Customers may always be right, but they can also be lazy. Many will never read a manual or take the time to pore over a long frequently-asked-questions page on your website. If they can't find something at first glance, they will shoot an e-mail to customer service or reach for the phone. Next thing you know, your e-commerce business--the one that was supposed to help you take more orders with less manpower--is receiving up to 10,000 customer service inquiries every month.
That's what happened to Carfax, a Centreville, Virginia, company that sells accident reports on used cars. Its reports, which it offers through its website, help car buyers assure themselves that the used car for sale at the local gas station isn't a lemon. But the company was getting hammered with customer questions, so many that the cost of answering them all threatened to derail its business plan. Now Carfax is using a new generation of customer support software that serves up detailed, easy-to-find responses to customer questions. That's good for Carfax customers, who don't want to wait several hours for an e-mail response, and it's saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The switch came in the nick of time. The company was getting ready to launch its first national ad campaign, and David Silversmith, Carfax's chief technology officer, feared the company's customer service reps would be overwhelmed. Plus, though Carfax wants to provide great service, its business model is predicated on keeping its costs low, so it can sell a report for about $25. Every phone call or e-mail that one of the customer service reps answered took a chunk out of profits.
After experimenting with a few customer service programs, Silversmith signed up for Web-based self-service software from RightNow Technologies. Now when customers click the Help link on Carfax.com, they go to a souped-up FAQ page. When they type a question into the search box, RightNow's software generates a list of possible answers, using both search technology and constantly collected data about the answers other users found helpful. If customers still can't find what they're looking for in the results, they can easily e-mail a support rep.
Two weeks after Carfax went live with the new application, queries to the customer service staff dropped more than 50 percent. That helped smooth the way for the rollout of new Carfax products, such as recall alerts and safety and reliability reports. "The self-help system was key to our growth," says Silversmith. "Without it, we would have a harder time scaling to where we are today and offering the product for the price we do."
Customer relationship management, or CRM, has been a hot topic since the early 1990s, when companies like SAS and Siebel began introducing database-driven systems to help mostly large companies gather better data on their customers. The idea then was to arm the customer service representative with as much information as possible about that customer on the other end of the phone.
Today, the world of CRM is undergoing a shift. As call volumes grow, companies are exploring cheaper alternatives to adding more service reps or relying on call centers. Many are turning to automated Web-based self-service systems, also known as customer information management systems. Responding to each telephone call, text chat, or e-mail can cost a company an average of $5 to $7, but self-service inquiries on the Web can cost less than 60 cents a pop, according to the Yankee Group. Given that kind of math, it's no surprise that Jupiter Research estimates that more than 40 percent of organizations now have a basic company FAQ.
But unlike online manuals and antiquated FAQ pages of yesteryear, systems by companies like RightNow are driven by dynamic databases. By incorporating sophisticated statistical algorithms, these systems get smarter as more customers use them. Say, for example, customers visiting Carfax.com all asked similar questions about the exact definition of an accident or about the vehicle identification number. When the system recognizes that these are becoming frequent questions, it ranks the answers higher, placing them at the top of the FAQ page. These systems also make additional recommendations to customers based on past queries. Like similar tools used by Amazon and Netflix to dole out suggestions based on past book purchases or video rentals, many self-service systems can anticipate and help head off problems using information other customers found useful.
Even after a customer has reached for the Contact Us button, some software will automatically attempt to answer questions before an e-mail gets sent to a rep. Kayako eSupport, another Web-based program, uses AJAX, the same technology that powers Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Gmail, to suggest possible solutions as a customer types an e-mail to customer service. So as a customer writes, "Hi, I'd like to cancel my membership, because…" links related to canceling a membership instantly pop up on the page.
Self-service software has become surprisingly affordable. RightNow, eGain, and Kana--just a few of the hundreds of vendors that compete in this space--now offer hosted applications, so companies can use the software without buying pricey servers or relying on an internal IT team. Some programs are available for less than $100 a month.
Self service has some other bonuses, too. Because the software tracks what customers find confusing or irksome, a product development team can use that information to improve a product or service, or at least offer clearer instructions on how to use it. For example, Carfax recently introduced a feature on its reports called the Carfax Xpert, which is an explanation of any confusing information on a report.
Silversmith says that implementing customer self service had another benefit he didn't expect: It cut down on turnover among his support staff. No longer tied to the monotony of answering the same old questions over and over, Carfax reps are freed up to tackle out-of-the-ordinary questions, which gives them the chance to learn something and get more satisfaction from helping someone.
Self service, though, is not an end in itself. Many customer service issues still require human interaction. That can be particularly true in the business-to-business world, where a key vendor or customer may be unwilling to settle for getting an answer from a webpage. That's why any self-service system needs a clear escalation path, so a customer can contact a service rep via e-mail or a phone call. To this end, some systems are designed to look for emotional language or curse words when a customer types in a search box or writes an e-mail, and to alert a service rep. Some will even match customer service queries with sales data, so that top customers who have questions will be moved to the top of the queue. Because sometimes you're better off letting customers be a little lazy.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.