If CRM is dead, as some speculated in the wake of Oracle's acquisition of Siebel, it may be in part because self-service is now the hot hand in providing customer service.
"The success of self-service has been at the expense of conventional CRM," said Allen Bonde of eVergance Partners, a consulting company specializing in self-service. "The market has decided that self-service is very important, so CRM vendors, e-commerce providers and knowledge management vendors are all rushing to fill the demand."
Companies may be desperate to avoid taking phone calls, but that doesn't mean they're willing to go through the effort of buying and cobbling together separate self-service tools, including natural-language search engines, knowledgebases, guided navigation, user forums, collaboration, personalization and multi-channel (e-mail, IM, voice response, call center) service delivery mechanisms. Thus, vendors are consolidating even as the market expands, and the survivors are touting integrated platforms and suites.
Computer security giant Symantec is among the many companies calling for integrated solutions, but its self-service needs are anything but typical. The purveyor of antivirus, firewall and PC maintenance and performance software provides support to more than 15 million customers every quarter, and it wants to drive as many interactions as possible to Web self-service. Last year, Symantec wanted better technology to cope with its massive service load, but it also wanted better links between sales and support as well as more personalized care for customers who range from technofiles to technophobes.
"We realized that if we could build customer personas that start in the sales and marketing cycle, then we could personalize and improve the entire self-service experience," said Tim Crowder, senior manager of global support strategy.
Symantec liked what it heard when its e-commerce vendor, Art Technology Group (ATG), acquired customer support software vendor Primus Knowledge Solutions in 2004. ATG promised to integrate its personalization software, typically applied to e-commerce scenarios, with Primus' search and knowledgebase solutions for self-service. Symantec ditched a rival solution it was ready to purchase and added ATG's newly acquired customer support software instead.
The immediate gain was natural-language search technology and more precise, customer-tuned responses to self-service queries. Customers enter phrases or questions about their problem and, "rather than simply returning a list of help documents [like the company's old search engine], the software delivers document abstracts and highlights the specific content that best answers their question," Crowder said.
If a customer can't find the right answer, a Priority Care Form escalates the problem to e-mail or call-center support channels. At the same time, the software captures the customer's navigation trail—queries, key words, knowledgebase documents looked at—so service agents can better interpret the problem and suggest alternative approaches.
As a first step toward linking service-side insight back into the sales experience, Symantec's support team used tools such as the Priority Care Forms and knowledgebase tracking to identify seven ways to improve the download and installation steps customers go through between Symantec's e-commerce site and that of Digital River, the software download service provider. Symantec also implemented ATG's self-service software in conjunction with its subscription renewal site to improve sell through.
"Now when a customer is canceling or abandoning the sale, we can move them into our Subscription Troubleshooter," Crowder said. Based on decision-tree technology typically used for technical support, the Troubleshooter has helped cut the subscription abandonment rate in half, he said.
eVergance's Bonde said ATG, RightNow Technologies and Knova Software currently provide the most complete and integrated self-service solutions, but the market is far from sewn up. "The market for enterprise software for self-service will reach $1.5 billion this year, and these three vendors will account for less than 20 percent of that, at about $200 million, so it's really still wide open."
In late September, ATG launched ATG Wisdom, which the company touted as the better integrated marketing, sales and customer service platform it promised when it acquired Primus. The platform is said to provide "contextualized insight into customers' history, activities and preferences" that can be used across Web, call center, voice recognition, ATM and point-of-sale applications. Crowder said ATG's upgrades will help Symantec graduate to the next phase of sales and service integration.
"What if I knew [from the online sales side] that the installation didn't go well for a particular customer," Crowder said. "We can't just sit here and wait for that customer to contact us. We want to be able to e-mail or message that customer, put them in an express queue for service or point them to a specific site that can quickly resolve their problem. We're not doing that today, but once the right tools are in place, we have that use case planned."