Priceline.com, the online travel service, has bet its business model on the fact that web-savvy customers like to help themselves — in this case, to deals on air fare, hotels, car rentals and the like. The US-based company has extended that model to its customer service operations, adopting an e-service strategy to complement its telephone-based call centre. If customers run into trouble during a travel search, they’re encouraged to try self-service or email options — more cost-effective ways to handle services issues — before resorting to a phone call.
Like Priceline.com, companies everywhere are leveraging e-service technologies — web self-service, chat, email response management, collaboration tools, remote diagnostics — as an alternative to the phone for interacting with customers. One reason is that customers today want the additional channel options that e-service offers them.
According to a 2005 survey, from the Service Excellence Research Group (ServiceXRG), 60% of high-tech customers attempt to solve their own problems through self-service knowledge bases before trying interactive channels.
Some vertical industries have been leveraging e-service technologies for some time, and cost reduction has been the primary driver. Conventional wisdom says you can push customers from the phone to lower-cost channels and watch service-delivery expenses drop. However, companies are finding that customer service doesn’t conform to such a simple paradigm.
To be effective, e-service deployments require considerable investments of time and money — in knowledge-base creation and maintenance, sophisticated search technologies, incident tracking and workflow tools, and channel integration — so customers get the same experience regardless of how they contact providers. So, although the cost benefits that can result from e-service initiatives have not declined, businesses are increasingly looking at other reasons to justify investments.
In a recent survey conducted by ServiceXRG, 90.4% of respondents said customer satisfaction is the leading driver for implementing services such as remote control, chat and collaboration, while 94.4% named customer satisfaction as the primary driver for self-service.
“Four or five years ago, call deflection was the primary driver [for our e-service initiatives], but now we’re looking at what additional value we can bring,” says Paul Esch, director of global support services at telco equipment manufacturer Nokia. Nokia has invested considerably in its third-party e-service portal and underlying intelligent search and knowledge base.
Large companies making e-service part of their CRM and other customer-facing initiatives have seen solid returns and customer adoption, but they continue to face significant technology and process challenges, according to John Ragsdale, an analyst at Forrester Research. Those challenges include the need to provide agents with a single view into customer interactions, ensure that customer data is consistent across channels, integrate support channels (so customers can easily move from one to another), and streamline processes so contacts can be easily escalated along with their associated inquiry histories.
Multi-channel integration challenges have been eased by application suites built on systems that provide a common knowledge base, queuing and routing capabilities, and a unified view into customer interactions regardless of which channel they come from. These suites are available from e-service vendors such as Kana Software and eGain Communications, as well as enterprise application vendors such as Oracle, says Ragsdale.
Meanwhile, switch-platform vendors, such as Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, are offering email response, web collaboration and other e-service tools as part of their infrastructures. Users still face the task of integrating customer-facing databases with front- and back-office databases that inform customer transactions, such as financials and order fulfillment.
To enable knowledge-base queries and create FAQs, Priceline recently deployed Kana Customer IQ, says CIO Ron Rose. That product, along with Kana Response, an email management system deployed in 1999, and Kana’s call management application, make up Priceline’s Customer Assistance Resolution and Escalation System, or CARES. The system is designed to deliver consistent information whether the customer searches FAQs, sends an email or places a call. It replaces a homegrown call management application and provides a unified view into customer data, as well as into mainframe systems related to its supply chain.
“Handling email workflow is fundamental to anyone whose business relies on the web and these days that’s just about everyone,” says Rose. Yet, a new study from JupiterResearch says not enough companies do so. According to the research, 92% of all websites offered email for customer support in 2005, but just 41% use automated response to acknowledge receipt of requests. Nearly 40% of companies took three days or more to respond to email or didn’t respond at all.
Rose says the new IQ module frees agents to deal with more complex problems. And its business-oriented authoring tools free IT from having to develop content for Priceline’s FAQs; product management teams can do it instead.
