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Ten Self-Service Lessons From Online Retailers

Because online customer service is required for
survival, ecommerce companies often have the most highly evolved
self-service facilities.


Drive users through self-diagnosis

To maintain high customer satisfaction without driving servicing
costs through the roof, online retailers and consumer service companies
attempt to answer basic questions through a Web-based self-diagnosis.
Only after the user has finished the diagnosis is the option given to
submit questions via webform. Even then, a newer technique called email
deflection uses automated logic to attempt to answer the user’s
free-form text question, before it’s submitted to a human. Cloudmark,
an email filter provider, uses email deflection powered by iPhrase

Financial institutions should use this approach, especially in the
tech support area. But take it slowly, walking before you try to run.
Most customers still prefer the telephone for service problems, so they
may resent your attempts to at call deflection. Most have spent
years dealing with frustrating live-service-rep deflection on
automated telephone systems, so it won’t initially be viewed as a
positive. You need to position the webform as a quick solution for
common problems. Even customers that prefer telephone-based service
appreciate an answer in seconds rather than the minutes required via

What you don’t want to do is force the customer to spend minutes
searching for an answer online, then minutes slogging through your call
center menus and the subsequent wait for someone to help. Make sure that
customers who have tried self-service first are given priority when they
then email or call with their question. You could use special phone
numbers or menu options to identify those that have already exhausted
self-service options.


Reward self-service

Users who primarily solve their own problems know they are saving you
an enormous amount of money. An unexpected reward could be a powerful
tool cement online relationships (the opposite of the old adage
the squeaky wheel gets the grease.). Try to make customers see
what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic channels. One
approach that’s good for you and the customer is to reward self-service
attempts by not requiring account numbers and other information to be
reentered when escalating the question to human service. Data from the
user’s self-service session could be made available to the human rep to
speed up the process. Not only would this make the customer feel better
about the current problem, it would encourage them to use self-service
options for future problems. You have to wean customers off the phone
one problem at a time over the course of many years.

Financial incentives and sweepstakes are another way to reward self
service. Make a game out of it. Provide one sweepstakes entry every time
a customer goes for a month without contacting customer service, or one
entry for every FAQ page viewed, and so on. You could give away one
prize per month, perhaps donated by local merchants for the advertising
benefit. The total annual sweepstakes expense would be the equivalent of
just a few weeks of a single call center employee’s salary. 



Provide incentives for registering

Few banks allow non-online banking users to register with the site.
But this limits your ability to track customer visits from the 50% or
more of your online users that have yet to sign up for online banking.
Once users register, you can use cookies to track their usage over time,
thereby improving your ability to service and sell to them more
effectively. During registration you would capture name, email address,
account ownership at your bank, and opt-in for future email messages.  

You could boost registration rates with a sweepstakes or other
benefit. Registered users could receive one sweepstakes entry every time
they visit the site. For customers, you could provide an additional
entry for every product they have with you. The cost of the giveaways
can be kept small. For example, a portable DVD player once per month or
once per quarter would likely suffice for a small or medium financial
institution. The total cost would only be a couple thousand dollars per


Categorize questions

To provide quick email responses, it’s important to have users
categorize their questions before they land in your e-rep’s in-box. At
minimum, users need to identify whether they are a current customer and
which product they are asking about.

Mock-up of webform for customer service inquiries.

1.       Do you have an account at yourbank?
___ Yes    ___ No    ___ Don’t know

2.       What product does your question concern?
___ Checking
___ Savings, money market, CDs
___ IRAs/SEPs
___ Stocks, mutual funds, or investments
___ Credit card
___ Debit card or ATM transaction
___ Mortgage
___ Home equity loan or credit line
___ Other

3.       Does your question involve:
___ Solving a problem with an existing account
___ Opening a new account
___ General information
___ Other






Provide multiple channels for communication

Customers still prefer to resolve questions with a human. So make sure
your customers don’t feel forced into electronic channels. Again, try to
make customers see what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic
channels, without hiding your other customer service channels. Let your
profitable customers contact you in any way they see fit. If you provide
e-service on par, or better, than call center or branch service, customers
will gradually migrate to the most efficient channel. The reason customers
prefer calling the bank today isn’t because they enjoy reacquainting
themselves with your phone tree and on-hold music selection. They continue
to call because they believe that is the most effective method to resolve
their problem. Once you demonstrate your e-channels to be equally effective,
customers will respond accordingly.

It’s a different story for your unprofitable customers. By all means,
drive them gently into lower cost delivery channels. Just make sure you
don’t create adverse publicity by “forcing” grandma to use email to inquire
about her CD rollover.


Provide proactive communications

You can head off many customer service calls by providing timely email
account alerts and transaction confirmations. Imagine how much Friday
afternoon volume could be displaced if every direct deposit customer
received an email when their paycheck hit their account. Charter One Bank
uses its call center to sign up customers for its alert service. Whenever a
call comes in that could have been handled by an automatic alert, the
customer is given the option to sign up for future alerts. Because Charter
offers phone and fax options the customer needn’t even be online to use
Charter’s system. A significant amount of the bank’s initial alert signups
were obtained in this manner. The alert tool also helps drive users into
online banking. Once account alerts begin arriving, online banking is a
natural progression.


Provide email response times on par with call centers

The last time we tested email response times, the typical reply, if there
was one, took several days. Today, response times are much improved, with
half the sample answering the same day. But enormous room for improvement
still exists. Before e-service can really take off, users must be treated on
par with call-center users. If you answer email questions in 24 hours and
telephone calls in two minutes, customers will continue to pick up the

Within the next year or two, we believe banks will typically answer
routine questions in less than an hour. That will be good enough to deflect
many calls. In our recent test, two top-10 banks beat the 60-minute
standard,* Washington Mutual with an amazing four minute response time and
Fleet with a respectable 46 minutes. With a network of “on call” e-reps to
handle peak loads, email support can eventually be faster than the phone,
without any increase in expense. 

*The 60-minute response time doesn’t have to happen over night. You
could start with “same-day responses for questions received before 2:00
PM,” and improve from there.


Cross-sell during service opportunities

Every customer interaction is a potential selling opportunity: overdraft
credit lines when checks bounce, online banking when statements are lost;
transaction alerts when customers call about a specific check. For best
results, emphasize the immediate benefit. For example, “Sure, we can waive
that NSF fee, and as long as you take a moment to request an overdraft line
of credit so that it doesn’t happen again.”


Charge for premium support

Some customers demand the best of everything and are willing to pay for
it. Take advantage of this sentiment by offering a premium bundle of online
services and support. For example, the Platinum E-Account with
unlimited bill payment, VIP support line with guaranteed 15-minute response,
and 100% no-questions-asked fraud protection. Most software companies now
offer fee-based support options that allow customers to select their desired
level of service support.

For $40/yr, Dell buyers can upgrade to Express Tech Support
which allows users to “jump to the front of the line” when placing tech support


Humanize the service experience

One of the main reasons customers prefer branch and telephone service
support is the desire to deal with a human accountable for satisfying the
customer. To recruit users to e-service, you need to provide similar human
accountability for electronic service.

High-value customers could be assigned one or more permanent human
points of contact within the e-service center. Each service inquiry would
automatically be routed to the designated human(s) whenever possible.
Alternate routing sequences would be established for off-hours, holidays,
and vacations. Alternatively, the human rep could be copies on all service
inquiries and could chime in with additional comments or help.

The human point of contact would proactively serve the user, periodically
reaching out to see if the customer had questions. Furthermore, the point of
contact would keep detailed records of prior service contacts so the customer
did not have to reiterate previously communicated information about a problem.