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Ten Self-Service Lessons From Online Retailers

By Jim Bruene on March 7, 2004 11:04 AM | Comments

Because online customer service is required for survival, ecommerce companies often have the most highly evolved self-service facilities.


Drive users through self-diagnosis

To maintain high customer satisfaction without driving servicing costs through the roof, online retailers and consumer service companies attempt to answer basic questions through a Web-based self-diagnosis. Only after the user has finished the diagnosis is the option given to submit questions via webform. Even then, a newer technique called email deflection uses automated logic to attempt to answer the user’s free-form text question, before it’s submitted to a human. Cloudmark, an email filter provider, uses email deflection powered by iPhrase

Financial institutions should use this approach, especially in the tech support area. But take it slowly, walking before you try to run. Most customers still prefer the telephone for service problems, so they may resent your attempts to at call deflection. Most have spent years dealing with frustrating live-service-rep deflection on automated telephone systems, so it won’t initially be viewed as a positive. You need to position the webform as a quick solution for common problems. Even customers that prefer telephone-based service appreciate an answer in seconds rather than the minutes required via phone.

What you don’t want to do is force the customer to spend minutes searching for an answer online, then minutes slogging through your call center menus and the subsequent wait for someone to help. Make sure that customers who have tried self-service first are given priority when they then email or call with their question. You could use special phone numbers or menu options to identify those that have already exhausted self-service options.


Reward self-service

Users who primarily solve their own problems know they are saving you an enormous amount of money. An unexpected reward could be a powerful tool cement online relationships (the opposite of the old adage
the squeaky wheel gets the grease.). Try to make customers see what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic channels. One approach that’s good for you and the customer is to reward self-service attempts by not requiring account numbers and other information to be reentered when escalating the question to human service. Data from the user’s self-service session could be made available to the human rep to speed up the process. Not only would this make the customer feel better about the current problem, it would encourage them to use self-service options for future problems. You have to wean customers off the phone one problem at a time over the course of many years.

Financial incentives and sweepstakes are another way to reward self service. Make a game out of it. Provide one sweepstakes entry every time a customer goes for a month without contacting customer service, or one entry for every FAQ page viewed, and so on. You could give away one prize per month, perhaps donated by local merchants for the advertising benefit. The total annual sweepstakes expense would be the equivalent of just a few weeks of a single call center employee’s salary. 



Provide incentives for registering

Few banks allow non-online banking users to register with the site. But this limits your ability to track customer visits from the 50% or more of your online users that have yet to sign up for online banking. Once users register, you can use cookies to track their usage over time, thereby improving your ability to service and sell to them more effectively. During registration you would capture name, email address, account ownership at your bank, and opt-in for future email messages.  

You could boost registration rates with a sweepstakes or other benefit. Registered users could receive one sweepstakes entry every time they visit the site. For customers, you could provide an additional entry for every product they have with you. The cost of the giveaways can be kept small. For example, a portable DVD player once per month or once per quarter would likely suffice for a small or medium financial institution. The total cost would only be a couple thousand dollars per year.


Categorize questions

To provide quick email responses, it’s important to have users categorize their questions before they land in your e-rep’s in-box. At minimum, users need to identify whether they are a current customer and which product they are asking about.

Mock-up of webform for customer service inquiries.

1.       Do you have an account at yourbank?
___ Yes    ___ No    ___ Don’t know

2.       What product does your question concern?
___ Checking
___ Savings, money market, CDs
___ IRAs/SEPs
___ Stocks, mutual funds, or investments
___ Credit card
___ Debit card or ATM transaction
___ Mortgage
___ Home equity loan or credit line
___ Other

3.       Does your question involve:
___ Solving a problem with an existing account
___ Opening a new account
___ General information
___ Other






Provide multiple channels for communication

Customers still prefer to resolve questions with a human. So make sure your customers don’t feel forced into electronic channels. Again, try to make customers see what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic channels, without hiding your other customer service channels. Let your profitable customers contact you in any way they see fit. If you provide e-service on par, or better, than call center or branch service, customers will gradually migrate to the most efficient channel. The reason customers prefer calling the bank today isn’t because they enjoy reacquainting themselves with your phone tree and on-hold music selection. They continue to call because they believe that is the most effective method to resolve their problem. Once you demonstrate your e-channels to be equally effective, customers will respond accordingly.

It’s a different story for your unprofitable customers. By all means, drive them gently into lower cost delivery channels. Just make sure you don’t create adverse publicity by “forcing” grandma to use email to inquire about her CD rollover.


Provide proactive communications

You can head off many customer service calls by providing timely email account alerts and transaction confirmations. Imagine how much Friday afternoon volume could be displaced if every direct deposit customer received an email when their paycheck hit their account. Charter One Bank uses its call center to sign up customers for its alert service. Whenever a call comes in that could have been handled by an automatic alert, the customer is given the option to sign up for future alerts. Because Charter offers phone and fax options the customer needn’t even be online to use Charter’s system. A significant amount of the bank’s initial alert signups were obtained in this manner. The alert tool also helps drive users into online banking. Once account alerts begin arriving, online banking is a natural progression.


Provide email response times on par with call centers

The last time we tested email response times, the typical reply, if there was one, took several days. Today, response times are much improved, with half the sample answering the same day. But enormous room for improvement still exists. Before e-service can really take off, users must be treated on par with call-center users. If you answer email questions in 24 hours and telephone calls in two minutes, customers will continue to pick up the phone.

Within the next year or two, we believe banks will typically answer routine questions in less than an hour. That will be good enough to deflect many calls. In our recent test, two top-10 banks beat the 60-minute standard,* Washington Mutual with an amazing four minute response time and Fleet with a respectable 46 minutes. With a network of “on call” e-reps to handle peak loads, email support can eventually be faster than the phone, without any increase in expense. 

*The 60-minute response time doesn’t have to happen over night. You could start with “same-day responses for questions received before 2:00 PM,” and improve from there.


Cross-sell during service opportunities

Every customer interaction is a potential selling opportunity: overdraft credit lines when checks bounce, online banking when statements are lost; transaction alerts when customers call about a specific check. For best results, emphasize the immediate benefit. For example, “Sure, we can waive that NSF fee, and as long as you take a moment to request an overdraft line of credit so that it doesn’t happen again.”


Charge for premium support

Some customers demand the best of everything and are willing to pay for it. Take advantage of this sentiment by offering a premium bundle of online services and support. For example, the Platinum E-Account with unlimited bill payment, VIP support line with guaranteed 15-minute response, and 100% no-questions-asked fraud protection. Most software companies now offer fee-based support options that allow customers to select their desired level of service support.

For $40/yr, Dell buyers can upgrade to Express Tech Support which allows users to “jump to the front of the line” when placing tech support calls.


Humanize the service experience

One of the main reasons customers prefer branch and telephone service support is the desire to deal with a human accountable for satisfying the customer. To recruit users to e-service, you need to provide similar human accountability for electronic service.

High-value customers could be assigned one or more permanent human points of contact within the e-service center. Each service inquiry would automatically be routed to the designated human(s) whenever possible. Alternate routing sequences would be established for off-hours, holidays, and vacations. Alternatively, the human rep could be copies on all service inquiries and could chime in with additional comments or help.

The human point of contact would proactively serve the user, periodically reaching out to see if the customer had questions. Furthermore, the point of contact would keep detailed records of prior service contacts so the customer did not have to reiterate previously communicated information about a problem.                          

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