Priceline opted to deploy modules individually rather than choose one monolithic system. “If we were a greenfield company we might have gone with a system with tighter integration, but we needed flexibility,” Rose says. The biggest integration challenges involve bringing legacy mainframe financials and supply chain systems together with the contact centre suite, he says.
Ubisoft into the game RightNow
An e-service initiative has delivered solid returns on investment for French-based video game producer Ubisoft Entertainment, says Brent Wilkinson, senior manager of North American support. Ubisoft chose a hosted service suite from US-based RightNow Technologies and integrated it with its online customer database. When people use the Ubisoft FAQ or escalate to an email, the incident history is captured by RightNow.
According to Wilkinson, Ubisoft has been able to drive 95% of its support volume to its FAQs, and even if a customer decides to use web mail, the system looks at keywords and makes another attempt at suggesting fixes. The system enables the company’s North American support team to run just a small call centre in New Carolina, where hold times have been reduced from two to three minutes to under one minute.
Another significant outcome of the RightNow deployment, says Wilkinson, has been the standardisation of Ubisoft’s worldwide support teams — based in the US, Canada, France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Scandinavia — on one system.
Previously, when a German-based customer, for example, came to the North American site, customer service representatives would send an email to the German team. They would then hope it got answered; if it didn’t, they’d have to follow up themselves. Now the system automatically routes requests based on IP addresses or the country of origin tied to the account, sending the user to the appropriate support centre.
At Utility Service, whose primary business is maintaining water tanks and related assets for municipalities across the US, a self-service portal initiative has significantly improved the company’s ability to compete, says IT manager David Al-Khazraji. The company is using Oracle’s E-Business Suite in a hosted model, although it runs the Oracle Portal front end inhouse. Customers use the portal, which went live in early 2005, to check billing information, log and track field-service requests, and download material from a document-sharing repository.
Although the implementation of the suite of products — which also includes financials, manufacturing resource planning and service-delivery applications — and the associated legacy-data migration was difficult, Al-Khazraji says the effort has paid off.
“It’s such a complex architecture that our legacy data wasn’t even enough to create a single record in Oracle. We initially had to create a lot of default values to pass to Oracle and work on them afterwards,” Al-Khazraji says. But Oracle has allowed Utility Service to tie all of a customer’s interactions with the company to a single-customer ID and eliminated manual indexing. “Someone just types in a customer ID, and it’s already indexed 90 different ways,” he says.
Customer surveys reveal a service satisfaction rate of 92% for 2006. Moreover, complaints about service have dropped 40% over the past two years, according to Al-Khazraji.
“Our portal has greatly enhanced our ability to compete, especially in getting large contracts,” he says. “Our customers can manage their interactions with us and see what our customer service reps see. We recently closed one of the biggest deals in our history because of the transparency we are able to provide through our portal.”
Business needs to take a measured approach
If businesses intend to make e-service channels critical links in their customer service chains, they need to measure their performance against meaningful metrics, say experts. the problem is, some of the metrics that have long characterised telephone-based services — such as hold times — don’t necessarily translate to e-service deployments and don’t reveal much that can translate into tangible business benefits.
For example, it’s difficult to standardise on a definition of what constitutes a successful web self-service session, says Tom Sweeny, principal at ServiceXRG. Companies use call deflection as a metric for self-service, and, while that’s a meaningful goal, the fact that customers didn’t pick up the phone following a knowledge-base search may just mean they gave up. Even if people find the answer, says Sweeny, they may not be comfortable implementing it without following up with a phone call, especially in technical support situations. So, even though the self-service action may have been successful, it didn’t result in call deflection.
Jeff Vargas, knowledge manager at Nokia, agrees that e-service brings new wrinkles to service-delivery measurement. “You need to be careful about how you define that a case has been successfully closed,” he says. Vargas’ organisation has been working with industry groups to determine how different companies are defining metrics for self-service knowledge-base initiatives. “It’s definitely a challenge to come to any kind of standard,” he says.
Vargas says Nokia is considering new methods — such as web-based surveys that pop up during sessions and ask specific questions related to successful transactions — that are more revealling than, say, whether web interactions are up and phone calls are down.