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Customers and vendors alike want a speedy resolution to any support issues. Increasingly, self-service support is becoming the medium of choice, in part because it saves time for customers and resources for organizations. But self-service has the potential to deliver much more than just savings in time and cost.

When executed well, self-service support further cements customer satisfaction and retention, and boosts the developing relationship and trust between  organization and customer.

When executed poorly, self-service support results in a frustrated customer and has the potential to erode a previously positive relationship.

Self-Service Is the First Interaction Between Customer and Company

“Self-service is the front door to your company, all interactions start from it,” said Kate Leggett, VP and principal analyst for CRM and Customer Service at Forrester Research. “Organizations need to understand that self-service is the first way for customers to engage, wherever they are in their journey.”

As potential customers evaluate or are in the process of purchasing your product, they are searching for responses to their questions on features, functionality, service plans, bundling and discounts. As newly minted customers of your organization, they will seek information on their training requirements and guidance during the onboarding process. Throughout their relationship with your organization, your customers will have queries they need and expect to have answered quickly, clearly and accurately.

“Self-service is not just about reducing call volumes, or support requests,” said Holden Bale, global vice president of commerce at digital experience agency Huge. “It is an imperative in today’s economy to having a high-quality digital experience, as users expect that they can engage with you on their own terms.”

Related Article: Where Self-Service Ends and Direct Customer Support Begins

Realize Multiple Benefits Through Customer Self-Service Support

Providing customer self-service support can serve multiple purposes for your organization. For example, it frees up your human agents to focus on solving more complex customer issues, which may make their daily work more interesting, leading to an uptick in support staff retention.

In her 2019 report titled How To Modernize Digital Customer Self-Service (paywall), Leggett predicts the addition of new types of contact center roles such as data scientists and automation specialists, who will be in charge of deploying and maintaining self-service and agent-facing automation and AI projects.

Ideally, your organization is also centrally capturing and storing the self-service support data, analyzing that information, and then sharing the results of your findings internally. You can use the self-service data to better understand where customers regularly encounter problems and commonly asked questions.

Armed with that knowledge, your organization can make sure that product development is more attuned to customer needs and more proactive in recognizing, addressing, and even anticipating potential issues or areas of misunderstanding in future.

Related Article: Voice of the Customer Strategies: Effectively Turning Feedback Into Action

Ensure Alignment Around Your Customer

Most organizations currently engage with their customers across eight contact channels, according to the NTT 2020 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report, which surveyed 1,020 respondents in 13 industry sectors across 79 countries.

Of the eight channels, three are fully automated — website, phone self-service and mobile smart apps; three are provided digitally, but involve some element of human support — email, social media and web chat; and two are headed by human agents — phone and in-person at a physical location. However, 66.4% of those polled said that their organization has no cross-channel contact management strategy.

Organizations may have artificial walls in place between different departments which deal with aspects of customer support, for instance, your call center and your customer experience group. What’s needed is organizational alignment so that all support conversations are oriented around the customer, according to Leggett. In that way, an organization is then best placed to take a holistic approach to customer service.

“Very few companies take a step back to consider their definition of customer experience,” Leggett said. “And how they distill that definition down into a set of guiding principles which they then operationalize.”

Related Article: Are All Your Different KPIs at Odds With Your Customer Experience?

Put the Customer More in Control

“Many organizations are struggling to reposition their service model to one that gives customers control,” Bale said. “Companies may need to retool their supply chains to allow for product customization, or rebuild how they do fulfillment to allow consumers to have transparency or select different options or reroute and manage packages.”

Bale recommends that every organization examine the end-to-end user journey for every single one of its products to find lightweight, quick wins to give customers more control. “It may not need to be systems changes; maybe it’s process changes, or changes in marketing or messaging,” he said. “But this exercise can also allow organizations to find strategic themes for what self-service means to their business, and build a more intentional roadmap and investment case for what to change, where, and how.”

