Top Self-Service Channel Implementations
IndustryView | 2014
In March of 2002, Gartner reported on self-service being a possible cure-all for the ever-increasing number of customers needing service and the cost of maintaining those customers. Indeed, in the past dozen years, self-service has proven effective at reducing the number of interactions handled by live agents and, often, reducing overall costs of customer service.
However, the road customer self-service has traveled hasn’t been smooth or clearly marked. Questions about which self-service channels are most used and most effective, as well as which aspects and metrics of customer service they can most improve, still remain. To answer these questions, we conducted a survey of customer service managers, directors and supervisors with experience managing and tracking self-service. Here, we present our findings.
Telephone interactive voice response (IVR) systems were the first self-service channel: Their widespread use predates online channels by several decades. So the interesting finding here is not the high degree of adoption of IVR self-service channels. Rather, it’s how much the online self-service channels have caught up to—and in two cases, surpassed—adoption of IVRs.
Though mature, IVR technology has certainly not stagnated. It's worth noting that IVR technology has, itself, incorporated some online elements over the years. Newer advancements include integration of Internet protocols such as VoiceXML, which allows for more seamless cross-channel support and better natural-language speech recognition. (Our in-depth report on the current state of IVR adoption and implementation can be found here.)
IVR self-service was implemented in 73 percent of respondents’ customer service departments. Meanwhile, the top online self-service channel, frequently asked questions (FAQs), was implemented by 89 percent of respondents, with online knowledge bases being implemented by 81 percent.
It’s worth pointing out that the ratio of IVR-to-online channel implementation does vary by industry. Parsing the results, we found that some verticals, such as financial services, had a higher proportion of IVR telephone self-service, while others, such as computer hardware manufacturers, leaned much more strongly towards online channels.
Consumers have a long-standing and strong preference for telephone customer service. It is, for many, the first channel turned to when a question about a product or service arises. In fact, a 2013 Zendesk survey found that 54 percent of consumers had called a customer service department within the previous six-month period, while only 27 percent had tried to resolve queries with online self-service channels.
When comparing phone to online self-service adoption, it’s important to acknowledge the dual—or, as many customers might say, "duplicitous"—nature of telephone customer service. When customers call in for service, they generally do so to speak with a live agent; they are not necessarily seeking a self-service experience. Compared to all other channels, the voice channel is unique in this regard: It often begins when a customer is explicitly trying to avoid self-service.
Having shown which self-service channels are most frequently implemented, we turn our attention now to the measurement of their performance. We began by asking our respondents simply whether or not they tracked the performance of the six channels identified above—and they reported tracking the performance of IVRs at the highest rate.
Although tracking the performance of IVRs does require a system with a certain degree of sophistication and (with the exception of cloud-deployed phone systems) on-site technical know-how, these systems have been central to customer service operations for many years. Thus, many organizations are likely familiar with how to do so.
Comparatively, online self-service channels are relatively new to the game; there are still many unanswered questions about how best to track their success. This lack of maturity and understanding is the most probable cause for the slightly overall lower rate of tracking for online channels.
Knowing which channels were most popular and which were most commonly tracked, we decided to dig deeper, and find out which metrics within those channels managers were monitoring to measure channel performance. We asked, very specifically, for which metrics data was not only collected on, but actively monitored. We did this in order to distinguish between the metrics that were deemed useful in measuring performance and those that were not.
We found that knowledge base page views and average time spent on the support page were the two most frequently monitored self-service channel metrics. However, IVRs are monitored (with after-call surveys) at a similarly high rate.
The number of questions asked and answered in online discussion forums was the least common actively monitored metric. There’s a plausible technical explanation for this: Tracking the success of online forums requires either more hands-on effort from a live agent, or more sophisticated software. Some discussion forum management systems have a function where a user can indicate that his or her issue has been successfully resolved. For those that don’t, a live agent must monitor the forums and tally answered questions in order to produce this metric. This hands-on attention is the very expense self-service channels seek to lower.
