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The Web continues to put an indelible stamp on the way people live and work, impacting the way they communicate, do business, and conduct social interactions. It has empowered the population in countless ways, and continually layers on new mechanisms for connecting with anyone, anywhere.

It’s given voice to every kind of business and end user, as they take to social networks, blogs, wikis, video-sharing, virtual reality worlds and tweets in growing numbers. This level of communication has dramatically changed the way business gets conducted, to the joy of many high-profile companies who have leveraged it to great fortune. But to the horror of some businesses, the voices directed at them are harshly revelatory: they’re bringing to light broken business practices, service faux pas, product malfunctions, and corporate malfeasance.

Some of the loudest voices stem from service and support transactions, which, thanks to the Web’s instant communication capabilities, can be broadcast loud and clear across a range of media. Epic stories of bad service bound around the Web in various incarnations, only replaced by the next fiasco. Businesses, particularly those who haven’t kept pace with newer marketing and customer response strategies, find they have less and less control over their own brands.

“There’s a real shift from CRM, which is very data-centric, to customer-managed relationships,” says Michael Maoz, an analyst with Stamford, Ct.-based Gartner Inc. “You can spend as many billions of dollars as you want, but with their Web at their disposal, your customers are going to determine your brand for you – they’re going to make it or break it.”

Indeed, while more people are starting and concluding their support transactions in online channels, they’re shifting their search away from their provider’s own properties, says Tom Sweeny, an analyst at ServiceXRG. Instead, they’re increasingly going to third-party forums or relying on Google searches to get the support information they need. The upshot: The provider loses the benefit of interacting with their customer or learning from the issue.

“We’ve taken for granted for so many years that support questions were an annoyance and came at a cost. But what happens when those interactions dry up and take place somewhere else?” says Sweeny. “Somebody else is creating and shaping the experience. They can shape the perception of your company, sometimes inaccurately, without you chiming in to correct misperceptions.”

While a vendor’s own site is still the leading source of information among online support options — 79% of users looking for technical support spend time on their provider’s site, according to ServiceXRG — the growth rate in use of other resources is exploding. For example, the use of third-party product forums has grown 141% over the last five years, while use of special interest forums has climbed 120% and Web searches 88%.

source: ServiceXRG, 2008

Providers should strive to remain the leading service destination so they can hold the most influence over their own brand. To take advantage of every potential customer interaction, companies must be ready to deliver a stellar service experience when users arrive. Effective knowledgebase content, facile navigation and search mechanisms for self-service, the ready ability to move between or escalate to other channels — chat, remote connectivity and control solutions, telephony channels — all provide the opportunity to positively influence visitors.

Please, Help Yourself

Providing users with a quality self-service experience is an increasingly high-profile avenue for providers seeking to differentiate themselves and maintain brand loyalty. Support organizations that stage valuable content and surround it with applications that best leverage it can continue to be the destination point for their users. A growing number of people want to help themselves to information rather than composing an email or picking up the phone. They’re increasingly adept at accessing knowledgebases, searching for content, downloading patches and fixes, managing their own product lifecycles, opening trouble tickets and checking status, and escalating their session if they can’t find what they need.

To be fully exploited, a self-service channel must be backed by a continual improvement strategy and adequate resources, say experts. It shouldn’t be viewed as merely a contact avoidance channel; it should be treated as an avenue to customer satisfaction, quality feedback, competitive differentiation, and relationship-building.

In a recent survey conducted by Supportindustry.com, 30% of respondents cite increased efficiencies as the biggest benefit they’re realizing from deploying self-service knowledgebases. Another 15% of respondents point to improved customer satisfaction and loyalty, while 14% cite cost reductions.

source: SupportIndustry.com, 2008

Self-service technology, like other support-related applications, is gaining traction as more vendors roll out offerings based on the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. In fact, SaaS has had many of its best success stories to date in support- and CRM-related deployments. According to Gartner, support organizations are seeing project savings of between 25% and 40% when they deploy CRM-related technologies in a SaaS model, stemming from savings on applications and reduced integration spending.

According to Gartner’s Maoz, SaaS-based support technologies will see a healthy growth rate in the coming years. Gartner expects the market for SaaS-based customer service and support applications to grow by 20% annually through 2012, at which time 30% of all new service and support applications investments will be through SaaS delivery.

SaaS makes sense in service and support initiatives, as service organizations often don’t have the ear of IT to the extent that bigger corporate revenues producers do; they can get sign-off on a SaaS platform more easily than they can for an on-premise solution. Too, they can pilot new efforts with some quick deliverables and return on investment, whether it be in reduced headcount or improved customer satisfaction.

To effectively roll out self-service initiatives, companies need a content/knowledge management infrastructure with consistent, continually reviewed content to ensure accuracy and remove redundancies. It needs to be complemented by sophisticated and intuitive search capabilities, and well-mapped with tested escalation points to avoid causing frustration and abandonment.

When customers, partners and employees are able to use knowledge management solutions to solve problems and find their own information, service desks and contact centers can avoid a great number of low-value support contacts. In doing so, they can drive some of the costs out of support delivery while improving it.

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