Let Customers Help Themselves

Offer Self-Service throughout the Customer Lifecycle

June 1, 2006

The fifth critical success factor originally introduced in Customers.com is “Let Customers Help Themselves.” The best approach is to let customers help themselves on the Web but give them access to a real person when they have questions or want a personal interaction.


In this updated version of the discussion of the fourth critical success factor presented in Customers.com, we discuss how letting customers help themselves will do more than save your company money and resources. Customers will be delighted with the opportunity to do things when they want and with the time it saves them. Additionally, you will learn a lot about what they want from you and will want in the future. By combining customer self-service with the ability to interact with a person when appropriate, you can support your customers as they traverse their lifecycles with your products and services again and again. Key factors to consider include:

* Let customers help themselves to information and perform transactions online

* Let customers check on the status of orders, pay or adjust bills, access service, and manage their accounts online.

* Let customers interact using whatever media they choose.

* Give customers the ability to design their own products.

* Provide self-service throughout the customer lifecycle.


A New Version of Customers.com

In the eight years since our best-selling book, Customers.com was first published in 1998, we have received almost constant requests for updates to both the concepts and the case studies presented in the book. In 3Q 2006, we’ll be publishing an updated version. But as subscribers to our advisory service, you don’t have to wait! You’ll receive each updated section and case study as they’re completed. Stay tuned.

The Eight CSFs

In Customers.com, we identified eight critical success factors for making it easy for your customers to do business with you. The CSFs are:

* Target the right customers
* Own the customer’s total experience
* Streamline business processes that impact the customer
* Provide a 360-degree view of the customer relationship
* Let customers help themselves
* Help customers do their jobs
* Deliver personalized service
* Foster community

They sound so simple, so prosaic. Yet as we “unpack” each one, you’ll see that there are many subtleties involved in getting them right.

As we approached updating the CSFs, we discovered that they really stood up to the test of time. Although we have updated some of the examples to better reflect the current state of the companies referenced (especially when there has been a significant change), the factors, themselves, remain viable and pretty much unchanged.

In this report, we present the fifth critical success factor: Let customers help themselves.


I think it started with ATM systems. Remember the initial resistance to taking money out of your bank account via a machine? Many people didn’t trust anyone but a bank teller with these transactions. And now try to imagine being restricted to getting cash only on Monday through Friday from 9 to 5! Unthinkable, isn’t it? Or look at something as familiar as supermarket checkout lines. In addition to the express lines, customers can now serve themselves via automated checkout systems. When faced with the option of saving themselves time, still the most valuable resource we have, customers often opt to help themselves.

It’s no longer a question of whether you let customers help themselves. Self-service is part of doing business today. However, this wasn’t always the case. When we first published Customers.com, many companies were still leery of letting customers serve themselves because of issues of privacy, complexity, and partnerships with resellers. Here’s an example of a self-service initiative that went wrong due to perceptions of violated privacy.

The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) provides social security benefits to more than 48 million workers and their families, and more than 160 million American workers are covered under Social Security. Since 1987, the SSA has offered Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements (PEBESs) by mail. These statements provide a year-by-year listing of your Social Security and Medicare earnings and taxes paid, an estimate of what your retirement benefits will be at various ages--62, 65, and 70--and other information useful for financial planning.

Letting customers help themselves to this information via the Web and letting them play “what-if games” online--“What if I retire at age 55?” “What if I earn more money for the next 10 years?”--seemed like an obvious win/win situation. By the spring of 1997, the agency was quietly testing a secure Web application that let citizens make these inquiries online.

The initial results were positive. Customers were delighted by how easy it was to fill in the form and get the results right back. But just as the SSA was preparing its public announcement of this new service, a newspaper reporter got wind of it and published an inflammatory article in USA Today. He claimed that anyone armed with a person’s Social Security number and few other bits of authenticating information could tap into the system and retrieve a person’s earnings, employment history, employer, home address, and so on.

This raised a furor! In fact, the authenticating information you had to provide was more complicated and not that easy for would-be impersonators to discover. Moreover, even if someone did succeed in “hacking” your Social Security account, the only information provided online is just the benefits information (not your employer’s identity, your home address or any other private information). Nevertheless, the inaccurate reporting had created such a furor that the SSA stopped the project. It was more than a year before the agency was able to modify the offering--and educate the public--to satisfy critics’ concerns.

Although this is “ancient” history in the era of ecommerce, the SSA’s story is a good example of what can go wrong with the best of intentions. John Sabo, then senior manager in the SSA’s Office of Programs and Policy, said that the most important lesson he learned is that you have to understand the concerns of all of your stakeholders. If he had it to do all over again, he would have ...


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