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Help Yourself

Customer self-service is finally catching on with consumers — and saving businesses a bundle in the process.

Unlike other kinds of text-based self-service tools (such as FAQs and knowledge bases), ASAs understand natural language. That capability means customers can submit questions in everyday sentences and phrases and receive plain English replies. Says Michael Hogan, Harrisdirect’s chief operating officer: “The system replaces the contact center representative with an interactive natural language text chat that provides immediate responses to customers’ questions.”

Hogan points out that early service-agent programs didn’t factor in basic human behavior, such as the tendency to ask illogical questions or blurt out non sequiturs. By comparison, the product from Conversagent handles abrupt subject changes. It also uses context to derive meaning from scattered thoughts. Remarkably, the agent can also take the lead in a conversation, prompting a customer for additional information, offering suggestions, or guiding the user through a complex multistep process.

According to Hogan, the company’s ASA can answer most simple queries while servicing about 1,000 sessions per month. “We’re looking for this technology to provide enhanced customer service while lowering costs,” he says. The vendor claims that, by deflecting calls from human support staffers to automated agents, the cost of deploying its system can typically be recouped in three months.

Portals Get Personal

Unlike ASAs, self-service Websites have been around for years. Known as portals, these virtual back offices help customers get fast answers to pressing problems by supplying an array of research, messaging, and other tools. But the latest generation of customer portals goes a step further. In some cases, companies now allow customers to set up their own personal portals — that is, home pages specifically tailored to the user’s needs and preferences.

Several automakers, including Saab and Nissan, have embraced personal portals. Keith Billings, the fixed-operations manager at Arizona-based Peoria Nissan, points out that car sellers increasingly view their service departments as key profit centers — particularly in an era of dwindling brand loyalty. The personal portals, Billings says, boost service-department traffic by acting as customer magnets. “It sticks them to us and keeps them from straying elsewhere,” he explains.

When visiting their personal sites, customers can view their vehicles’ service history and check recommended maintenance schedules, as well as appointment dates and times. At Peoria Nissan, customers also receive service bulletins and other communications directly from the manufacturer. “There may be information on there before we know it,” admits Billings. “We’ve had that happen a couple of times.” Customers can also add their own entries to the site, allowing them to track services purchased elsewhere or even data related to other vehicles, including non-Nissan models.

While a virtual feature like automated maintenance scheduling clearly appeals to customers, it also lessens the dealership’s workload. “Internet-savvy customers really love it,” says Billings. “Sometimes, we never talk to them on the phone.”

The personalized sites are part of a larger package that Peoria Nissan purchased from Autobytel Inc., a dot-com survivor that has branched out from virtual car selling to dealer-support ventures. The total Autobytel package — called Retention Performance Marketing 2.0 — includes support for personalized Websites, as well as a variety of other CRM tools, such as marketing E-mails and customer-demographic analyses. Billings says the software has more than paid for itself. “We average about $51 in revenue for every dollar we spend on the program.”

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