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When customer self-service is just dropping the ball

Customer self-service is a low-cost way to emancipate customers from phone-queue purgatory. But it's only part of a broader customer service strategy.

Denis PombriantDenis Pombriant

For some time, customer self-service has been a darling of service plans, and it has many things going for it. Self-service gets customers out of the purgatory of the phone queue and enables them to find solutions to problems faster, which frequently leads to better endings and happier customers. It also gives customers a chance to interact and build bonds, which indirectly benefits the business too.

So what's not to like? Nothing actually, if customer self-serviceis used with discretion and moderation as well as an understanding that it is not a cure to every customer-related problem.

Customer self-service doesn't fix every problem

Implicit in the customer self-service paradigm is the idea that customers can accurately diagnose an issue. But if the diagnosis is erroneous, it can make finding a solution more frustrating than sitting in a phone queue. In addition, some customer issues need the input and guidance of a professional. Consider a billing or account issue, for example.

In many service interactions, the tacit assumption is that the issue can be handled in a one-and-done, transaction-oriented fashion, but this may be wildly optimistic. In many cases, a customer issue isn't simple; it may involve many steps performed by multiple people. Handling this multi-step process with a transactional approach can create many unhappy customer outcomes.

Implicit in the customer self-service paradigm is the idea that customers can accurately diagnose an issue.

The difference between process and transactions isn't simple semantics -- or it shouldn't be. If it were, you might say that a process is just a set of linked transactions. While some argue this view, consider this.

Suppose you have a series of linked transactions that have five "moments of truth," or times when you have to nail the result for a customer. And suppose you are successful 90% of the time. The not-so-good news is that your linked transaction "process" is only 59% effective. You can do the math: it's .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 = .59.

The path to customer service mediocrity or greatness?

Congratulations, you are well on your way to mediocrity -- and you thought you were doing so well! Don't assume your customers don't understand this. They might not do the math but their instinct does a good job on its own. If you have trouble commanding a premium price for your products or services, poor customer service might be a contributing factor.

Things don't get better if you try to reduce your error rate, because simple math says that multiplying one number that's less than one by another will give you a smaller number. You can try to reduce your failure rate, say, from 90% success to 95%, but that approach still leads to mediocrity, though the rate of decline may slow.

What's needed is a real service process. Customer self-service can be part of an overall customer service offering. But it's only one component in an overall customer service strategy -- or a customer service process.

The difference between a series of linked transactions and a process is easy to spot. At every step in a process, there is an opportunity to step outside of the flow if it the process doesn't provide the needed result. Where a transaction-based interaction might dump a customer once it is "finished," a process contains if-then-else logic -- or, better yet, workflow -- that identifies unsuccessful transactions and routes them into another automated process or to a human being capable of making decisions and applying an appropriate fix.

As it turns out, that's the power of a self-service system. When used properly, it's not a full replacement for human mediated service, but it is a way of filtering out the easy-to-handle issues so that support staff is less harried in devising solutions for things a machine can't process alone. This all comes back to the mantra we usually hear around well-run businesses: people, process and technology.

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