Crash-test dummies of the interactive world

As more and more companies encourage customers to use their online channels or automated call centres, the priorities for customer self-service are changing. The cost benefits are well established: IT advisory group Gartner reports that an organisation can reduce the cost of responding to a customer by between 40% and 200% by using a self-service system rather than a live agent. Having already made such savings, though, many companies are now turning their attention to an equally important facet of self-service: the customer experience.

According to several leading analysts, customer enablement is overtaking raw customer acquisition as the main driver of most customer relationship management (CRM) deployments. A self-service system should not just reduce customer interaction costs, they say, it should aim to increase loyalty, satisfaction and, ultimately, sales. But as any user of such services knows, a bad experience can easily have the reverse effect.

In a recent report on public-sector customer service, consultants at Accenture defined four criteria for success: a “citizen-centred” perspective that organises information around the customer; cohesive and seamlessly co-ordinated service across all communication channels; co-operation between agencies and departments; and active outreach and communication of available services, to drive adoption.

Converting these broad ideas into a functioning system requires attention to detail. One way to learn whether a self-service system is working well is to monitor how customers use it, gathering statistics, for instance, on how often users complete a transaction. Advanced tools from companies such as Empirix and Mercury Interactive, focus on the user’s experience, through tests during development and after deployment, and encompassing not just the front-end but the database or CRM applications supporting the site.

“We are the crash test dummies of the interactive world,” says Empirix CEO Ed Goldfinger. He describes one financial services customer that thought it was onto a good thing when 80% of customer phone enquiries were resolved without having to be dealt with in the call centre. But behind this massive manpower saving was a fundamental flaw: the system did not allow users to get through to an operator by the usual route of dialling ‘0’. Customers were hanging up in frustration.”

“The way people tend to monitor these things is very imprecise,” says Goldfinger. “They look at a whole range of things but not the sequence of events. That leads to a lot of false negatives: customers are complaining but the IT group says everything is fine.” Common faults that testers look out for include memory leaks, servers mixing up session IDs and so giving the wrong data to the wrong customers, and scalability in the face of high traffic.

UK bookmaker William Hill uses Empirix to test its telebetting, digital TV, online and mobile channels. All are based on the same web services foundation, allowing for consistency across channels and collaboration between the quality assurance team, who are non-technical, and developers. The system proved itself on Grand National day in 2005, when William Hill took a record-breaking 300,000 bets, withstanding an onslaught of more than 25,000 concurrent online users and over 110,000 telephone calls at peak times.

Another company focusing on improving quality of self-service is John Lewis Direct. The online and catalogue division of the UK department store recently signed up for a hosted email management service from Talisma to cut response times from 12 hours to one. “The reason we are doing this project is not to reduce people or costs – we want to be able to give customers better service,” says Ian Tansley, the company’s head of IT and web.

To this end, he warns against trying to take human interaction out of self service completely: “We have a lot of customer service information on the website, most of the time people should be able to find out most things on there. But people always want some hand-holding and we’re not really in the marketplace to force customers to do everything through self service.”

Research group Forrester cites Knova, InQuira and Sento as vendors with innovative systems that personalise sites in real-time according to demographics, buying history or “premium” customers who warrant immediate help from live operators. “While companies are investing more in overall web site design and usability to better establish their online brand identity, the section of the website that is devoted to customer self-service may be stuck in a time warp with clunky tools that ultimately don’t solve problems very well,” says analyst John Ragsdale.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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