For centuries, consumers have had a love/hate relationship with self-service. From the first coin-operating vending machines of the 1880s (which sold postcards) to ATMs, Internet shopping and Uber, people have prized the convenience, speed and simplicity of interacting with machines instead of troublesome humans. Businesses have benefitted by lowering costs, streamlining operations and enhancing customer satisfaction. According to one Zendesk survey, 67 percent of people prefer self-service over talking with a support agent, and 91 percent would rather use an online knowledge base if meets their needs.
The Robot Runaround
On the other hand, if you’ve ever been given the eternal runaround by an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system that can’t answer your questions, you’re well aware of the downside to self-service. And you’re not alone.
A Nuance poll reported that 58 percent of consumers couldn’t resolve their issues through a self-service option. And when shoppers don’t get quick service, many will abandon their carts, especially virtual carts. In a Forrester study, 53 percent of respondents said they walk away from online purchases when they can’t find quick answers to their questions.
The lesson: while most companies should continue pursuing automated self-service solutions, good customer service shouldn’t suffer as a result. There are still occasions in which the expertise and “human touch” provided by live reps are needed to keep customers happy and eager to buy.
A Middle Path
Organizations need to chart a middle path between software-driven and people-driven CS offerings. As intelligent as AI software has become, there are still situations that don’t lend themselves to self-service.
In auto claims, for example, minor niche type accidents can be handled with mobile self-service apps, which let policyholders act as their own claims field representatives by submitting photos of the damage. However, more severe accidents almost always require a higher level of experience and knowledge. In these cases, having customers do it themselves is an RFT – Request for Trouble. The average driver simply doesn’t have the skills to accurately document and identify damage, especially when injuries, hidden damage or more technologically complex vehicles are involved.
The key to balancing self-service with quality customer service is to ensure that both systems support one overarching goal – increasing the satisfaction of customers without putting them in a position they aren't able or qualified to handle.
Strive for a Hybrid
Without question, businesses and governments should automate those things that lend themselves to automation – e.g., FAQs, directing customers to the right departments, etc. Automated CS should be one option for enhancing the shopping experience. It should be one solution that some customers can choose, but not the only choice.
An organization that eliminates every option but the automated ones can suffer more than lost sales. It can prompt some people to become extremely offended, spreading negative word of mouth about the company across an array of social media outlets.
Yes, automated CS can increase satisfaction – among some people – and it’s vital that businesses determine who those people are. Because tech-based solutions aren’t right for everyone, companies would be wise to let consumers interact with human beings some of the time. Ultimately, customers will reward companies that are perceived as genuinely committed to customer service, not those that are seen as trying to get the job done “on the cheap.”
Not every CS problem can be solved with an app. Technology is merely one tool in the box. Creating a great customer service program requires a balanced hybrid approach – one that seamlessly integrates Artificial Intelligence with old-fashioned intelligence and caring.
Ernie Bray is a high-energy, award-winning American entrepreneur, CEO, author and podcast host. Bray is a respected advisor in driving strategic impact in the areas of process improvement, strategy, management, social media, marketing and innovation.