Despite the relative immaturity of online self-service channels, tracking the activity of Internet users in general is nothing new, so it’s no surprise to see them topping the list. Time on page and page views are traditional online metrics; Web developers, who put online self-service tools in place, had been tracking them for websites long before online self-service became popular.
But it does raise the question: If metrics such as page views are implemented out of habit, how effective are they in measuring actual performance?
Next, we asked which metrics were most effective at measuring the real-world performance of each self-service channel. Leading the pack were after-call surveys for IVR phone systems; the number of visitors returning to a support page a second time and user ratings for interactive diagnostic tools and knowledge bases.
Surveys and user ratings are two of the most direct measures of success. They capture the customer’s opinion immediately after using the channel, and thus are very strong, accurate indicators of performance. The number of visitors returning to a support page, usually measured within a set time frame, is also a strong indicator of success: It’s based on the sound premise that if customers solve their problem on the first visit, they won’t need to immediately return to the page. Together, these metrics ranked in the top four positions in terms of effectiveness.
Interestingly, two of the most frequently tracked metrics—knowledge base page views and time spent on the support page—were also amongst the least effective. While page views can be effective in tracking growth in use of a self-service channel over time, by themselves they reveal nothing about how successfully the channel is meeting any individual customer’s needs. The most likely explanation is that these metrics are tracked because they’re easy to track. Though they are indicative of long-term trends, they do not reveal much about individual self-service outcomes or success with a particular channel.
Having shown which self-service channels are used most frequently, which metrics are most used to track them and which measure their performance the best, the logical next question to answer is: How does implementation of effective self-service affect the performance of the customer service department as a whole?
Respondents indicated that the overall implementation of self-service channels improved a wide range of departmental key performance indicators (KPIs). First-level resolution, call abandonment rates and speed to answer are the metrics most directly and frequently improved by implementing one or more of the self-service channels discussed above.
These are very compelling results. They strongly suggest that self-service is having a positive and measurable effect on both the quantity and quality of customer service issues requiring service by live agents. In the words of our survey participants:
Several respondents drew our attention to one important consideration. When customers begin completing simpler tasks themselves, agents can face a higher incidence of more complicated issues. One participant explained:
“First-call resolution was negatively impacted because the easy calls started getting handled via the [online self-service] portal, and more difficult calls—ones needing research or engineering support—made up a higher proportion of calls coming directly to customer service technicians.”
The lesson here is that implementing self-service channels will necessitate certain adjustments to service center operations. When departmental performance indicators are impacted in unexpected ways, a careful examination of all factors should be conducted to reveal the root cause and allow for necessary adjustments.
Referring back to Gartner’s observation from 2002, there’s no question that self-service has grown tremendously in the last 12 years. What began with IVR phone systems that could answer only rudimentary questions has developed into an entire pantheon of online self-service options. While the IVR’s position is still strong at the top, it’s been joined by FAQs, knowledge bases and a handful of other online channels that are redefining self-service.
Previous reports, such as Dimension Data’s 2013/2014 global contact center benchmarking report, have found that an “alarming number” of customer service centers “make no attempt to gather customer feedback;" it asserted that “it’s hard to imagine how [organizations] will [realize] the full potential of their self-service investments when they pay so little attention to the performance of self-service channels.”
Our results differ. It may have something to do with the fact that theirs was an international survey and ours focused on customer service centers in the U.S., but we found that a majority are, in fact, making efforts to track the success of self-service channels. However, making an effort to track and effectively tracking are, as our report indicates, two different things. Indeed, we found that several metrics were frequently tracked, yet very infrequently described as effective measures of performance: time on page and page views.
The most successful metrics are those that focus directly on the customer experience. User ratings, user surveys and return visits all speak directly to the outcomes of individual users. Together, they paint the clearest picture of the success of the channel as a whole.
To obtain the results of this report, we surveyed 170 general managers, directors, managers and supervisors employed in customer service departments in a representative spectrum of industry verticals. Survey respondents were first profiled by our third-party research partner, Research Now, and screened for their direct experience implementing or managing self-service channels, as well as their direct knowledge of the success metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) used to track them.
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