The Myth of Self-Service
By Peter L DeHaan
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
you do make available self-service to your clients or their customers,
is it used much? How is it perceived? Has
it proven to be a time-saver and relationship enhancer or merely as
the lesser of several unacceptable means to solve problems or procure
idea of self-service has existed in many industries for years and even
decades. This includes self-serve gas pumps,
checking your own groceries, buying airline tickets online, and
let’s consider gas stations. Unless you are a
20-something driver, you probably remember the days of full-service
gas stations. In fact, they were called service
stations, because service was what they were all about. These
service stations almost always had one mechanic – or more – on
duty. For smaller stations, the mechanic was often
the one who filled your car with gas. Here’s how
it worked. When you pulled into the station, a
strategically placed air hose pneumatically activated a mechanical
signal. This alerted the attendant that a customer
had arrived and he would scurry out to greet you. Staying
in your car, you would roll down your window and make your request,
“Fill it up, please.” Often you and the
attendant were on a first name basis. As he was
filling your tank, he would wash your front windshield and often the
back. Next, he would offer to check your oil.
(Unless it had just been changed or recently checked – which
he remembered.) That’s not all.
He would surreptitiously glance at your tires and if one
appeared under inflated, they would whisk a tire gauge out of his
pocket and 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 at 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. Today,
with self-service, we are left on our own to keep our car in good
operating condition and we only see our mechanic when something is
an apparent effort to save on labor or cut overhead, some stations
began offering “self-service” pumps. In order
to entice the public to pump their own fuel, the self-serve gas was
priced lower. Most people weren’t too interested,
at least until the price of gas jumped and the discount increased
along with it. Still some people swore they would
never fill their own tanks, but over time they were forced to do so as
full-service pumps became scarcer and scarcer. The
truth is that most people didn’t want self-serve, but reluctantly
did so to save money or were forced to when it became the only option.
Today, self-serve gas pumps are an expected way of life, but
that simply happened because it became the only option.
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 – but I do 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 next-in-line cashier and self-service, I will
always opt for a person. I find it to be faster and
less frustrating. I can’t image the
time-consuming task of doing a large order via self-checkout.
However, when the cashier lines are long – which is generally
the case, 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.
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, finding the ideal
balance between cost and convenience. Maybe I
scrutinize my options too closely, but I would gladly spend an hour
researching flights, times, and airports if it will save me from a
long layover, an extra night in a hotel, or a $100 on a fare.
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.
banking industry is full of choices. I can select
from two full-service options and three self-serve options.
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 primarily a result of what I need to accomplish, but my
focus is on speed and convenience. It’s nice to
have options: self-service for some things, full-service for others.
dot-com boom in the late 1990s brought the prospect of self-service to
an unwise conclusion. In simplistic terms, their
generic business plan (aside from burning through mass quantities of
investor cash) was that they would create a scalable website, which
could be quickly ramped up as demand for their product or service
grew. Customer service would not be an issue (or so
they thought) 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 wisely
realized that they needed to offer more options than just
with this history and varying degrees of success, it doesn’t imply
that self-service is the way to go, especially when full-service 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 times when it is not.
When properly implemented (which means it must be
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 – grousing 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.
In our global economy, that often means they want a call center
– a good call center.
is generally not selected because it is the superior option, but
because it is the least objectionable one. So what
is the ideal solution? It’s a full-service call
center, not with self-service options, but with people. 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 a call center done right. What
does that look like? Ideally it is:
queue or short queue (or a creative, entertaining on-hold program
with accurate traffic updates)
knowledgeable, personable, and polite representatives
that, why would anyone want self-service? Why would
they ever switch to a different company? A call
center, done right, will beat self-service all of the time.
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