Driving an Excellent Customer Service With Self-Service

Customer experience and marketing expert Michael Cutbill argues that companies need to face the inevitable and offer the maximum amount of self-service routes that they can, because ultimately self service is good service.

Long ago, before the digital age, self-service was all about ingenious ways to offer no service. Repetitive tasks such as giving out cash or filling cars with petrol were re-desiged by banks and oil companies to cut out the bored, and expensive, staff who did the same thing hundreds of times a day. Holes were drilled in walls, petrol pumps were liberated for customer use, and costs were saved. And then something unexpected happened; customers showed that they actually preferred it that way.

Fast forward to the web-dominated world of customer experience today and the picture is far more complicated, and challenging, for the C-Suite who have to decide on the extent of their investment in self-service for the customer.

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In many cases the cost-saving rationale has gone away. That’s not because self-service has suddenly become more expensive; it’s because consumers demand the full range of service options, from easy online journeys which they can pilot themselves, through to virtual assistants, and if all else fails, people ready to help them on the phone. It generally means that you can’t get rid of call centre help completely by having a good routine online.

There is an argument that nowadays ‘good old-fashioned personal service’ stands out more, and some players in the commercial landscape, for example the UK banks, have chosen to promote this as their USP.

As is explored below, there are also other reasons for the C-Suite to think hard about the level of self-service it offers its customers. But my view is that, in spite of such considerations, companies need to face the inevitable and offer the maximum amount of self-service routes that they can, because ultimately self service is good service.

The Growth of Self Service

That view is founded on the evidence of what consumers actually do, when given a choice. Of course every sector is a special case, but the general picture is one of steadily increasing levels of self-service, enabled by online journeys becoming available on mobile devices.

Gartner, the business researcher, have looked at trends across wide areas and are projecting that by 2020 consumers will be managing 85 per cent of their transactions with enterprises1. What then of the view that people like to speak to people, and that while they will go with self-service for the sake of convenience, they would prefer to speak to people if they could?

Customer-focus advocate Steven Van Belleghem ran a global study which found that a sizeable minority, 40 per cent, would actively prefer NOT to speak to someone while transacting2. At the same time the level of service expected has been going up and up, with the majority of consumers wanting complaints and queries answered within 4 hours.

As he says: "The conclusion is inescapable: The majority of consumers favour a self-service solution, including the safety net of personal contact if the consumer so chooses."

Why the C-Suite Might Not Want to Go With the Flow

In the face of such evidence, surely the only good business decision is to provide good self-service options? Not necessarily.

In many product areas, self-service online can unlock the ability for a customer to (1) cancel a subscription and (2) buy the basic product only. Some companies are so reliant on income from renewing customers that they will only let you leave after a customer service rep has tried to argue you out of it (phones, TV, energy, roadside assistance, to name but a few options).

Moreover they don’t want you to buy without having someone try to upsell you from the basic level of the product (the UK insurer Admiral used to run an online purchase journey which couldn’t be finished online unless you bought a higher level product). The impact of this thinking is still very visible today. There are many areas where getting out of buying something is so much harder than getting into it.

Why the C-Suite Should Widen Self-Service Options

It’s my view that even for companies where upsell and retention are big issues, it makes sense to provide self-service, balanced by a human contact option as a safety net. The days when customers could be openly restricted online are over – if your company makes it too hard to cancel a service, the regulator will step in, and if you try to upsell too much, you’ll get complaints about it on social media.

Companies will also get credit for good self-service in more subtle ways. Harvard Business School found that switching between brands can actually fall when self-service limits contact with a company representative3. This may be because the customer perceives that setting up a new self-service routine will be too much hassle, no matter how easy it has been made by the current provider.

Another surprising benefit accrues to call centre staff. If self-service takes away routine tasks and leaves only the complex ones, jobs in the call centres become more interesting and spur greater staff engagement.

But of course the biggest argument in favour of self-service is the most basic one – the evidence says that self-service is what people want!

1. Gartner research: http://www.maximizer.com/blog/online-benefits-of-customer-self-service/

2. Steve Van Belleghem article: http://www.fastcompany.com/3013177/creative-conversations/why-the-future-of-customer-service-is-self-service

3. Harvard Business Review: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=40014