Related Article: Don't  Make These Common Self-Service Customer Experience Mistakes

How the Pandemic Is Impacting Customer Self-Service

The impact of COVID-19 on organizations’ self-service customer support operations has been significant. “The pandemic has been a crash course in digitization, it accelerated investments and operations that companies had been thinking about for a very long time,” Leggett said. “Two to five years of development has been shrunk and accelerated to perhaps two months to a year.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the call center operations of airlines, government agencies and retailers were completely overwhelmed with floods of customer service queries. This resulted in chaos, with customers being put on hold for hours, even days, at a time.

“Organizations put up chatbots for crisis communications, just to deflect the volume of customer requests,” Leggett said. “As the pandemic progressed, many companies started ripping down all the first chatbots, and doing a better job of digitizing and providing support by self-service modalities.”

For instance, grocery chain Albertsons quickly deployed a self-service bot to help shoppers new to online purchasing who required extra support to become familiar with the process involved. Leggett notes that many government authorities, like the City of Los Angeles, were able to proactively educate and communicate with citizens via chatbots or by blasting out content via email.

Organizations also improved how they knit communications channels together so that a customer can begin their service request with a self-service bot and be transferred to a human agent. Importantly, the context of their interaction is passed from the bot to the agent so there’s no need for the customer to repeat and restate their inquiry.

“Ultimately, customer service became about nurturing customers through the pandemic,” Leggett said. “You hold onto the customers you have, more than attracting new customers.”

Related Article: A Good Chatbot Is Hard to Find

Your Customers Have High Expectations for Self-Service Support

Customers have become accustomed to organizations folding capabilities into their apps, which would once have required a phone call, according to Bale. For example, airlines like Delta now allow customers to reschedule flights, manage loyalty preferences, change seats and pay for upgrades all directly from the Delta application.

“All of this is leading to increased user expectations for self-service capabilities for any brand they interact with — no matter the category,” he said. “Our research found that in the aftermath of the COVID epidemic, over 54% of consumers in North America who had never used forms of digital customer service — like text, chat or video — planned to or had for the first time.”

Embrace Hyper-Personalization

What is clear is that a gulf is opening between what can be termed customer service leaders and laggards, and that the pandemic is widening that gap. “The leaders are doing a great job in automating and adding AI, not only in modernizing their technology, but they’re also aligning around the customer journey,” Leggett said. “The others are falling further behind.”

Hyper-personalization is becoming more important so that, should self-service support fail to meet the customer’s needs, your organization can route the interaction to the best front-line employee able to continue the conversation.

“Every interaction with customers has to be hyper-personalized and deliver guidance based on prior interactions and transactions and other factors such as the value of an individual customer to your organization,” Leggett said.

At the same time, not every interaction should start via self-service, she said. For instance, if a customer has suffered a devastating event, immediately being connected with a sympathetic and skilled human agent would likely be the best outcome. It’s therefore important that organizations are able to quickly determine the intent behind each customer’s inquiry and route them to a channel which will result in a successful resolution.

Prepare for Ongoing Change and Self-Service Support Ubiquity

There’s another factor to consider alongside customers’ increasing desire for self-service support and all the reasons why organizations are eager to meet that need. The customer service technology vendor landscape is also shifting and evolving significantly.

Take three recently announced acquisitions in the space. ServiceNow’s planned purchase of Element AI is ServiceNow’s fourth AI acquisition in 2020. With its $27.7 billion intended purchase of Slack, Salesforce looks to incorporate the collaboration platform across its product portfolio, including customer service. As Forrester noted in a blog, with self-service customer support continuing to mature, there’s an increasing need for agents, product experts, and bots to all work together on resolving more complex customer issues. With the reported $1 billion buy of Kustomer, Facebook is set to gain its own customer service platform.

Bale expects that self-service customer support will penetrate every industry and is optimistic about the impact of that ubiquity. “If anything, it should free customer service up to be what it is meant to be — a way to excel and provide great engagement, and great service,” he said. “Customer service is a strategic differentiator, not a cost center. Self-service can enable that to be true for any brand.”