• United States

Help is at hand

May 19, 20034 mins

* Helping your customers help thelmselves

The last time you sought help from a vendor what was your method?  Did you go to the vendor’s Web site and search through self-help databases or FAQs?  Did you use Internet-enabled chat to get live help?  Did you e-mail the vendor, hoping you’d get a response at all? Did you call the vendor and wait on hold for a while until you got a live person? All of these are valid ways to reach the vendor but the methods offer you varying degrees of satisfaction.

For the vendor, the cost of how they interact with their customer varies greatly, depending on the method used.  Web-based self-help is obviously a lot cheaper than a room full of people on phones.

You and the vendor want to get your problem resolved in the shortest amount of time.  The vendor has the added concern of wanting to do this at the least possible cost.  They also may view your contact as a revenue stream for the company: you could get billed for your choice of using phone support.

Sometimes you don’t get a choice of how to reach out for help; the vendor may provide just one method.  However, smart companies that must provide customer support are learning that it’s best to offer a variety of contact methods, and that the customer should be allowed to choose what method works best for them.

That’s where Sento has found a sweet spot for its products and services, dubbed Customer Choice.  Based in Utah, Sento has provided companies with customer service representatives on a contract basis since 1985.  If you call Network Associate’s help line, you may actually talk with a Sento person.  Likewise if you call the Turbo Tax division of Intuit. 

Over the years, Sento has learned the ins and outs of working with customers in need of support.  It has learned that some customers could easily resolve their own problems without any human intervention if given the opportunity.  Other customers may just need to have a quick dialogue via e-mail or chat.  Both options are considerably less expensive to provide than phone support, and still offer high customer satisfaction if the problem gets resolved.

Sento’s Customer Choice platform is comprised of three levels of support.  Level 1 is online self-service.  A Service Portal embedded into a company’s Web site allows a customer to search a FAQ repository.  If the customer doesn’t find the information he needs, the portal can escalate the help request to agent-assisted channels like chat, e-mail and phone.  The portal passes through information about the customer so he doesn’t start from scratch in explaining his problem.

Level 2 offers free online chat and e-mail.  If the customer didn’t find his resolution in the FAQs database, he is gently steered toward using chat or e-mail instead of picking up the phone. 

Level 3 offers pay-as-you-go phone support.  For customers who simply must talk to a live person over the phone, the option is there to pay for support by the call or by the minute.  What’s more, if the customer has already gone through Level 1 or 2 help processes, the case record gets passed to the live person to reduce time spent on background information.  Even so, you can see where customers would want to try the self-help first before incurring costs for phone support.

The best part of this scenario is that it’s completely in the customer’s hands as to which method to use to resolve a problem.  With a large volume of people moving toward the lower-cost Level 1 and Level 2 support, the company offering the support could save a lot of money.

Need proof?  One of Sento’s customers used to receive about 88,000 contacts from customers a month.  Of this number, about 80,000 contacts were resolved through a phone dialogue.  Another 8,000 were handled via e-mail or chat.  None were resolved through self-help.  On average, the cost per contact was $7.50, totaling $660,000 in support costs per month for all contacts.

This company transitioned to Sento Customer Choice.  The contacts mushroomed to 425,000 contacts per month.  However, 330,000 contacts were handled through self-help.  About 70,000 went to e-mail or chat, and 25,000 went to phone dialogues.  The cost per contact plummeted to just 73 cents, totaling $310,250 per month although the contact volume went up five-fold.

Need more proof? Try it for yourself at:

Does your company offer customer support?  Are you offering your customers a choice in how to get their problems resolved?  Are you using smart technology to help reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction?  Maybe it’s time to offer Customer Choice.

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at