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Self-Service Goes Mainstream
Make sure your self-service is providing the right service.
Posted Feb 23, 2009
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Self-service has become a part of our everyday lives, from the airport to the gas station; it affects how we research and purchase products, and even how we share information online. As a customer service tool, there is a lot to like, especially if you can provide more convenient service to your customers and employees while lowering the cost of each interaction.

Success stories are widespread. Across every industry, we have seen tremendous value for both users and business when self-service is properly presented and delivered in a usable fashion. One large regional bank was able to redeploy 50 percent of its contact center staff due to a self-service help desk initiative. In another case, a leading airline reduced its customer email volume by over 60 percent via an online self-service "assistant."

Most of us don't give a second thought to using our credit card online or swiping it at a kiosk as part of the transaction. It's become as familiar as picking up the phone. Yet, while self-service goes mainstream, many organizations still struggle with the right role for self-service in their portfolio of support offerings. And while Internet use, broadband access, and even the deployment of kiosks continues to expand, a recent study shows that overall, self-service adoption is actually reaching a plateau at around 40 percent of all customer interactions.

Why has self-service adoption leveled off? Simply put, it is not for everyone; there are still some technological hurdles, and-this is key-self-service doesn't always result in better service. Some consumers just simply want to speak with a live person, and some transactions, like purchasing a car or selecting the right health insurance policy, are just more naturally conducted face-to-face.

Like any technology lifecycle, once you reach a certain level of maturity and adoption in an industry or market, growth flattens out and the focus shifts from new deployments to maximizing the benefits of existing systems and addressing new features and reliability that a mainstream market demands.

Revisiting the right role for self-service

Early self-service applications like vending machines (or Web portals) were about both reach and efficiency. They provided convenience and lowered the cost of a transaction or interaction. However, along the way, too many organizations started viewing self-service as only a lower-cost channel. Cost savings is typically a key benefit of self-service, but must be coupled with other goals like creating a better user experience, improving satisfaction, or gaining greater insight into customer needs.

In addition, self-service options must offer at least as good an experience if not a better one than alternatives and offer a payoff for both initial and continued use. Banks recognized this when they promoted the convenience of using an ATM any time of day versus visiting a branch location during banking hours. And consumers are happily choosing check-in kiosks at hotels and airports when they glance over at the alternative: a long wait in a queue in front of the service desk.

Self-service also drives and requires change. Beyond choosing a technology foundation and picking the right performance metrics, driving adoption remains a key challenge in many cases. Promotional campaigns and specific incentives-for both end-user adoption and to drive experts to contribute content or reviews or recommendations-are key starting points. Organizations also need to tap into the power of communities and realize that the best way to drive self-help may in fact be encouraging and enabling users to help each other.

Are you ready?

Even when self-service works extremely well, not all customers will want to use it-or will be able to complete all of their tasks online. And for almost all businesses, each new interaction channel typically is additive to the mix rather than being a substitute. For example, the Web has not replaced the phone, and chat is increasingly a "bridge" between the phone, email, and even self-service.

At the same time, even in the best situations, users will need special assistance at some point in their interactions. Despite advances in user interfaces and the potential of next-generation artificial intelligence and business process management (BPM) approaches, this means providing live help via a nearby associate or, if online, via chat or a call-me button, or simply making contact information easy to find.

Regardless of your industry, there is proven value in offering self-service. But be aware that success rates will vary, and what might be seen as a low adoption rate in one sector may in fact be best-in-class in another. Self-service must also be viewed as part of an overall multi-channel strategy, with specific roles, relationships, and interaction processes defined for each channel.

In some cases cultural and technological hurdles remain, but as the market matures, there are more opportunities than ever before. If you truly listen to your customers, remain pragmatic about what technology can and can't do, and focus on the overall experience you deliver, you'll be ready to move beyond early adopters and leverage the full potential of self-service with a much larger segment of your customers.

About the Author

Allen Bonde is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at eVergance, an independent subsidiary of Kana Software that delivers strategic consulting and systems integration services. He has nearly 20 years of management, consulting and corporate R&D experience at McKinsey, Extraprise, and the Yankee Group, and is a frequent commentator on customer service best practices and market trends.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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