In today's highly competitive environment, financial services are largely a commodity, with institutions distinguished as much by service and price as by products and product features.Web self-service can significantly improve service quality. By automating much routine service, Web self-service enables users to quickly and easily resolve most of their service needs around-the-clock More importantly, because users aren't placed in a call queue for an available agent, Web self-service is often more responsive than contact centers.

Nevertheless, the decision to implement Web self-service is primarily driven by the desire to reduce costs. While estimates of cost ratios vary, Meridien estimates that a Web self-service interaction costs roughly 14 times less than a call-center interaction. Therefore, diverting 10% of a call center's volume to Web self-service would yield roughly a 9% reduction in servicing costs.

Supporting Web Initiatives

Many financial service institutions, particularly those with e-commerce initiatives, have seen consumers, independent agents, and employees turn to the Web as the preferred way of doing business.

These online users feel comfortable interacting with Web applications and using Web tools such as email, chat and search engines. Institutions that fail to address this emerging trend risk alienating a significant and growing group of users.

Financial service institutions need to consider the impact of Web self-service on their existing Web initiatives.

In recent years, most large financial service institutions have invested heavily on Web initiatives. Unrealistically high initial expectations aside, results to date have often been disappointing.

The lack of effective online service that supports the institution's online initiatives is a significant contributor to the lack of success for many Web initiatives. It should be no surprise that users are reluctant to use a Web site in the absence of effective Web service.

The compelling business case for Web self-service is clear: reduce service cost, improve service quality and user preferences and leverage existing online investments. And yet, most of today's Web self-service offerings fail to effectively address the key success factors for effective Web self-service.

Quality is predictably foremost among these key success factors. Poor Web self-service creates a negative experience that damages the relationship between the institution and the user. Web self-service applications and tools must have an easy-to-use intuitive interface appropriate to the intended user. Uniform immediate availability of context-sensitive help throughout the institution's Web site is crucial.

Changing Behaviors

Web self-service should be seen not as an end-point but as a front-end to the institution's contact center.

Financial institutions have found that customers will use Web self-service more frequently when they know they can easily turn to the institution's contact center to get service. Preserving Web self-service context and features such as call back, co-browsing, Web chat and voice over IP are important considerations.

Financial service users are creatures of habit. Changing these habits requires an active effort to promote Web self-service.

Some firms outside of the financial services arena have reported incoming contact center call volume dropping by 10% to more than 50% when they deployed effective Web self-service and actively promoted it. Although financial service firms should not expect these dramatic reductions, actively encouraging Web consumers to use Web self-service is an important factor in driving service traffic to automated channels.

Richard Bell is a senior analyst with Meridien Research Inc., Newton, Mass.

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