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Self-service applications save money

Self-service applications save money

Self-service applications save money

By Donna Fluss

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The underlying technologies for self-service applications based on the Web and interactive voice response (IVR) have improved dramatically over the last 10 years. Some companies now provide self-service environments that customers find compelling, informative, inviting and intuitive. These companies are discovering that an increasing percentage of customers are willing to use automated self-service options instead of dealing with live agents. Unfortunately, too many companies still do not appreciate that customers will only use self-service applications if they are a better and easier alternative.

Does self service save money?

I’ve been asked this question for over two decades. I implemented my first IVR system 20 years ago when I was running a credit card customer service contact center; my management asked me when our calls would “go away” so I could start firing my agents. Then, around 1997, Internet-based customer service first became hot and I started hearing similar questions. As a vice president and research director in Gartner’s CRM practice, clients frequently called to ask me when Web-based self-service would eliminate the need for live agents. Please note that they called to ask this question.

More than 20 years after the introduction of IVRs and 10 years after the delivery of commercial Web sites, live agents still exist, but your company can certainly save money with self-service. How well the self-service application is designed and implemented will determine just how much you save.

Customers are chronically frustrated by poor self-service systems and can’t understand why companies don’t even bother trying to “do it right.” Given the potential benefits of well-designed and implemented self-service applications, it is counterproductive to offer self-service without investing the effort and resources necessary to deliver a satisfying application.

What’s wrong with self-service applications?

The biggest problem with sub-par and annoying self-service applications is that no one took the time to ask customers what features and functionality they wanted. Enterprises continue to make the classic mistake of offering capabilities that the company wants to see automated. There are also too many poorly designed IVRs and Web self-service sites built by programmers who may be technical geniuses, but lack any understanding of visual or verbal user interfaces.

Customers avoid self-service environments that are challenging to use and lack timely and effective user feedback. Sophisticated Web self-service users do not have a lot of patience. Users want to get in quickly, find the information they need, possibly do a transaction, and get out. If the system fails at any point during this process, most users who are not captive will simply find a better site. Alternatively, if they are captive, as in a banking situation, the customer will call the bank’s 800 number and grumpily demand the information from an innocent agent.

IVRs are another story. There is no excuse for a poorly designed touch-tone application. The expertise needed to build effective IVR scripts is readily available, although it is more expensive than simply hiring a programmer. Another pet peeve among IVR users is voice quality. There are lovely accent-neutral voices available for a modest fee. There is no excuse for forcing callers to deal with heavy regional accents; that’s an easy way to annoy customers. Even worse is forcing callers to sit through a lengthy and complicated list of options, none of which addresses their specific issue or allows them to request a live agent.

Speech-enabled self-service applications give enterprises new ways to challenge their customers. When speech-enabled IVRs are well-designed, they allow customers to rapidly address their inquiries and provide a positive branding experience. When poorly implemented, they require private information to be spoken in public and force users to pronounce their requests clearly and repeatedly. As with IVRs, there are speech recognition voice user interface experts who can help create a delightful customer experience, but it will cost some money to do it right.

The business case for self service

Companies that do not invest in their self-service environments are missing a great opportunity to reduce operating expenses and provide a satisfying and branded customer experience. Additionally, with Generation Y entering the workforce, Web-based self-service is a requirement, as it is their preferred channel for doing business. These folks believe that “speaking” is done with the fingers on a keyboard.

From a cost perspective, the numbers are compelling. Assuming that it costs between $3.00 and $5.00 for a typical service call (and much more for a technical support conversation) versus less than $0.20 per IVR transaction and even less for a Web self-service session, forcing customers to the more expensive channels is a costly mistake.

Final thoughts

The facts speak for themselves, but too many companies aren’t listening to their customers or analyzing their numbers. So, I’ll make it clear — if your company invests in a flexible, feature-rich and easy-to-use self-service application, an increasing percentage of your customers will elect to help themselves and you will save money.

Customers who find outstanding IVRs (touch-tone or speech-enabled) or e-service applications are invited to send the company name, phone number or URL and a short paragraph describing why they think this is an excellent self-service environment to We’ll check out these self-service environments and publish the names of the best on our Web site at If you have questions, call Debbie Navarra of DMG Consulting at 515-628-1098.

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