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Hidden Cost of Self-Service

by Paul Hudson
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Exploding the myths of self-service

The gospel of self-service is widely preached by organisations who hail it as a ‘win-win’ proposition which will simultaneously generate cost savings for the business and improve customer satisfaction.

However, self-service has a hidden cost. Intersperience, the international consumer research specialist, warns that organisations which force customers down self-service routes and scrimp on customer support could see a negative impact on their bottom line as alienated customers defect.

Research from Intersperience highlights critical differences between the way organisations regard their customer service responsibilities and the service expectations which customers have of organisations.

The gap between the two is considerable and greater deployment of self-service options without careful consideration risks turning it into a chasm.

An analysis of words associated with ‘self-service’ and ‘customer service’ illuminates seemingly subtle but fundamental differences between the two concepts.

Self-service is associated with several positive factors, chiefly speed and convenience, while customer service is firmly associated with softer (but vital) elements such as support, care and personalisation.. Self-service is also regarded as less accountable than personalised customer service and less likely to result in a satisfactory experience.

Yet, organisations continue to invest heavily in self-service systems, deploying a plethora of technologies to equip customers with the means to serve themselves. These include automated call options where customers select a number depending on the nature of their enquiry; voice recognition systems; email responses; and web forms for delivering feedback or lodging complaints.

The prime attraction of self-service solutions is a perception that they will reduce or even replace the need for customer service staff, cutting running costs. There is often a concomitant expectation that customer satisfaction will automatically rise as a result of such investment.

However, this is a far from foregone conclusion, in fact it is unlikely for one fundamental reason: self-service is simply not the same thing as customer service.

An accelerated drive towards online self-service in particular stems partly from economic considerations. However, the broader context is that rising internet penetration and usage has led to assumptions that this will drive demand for more automated self-service and simultaneously reduce the need for customer support.

Issues of web access and literacy aside, it is true that more people are using the internet in different ways, but they still require high standards of customer support and a choice of channels when it comes to accessing help.

For example, more supermarkets are using self-service tills to help with queue-busting, but they still need staff on hand to help customers who struggle with their systems.

Organisations which make significant investments in self-service systems without determining to what extent customers are willing or able to use them, may make costly mistakes.

Channel choice is just one aspect of self-service. Customers have come to expect a choice of channels and see it as an organisation’s duty to provide this – however they do not wish to be dictated to on this point.

Essentially, customers see themselves as ‘channel neutral’, opting for whichever channel they feel comfortable with or is most convenient or relevant to their needs at the time. Consequently, organisations which adopt a prescriptive approach to self-service channels do so at their peril.

The crux of the matter is that customers still need tailored support, especially with more complex problems. Customers naturally expect a high standard of support, help and advice when they engage with an organisation. It is an implicit assumption and at the heart of any world-class customer service strategy.

Self-service facilities cannot deliver this for the simple reason that they are not designed to do so. They should be regarded as supplementary to customer service rather than a substitute. Support is the real hidden cost of self-service.

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