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The Internet, IVRs and most recently mobile apps have made self-service a more viable option than ever before. Done right, self-service can be a fantastic option for the under 40s crowd that will often pick quicker, remote technologies than the time-consuming effort of real human interaction. Done wrong, it can be a deal-breaker.

In this article, I will discuss some of the pitfalls and opportunities in creating a self-service strategy and explore the natural boundaries of self-service.

There are some major wins in getting self-service right, not least from a revenue perspective. A successful self-service strategy can make a substantial, positive improvement to the bottom-line.

Quite simply, unless you are doing something significantly wrong, a self-service interaction should cost very little once the technology is set up, compared to the cost of a similar transaction with a live customer service representative.

Looking at it from the customer's perspective, a positive self-service interaction can make them feel more engaged with the company. That may be a little counter-intuitive, because they are not actually dealing with a person with whom they can feel an emotional connection.

However, when self-service goes right, the customer leaves thinking that "they" make it really easy, because "all you have to do is ..." Sometimes a customer wants to talk to someone, but often all they want to do is get something paid, amended or fixed -- and self-service can get them there.

Taking a look at some of the data around this, a recent survey of 227 US IT decision-makers by Kelton Research on behalf of Enghouse Interactive, showed that automated systems and self-service interactions were important to 55 percent of companies.

However, automated and self-service systems were the dominant form of customer interaction in just 14 percent of companies. Simply put, most companies think self-service is important, but few have made it their dominant form of customer interaction.

We can expect that to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Preference for self-service has some clear dividing lines across varying age groups. Different generations have a very different view of how much they want to use self-service.

Among the older generation, the idea of not talking to a real person when making a payment or altering a service can be unsettling. For younger people, particularly those who have grown up not knowing a world before the Internet, the absence of an online system or a mobile app, or even a quick and effective IVR system, will be perceived fairly negatively.

Unless something unforeseen happens, that means that self-service will likely undergo a consistent and relentless push towards the front of customer interactions in the years to come. So with this in mind, how can you prepare a solid self-service strategy? There are three principles to bear in mind when creating your self-service system.

Plan Using Your Customers’ Filters

You need to prioritize the self-service channel from the perspective of the customer. For example with an IVR system, give a limited number of options at each stage. If you are giving 8 or 9 options, it will be overkill for the caller.

You need to be sensitive to the time and concentration it takes to listen to and remember such a large number of options. More than likely the majority of customers will need to deal with just two or three functions, so make sure those functions are the most easily found whether it is via IVR, an Internet-based system or a mobile app.

Test with Real People and Real Scenarios

With the example of an IVR, test your IVR flow with real people before putting it into production. If your testing is only done with people involved in the IVR project or customer services, the testing phase may not highlight the problems that a fresh set of ears could.

Likewise with a mobile app, you need to test it "in the wild" with real scenarios on a real, live network. Failing to do so and relying on emulators or "laboratory" conditions can give you a false positive of just how wonderful your self-service app is.

Never Say Die

When an IVR or a self-service web or mobile app goes into production, you are only halfway there.
It is tempting to think that when the system is launched that you have done the hard work, but like many things in life, you need to keep sweating the small stuff to continually improve.

Keep working at the flow to prioritize items that are more popular than expected, to downgrade items that are less popular than expected and to remove the ones that are not being used.

Self-service can be extremely powerful when dealing with customers, but it is never the only channel. Only in very few instances can a company get away with not providing an easy option for customers to talk to a real human being. Think of Google and Facebook’s consumer-facing side of the business for the best examples, as they can justify it based on the fact that their services are free.

Paying customers are not as forgiving or particularly trusting of companies that hide customer phone numbers, for example. When self-service is easy, well-thought through and well-maintained, and offered among a variety of “structured” and “unstructured” options, you have established your growth customer interaction format for the future.

Title image courtesy of Lightspring (Shutterstock).

Editor's Note: To read more by JR Sloan: