How to overcome the biggest obstacle to digital-first service with one simple exercise


Some things in the world of CX have changed over the past 30 years. For instance, self-service is now often referred to as "digital-first" service. But some things have not changed - including the blinkered thinking that present the same challenges to “digital-first” as it did back in the 90s. Here's an exercise to help join-up the thinking. 

28th Sep 2021

Being a bit of a customer experience historian these days, it’s hard not to see change as glacial. Over the last 30 years I’ve seen the same issues coming and going. It’s a bit of a laugh to send older generations of the company CX strategy or contact strategy to new incumbents and share how little or how much has changed. 

Some of the jargon changes. The hope in new technologies continues. The fundamentals of customer and employee psychology remain. But most of the processes are still broken, disconnected and unfriendly to staff and customers alike. And most feedback still goes nowhere and achieves nothing.

Self-service - it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Customer experience is a very mature market these days with so many moving parts. The good news is that most board directors have not only heard about customer experience but understand it. The bad news is that it’s still an extremely big juggling act to get customer experience as “right” as they’d like it to be - unless it’s at the centre of the strategy and beliefs by which they work, day-in-day-out.

Amongst all this, many phrases have been used to describe the challenge to perfect self-service. There is naturally a desire for businesses to get customers to do all the work for themselves, saving support efforts whilst increasing purchases, enjoying experiences and products, and increasing the desire of customers to come back for more and tell all their friends.

Self-service & assisted service, contact elimination, reducing customer effort, customer managed relationships... there are many concepts for the same fundamentals of what companies perceive customers want. And there are so many business books and excellent ideas to help.

Many envy Amazon’s self-service but that’s missing the point. Amazon’s ambition isn’t great self-service... it’s “less” than that.

What do we want? No service!

We need to remember that customers don’t want great service, or great self-service. They want no need for service. The “Best Service Is No Service” concept dates from Amazon days in the late 90s. We and our colleagues in various countries have spent 20 years educating, developing and deploying practical processes to deliver on this ambition where customers have no need for service. Be that to help them buy or to help them use something. Unless, of course, they want the assistance for reassurance in specific cases. 

Self-service or “digital-first” concepts cannot be thought about in isolation of the fact customers don’t want self-service or the contact it is meant to avoid. They want to do nothing, most of the time. “Digital-first" has to mean no service required

I’d argue not much changed in the thinking over the past 30 years - the thought processes and obstacles in large organisations present the same challenges to “digital-first” as they did back in the 90s. 

The problem

Companies are buying AI-assisted chatbots, yet they have never made their 30-year-old IVR call routing, their website FAQ or their agent knowledge bases work well. Optimisation teams for self-service or contact are still unde-populated and under-supported if they exist at all. Without understanding these things, AI isn’t going to magically crack the problem (yet).

One of the continuing challenges is the boxes which management puts things into. Management often thinks about “digital-first” without the customers’ context and continuity: separating the website and the mobile app from the contact centre; outbound contact from the inbound contact; one channel from another; objectives and metrics varying by each “box”.

Current technology platforms can now really help string these things together - but the thinking has to be joined-up. 

Joined-up thinking

To help join-up the thinking, I've found this diagram really helpful - the Stairway to Heaven (to purloin a famous song title). It’s really helpful in asking people in customer experience and user experience to consider how they relate to the customer and to eachother. How to think about digital-first.

[Click to enlarge]

stairway to heaven


For example...

Try looking at two end-to-end case examples, one good, one less so. With a very expensive investment in an electric vehicle range you’d expect the manufacturers to make suitable investments in the buying and using experience. 

An electric vehicle (EV) is new hardware and new software compared to a traditional car. The car is differentiated by how easy the the software is to use, both in the car and on your mobile. The car’s reliability and usability will be judged by the performance of the software and battery. And yes the metal & plastics still have to be aesthetically and functionally pleasing, inside and out.

Try this out at home. Try buying a Tesla online (you don’t have to actually buy it even if you go through the whole process...).  And try to start buying a VW ID 3 or 4 online.

stairway to heaven

The Tesla is bought online, the same simple process regardless of whether you are on a demo site or at home. A test drive is booked online, documents in advance. Expectations set and learning the car prepped online. Assistance is culturally different: staff online or on premises are not incentivised to sell cars and finance, they are there to help you understand and buy. The marketing budget is zilch. Customers and motoring press do all that for free as you’ll find if you start searching. The selection and specification is simplified, both for you and for them. Discounts and negotiation are removed from the process. The whole process and experience has been simplified and optimised. Even part exchange.

If you want to analyse these “digital-first” experiences step through the stairway. Can you plot the stairs in the example above? 

Examine your own experiences

Or try to analyse a recent Amazon or other purchase you made, using the stairway? Try it. How joined-up is it? A couple of other great examples to look at are Nest and Starling Bank.

The perfect journey is the top step, the ideal of a “digital-first” journey. The customer tries the service or product, invests their data, uses it, buys it and its add ons, easily committing without friction. The customer loves it, recommends it and uses it more and more. Everything else is what you’re trying to avoid happening, but which can happen progressively and negatively as you descend the stairway.

This isn’t mapping of a sales or service journey. It is an ethnographic understanding of why and how the customer lives and uses your company’s offerings in the context of their life and the choices they have. The perfect journey would allow them to meet their needs with no unnecessary effort - both in buying and using the offering.

Digital first

So what?

There are few silver bullets when it comes to getting “digital-first” to work. It’s hard graft all the way down the stairway. Certainly large scale digital transformation programmes are probably the least cost-effective way of thinking about solving the challenges which customers face. Start by focusing on the perfect journey, generating the emotions you want your brand to stand for. 

Can you even work out the spec of the VW you would want? Despite the enormous marketing budgets, what are customers actually saying online about fixes, functionality and performance? Try asking questions of a dealer...

You can feel the difference in culture, history and expectations of the two companies in the online experience. Drive the cars and you can feel it there too. Read up what customers think and you can see the gap.  

There’s a gap in usage expectations - they’ve thought about customers travel with pets or sit and wait with kids - the screen is a key part of those experiences.

And in service expectations - Tesla Rangers are out on the road and come to you. You can often talk to them at supercharging stations.

Peter Massey will be discussing digital-first customer service strategies on a MyCustomer virtual roundtable on October 14 at 1030AM BST. Register for "How to ensure your digital-first service strategy is also customer-first". 


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Replies (2)

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Shaun Myers
By Shaun Myers
04th Oct 2021 10:58

Couldn’t agree more Peter. Organisation’s still treating digital as a quick fix without a compelling overall customer strategy.

Thanks (1)
By Christine Reid-Williams
04th Oct 2021 14:41

Great common sense article. Customers still want to be treated as individuals " show me you know me" and value my custom. Digital can expedite this process , but not layered on the top of broken and fractured processes. Thank you

Thanks (1)