Self-Service Channels

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print

Businesses must develop a focused strategy, provide highly usable apps and build a robust IT infrastructure in order to take full advantage of mobile technology.


Self-Service Channels

That’s a concept that USAA’s Hudson understands. The company introduced a Website in 1997 and went mobile in 2007. Today, about 90 percent of its interactions occur through these self-service channels. The platform is supported by a mainframe running IBM WebSphere and an Oracle database.

Last year, the firm handled about 183 million customer contacts through its mobile channel, according to Hudson. “We project that the mobile channel will become the primary point of contact in terms of total customer interactions within the next two or three years,” he says.

The company has approximately 100 dedicated mobile developers writing and updating apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android operating systems. It also has a BlackBerry app and supports Windows Phone 7.

“Our goal is to redefine processes and provide simpler and more powerful ways for customers to interact with us,” Hudson explains. For example, a smartphone accident report and claims app lets customers snap a photo and submit a claim directly from an accident site. The app can also send geographic information system (GIS) data to a towing service and display nearby car rental locations.

USAA, which operates only a single brick-and-mortar bank branch in San Antonio, was also the first major bank to support photo deposits. A customer snaps an image of a check with the smartphone and submits it to the bank via the mobile app. The money is instantly deposited to the customer’s account.

“USAA strips out the labor and expense related to processing the paper, and the customer doesn’t have to mail the check and wait three days for the deposit to show up,” Hudson notes. Last year, USAA Federal Savings Bank processed $6.4 billion in deposits through this app.

The app also handles myriad other capabilities, including displaying loan and credit card balances; homeowners and auto insurance policy information; Home Circle and Auto Circle buying services; shopping services; retirement products and information; ATM and taxi locators; and a communities app that lets users view what others are posting about USAA on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The company is now exploring the idea of adding a digital wallet that will use near-field communications (NFC) chips in smartphones.

Hudson understands the importance of providing choices. “The goal is to build a robust cross-channel experience that lets customers interact in a way that makes sense for them,” he says. “We’re careful to keep in mind that not all transactions are created equal. There are times when the phone or a Web browser is better.

“We don’t want to take the myopic view of thinking that mobile is the only way to go or that we have to push customers to use it. The goal is to provide the best solution for a given situation.”

Weathering Change

The most successful companies in the mobile space understand a basic tenet: Apps and features must wrap around an organization’s brand and core competencies to fully engage customers and deepen the relationship with them.

“It’s not enough to simply offer an app to prove that you’re current and contemporary,” Aberdeen’s Borg says. What’s more, it’s important to “maximize the customer experience by taking advantage of the technical capabilities of the device but not overengineer apps.”

It’s also important to understand how, why and where customers use mobile devices to connect to data and how these connection points change basic business interactions and behavior, Ernst & Young’s Nichols points out. For example, do customers who use an app handle a greater number of transactions on their own and rely on the phone less? Do they spend less time actually perusing products and shopping from a mobile device?

Unfortunately, “few companies put the data that’s available to use in a way that helps them improve apps and boost customer loyalty,” he says.

Another company that has dived headfirst into the mobile revolution is AccuWeather.com, a leading provider of forecasts and weather reports. The 50-year-old firm—which delivers data to television broadcasters, businesses and consumers—provides forecasts through the Web, smartphones and tablets, including iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7.

Every day, somewhere between 8 and 10 million requests originate from mobile devices, and the numbers are rising rapidly, says Christopher Patti, director of technology.

The company, which has about 50 app developers on staff, offers different versions of apps for various devices to better match the needs of users. For instance, AccuWeather presents BlackBerry users—who tend to be more business-oriented—with an interface that’s more travel-centric. iPhone and Android users, on the other hand, view weather forecasts and events that are more focused on local conditions.

“We use a couple of research firms that provide real-time feedback about customer behavior within these apps,” Patti explains.

All the apps provide a high level of personalization and exploit the specific features and strengths of a particular device. For example, iPads display more interactive weather maps than iPhones because they provide a larger viewing area.

In addition, AccuWeather provides automatic syncing for saved locations through Apple’s iCloud—so that a user can view desired content seamlessly across devices. There’s also integration with Facebook so family and friends can share weather news.

AccuWeather offers both free and paid versions of its apps. For the former, the company derives revenues through advertising that’s tied to the user’s current location—without specifically identifying the user’s phone.

“We’re able to pass weather data to ad networks and generate hyper-local advertising that displays local businesses and ties the ads into current weather conditions,” Patti explains. “For example, if it’s raining, you might view a Michelin ad, or if it’s snowing, you might see a Toro ad for snow blowers.”

The company relies on Dell PowerEdge M610 blade servers and a Dell Chassis Management Controller running on Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and 2003, as well as Dell EqualLogic PS Series SANs It also uses VMware ESX Server to improve utilization through a virtualized environment.

The firm’s data center in State College, Pa., handles 100 percent of the traffic. AccuWeather relies on two content delivery networks to distribute data and improve performance.

This article was originally published on 2012-02-09
Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.
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