A Service to All - InformationWeek
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7/28/2004
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A Service to All

Customer self-service tools can increase CRM success.

Edmunds.com, a car buyers' portal, wanted to add a fee-based service to its Web site offerings, but knew its customer service needed to improve first. At that time, Edmunds.com had two customer service reps (CSRs). Those two reps handled about 2,000 incidents a month, and the existing CRM process was cumbersome: Customers sent requests for information to the CSRs, who sent requests to subject matter experts (SMEs). The SMEs sent answers back to the CSRs, who routed the answer to the customers. The length of time from question to response was not conducive to a fee-based service.

Edmunds.com looked to automation. It added self-service CRM tools — an automated FAQ system and knowledge base that's easy to use and easily updated as its needs and the customers' needs change. "We needed a way to intercept the number of incidents that we received before they really became incidents," says Brian Terr, director of advanced products. Self-service tools help determine if answers already exist in the FAQs or if they need to be routed to SMEs. They also track questions and make adding them to the FAQ faster. Today, the number of incidents Edmunds.com's CSRs handle has been reduced by more than half.

The decrease in personally handled requests is one of the biggest draws to a growing self-service CRM market. The reduction in costs, which some analysts estimate as high as 47 percent, is enough to make any company consider self-service. Edmunds.com loves its self-service program, but there's another side of the story.

If not done well, self-service CRM leaves an organization wondering where all the customers have gone. Scott Testa, CEO of Mindbridge Software, says, "In some ways, we're not collecting as much information about our customers [as we could], but we are serving those customers better." For example, when customers use the self-service offerings, Mindbridge doesn't have a way to track the issue that leads those customers to the Web site. That means Mindbridge can't track which issues occur most frequently unless there's person-to-person service involved.

Testa points to Mindbridge's knowledge base as an example. "Our customers have to log in to use the knowledge base, but once they've logged in, we don't track where they go or what they look at." Does that mean that Mindbridge's customers are missing out on some level of service? Testa doesn't think so.

According to Sheryl Kingstone, analyst for the Yankee Group, there doesn't have to be a trade-off between convenience and information. "If you motivate them to share the information, then you won't lose data. In fact, you might gain more information in the long run," she says. The value customers receive in return for providing information, Kingstone says, will determine how much information is collected. For example, customers will provide information about themselves in return for solutions to problems, sweepstakes entries, or percentage-off coupons. But Kingstone warns, "You have to proceed carefully. It's very important to request information in the context of the customer's activity."

For self-service CRM to be successful, Melody Badgett, managing consultant with IBM Global Services, says a self-service tool should be one of multiple channels that provide options for the customer. "A customer's choice of channel will vary by category of product and service being purchased, by customer segment, and purchase situations," she says. In other words, some people like self-help and some people prefer live assistance. But they all want the freedom to choose.

Self-service tools, when used properly and as part of a larger CRM picture, ultimately have a place in serving customers. Some customers even prefer that route of communication with a company. And since self-service does result in lowered CRM costs, companies can afford to provide even better service.

Jerri L. Ledford [[email protected]] is a freelance business and technology writer and author of Web Services: Understanding Service Level Management (Contentcan Ltd., 2002).

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