What Is Your Self-Service Strategy?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

What is your self-service strategy? Is it in-place and fully functional? Perhaps it’s moving forward, slowly but surely. Conversely, you may still be contemplating what your self-service offerings should be – if any at all.

If you do make self-service available to your callers, is it used much? How is it perceived? Has it proven to be a time-saver and relationship enhancer, or is it merely the lesser of several unacceptable means to solve problems or procure information?

The idea of self-service has existed in many industries for years and, in some cases, even decades. This includes self-serve gas pumps, checking your own groceries, buying airline tickets online, and banking.

First, let’s consider gas stations. In the olden days, there were no self-service gas stations. By accepted practice, gas stations were all full-service. In fact, they were called service stations, because service was what they were all about. These service stations usually had a mechanic on duty. Often you and the attendant (which might be the mechanic) were on a first name basis. As he filled your tank, he would wash your front window and often the back. Next, he would offer to check your oil. (Unless it had just been changed or recently checked – which he remembered.)  He would also glance at your tires, and if one appeared low, he would whip out a tire gauge to check the pressure, putting in more air if it was warranted. He would also offer recommendations based on other observations, such as, “Looks like you’re ready for new front tires,” “That muffler doesn’t sound too good,” or “We better have a look at those brakes soon.” Yes, this was a full-service operation, deftly suggesting up-sells (“Do you want to try Premium today”) and cross-sell opportunities (“When do you want your oil changed”) – though that wasn’t what it was called; it was just good customer service. In today’s self-service world, we are on our own to keep our car in good operating condition, only seeing a mechanic when something is wrong.

Eventually, stations began offering “self-service” pumps. To entice the public to pump their fuel, the self-serve gas was priced lower. Most people weren’t too interested, at least not until the price of gas jumped. Still, some people insisted they would never fill their own tanks, but eventually they were forced to do so as full-service pumps became scarce. The truth is that most people didn’t want self-serve, but reluctantly did so when it became the only option. Today, self-serve gas pumps are expected, but that was a forced transition because they became the only option.

Then there is the grocery store. I’ll admit that I don’t often find myself there – and when I do, it’s only to buy a couple of things.  I gravitate towards the self-checkout. For a few items, it can be faster – providing that everything works correctly. Self-checkout can also be irritating, repeatedly barking out annoying instructions and getting obstinate if it thinks you did something wrong. Given a choice between a waiting cashier (think of a call center with no queue) and self-service, I will always opt for a person. I find it to be faster and less frustrating. I can’t imagine doing a full cart via self-checkout. However, when the cashier lines are long, I gladly duck into the self-checkout and hope for the best. In this case, self-service wins out when full-service lines (that is, queues) are too long. It’s not that it’s preferred, but merely the least objectionable.

Nowadays, it seems that everyone books their airline tickets online. It certainly doesn’t save me time, but it does afford the opportunity to check every conceivable option, allowing me to find the ideal balance between cost and convenience. Maybe I scrutinize my options too closely, but I would gladly spend time researching flights, connections, and airports if it will save me from a long layover, an extra night in a hotel, or money. Still, the days of calling a travel agent, giving her my travel itinerary in a few seconds, and having tickets arrive the next day provide an appealing invitation to return to full-service.

The banking industry is full of choices. For transactions warranting full-service, I can go to the nearest branch or phone their call center. For self-serve, I can use an ATM, bank-by-phone (using an IVR system), or access my account via the Internet. The option I select is a result of what I need to accomplish, with a focus on speed and convenience. It’s nice to have options: self-service for some things, full-service for others.

The dot-com boom in the late 1990s brought the prospect of self-service to an unwise conclusion. In simplistic terms, their generic business plan was that they would create a scalable website, which could be quickly ramped up as demand for their product or service grew. They presumed that customer service would not be an issue as they would offer self-service options that were likewise scalable. There would be no massive call centers to build and no agents to hire. Basically, there would be no people to help their customers; computers would do all that via the Internet. It didn’t work. The few dot-coms that survived did so because they realized that they needed to offer more than just self-service.

Even with this history and varying degrees of success, it doesn’t imply that self-service is the way to go. Call centers have the potential to far surpass the generally mediocre service level of self-service. Yes, there are times when self-service is the answer; there are also many times when it is not. When properly implemented (that is, user-friendly, accessible, and reliable), people will opt for self-service only if it can increase timeliness, save money, be more effective, or is more available. If it can’t do at least one of these things, people will only do self-service if they have to – complaining about it all the while. In reality, most people don’t really prefer self-service. What they want is full-service that is friendly, accessible, and reliable.

Self-service is generally not selected because it is the superior option, but because it is the least objectionable option. So what is the ideal solution? Often it’s a call center. Think about it; who would prefer to spend an hour on the Internet, scrolling through FAQs or waiting for an automated response to an email query, if they could just pick up the phone and quickly get a response? Of course, this means the call center must be done right. What does that look like? Ideally this would include:

  • Calls answered quickly by a person
  • No busy signals
  • First-call resolution
  • No transfer
  • No queue or short queue (or a creative, entertaining on-hold program with accurate traffic updates)
  • Trained, knowledgeable, personable, and polite agents
  • Correct and accurate information given
  • A consistent experience

With that, why would anyone want self-service? Why would they ever switch providers? When done correctly, a call center will beat self-service all of the time.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the February/March 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]