From paying utility bills to checking your holiday itinerary, automated systems that let consumers ‘self-serve’ have become an omnipresent part of modern life. Self-service has been gaining ground for years, offering a “do-it-yourself” customer service model that continues to gain popularity. Yet current solutions still leave much to be desired. The reality is that these systems cut contact centre costs and reduce queuing times, but at what cost to the consumer, and the wider business?
The business case
Self-service has been traditionally viewed as a cost-saving measure – it’s cheaper to complete a task in an automated system than with a live agent - but get it wrong and the benefits are easily outweighed by negative impacts on average handling time, customer retention and spend. On the other hand, great automation can improve customer service, make best use of your agents, enhance the brand and provide crucial insight into your customers. Some of these benefits are difficult to quantify, so often they won’t be credited to the business case, but even the basic cost savings are typically enough to justify the investment, which means self service can be seen as a self-funding tool to support broader business and customer service initiatives.
Self-service allows companies to optimise the impact of their contact centre spend by providing a smart, seamless mix of self-service and agent service. As a result you can deliver a higher level of service overall for the same investment and you can even target spend on those customer segments that offer the greatest return.
The cost savings can be significant. Typical ‘containment rates’ (the proportion of calls that are completed in automation vs. those that transfer to an agent) are between 40% and 60% but can reach 90%. Even if there’s an existing IVR in place, it’s often possible to reduce the volume of calls going to the contact centre by a further 15-20% or more.
It’s important to recognise that the business case is delivered over time, not in one day. That means that what happens after the system goes live is critically important. If business processes or customer needs change, self-service needs to respond. Even small changes over time can cause performance to deteriorate, which can easily undermine the benefits.
There are two main components to self-service. The first is navigation, or routing, which helps customers get to the right place. The second is automation, allowing customers to complete certain tasks without interacting with an agent.
Well-designed routing quickly identifies why a customer is making contact and takes them to the right automated service or live agent as quickly as possible. If it’s a live agent they need, it ensures they get someone who’s specifically trained to handle the query, or maybe the same agent that helped the customer before. It will also make sure the agent has all the information they need to address the reason for the customer’s call – by screen popping appropriate information such as the customer details, reason for call, the fact they just tried to pay a bill online etc.
If the customer can be served in automation, then the key is to design the interaction around the customer’s expectations – so it feels effortless. If there are problems, it’s essential that they get straight to an agent who can help. In these situations, even more than with routing, it’s essential that the agent has all the information that’s been gathered so far, so the customer doesn’t feel like they’ve wasted their time.
At the end of the day when customers contact an organisation they want to access the information or service they need, quickly and easily, without having to repeat the same information several times. When intelligently designed around the customer’s needs, automated systems do actually speed up and simplify the contact process and I believe that most people would be happy to use them. Unfortunately too often poor execution means this is not the case. Ironically it’s often the customer that gets forgotten when customer service functions are designed, with organisations focusing on how such systems meet their needs rather than those of their customers.
Getting it right
People often say that they hate automated systems. What they generally mean is that they hate automated systems that don’t work for them. We use ATM cash machines to withdraw money because they are convenient; chip and PIN because it’s secure; and online banking because it’s convenient and secure. These are all examples of automation, but the difference between these examples, and typical customer service challenges, is that these systems are simple, well designed and targeted at fairly discreet tasks: to get some cash, pay for an item, transfer money between accounts.
Of course there will be times where customer service will be complex and more difficult to resolve. This is where great self-service routing and automation can become a strategic differentiator. It has the potential to bring together disparate systems and processes, and use insights from customer data to re-cast the internal working of an organisation in a way that makes sense to customers and provides personalised and efficient customer services. Systems like that don’t come about by accident. They are the result of (user centred) design, rely on specialist tools, technology and implementation, and need continuous monitoring and improvement.