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What is Your Self-Service Priority--Your Checkbook or Your Customers?

For the customer management industry, self-service is one of the most polarizing topics we have.  We frequently hear the horror stories of self-service gone awry – customers trapped in an IVR or spending hours searching for an answer online to no avail.  At the same time, we know our evolving customer wants more options for service beyond phone, e-mail and chat; whereas our corporate responsibilities require us to find ways to reduce the costs of our operations.  When done well self-service can provide a better experience for customers and reduce costs.  Trying to balance those needs without creating the next customer horror story that goes viral can be quite the challenge.

In the course of my 18 years working in contact centers and operations, I have been directly involved in a number of initiatives to offer or increase self-service for customers.  Some have been very successful, others have failed miserably.  Reflecting on those extremes has taught me that the key to implementing successful self-service options for customers is not so much about how well you construct the tool – whether it is an IVR, a mobile app, online resources, etc. – but how flexible you make the process for your customer.  If you approach a self-service implementation with the customer in mind, and a plan to continually evolve as you learn more about your customer’s experience, it will be hard to fail.

At Cars.com, our self-service is straightforward.  All of the functions that we provide our customers (both consumers visiting the site and the dealers who advertise on our site) are available to them online.  We have made the strategic decision that when our customers feel the need to contact us by phone, email or chat, we avoid offering additional forms of self-service.  This is because our site is comprehensive (not just opinion based – we are continuously evaluating how often customers contact us relative to the number of customers we have accessing the site), and if they were not able to find an answer or complete a transaction we want to help them with a live person as quickly as possible. Our IVR is simple – one main menu – and only used to route a customer to the correct department to resolve their issue.    

My opinions and the strategy we use at Cars.com have been shaped by my past experiences. A good example from my career came about six years ago. At the time I was working for a large retailer and we had recently expanded into the service industry offering technical support by phone.  It started as a service for our customers, but then we had other companies who wanted to leverage our expertise.  One of the largest telecommunications companies in the country approached us so they could offer our technical support to their subscribers who were purchasing the newest type of internet service – and had hired a leader in the IVR space to construct a platform that their customers would navigate to troubleshoot technical issues.  It was challenging to say the least given that a customer could be experiencing problems ranging from a bad cable connection outside their home (meaning that the telecommunications company had to roll a truck to fix the issue), to needing to adjust settings on their computer to access the network (where the customer would need to speak with our team), or something as simple as a router that needed to reboot (which the IVR could walk them through).  And these are just three of the more common issues.

By the time we had completed the engagement with the IVR provider there were over 60 pages of decision trees outlining all of the scenarios a customer could encounter during a call with the IVR.  It is safe to say that we over-engineered the IVR, but that isn’t the main reason we failed (and boy did we fail, the relationship between our companies lasted less than 6 months).  The problems were that we did not anticipate the need to iterate on the IVR once it was live (driven by tight deadlines and financial limitations for our client) and there was no way to exit the IVR if you were struggling to navigate the options.  The latter was a conscious decision based on the recommendation of the IVR provider, to meet their client’s primary goal (save money) and in hopes that over a few short months they could force mold customer behavior.  Instead, as you can imagine, customers gave up on the IVR and found other departments to call.  What made it worse was that the customer still had their technical problem and they now were extremely frustrated after wasting time trying to work through the IVR.

With this self-service implementation, we did not consider the need to test customer experience and adjust immediately if we failed.  In our minds, we knew that the technology worked through internal testing and instead of us needing to modify the IVR, we believed customers would adjust to the technology – a fatal assumption.

A successful example of a self-service implementation came from my time working at a specialty insurance company.  Our product had either been sold by agents or through our call center for over 15 years, and in 1999 we made a strategic decision to focus on selling our insurance online.  It was a huge success and by the early 2000’s it was only natural that we explore putting more services online.  The most logical function to move online was claim filing and management.  We had enough survey data and search data from our site to know that customers wanted this service.  It also would provide efficiency in one of our most expensive cost centers.  Despite these factors, it was met with great skepticism within our company.

Our Underwriters were petrified that we would significantly alter our claims experience (frequency of claims filed and/or paid) – a huge financial risk to an insurer.  For our Marketing and Sales departments, the fear was that the claim process was too complex to move online and would result in a poor customer experience that would impact our brand and future sales in both our traditional and emerging channels.  Ultimately, these objections were overcome but key in shaping our strategy.

We had to make sure that at any point in the process the customer had our toll-free number visible, so that if they were confused they could contact us for immediate help by a live person.  To appease our colleagues in Underwriting, we did not heavily advertise the fact that claim filing was available online (for three years customers had been able to download claim forms and send them via mail or fax, so we quietly added the online filing option).  By the time we went live, many of us in Operations feared that this online option would not be utilized by customers because it wasn’t prominent on the site and the constant presence of our toll-free number.

Fortunately we were wrong.  Our online claim process was a huge success for customers and within the first three months we had enough data to show that the entire claim process was over 25% faster.  Call volume was flat but our average handle time dropped by almost 50% because our customers were calling with very specific questions about the process; rather than requiring a full overview.  Customers who filed a claim online had an overall satisfaction score that was 7% higher than those who filed via traditional channels.  Within the first year our Marketing and Sales team were successfully leveraging our online claim process as a competitive differentiator.

Even our Underwriters were happy with the results.  Overall claim volume did increase at first – and we also found that the number of rejected claims increased at the same rate (avoiding financial risks).  Having a higher rejection rate for claims is not a good thing for insurance companies as regulators will monitor claims experience very closely and question the validity of your product if customers are constantly being denied coverage.  However, we realized that these customers had always been trying to submit claims and when interacting with a live person they would learn that their claim would not be covered so they did not actually file a claim.  Our CRM was not strong enough to capture this data and the online claim process provided invaluable data to help us realize where we had to improve our marketing materials and certificates of insurance so that customers better understood what we did and did not cover.  Over the course of the next three years we constantly were updating our materials while moving more information online to make the process smoother for our customers and more efficient for our company.  In the end we had the highest customer satisfaction scores in our company’s twenty year history and had created significant cost savings through efficiency.

My reason for sharing these examples is to illustrate the key differences in how we approached self-service.  Despite what may have been discussed in our meetings, in the IVR example our decisions reflected a sole focus on minimizing the interaction between customers and agents.  The overriding goal that shaped the project was cost savings.  We did not sufficiently account for the customer experience or prepare for the scenario where customers simply refused to engage with the technology.

Moving claim filing and management online began with a much different focus – how to satisfy the needs of our fastest growing customer segment (those who purchased online).  While we had clear goals around creating efficiency and cost savings, they were secondary to the customer experience.  In many ways we were pioneering for our type of insurance by moving claims online, so we built ample flexibility for both our customers and for us to refine the process based on our experiences.  Ironically, in this case we created a much greater cost savings than the first example by thinking about our customer first.

One final note – these examples have nothing to do with the technology that was used.  There is another very successful example from my career where we built an IVR that cut the time a customer needed to resolve their issue by 50%.  I choose these two examples because I felt that they best demonstrated two very different approaches and results.  Whether you want to use an IVR, a mobile app, or an online knowledge based; the key is to start with the priority of improving the customer experience.  In the short term it may delay the financial benefits that you desire, but it is much more likely to be successful in the long term for customer experience and cost savings.