Self-service warning: Why you can still lose in a win-win game

3rd Jul 2014

There was a time when self-service technology represented a dirty word. In the early days of IVR, for instance, customers left exasperated by slow and frustrating navigation trees were crying out for some human assistance.  Who back then would have thought that self-service technology would become so popular?

But self-service has matured considerably since those dark days.

“Self-service can be offered through various channels and touchpoints – for example, channels such as web, social and phone and devices such as smartphones, tablets, traditional desktops/laptops, kiosks, etc.,” notes Anand Subramaniam, VP of worldwide marketing at eGain.

“Technology examples span IVRs on the voice side to online technologies such as keyword and natural language search, virtual assistants, topic tree browsing and case-based reasoning (CBR) for guided self-service. Peer-to-peer service on forums and social networks and transactional ecommerce systems are further examples. Elsewhere, sophisticated virtual assistants can handle queries of simple to moderate complexity and also escalate with full context to agent-assisted service. They can also make web self-service engaging and fun with brand-aligned avatars!”

Whichever way you cut it, self-service is finally striking a chord with the modern customer. Research by Amdocs has found that 75% of surveyed consumers said they would prefer to use online self-service over a call centre, while a study by Nuance found reported similar findings, with 67% of respondents preferring self-service over speaking to a company representative. Indeed, according to The Real Self-Service Economy report, 70% of customers now expect a company website to include a self-service application.

It is therefore unsurprising that investment in self-service technology is expected to rise considerably in the coming years.

In a survey of its members, the Customer Contact Association found that 66% of respondents said that their business models will increasingly adapt to incorporate self-service and automation, while a survey of contact centre professionals by Cisco found that 81% said self-service was on their operational to-do list over the next two years

And it’s not just a private sector phenomenon - according to international public sector research by KANA research found that nearly one-third (31%) of government agencies and councils plan to implement additional web self-service technologies in the next 12 to 18 months.

Some reports predict that by 2020, self-service could account for as much as 40% of customer service engagements. So what is driving this robust adoption?

Company and customer appeal

Without question, a big motivation for brands is the potential financial benefits. According to Synthetix research, 90% of consumers will always check a website first before emailing or calling the brand if their query isn’t answered. Forrester estimates that an average of $22 million is spent in unnecessary service costs due to channel escalations, meaning that if customers can’t self-serve it costs brands money.

McKinsey has also examined the relative costs of self-service and assisted service, suggesting there is a huge discrepancy – if the cost of assisted service is almost tent times the cost of self-service, it noted.

“From a corporate point of view, the most expensive resource that they use in customer service are people,” says Steven van Belleghem, professor at Vlerick Business School and author of ‘The Conversation Company’. “If you start to replace them with automated tools, it makes a big difference. One of the industries that this is happening at high speed is the financial sector, where banks are reducing staff and automating almost every process – even things that people thought couldn’t be done with self-service. Rabobank in Holland has a fantastic system where it has automated its entire mortgage process and it has been extremely successful, but everyone thought that people would always want to talk to someone for such an important decision. So now that the market is ready for it, corporations are taking their chance to speed up self-service.”

There are other advantages as well, most notably that with self-service being digital, it is easier for companies to keep records of the interactions than with offline contact. And of course customers benefit because of the reliability of self-service – available 24/7 all year round, the customer has access to service on a permanent basis.

“The sad truth is that robots are sometimes offering better service than people,” explains van Belleghem. “If you look at Amazon compared to a traditional book store, most of the time you get better advice from the Amazon robot than from the salesperson in the store. So the automated systems are outservicing the people in terms of speed and advice and ease.”

This is not unique to customer service. Nearly half of US jobs are vulnerable to computerisation according to the MIT Technology Review, while Oxford researchers have similarly estimated that that 45% of America’s occupations will be automated within the next 20 years, including the likes of postal workers, secretaries, accountants, cashiers and book keepers.

Gartner stats about the relative efficiencies of man and machine tell the story: POTS phone has 99.999% reliability, with only 5.26 minutes a year downtime; Cloud services has 99.9% reliability, with 7.5 hours a year downtime; robots have 00.5% reliability, with 4,380 hours a year downtime due to repairs and reprogramming; but poor humans have an availability of a mere 00.205%, out 6,800 hours out of every 8,760.

“Humans really are just about the bane of everything – we’re not very reliable and we’re always sick,” says Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Research. “Continued task automation will replace 10% of US workers in business operations and administration over the next five years. $1 trillion of labour costs will be done by machines and software.”

