Lost in the Internet backlash of the last few years, as numerous high-profile ventures bemoaned their failure to cash out online, was some very good news about the real value that the Web holds for many companies: saving money.
Smart businesses realize that they can take advantage of the Web to run certain distributed aspects of their operations much more efficiently. Consider the following examples:
- Moving from a phone support system to a detailed online knowledge base that covers all known issues with products.
- Replacing an account setup process that required a dedicated team with a web-based system that allows customers to manage their own information.
- Using an online calendaring system to schedule meetings that previously required frequent conversations between company reps and customers.
The common thread in these cases is that the companies pushed labor-intensive tasks out to the customer, and they did so in a way that provides the customers with direct access to and control over information that they care about. So while the customers have to do more work, it’s work that saves them time (and, therefore, money).
To those of us who labor in the field of user experience, this approach hits the sweet spot, beautifully marrying the needs of the business (reducing ongoing expenses) with the needs of the user (taking control of the information that matters to them).
This isn’t a new idea – banks learned a long time ago that most customers prefer to interact with ATMs rather than tellers. What’s new is that the Web makes it possible for a wider range of companies to outsource a wider range of operations. Almost every organization can find some aspect of their business that could be more effective and less expensive if it were managed online by their customers.
There are, however, a few caveats:
1. Make sure your customers want to do the work.
Customers will only accept responsibility if they believe that they will save money or time by doing the task themselves.
In the cases described above, customers were glad to take control of finding or managing information on their own because they understood how it would benefit them. Nobody likes to wait on hold for a customer support representative to come on the line. Having instant access to the same database that the customer support rep would use to answer the question, removing the middleman, has clear value.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If moving an aspect of your business to the Web will reduce the number of steps that your customer has to go through to complete their task, then consider exposing that service on the Web.
2. Don’t just slap a Web interface on your existing management software and then wait for the customers to thank you.
Even a software product that was used successfully in-house probably needs to be redesigned before going out into the world. Software created for use inside a company is never very user-friendly, because it doesn’t need to be. Most employees have an incentive to work with the internal system (it’s their job) and can turn to company resources for support and training, so even bad software can be successful.
On the Web, though, your customers are on their own, and they won’t tolerate a difficult system. The biggest issue for your customers is the time- and cost-savings involved in taking control of their information. If it’s faster to do it the old way, then that’s what they’ll use.
If you want to expose internal systems to your customers, make certain that you invest time and money developing a good user experience for that system.
3. Watch your words.
Language matters. Companies have a tendency to develop an internal vocabulary that people use to speak in shorthand. For example, in the technology world there’s a definite penchant for using TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) to describe departments, projects, and ideas. But how are your customers supposed to know that “DES” stands for “Distributed Electronic System?” They won’t, and many will abandon their effort in confusion, never to return.
Recently, one of our clients labeled a button “create a country” on one of its interfaces, thinking it would be clear that this was the first step in creating a new account profile. Participants in user testing were stumped, however, unsure about why they would need to rewrite their constitution just to use some software. The interface would have been more effective if our client had labeled the link “Begin by adding your country to our system.” Better yet, we ended up developing a system where this part of the process was never exposed to customers at all.
It can be hard to work outside of your own assumptions. If you don’t know where to start, your best bet is to do some basic user research. Find out what language your customers use to describe the tasks they perform, and then use that language on your interface.
4. Give it time.
When you launch a new self-serve system, don’t assume that your customers will rush to start using it. Some of your customers will doubt the new system. Some won’t be comfortable working online and will still want to do things the old way.
Don’t use customer adoption as your only metric for success. Find other ways to gauge the return on your investment. Watch log files and solicit feedback via email. If you need numbers, an online survey (when implemented correctly) is an effective way to use statistical accuracy to counter individual customer bias.
5. Don’t replace; augment.
When Dell successfully moved its support system online, the company didn’t abandon its phone setup in the process. Instead, they used a hybrid model that made telephone support the second step, when customers failed to find an answer online.
Self-serve Web-based systems rarely eliminate their high-touch predecessors entirely. They simply reduce the need for them. Factor both systems into the cost/benefit equation when you’re trying to decide whether to make a service into a self-serve web application.
Moving to a new system is always painful, even when you’ve taken all this into consideration. It’s a process – if your application isn’t perfect out of the gate, talk to your customers, find out what they don’t like, and keep improving. Because when you do get it right, your customers and your investors alike will thank you for it.