SME managers, frequently pushed for skilled resources and often working to tight budgets, should be embracing the new generation of customer self-service (CSS) technologies which deliver as much power and autonomy as possible to the customer accessing the SME's website.
CSS can deliver dramatic savings in time and reduce the need for internal skills, and also provide a better interactive experience for customers, which encourages them to return to your site.
Greg Gianforte, co-founder and chief executive of RightNow Technologies, which automates customer service and technical support operations for internet-connected organisations, says: "The internet is about immediacy. We have typically seen SME companies receive two to three times the number of customer inquiries after a website is launched.
"Their existing customer support infrastructure is not prepared for the onslaught and customer expectations are not met. The result is poor customer service."
For customer service via the web to be effective, it has to be timely, relevant, and customer driven. These criteria point to a self-service model. But that's not what they necessarily get. Many customer service solutions on the web focus on managing symptoms - too many email or phone inquires - but don't focus on the solution - providing the information that your customers want in a timely fashion.
The benefits to the enterprise with self-service are cost-effective 24-hour support and more efficient use of customer support staff. Gianforte says: "The 80/20 rule can apply to web-based customer service - 80 per cent of the customers are asking the same 20 questions over and over.
"Using self-service, instead of answering those same 20 questions, support reps can be deployed to respond more quickly to escalated inquiries or more demanding customers."
RightNow Technologies flagship product, RightNow Web, uses self-service as first line of defence for customer service by focusing on delivering the information quickly.
Many of RightNow's 900 plus customers chalk up self-service rates of 70 to 90 per cent. These self-service rates are achieved through the use of a dynamic knowledge base that grows organically with each customer interaction.
In simplest terms, you seed the knowledge base with a few question/answer pairs. Customers then interact with the knowledge base and the results of their interactions are published for future use. As more customers interact with solutions, the solutions move up and down the hierarchy based upon relevancy to the customer and, finally, the information is organised and managed based upon a concept called a 'knowledge half-life'.
Gianforte adds: "The knowledge base is driven by customer interaction and the information that is being published is based upon customer interactions. In contrast, manual knowledge bases are very expensive to implement and rapidly get outdated.
"Most importantly, the information that is provided in those systems comes from the company's perspective, not the customer's, making the information less relevant and useful."
It is important that the customer can escalate contact via email or live chat to a real person and each of these escalation paths is routed to the most appropriate customer service representative. Seventy per cent or greater self-service rates allow companies to use customer service reps to respond to customer inquires faster and in more detail where required.
Cost savings are the biggest factor behind adopting these systems. Jos Gerrese, vice-president of new product management and pricing at Ipulsys, an IP services company which was originally part of the Mannesmann Group, says: "There are several ways to interact with customers at various stages of the process from prospect to customer. Web-based interaction is the cheapest, most convenient, and the most likely to make the customers feel valued."
Ipulsys has developed a customer relationship and CSS interaction system called ICE (Interactive Customer Engagement). "This gives our customers direct access to our system and the underlying router so they can manage the network themselves," says Gerrese.
In common with many other markets and industries, telecoms services are complex and the ICE system makes it as simple as possible for the customer. "Everything we do is predicated on the principle that greater customer empowerment is essential. This is as true for SMEs as for large enterprises."
"ICE allows an SME to automate the complexity of the service or products that they are delivering to their customers," says Gerrese. "The customers find that the service available to them is far more convenient and quicker than traditional interaction methods, and that keeps them in the driving seat. The SME finds that their costs are reduced and the service they can promise is far better."
A customer-self service system may be simple and offer tailored answers to product questions or report on transaction progress, or deliver complex interaction between customers and the enterprise.
Gerrese says: "CSS gives the customer an immediate sense of speed and commitment. As an ISP we can offer our customers the power to follow their implementation process, the ability to change their specifications at any time or test the readiness of their solution. Customers always have a direct link with us, supported by conventional interaction methods."
Another example of CSS in action is Adictive, recently launched to provide a self-service solution to advertisers and publishers looking to access niche websites for highly targeted online ad campaigns.P>ADictive account holders have access to hundreds of websites via a transparent marketplace allowing them to plan their own advertising campaign on a complementary site or sites from the comfort of their desktop.
Rice says: "The closed-loop system enables ADictive customers to make their advertising more accountable with an easy to understand tracking and reporting system.
"CSS enables SMEs to get to know their customers better and in doing so can provide better solutions on their website which empower their customers to buy products."
He believes customers are more comfortable about giving detailed information when they feel in control. Paul Mitchinson, e-Intelligence programme manager at SAS, agrees. "SAS has been developing CSS techniques for Dell and Amazon, which improve web navigation and identify problem areas on the site," he says.
"By using CSS, companies are equipped to understand their websites and their use. By reacting to problems when they are identified, companies can be more cost effective and improve business performance significantly. The companies' ability to profile their customers and personalise their marketing is greatly improved."
While SAS and many other vendors mainly target larger enterprises, CSS can actually be easier for SMEs to embrace.
Damien Hyland, of Tower Technologies, says: "Smaller enterprises often have the will and the flexibility to adapt their internal processes and cultures more easily to a CSS-based one. Larger enterprises still see themselves driving the customers' needs and are less receptive to giving the customer power."
Hyland predicts that customer expectations, which are rapidly changing and becoming more sophisticated, will drive the development of CSS.
"There is plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence that customers prefer sites where there has been thought given to CSS. Those systems which allow customers to easily track their orders, download product specifications, find the answers to support and maintenance questions, contact other customers and so forth, will be those that the customers are more keen to return to in future," he says.
"For many SME enterprises, shifting to ecommerce means a sudden rise in customer numbers, and a fully automated CSS system is the only realistic way to cope," adds Hyland.
However, a change in internal processes is often also necessary. "Many enterprises previously segmented their customer services and spread them over several departments or outsourced them to third parties. CSS helps consolidate customer service and can reduce the number of staff necessary for support," he says.
Customers like CSS because the quality of service they receive is far better than any human-based system, adds Hyland.
"Customers can have split-second access to information, specifications, instructions, reports, references, transactions and billing - and all in the order, speed and at the time that suits them," he says.
"Because the CSS system is integrated throughout the enterprise, they can have immediate access to historical data, cross reference to correspondence, moving with ease and in confidence across the company database and systems."
Naturally, security is essential, and firewalls and high-level password control is essential. "CSS can appear at a simple level for new customers, but existing customers can have greater levels of access, which helps make them feel valued."
For the average SME, Hyland recommends that CSS is part of the discussion with their website developer. "The SME has to demand that the system being developed offers as much power to the customer as possible. CSS is good for both enterprise and customers, and is certainly the way that all sites will interact with customers in future."
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