Make Your Customers Happy AND Cut Costs with Self-Service 2.0

Most of the time, increasing customer satisfaction also means increasing costs: adding product features, providing off-hours support, extending warranty periods, etc.. So, it’s surprising that when an opportunity comes along to both delight customers and save money, many enterprises fail to jump on it.

Yet that’s exactly the case with self-service 2.0 (which is distinguished from self-service 1.0 by being action-focused rather than knowledge-focused). In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You, Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff report several provocative findings from research on customer service preferences, among them:

  • “Companies tend to think their customers value live service more than twice as much as they value self service. But our data show that customers today…value self-service just as much as using the phone.”
  • Furthermore, “this indifference holds regardless of (customers’) age, demographic, issue type, or urgency.”
  • Two-thirds of the customers…told us that three to five years ago, they primarily used the phone for service interactions. Today, less than a third do, and the number is shrinking fast.”
  • While time is a factor, the efficiency of using an ATM or airport kiosk vs. interacting with a live employee alone doesn’t explain “why we go out of our way to take care of our service needs ourselves.”

In attempting to interpret these findings, the authors hypothesize that “maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies…(and) self service now allows customers the ‘out’ they’ve been looking for all along,” which, if accurate, leads to the startling conclusion that “Running your company as if customers want to talk to you isn’t just expensive, it’s potentially undermining your efforts to build longer-term loyalty.”

Avoid customer frustration: use self-service 2.0
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What may be most surprising about the post is that it was written in 2010. Yet if you’ve tried to resolve a customer service issue recently on any number of corporate sites, you’ll realize how little has changed.

The issue in 2014 isn’t that companies (by and large) don’t offer online self-service, but that many still don’t do it well. In a final finding, the HBR authors note that “a staggering 57% of inbound calls (to customer service centers) come from customers who first attempted to resolve their issue on the company’s website. And over 30% of callers are on the company’s website at the same time that they are talking to a rep on the phone. That’s a lot of frustrated customers.”

Business-to-consumer (B2C) sites are (generally) mature in ecommerce, and making strides in other aspects of online customer service. Their business-to-business (B2B) counterparts are now catching up: according to MarketingCharts,  “B2B commerce is shifting offline to online and self-service, say 57% of B2B vendors from the US and Europe,” with 44% of respondents “also agreeing that B2B commerce is adopting B2C best practices in order to optimize the purchasing experience.”

However, “The most commonly-cited challenge in B2B commerce is providing intuitive and user-friendly interfaces for multiple touch points, cited by half of the respondents.” The challenge in optimizing the user experience and ease of use for customers explains why the HBR findings regarding the high percentage of customers frustrated with online self-service offerings remain relevant.

Fixing these problems is vital. As Forrester Research states in their January 2014 report, Transform Customer Processes And Systems To Improve Experiences, in what they term the age of the customer: ” Competitive differentiation achieved through brand, manufacturing, distribution, and IT is now only table stakes. A major source of competitive advantage is the one that can survive technology-fueled disruption —an obsession with understanding, delighting, connecting with, and serving customers.”

And obviously, firms that can reduce costs while also achieving these objectives will be at an even greater competitive advantage.

Consequently, Forrester lists among its top customer management trends for 2013 (with our comments in parentheses):

  • “Brands are turning their attention to CX (customer experience) design: More firms will realize that the right customer interactions across all touchpoints don’t just happen; they must be actively designed.”
  • “Untamed processes are getting more attention: More firms will move away from isolated BPM and/or front-office CRM projects and toward cross-functional transformation initiatives to support the invisible, untamed customer management processes critical to exceptional CX.” (This is why an enterprise request management (ERM) approach is valuable; it entails  automating and optimizing cross-functional processes, designing process steps to address the “white spaces” between functional groups where these “invisible, untamed” processes dwell.)
  • “Agile implementation approaches are scaling to the enterprise level: More firms will adopt agile project management” (as well as agile request management) “and software development methodologies based on iterative development principles…”
  • “Mobile applications are empowering employees and consumers.” (Agile service management is again also key to supporting a mobile workforce and mobile consumers.)

Tracking service-related metrics with Kinetic InfoForrester further recommends identifying and tracking specific service-related metrics (such as “the number of customer support cases closed per day, the number of calls handled per agent, the service-level agreement (SLA) compliance rate”); setting process designs  before applying technology; and overcoming adoption issues  by letting business users influence functionality.

Which leaves only the final question of how to improve the online experience for customers; how can organizations best simplify UIs to eliminate the need for customer calls, thus simultaneously increasing customer satisfaction and reducing customer service costs?

One approach is “rip and replace,” discarding existing customer service systems in favor of newer installed or cloud-based offerings. While this approach may seem to offer long-term advantages in terms of a more modern IT infrastructure, it’s expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive; and unless it can completely replace existing systems, it can actually make an organization’s technology environment more complex, and increase the risk of redundant and potentially mismatched data elements.

A better strategy is what Forrester covers in its July 2013 report, Prepare Your Infrastructure And Operations For 2020 With Tools And Technologies, of adding modern systems of engagement atop legacy systems of record (established, in-place management and control systems). This is the approach taken in ERM; leverage existing enterprise and department applications in which you’ve already invested money, time, and training—then add new technology only as needed (e.g., request management portal software, workflow automation, EAI, etc/).

The good news for organizations embracing the challenge of redesigning processes and customer service UIs to simplify the user experience is that doing so not only reduces service costs, but also increases customer satisfaction and loyalty. The even better news is that taking an ERM approach can reduce the time, effort, and expense of conquering that challenge.

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