Does your helpdesk spend all of its time answering the same questions?

Does your helpdesk spend all of its time answering the same questions? You should help them to help themselves, says Liz Warren

Does your helpdesk spend all of its time answering the same questions? You should help them to help themselves, says Liz Warren

Online customers are becoming increasingly demanding: they want answers to queries more quickly than ever and they want to be able to access services when it suits them - day or night. At the same time, website design is maturing and the average customer is becoming more computer literate. This means that they're ripe for the introduction of online self-service solutions.

Companies, too, are ready to embrace the benefits of self-help solutions. "For the past 25 years, we've been using technology to wring efficiency out of organisations," points out Bo Wandell, president of Safeharbor, a company that offers customer support solutions on an outsourced basis. "One of the last areas is empowering customers or staff to help themselves." What self-help solutions offer is the double-whammy of cutting the cost of support while improving the quality of the service delivered to users.

If figures from Forrester Research are to be believed, then the cost savings are certainly massive. Forrester reports that it costs $33 (£24) to handle a customer enquiry by telephone, $10 (£6.90) to handle it by email and about $1 (£0.69p) to deal with it through an online self-service system.

So the goal of self-service, says Wandell, is "to drive as many enquiries as possible away from the telephone to the Web". This is less difficult than it might seem because organisations usually find that about 12 questions will account for half the calls made.

A good self-help system should allow users or customers to resolve most common queries on their own but make it easy to escalate enquiries to an operator through telephone, webchat or email if they get stuck or their question is more complex.

"Different users have different levels of tolerance for the length of time they are willing to commit to self-service," points out Tony Rodoni, European general manager of self-help solutions provider "At the same time, in a corporate setting, you may want to discourage highly paid staff from using self-help for more than a few minutes because you don't want them to be unproductive."

When dealing with external customers, it's even more important that your online self-help is integrated with other forms of assistance and that telephone support is still available as a first port of call.

"There will be certain times when using the Internet to access information or services will suit some customers and other times when it doesn't, perhaps depending on the nature of the query or the customers' skills or access to the necessary technology," points out Steve Naylor, European marketing director of Tower Technology, which provides technology to manage and consolidate customer information. "On top of that, if the customer gets frustrated with the self-help channel, they should be able to switch to an assisted channel."

Rodoni also cautions against being overzealous in your application of self-help solutions. "Self-service fails when it tries to anticipate as many calls as possible but ends up delivering 200 responses to the customer, none of which is quite right," he says. Assisted service is also a major source of valuable customer feedback, so you don't want to eliminate that opportunity for communication entirely.

If customers choose self-service, they need to find it quick and easy to use, and their first experience should be positive, says Rodoni. Wandell adds that the information available through self-help systems must also be accurate and up-to-date. "If someone sees an inconsistency between the answers on the self-help solution and the service they're trying to use, they will lose all confidence in the self-help approach," he warns.

Self-service systems - especially ones aimed at staff - certainly shouldn't be seen as "a just-in-time training opportunity" to turn end-users into support staff, argues Rodoni. Users don't want to become experts, they just want to have their problem solved. The way to do that, he says, is not to dump a load of system documentation on to their desktop but to create smart content which carries out the process for them. For instance, one of's users, Cisco, has created some 40 mini programmes which automate tasks such as setting up an out-of-office reply on the corporate email system.

Do-it-yourself systems
In fact, process automation represents a general trend for self-help systems to move away from simply delivering information to allowing customers to complete whole transactions for themselves. This is what Loop Customer Management, a Yorkshire-based managed service provider which handles customer interactions for utilities and public-sector organisations, is now offering to its clients. Typical processes which customers can complete online themselves include providing a current meter reading, paying bills or notifying the utility that they are moving house.

Loop began offering Web-based self-service when it found that simply running high-quality call centres was no longer enough to keep customers happy. "We now have to deliver customer service on the customers' terms; how they want it, when they want it," explains Paul Tasker, Loop's head of business solutions. That meant offering a range of choices - for example, telephone-based customer service agents, interactive voice response and Web-based self-service.