And this suits customers just fine.

“Consumers are really getting used to the fact that they can do everything themselves,” suggests van Belleghem. “If you look at the whole ecosystem that Apple created for us, for instance, it is a complete self-service environment. If you look at Google and Amazon and, the most successful digital tools that we have are completely built on self-service platforms – and they work really well. So most people are getting really used to that. It is fast and easy and it is even fun to do stuff yourself.”


Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, emphasises: “As long as it is implemented correctly, self-service is good because first of all it increases customer satisfaction and keeps them loyal to your brand, and secondly it lower the overall cost of operations for the company. So it is a win-win for the company and the customer.”

But is it always implemented correctly?

Despite a preference for self-service, Forrester research reveals that live assisted interactions via call centre and live chat both have higher satisfaction ratings (69% and 63% respectively) than web self-service interactions (58%) and virtual agents (55%). This is because once a customer is able to connect with an agent, the customer's question or interaction is most often fully addressed, whereas customers can often come up short with self-service – Forrester found that while 72% of customers prefer using a company’s site to answer their questions, only 52.4% find the information they need online.

Therefore, Leggett suggests that while self-service technology is up to scratch, the lack of attention around content maintenance is undermining it. She notes:  “Even though mature content maintenance processes exist to keep content in-line with customer demand, most organisations have not had the discipline to adopt them. The result is content - answer to customer questions - that does not match customer expectations.”

Part of the problem is often related to ownership of the website. In most cases, marketing takes responsibility, with some influence from an ecommerce division if it’s a retail or shopping site. Therefore, as customer service doesn’t own the site, to be able to offer good web self-service, it requires an organisational negotiation between marketing, customer service and ecommerce.

There are also technological obstacles.

“Many of these organisations, like ecommerce, may have bought virtual agent technologies and chat technologies that are half automated, or email technologies that are just disconnected from what the customer service organisation have,” says Leggett. “So it’s hard to be able to rationalise all the technologies that are available in a company and to have the same processes and to be able to have the same customer engagement strategy. Siloed organisations, with their own technologies and their own strategies mean that often they are unable to come together to focus on optimal self-service.”

Brands also have to be careful not to ostracise part of their customer base as they strive forward with their self-service strategies. Waitrose recently trialled the removal of its in-store self-scanning machines after growing concerns about customer disenchantment with the technology.

“One of the main challenges for customer self-service is making sure brands still have a more traditional method in place,” says Jennifer Allen, mystery shopping coordinator at Amber Arch. “Despite the developments, some people will prefer to purchase products from an employee of the company. If organisations try to persuade these individuals too forcefully, they run the risk of angering them and consequently losing their custom.”

Teething pains

Nonetheless, in most cases these appear to be merely teething pains. A revolution is taking place in customer service, and organisations are rapidly responding. If they can negotiate this tricky period of acclimatisation, there is a bright future ahead.

“Not so long ago the idea of interacting with an organisation without speaking to a human being was strange,” notes Philippe Ougrinov, VP sales and marketing at TELUS International Europe. “Now the concept of online self-service has become so deeply ingrained in the way we operate, that, according to Forrester, 67% of consumers use web self-service knowledge to find answers to their questions and 45% of consumers will abandon their online purchase if they cannot find a quick answer to their questions.

“Enhanced customer satisfaction may be a beneficial side effect of the introduction of self-service to customer service, but if organisations are honest it has not been the primary driver. For most, the initial appeal was the potential cost savings. Invest in the technology once and after that point it is virtually free to operate. When you add in the fact that it also significantly improves the day-to-day experience of working in a contact centre, with agents now spending less time answering dull, repetitive queries, and more time resolving complex, interesting issues, the appeal of self-service appears irresistible.”

And for van Belleghem, the increasingly sophisticated technology that is coming on stream will only make self-service a more compelling and successful proposition in the years to come.

“In a short time we won’t hear the difference between talking to a computer and talking to a real person. Recently, a computer recently passed the Turing Test for the first time in history, where people couldn’t guess if they were talking to a computer or a person. It was not done really well, because they said that the person was a 13-year-old from Ukraine to hide the spelling mistakes, but we are getting closer.”

He concludes: “We’re getting very close to the point where you can just replace people with a robot for basic routine questions and complaints and at that moment it is so much cheaper than working with real people. So a lot of companies are waiting to do that. They are working with robots in manufacturing areas in their company and they are looking forward to working with robots in their call centres and with after-sales service as well.” 

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