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When is a Website Not a Website?

I'm not certain when it happened, but sometime when I was not looking, someone stole the World Wide Web. I swear I didn't take my eyes off of it for more than a minute, but when I looked again, instead of the Web, there was a... take your pick: television station... record store... book shop... call center... sales channel.

It was sort of abrupt, but not unpredicted. Every pundit worth his Blackberry imagined a world where everyday life—every transaction, relationship, research attempt—would be provided by and supported by the Web, or some other disintermediated stand-in for human interaction...kiosks, IVRs, what have you.

Returning readers of this column will recall a few cases where the automation pendulum is believed to have swung too far. In retail banking in the US, for instance, it can be argued that the market was over-enthusiastic in its vision of ATMs as the "branch of the future." Most are now frantically trying to rebuild their branch system because they have re-learned the lesson that human touch remains a key "channel" for interactions between the bank's customers and the bank itself.

In a series of conversations in the early part of this year, I wanted to get to the heart of the customer-service... excuse me, customer-experience conundrum: How do you maintain a superior level of customer contact, while trying at the same time to reduce the cost, effort and complexity of doing so?

Is Web self-service the answer?

As usual, it's a "yes and no" answer, but I was surprised at the degree to which the "yeses" outnumbered the "nos," or the "maybes."

When More Relevant Equals Better

"No question about it: Customer self-service is a very important driver on the Web. Companies do it for customer support, but also—more than ever—for product research, for the pre-sales process all the way through to executing transactions and on to the up-sell/cross-sell process."

That's Eben Miller, director of product marketing for Interwoven, talking, describing what sounds to me like a total soup-to-nuts appropriation of business by a Web-based interaction model. I asked whether the driver for this Web-centric approach has come from a desire to save money, or to do the job better?

"At first, people felt it was really expensive to support someone in a call center: ‘Let me get them onto the Web, let me help them help themselves, and we can shave off costs.' There are people who have had great success with that, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in cost savings, so there's nothing wrong with that approach," said Miller.

"But folks are no longer focusing exclusively on cost savings; a lot of people are focusing on growth, revenue and top-line initiatives," insisted Miller. "And customer satisfaction is an important part of that. People are trying to do both: leverage the technology to cut costs, and improve the customer experience at the same time. Not only are people happy to help themselves, but they're more satisfied, because they get information more quickly. People who are Web-savvy don't want to talk to someone!"

The challenge, as I see it, is this: Without having a human there to gauge the customer's temperature, and work them through various channels, depending on the severity of the problem or the level of the customer, you could potentially NOT provide the level of service they require, demand, expect or is necessary to keep them coming back to purchase from you on an ongoing basis.

"Not only can you improve customer loyalty—which is a huge issue for companies today—but you can use that opportunity for revenue growth. That's where you use segmentation, also called targeting, combined with full-loop analysis. Based on demographics, psychographics or even click-stream analysis of other people who have bought the product, you can both solve a customer's problem, and use areas of your website for up-sell/cross-sell potential."

So Miller tried to sum up the benefits: "Let's see: Cost savings is a driver; customer satisfaction and loyalty is a driver; differentiation is a driver; and revenue growth is a driver...I know what you're thinking: What ISN'T a driver?" he laughed. "But actually all these things are taken into consideration. There's an increasing strategic importance to the Web channel. People are using it for sales, lead generation, product distribution and customer support, all of it.

"At the same time, the markets are fragmenting, and customers expect more. They're more sophisticated, and this only serves to makes it all the more difficult to market to your customers. Differentiating on ‘price' or ‘location' is no longer good enough. You need to differentiate on experience; you need to differentiate on quality of service."

Differentiation is a huge issue, I agree. Everyone has the same product; I no longer have to buy electronic equipment because the store is less than three miles from me. On the Web, I can buy the same thing from a hundred different vendors.

"Understanding who your customer is is the big prerequisite; if you don't understand who your customers or your segments are, and what they expect, you're doing yourself a huge disservice," Miller pointed out. "Because of that, you can't just ‘push everything to the Web.' The Web is an important channel, but it's just a channel. There are other channels that are better for serving, for example, high-wealth individual customers of a financial services firm, who may NOT want to go to the Web to help themselves."

Which brings me back to my thoughts regarding the absence of human interaction. "I don't want to oversell Web self-service as the only channel that's any good," said Miller. "A Web experience can give you the wrong information, and walking into a retail store and talking to an individual CAN be better in some cases. But it's not as difficult as it once was to deliver a more relevant and more accurate experience online. Sometimes a Web experience can be more appropriate. If I'm on the phone with a call-center agent, and at the end of the call they say, ‘Would you be interested in this new credit card?' that might be the best way. But if I'm scanning through a dozen pages on a website, the bank can make five or six subtle and maybe more specific, better offers that are based on the implicit, or even the explicit, knowledge they have about me," Miller pointed out.

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