And now that customers are prepared to do some of the work themselves, Loop can create a win-win situation for both customer and service provider. "Customers get the satisfaction and security of seeing the transaction concluded and that [creates] high customer retention, while the supplier sees much lower transaction costs," Tasker explains.

He warns that to implement this kind of transaction-based self-service you need to have efficient front- and back-office systems in place, together with a consolidated knowledge base of all the information customers are likely to want to access. You then have to redesign your systems to take account of the fact that you are, in effect, letting untrained agents loose on them. You need to maintain the integrity and security of systems and provide clear and safe escape routes into assisted service. "It's definitely not entry-level customer service," Tasker says.

In fact, even developing and maintaining a knowledge base to drive a simple self-help solution is not a trivial task. Rodoni says it may take anywhere from 10 to 20 weeks to analyse information in existing systems such as helpdesk or contact management applications (determining the type of customers the system must deal with, the questions they ask, the volume of queries and the level to which answers need to be customised) and then build a self-service website. After that, you need to use feedback gained when customers turn to assisted service to add to and clarify those solutions on an ongoing basis.

Single point of contact
If you want to offer transaction-based self-help systems, you face an even bigger headache because you need to bring together all the information about each customer into a single, logical repository and then make it available to each of the customer contact channels. Naylor suggests that if you're starting from scratch with direct customer support, it could take up to 18 months and two or three steps to provide a transaction-based self-help offering. Even if you already have a call centre in place, he warns, it will still take six to eight months.

One of the reasons for the complexity of such projects is that, as yet, no one company provides all the elements you need to deliver a comprehensive customer support solution with online self-help capabilities. According to Forrester, companies such as Acuity, Brightware, Kanisa, netDialog, Right Now, Siebel and Silknet offer strong self-help elements in their portfolios. It's likely they will add or extend support for assisted help channels - email, chat and call centres - perhaps by linking up with providers of systems for assisted support, such as Business Evolution, Genesys and Webline.

Providing support as you expand internationally is always a major challenge. When eCharge Corporation, which provides online payment systems to Internet merchants and ISPs, decided to launch in Europe and Australia, it knew it needed to provide exceptional customer service if it was to attract and retain customers. Setting up local support teams would have been costly and slowed the company's growth, so eCharge decided to develop a Web-based self-help system to complement the telephone-based support provided in its Seattle, Washington, headquarters.

To deliver this Web-based support, eCharge turned to specialist outsourcer SafeHarbor to provide and operate the necessary technology. Yet, with the support service branded with the same look and feel as the rest of eCharge's site, SafeHarbor's involvement is completely transparent to customers.

Now, more than 70% of eCharge's support incidents are resolved online by customers themselves. This has kept eCharge's support costs down, while providing instant scalability as it handles increasing numbers of customers.

Customers also benefit from a faster response to their queries, while eCharge's telephone-based support specialists are able to focus on tough issues. Extremely difficult cases can be escalated to the eCharge engineering department, without ever leaving the support environment.

The low-down on self-help

  • n On average a dozen queries account for half of the support calls a company receives
  • n Call centres can reduce the average cost of each enquiry from $33 (£24) to just over $1 (69p) by providing online answers
  • n Forrester Research reports that it costs $33 (£24) to handle a customer enquiry by telephone, $10 (£6.90) to handle it by email and about $1 (69p) to deal with it through an online self-service system.

CASE STUDY: [email protected]
Imagine that you run the helpdesk of a company employing 1.5 million staff. That's the challenge faced by Internet service providers like [email protected], which provides high-speed Internet services to consumers and small business users. With its customer base growing at an explosive rate and becoming ever more demanding, [email protected] needs to meet their needs while keeping its costs under control.

The company turned to to deliver portal-based automated support, which gives [email protected] customers access to a variety of support channels. Excite has been able to reduce the chance of problems occurring in the first place through self-healing technology; cut the number of calls to assisted service by offering self-service options; and improve problem resolution by giving support staff the information and tools to solve customers' problems more quickly.

As a result, [email protected] has been able to keep the number of support staff providing assisted support well below the levels normally needed for this many users, while elevating support to a competitive differentiator.

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