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Web Support Automation vs. The Human Support

By Rick Kilton

Lately, it seems that support management has hopped on the Web-based support bandwagon. With the proliferation of computers that have access to the World Wide Web, it is a natural conclusion that customers can get information from web sites to solve their own problems or answer their own question. Considering the cost of providing a robust web knowledgebase tool versus having human resources in the right place at the right time with the right information, it appears to be a no-brainer. It is hard to imagine how much money is being spent on the development of search engines that will be able to deliver the answer the customer is seeking no matter how they ask for it. These are likely well-spent funds considering the need to access infinite amounts of information. And isn't it wise to keep track of solutions to problems so we can use them over and over when the problems recur?

So what's wrong with this picture? Unfortunately, the customers seeking advice or solutions are humans. They have, and exhibit, human emotions. These emotions and web site access may be like mixing oil and water. Consider the customer who has been directed (pushed) to a web site to get an answer or solution. If the customers have an emotional content to their situation, they can be intolerant to any difficulties with the automation. It is likely that the customers will be "poisoned" by the experience and may choose to avoid that method in the future. This is especially true for new or novice web users. If the customers become highly frustrated by the automation and eventually do reach the human support person, they are likely to be quite uncooperative. Since there is emotion attached to the customer's situation, it now requires a human to fix it. Not only to fix it, but to tell that customer everything is going to be OK and to apologize for the situation. Couldn't this happen with the customer who is trying to get software loaded or is trying to get a document to print and struggles for (seemingly) hours with the problem. Or consider the customer who is attempting to get information about a company and gets "lost" in the complex links and hypertext. In fact, the customer has an emotion that must be addressed before the technical solution is offered. Unfortunately, this is a fact that escapes many support personnel.

Curiously, we see data that indicates customers are flocking to web sites for self-help quicker than lemmings seeking the sea. The data presenters warn companies that if they don't get powerful web sites going, the customer will leave them for the more technically astute competitor. Does this indicate that there is a huge groundswell of people who desire to use technical automation to meet their needs? Or, could it mean people are so frustrated with the type of support they receive now that they yearn for something, anything, to get help and answers? Do people desire automation in lieu of person to person support or because they can not get good person to person support?

Interestingly, web support developers allude to the automation as a way to create or build loyalty. Customer loyalty is created when the customer develops a bond with people in the company. A web site is not likely to develop or nurture loyalty as well as the employment of human interaction. After all, doesn't everyone have a web site? And haven't we learned that customers demonstrate a far higher level of loyalty when they have a problem that is solved in a way that exceeds their expectations? While there will be many times that the web will provide the proper solutions required by the customer, it is imperative that it does not become a blockade for those needing the human touch. We have all experienced the situations where technology creates such an obstacle that a small problem soon turns into major frustrations. At that point, any semblance of loyalty can be destroyed. Isn't it likely that we start to resent the company who has created these (automation) obstacles because we believe they don't really care about our needs? Didn't they take away the human touch? Do they only care about their needs (costs)?

So, the key is to provide both automated and human support, at the right time, depending on the customer's needs. Providing a way to get human assistance when emotions are high is imperative to establishing and maintaining loyalty. Allowing customer to talk to support personnel without the pain of pushing a bunch of buttons or entering lots of data on a site will show that the company cares about them as a valued customer and as an individual. Providing automation to operate 24 hours a day with seemingly unlimited capacity is necessary to provide support for those who prefer the technological channel and do not have emotions attached to their needs. In order to employ the "high touch" along with the "high tech", consider these:

  • Ensure the customer knows how to reach a human. Print phone numbers on product materials and create a place on the web site that provides all the methods of reaching the company. Include costs if appropriate.

  • Ensure that customers who have had frustrating trips in the web sites are well cared for when they do reach the human. Support personal must demonstrate empathy to heal the customers' "pain."

  • In tools like Interactive Voice Response Systems and web sites, have the trouble shooting system track the customers' paths so any support person can see where they have been and preclude the customer from starting over again to explain every detail of the problem or request.

  • When customers have reached a support person, and could have found the solution/answer on the web site, gently walk them through the process so they can learn how to use it. Remember that the vast majority of web site users will not know how to use it at first. The web site developers are too familiar with the tools and lose the naiveté of the customer.

  • Be sure that your own support personnel know how to use the web site search engines proficiently so they can be good teachers for the customer. Discourage a support person from just giving a appropriate URL (web page location) to the customer as it simply teaches the customer that they have to call for the location of their solution. This is not a desirable result and adds costs.
It is important to measure the customer's perception of your ability to provide the correct service based on the customer's immediate needs. The best way to understand if the support options or mix is correct is to ask them. This requires some sort of survey or interviews. If one were to only perform empirical measurements of how often different service delivery methods are utilized by the customer, one would miss the critical measurement of how many customers refuse to use any of the services and go elsewhere. Even internal Help Desks do not have locked-in customers; there are always alternatives. Caution is recommended when only technologists provide sources of automated support. Often, the human element is overlooked in favor of the latest and hottest tool. We have all experienced web sites that appear to have no clue as to how a customer will use them effectively. We give up and try elsewhere. Consider:
  • Include an optional questionnaire in the web site for people to complete to provide feedback.

  • Have support personnel ask short, quick questions of the callers about their awareness or usefulness of your web site. Provide a way for support personnel to capture customers' comments about the web site and report that feedback to management.

  • Thoroughly test the site, over and over if necessary, with customers to determine the effectiveness, friendliness, and escape methods. Use people who would not likely be very good at it, not "techs."

  • Remember, there are no DUMB customers. Just because they have a computer, doesn't mean they are good at utilizing automation or using your tools.
In the end, customer loyalty is the gold ring and developing methods and processes to achieve that loyalty are in the hands of service management. Developing loyalty requires a deep understanding of human behaviors when needing help. Customers who are loyal will buy again and recommend the companies products or services. The first question for service management is: How Important is Customer Loyalty?

About the Author
Since leaving the corporate support management world in 1990, Rick Kilton has been delivering consulting and training to support professionals, managers and executives in the high tech support environment. RKConsulting's focus is helping clients create loyal customers though human skills, processes, organizational structure, measurements, and culture. Rick is an experienced practitioner of the psychological personality instrument the Myers-Briggs Type indicator and utilizes it in all consulting and training products. Rick earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in business from the University of Phoenix.

Rick Kilton
RWK Enterprises, Inc.
Dallas, TX 75243