The Self-Service Delusion

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Why is everyone so convinced that customers are delighted to serve themselves? There are ways to justify why they might like it, and why it is in the interest of any company to have customers who like it.


But it is not so clear that they actually do. Instead, it appears the customer service industry has fallen into the trap of believing its own wishes and then putting tools and practices into place in hopes that those wishes come true.


Here are the premises on which this possibly flawed assumption is based:


o Self-service is cheaper to provide than agent service. A lot of evidence supports this contention. And it seems self-evident that a person who finds an answer through a Web interaction will not rack up the kind of costs associated with a long phone call. The consensus is that on a per-interaction basis, nothing costs as much as agent phone service. Every other option, from e-mail to Web to chat, costs less.


How much less is a matter of conjecture, however. Most alternatives to the phone also involve agents; it's just that those agents are handling data rather than calls, and are supposedly handling more of them per hour than phone representatives are handling. When you add the massive costs of the new technology infrastructure to the ongoing cost of agents, you probably don't come out that much better. All you have done is add another channel of access, another layer of management over the new technologies (because you will never get rid of the phone component) and back-end integration to your list of headaches. Worth it? Maybe. But a significant cost savings? Hardly.


Even so, most of these alternatives don't even qualify as self-service. They are different, allegedly cheaper ways of reaching repped service - call them "service lite."


o All these interactions are supposedly made more efficient because when a person finally does reach an agent, he has spent time gaining information from the automated systems and, therefore, the call is shorter, more to the point and ultimately better. That's a great theory. Does it work in practice? No. My anecdotal experience - and it has to be anecdotal, because no major study has shone light on this area - is that people who work their way through an automated system and then still have to talk to an agent are more irritated, not happier. If they are better informed, it's about how badly they are being treated, and how little the company really cares for their business.


The New York Times recently reported on a study called the American Customer Satisfaction Index, produced by a partnership among the University of Michigan Business School, the American Society for Quality, Milwaukee, and the CFI Group, Ann Arbor, MI. Since 1994, this measure of customer satisfaction has dropped in nearly every industry sector, and it has been blamed on the increased use of technology.


There you have the key disconnect between companies (and the vendors that supply them) and customers. It's a pitiful lie to say you are installing an interactive voice response system in order to make people's interactions with you better. The truth is that you are doing it so you don't waste agents' time with repetitive, stupid questions that cost you money to process. That's not a pretty truth, but it is a truth. Telling the customer that it is for his benefit is a piece of spin that few believe; the ones who don't believe it come to think of you as distant and uncaring.


o Customer relationship management bridges the gap between company and customer by enhancing the agent's responses at the moment of interaction. This is so untrue that people in the real world (i.e., customers) would laugh themselves silly if they understood what was really going on behind the curtain. First, the real goal of CRM is to coordinate data behind the scenes. It is a way to get different departments with different sets of data to push all their information into one big pile, and then analyze it so you can have more efficient customer interactions. Efficient: cheaper, shorter and producing more revenue per customer.


It also is designed to provide a way to analyze the tracks of interactions that come in through different channels so a single customer can be seen wholly, no matter what he is doing with your company.


These are good goals, from the organization's point of view. But they are not making a better interaction from the customer's point of view. One chief use of these tools - by one of the largest adopting sectors, financial services - is creating scores that rank customers based on their value to the company. When you do that, you can target to customers the kind of service they deserve: People who spend more money get shorter hold times; people who spend less wait longer. That's what CRM is about.


So what's going on here? The call center industry has become enamored of technologies that act as a bandage on structural problems. People ignore issues of training and morale, creating a work force that is transient, lightly trained and rarely empowered to address customer needs.


Technology does not demand higher pay, better working conditions, a promotion to a more interesting job or more training. Technology does not ask impertinent questions, as customers do. What people also forget is that the call center industry comprises thousands of people who are themselves customers, both in the real world and in buying tools for their centers. Here is an unpleasant truth: The vendors of call center tools, though all nice people, are trying to sell you stuff, constantly and relentlessly. When they tell you what you need, maybe it's true, and maybe it's not.


Lately, they have sold you on e-mail interactions, and they are working hard to sell you on live text chat and IP routing. They have failed to sell you much work force management software, which is unfortunate, because that is one of the few things you need. They have sold a lot of you on monitoring, and they are pushing that further into training systems based on those monitoring tools. Remember that they exist only to maintain the constant flow of product into the call center. When you stop buying, they go away or think of new things to sell. Generally, however, they do not have the best interests of you, your customers or your representatives in mind. That's not their job. That is the job of the call center manager and his colleagues.


But the worst thing you can do - and this is playing itself out on a global scale, with end-user customers in every industry - is to pretend that your customers love you because of the technology you put in their hands. Customers don't have loyalty - that is a myth. You can make it difficult, expensive or inconvenient to leave you. But customers don't love you, any more than you love the guys who sell you your automatic call distributor or long-distance service.


When you stop pretending and see things with clear eyes, you will be able to spend less money on trappings and put resources where they can do the most good: into the people who connect with customers. n


• Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor at Call Center News Service, New York.

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