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Help Yourself

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

Audience Participation

While portals and IM ‘bots offer sizable savings over call centers, some businesses have found an even cheaper way to answer inquiries from customers. They hook them up with other customers.

Circuit-design software specialist Mentor Graphics, for one, directs consumers to a company-sponsored Web forum. Once there, customers can ask fellow Mentor users to guide them through setup struggles, configuration woes, and compatibility conflicts. “Our customers are a readily available information resource,” says Tom Floodeen, vice president and general manager of the Wilsonville, Oregon-based company’s customer-support division.

Since Mentor’s customers are themselves highly knowledgeable engineers and technicians, they have a great deal of insight to share with fellow users about circuit design. Standing behind this volunteer corps is Mentor’s support staff of more than 300 engineers in nearly a dozen global offices. These engineers answer some 5,000 calls a month, respond to E-mails, and contribute to the company’s knowledge base. They also monitor and field questions posed on the forum.

The forum is one of several CRM technologies at Mentor, along with call centers, E-mail support, and a virtual knowledge base. But Floodeen says the Web forum stands apart as a popular and effective tool for helping customers in need. “The biggest benefit of self-service is that it lets users find answers on their own,” he says. The result is higher-quality problem-solving that comes from several minds, rather than a single service rep.

To resolve particularly thorny problems, Mentor engineers often collaborate with one another, as well as with experts within other companies and the user’s own organization. “We’re able to respond to 90 percent of customer issues within two hours,” says Floodeen, “and most of the time within 30 minutes.”

Mentor’s layer of self-service technologies, sourced from vendors including Siebel Systems, Art Technology Group, and InQuira, contributes directly to the company’s bottom line. “We’ve lowered our phone load by about 20 percent,” claims Floodeen. “Without our Web [technology], we would probably have to hire about 5 or 6 million dollars’ worth of [customer support] employees annually.”

They Pump Gasoline, Don’t They?

While do-it-yourself service is no longer an irritation to customers, it is still a long way from perfect. Even backers of the self-service approach concede that advanced assistive tools have practical limits.

Neville Cousins, a technology director at Dimension Data, a global IT services company with U.S. headquarters in Reston, Virginia, warns that fully automated self-service systems should not generally be used in situations requiring the delivery of detailed advice. Likewise, he says companies should rely on tools that link to actual human beings (E-mail and Web forums, for example) when confronted with complex problems.

For his part, Gartner’s Kolsky advises businesses to keep their customer bases in mind when considering a move to self-service technology. Outfits with a high percentage of older customers, for instance, might want to stick with a more traditional call-center model. Kolsky also recommends staying in contact with extremely profitable or loyal customers. “You can give them access to self-service if that’s what they want, because [by doing so] you can raise the level of customer satisfaction,” he says. “But you should also definitely keep a personal touch with them.”

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