately hinged on eliminating employee apprehension. While senior-level executives could be counted on to make the transition from pen to mouse, employees ranging from cafeteria workers to claims processors were also expected to embrace the company’s self-service tool a tall order for traditionally technophobic personnel.

Such is reality for countless companies eager to realize a fast return on their self-service initiatives. Human resources management portals, instant messaging, speech recognition systems, corporate intranets, kiosks – they’re all applications that can cut down on paperwork, increase customer loyalty, and reduce call volume and labour costs.

Yet many businesses are failing to persuade users to make the switch from human-powered channels, such as the telephone and e-mail, to self-service. The fact is that 17 per cent of companies are experiencing an increase in call centre traffic concurrent with their self-service offerings, according to Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Unable to reset consumer habits, these companies also risk losing revenue, employees and customers.

At Blue Cross, the introduction of the Web-based software system required meeting with the insurer’s call centre operators to prepare them for an anticipated influx of technology-related questions.

So how are companies persuading consumers and employees alike to break with old habits?

At Blue Cross, a PC loaded with WebServe software from Methuen, Mass.-based Genesys Software Systems Inc. was placed in each of the company’s 100-plus human resources offices. While human resources personnel lay claim to their own computers, these communal PCs, scattered throughout the organization, guarantee system access to all 14,000 employees.

Fifteen-page booklets containing screen shots of the software, along with step-by-step instructions, were distributed to mollify the technophobes. And senior-level managers participated in 20-minute training sessions so that they might later assist others. But it was the decision to do away with paper-based open enrolment processes that truly drove the adoption of self-service, Kelly says. The insurer’s benefits enrolment process takes place once a year. When it came time to introduce its WebServe program last year, Blue Cross simply halted all paper filings, leaving employees with no choice but to make changes to their medical plans electronically.

“I’m a firm believer that if you tell employees [that processes] are going to change, everybody changes. You just bite the bullet one time, otherwise you’re living with [a mess] for years,” says Kelly.

It’s a system overhaul that has proved beneficial to employees and human resources managers alike. Performed manually, Blue Cross’ enrolment process entailed days of delivering paperwork from one department to the next, mailing additional forms, phoning employees to verify information and the dedicated assistance of four human resources personnel. WebServe, on the other hand, eliminated the need for shuffling forms between departments and mounds of paperwork, reducing the process to a mere 10 minutes.

Pitching self-service applications to customers, however, is an art that requires equal parts prodding and finesse. Take Lands’ End Inc., for example. The Dodgeville, Wis.-based retailer still fields plenty of phone calls and e-mail from shoppers inquiring about how its apparel is sized. But it says conversion rates increase 19 per cent when online consumers make use of the Web site’s My Virtual Model, a self-service feature that lets customers dress a 3-D model, based on actual physical measurements, with any number of outfits.

Launched in 1998 and now used regularly by more than 10 per cent of Lands’ End’s 38 million annual online visitors, My Virtual Model also accounts for a 16 per cent increase in an average online order. It’s a self-service success story that Terry Nelson, e-commerce marketing manager, says results from resetting consumer behaviour patterns by catering to customer demand.

After all, My Virtual Model delivers a chance for visitors to feel as if they have actually tried on an item of clothing. And it’s precisely this ability to address a real customer need that has helped drive its adoption, Nelson says.

The bottom line: Give your customers the Web-based self-service tools they want, and eventually, they’ll hang up the phone and log on.

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