Top Menu

Self Service: Are You Doing What is Right for Your Customers? 

Self Service: Are You Doing What is Right for Your Customers?

Self Service: Are You Doing What is Right for Your Customers?

By Donna Fluss

  Printer Friendly Format       View this document on the publisher’s website.

Investments in self-service applications have skyrocketed during the past two years, as companies large and small are building or enhancing self-service solutions. More than one company has called me to ask for assistance in building a zero-footprint call center. This is an interesting concept Ð a customer service environment without any live agents to help customers.

Four enterprise-centric trends are driving companies to invest in self-service automation, either to eliminate or minimize the need to employ live agents to assist their customers. These trends are:

  1. The need to reduce call center operating expenses in order to improve the companyÕs margins and bottom line
  2. The desire to automate as many servicing tasks as possible prior to moving call center activities offshore
  3. Self-service applications that are reaching their end-of-life and are in need of replacement; in some situations it is less expensive to replace a solution than to continue to maintain an old platform
  4. The current generation of self-service Web and voice portal technologies and solutions that are able to deliver high-value applications not previously available

Five additional call center departmental trends are pushing even the most quality-conscious managers to consider using self-service to eliminate or dramatically reduce their need for live agents. These trends include:

  1. The ongoing agent attrition problem
  2. The challenge of finding qualified agents
  3. Increasing cost of agents
  4. Poor service quality and bad public relations associated with offshore outsourcers
  5. Increasing gas prices, which are exacerbating many agent-related issues

While all of these enterprise and call center-centric issues need to be addressed, there are offsetting factors and situations that require executives and call center managers to provide some live agent support. At the highest level, a customer-centric organization must use service as a strategic differentiator throughout the customer life cycle. Live agents with appropriate skills are uniquely capable of leveraging a service call to sell more products, retain customers and build loyalty.

Enterprises must find the right balance between live service and self-service automation. Unfortunately, many companies are repeating an industry-wide mistake from back in the early 1980s, when interactive voice response (IVR) systems were first introduced. At that time, many managers believed that if customers were forced into an IVR, they would readily use it. These companies neglected to ask their customers what they would like to do in the IVR and, even worse, didnÕt allow them to choose how they wanted to be served. Instead, they channeled all customers into the IVR and all too frequently, did not give them a way out. This led to a lot of very unhappy customers and, consequently, lost business.

The industry should have learned its lesson about forcing customers to use self-service applications, but current financial pressure to reduce call center and general customer service expenses is leading too many companies to make this same mistake again.  Fortunately, customers now have recourse. Unless they are captive to the provider (which happens when there is a monopoly, such as utility companies), customers can defect to another company. But now they can also make sure that other customers are aware of the poor service the company is providing. Using a variety of community forums, such as bulletin boards, blogs, complaint sites (i.e.,, Aircomplane,, MSNÕs Consumer Action Forum, and many other social networking tools (i.e., Yahoo! Answers, Facebook, MySpace, Ning, Epinions), they can share their experiences with other consumers. Companies like Dell, Sprint, Comcast and AOL, that didnÕt take notice and failed to listen to their customers, ended up in an industry Òhall of shame,Ó where their poor service is widely publicized on the Web and often ends up in news reports.

Finding the Right Balance between Self-Service and Live Agent Support

The new generation of self-service applications for the Web and IVR are excellent. Many of these tools are easy to use and enable enterprises to build systems to address a wide variety of customer issues, whether informational or transactional. (These solutions are being offered on either a licensed, hosted or managed service basis.) Web self-service environments can automate most activities, from basic informational questions to the processing of sophisticated orders that previously required the assistance of agents. In most cases, the only limiting factor is security, and even that can be addressed today.

IVRs are a different situation. While speech-enabled IVRs are much friendlier than touch-tone-based systems, they do not have the cognitive capabilities of live agents. Activities that do not require decision-making Ð balance inquiries, order status requests, changes of address, credit requests, initiating trouble tickets, password resets, etc. Ð can be easily handled on an IVR. (Again, the security issue must be addressed.) However, there are functions and situations that require the assistance of a person, such as when the wrong dollar amount is taken out of a personÕs account, or there is a misunderstanding involving a number of departments in a company. There are situations when customers want the reassurance of speaking to an agent, as often happens when a complicated order or fraud report is involved.

At times, enterprises benefit from having a live agent handle a call instead of a self-service application, even if it costs more. These are instances where an agent could convert the call from an expensive customer service transaction into a profitable incremental sale. Or, convince a customer who is about to close their account to remain with the company. Enterprises should use analytical solutions to critique all calls and identify inquiry types that are most likely to be highly profitable sales or retention opportunities. These calls should be made available to live agents, if possible. (Keep in mind that some callers really prefer self-service and would be angry if they initiated a self-service transaction and were sent to a live agent instead.)

Blame the Company for Bad Customer Service

We all hear about bad customer service experiences, an increasing number of which involve poorly implemented self-service solutions, particularly IVRs. In the majority of situations today, the technology is not at fault. The underlying voice portal solutions used to power these environments are excellent and flexible. Unfortunately, however, they are too frequently used for transactions that should not be put on an IVR, or the automated systems are poorly scripted and seemingly designed to frustrate customers. Enterprise management is clearly to blame for poor self-service solutions and customers should do everything they can to make their opinions known, as this is likely to be one of the only ways to get these problems fixed. Consider the Dell situation Ð the backlash against their poor service was so strong that it hurt their bottom line and Michael Dell returned to manage the company. Companies that lose site of their customersÕ servicing needs are placing too much emphasis on short-term cost reductions, while sacrificing the long-term value of their customer relationships.

It is absolutely more expensive to have a live agent handle a call than an IVR, easily 200% to 300% more expensive Ð typically $0.25 or less for an IVR interaction versus $5 to $7 for a call. However, in most situations, it is much more costly for a company to lose a customer than to use a live agent to respond to inquiries that require the human touch.

Determining What to Automate via Self-Service

An increasing number of companies are using speech-enabled IVRs inappropriately in an attempt to reduce their servicing costs. This includes any self-service program that makes it difficult for a customer to exit an IVR to speak to an agent. Fortunately, however, there are quite a few best practices for identifying appropriate uses for automation in self-service applications. The next article in this series will lay out a comprehensive framework for identifying the right transactions to automate.

, , ,