This article has been written with Financial Institutions (FIs) in mind, but most of the concepts described for developing an effective online support channel are applicable to all industries.

For the reasons defined in another knowledge article, it is vital for financial institutions to get more consumers to use their online delivery channel. Unfortunately almost all financial institutions are missing the components required to make their online support channel a realistic alternative to picking up the phone. Neither do most financial institutions promote usage of their online support channel, frequently even making it difficult to find on their Web site and rarely promoting its usage during opportune times, such as when the consumer receives the friendly phone message telling them that all support staff are busy or that their business hours are between 9 and 5.

To handle online inquiries financial institutions have generally elected to direct their consumers to email addresses or a simple web form. However most consumers expect more before they will put down their phone and instead connect with their FI digitally.

To use an alternative support channel, consumers must believe that the channel is easier and/or cheaper than their alternatives. In another knowledge article we talked about how Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) can serve as a good way to draw consumers online and answer many of their questions. But no matter how comprehensive your FAQs, your consumers must know that they can always escalate to a real person to get their inquiry resolved. For some things that require immediate attention, like getting help to complete an online form, chat provides the best delivery. However, most consumer inquiries do not require immediate attention and something like email or Web forms are more cost-effective than chat and actually can provide an equal or better delivery. So what are some of the things to keep in mind when developing your channel for handling online inquiries?

1.

Make your "contact us" link visible from every Web page so that it can easily be found. The "contact us" link should link to a Web page that provides your consumers with the various options for contacting you: physical location, phone, fax and online. Since your consumers are online when they are looking for how to contact you, provide the online option for contacting you first on the page.

You should also make it extremely easy for your consumers to provide feedback. Your ability to understand what you are doing right and wrong according to your consumers is what will allow you to separate yourself from the competition. We suggest that links to a Web page to provide feedback -- either anonymous or not -- be liberally sprinkled throughout your site if not accessible from every page. You also must have the necessary support systems in place to ensure that you can respond to all feedback and get it to staff that are in a position to do something about it. Consumers are more likely to take the time to provide feedback if they know it will be heard by people that have the authority to do something about it.

2.

Don't just send them to an email address for contacting you online. Email has rightfully earned a bad rap on the Web for providing poor service levels and does not impart to your consumers that this channel is as highly a managed channel as their alternatives. Send them to a simple form that is easy to complete and clearly states how long to expect before getting a response back.

Don't think that responding within 24 hours is good enough. A Jupiter Media Matrix survey in the first quarter of 2001 declared that consumers expect a response within 6 hours. You can be sure that it is less than that today! Anything more than 4 to 6 business-hours will not be effective in making this a realistic alternative channel for most of your consumers.

You say that it is not realistic to get back to your consumers within 4-6 hours? With the right software it is possible and realistic! In addition, the 4-6 hours seems like a dream in comparison to the FEW MINUTES a consumer will wait on hold before abandoning the call. What do you think is easier and more cost-effective to deliver: a channel where you can get back to consumers within 4 hours or one where you have two minutes? Since most FIs staff their call center so that they have less than a 2% drop-off rate, you can save big in staffing costs by getting your consumers to use your online support channel -- even with a service level of 4-6 hours!

3.

Your consumers should have the ability to securely ask account-specific questions through your contact us forms available on your Web site and not just through your online banking applications. Even if you have achieved great success and have 40% of your membership using your online banking solution, you still have 60% of your consumers that do not have the ability to ask questions online that contains sensitive information. Would it be acceptable for any other channel to only be available to 40% of your consumers?

4.

In addition to asking a question that contains sensitive information, your consumers should have the option of asking that you call them back with the answer or securely send the answer to them digitally. This can be accomplished by using messy email encryption software, but this requires your consumers to download a piece of software and other approaches exist that provide the same degree of security without the hassles for your consumers.

 

5.

Consumers use delivery channels that consistently deliver within expectations. You know about the 4-6 hour expectations, now you need to ensure that you can consistently deliver within those expectations. You probably have heard the saying: "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." Well it's true! Unless you know precisely when consumer inquiries were initiated, whom they were assigned to, when a response was provided and when the inquiry was completely resolved, you will not be able to consistently manage within your service level expectations.

6.

Your online channel has got to be able to consistently respond to inquiries of any complexity within your service levels. In some instances you may not be able to completely resolve the incident but you should at least respond intelligently within your service levels. To do this, you must either assign more complex inquiries to staff with the subject matter expertise required or enable your support staff to quickly and easily solicit help from these subject matter experts. Whoever retains ownership of an incoming inquiry; the inquiry must be captured in a central data base containing all inquiries that allows you to track performance.

7.

Responses to inquiries must be consistent and accurate, regardless of the level of experience of staff that responds or the channel (in-person, phone, web online forms and email) used. The only way to accomplish this degree of uniformity across all channels is to provide all consumer-facing staff with access to a central knowledge base -- and insist upon them using it -- and capture all inquiries in a central incident database. In addition, by having consumer inquiries involving multiple staff and multiple channels in one incident record, your consumers will not experience the frustration of having to repeat themselves.

8.

When answering questions online or from email, you need to take every opportunity to show the consumer how easy it is to help themselves online. To accomplish this, you must have the ability to send links to your consumers that point directly to item or items in your knowledge base that answers their inquiry. The adage of "teaching them how to fish rather than giving them fish" will serve you well in changing behavior and significantly reducing the number of your incoming inquiries.

9.

The only way your knowledge base will grow as necessary with information that is pertinent to your consumers is by putting the responsibility of evolving your knowledge base directly in the hands of your consumer-facing staff. Each time a non-consumer-specific question is answered that is not in your knowledge base, the staff that answered the question should have the ability to submit it for approval and publishing into your knowledge base. This process should not require the involvement of any IT staff and should be simple.

In no time at all you will have a broad knowledge base that contains rich information, enabling consistent, prompt and accurate answers from all staff and all delivery channels every time. You will also significantly reduce the the significant costs associated with "knowledge drain" each time a staff transfers or leaves your organization.

10.

Regardless of the quality and value of any product or service, you must market your online channel to your members to gain awareness and promote its utilization. Effective places to market your online channel are recorded messages to consumers when staff are not currently available, in your branches and in newsletters. Your online channel is not intended to de-personalize your relationship with your consumers. In fact, it provides your consumers with a great addition to your existing channels. But unlike these other channels, it allows you to naturally capture rich digital information about your consumers' needs, allowing you to better anticipate and respond to your consumers' needs. It is important when marketing your online channel to communicate these intentions.