Leadership on Point

Taking Service Out of Customer Service

February 23, 2011 Chip Bell - Guest Author

We were participating in a panel discussion at a conference of Fortune 100 CIO’s.  One senior leader of one of the 10 largest banks in the nation asked: “How can we maximize the profitability and efficiency of our call centers while minimizing the customer’s involvement?” Something about the question left us momentarily confused.  “Let me make sure I understand you,” one of us queried. “You want to remove all of the service out of customer service?”  The audience laughed.  But, he was dead serious as he continued, “Actually, I’d like to take most of the customer out as well!”

There has been an assertive migration toward self-service.  Self-service has had a positive side.  By shifting the lion’s share of the work on the service experience to the customer, it has lowered operating costs.  It has freed up human resources to be used in roles and functions truly requiring a human touch.  Self-service has also made customers more self-reliant as “do-it-yourself” has replaced “I’ll take care of that for you.”  Learning to fend for oneself can trigger education and confidence; customers are less dependent and far more competent.

The real benefits of the proliferation of all manner of self-service have been the cost-savings to the service provider.  With the rising cost of wages for people who, unlike machines, are expenses rather than annual depreciation items on the balance sheet, cost-saving is accomplished by taking people out of the service equation.  So, despite the intermittent virtues of convenience and time savings, there is likely a mercenary motivation behind the merchants’ persuading us to transfer away from servers toward systems.  We consent to this when it helps us; we rebel when it does not.

But, there is clearly a downside to taking service out of customer service.  Remember the famous Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” advertisement?  (If you don’t know the ad, watch it on YouTube.)  The final line in the ad is a prophetic one: “I don’t think there’s anybody back there.”  It epitomizes the potential one-sidedness of self-service.  Before self-service, we could influence, critique, affirm and help guide the service experience as it unfolded.  The service deliverer could adjust, respond, slow down or leave us alone.  It all seemed quite fair.  Now, without the capacity to quality-control it in the moment, customers are more cautious and skeptical of the value they receive.  It explains why 63 percent of e-commerce customers rate “live web chat” as the most satisfying channel.  Live chat says that self-service can be quickly transformed by the customer into full service if the customer determines “there’s no beef, just a very big bun.”

What do the best service providers do…those with reputations for remarkable service?  They design self-service with the customer in mind, not just the short-term profits of the organization.  They craft self-service with a bias for customer trust, a preference for a great experience, and a desire to always let customers be in the driver’s seat of how much high touch they want at add to the high tech of self-service.

Remarkable service providers trust their customers.  Airport concession stores sometimes put the morning newspaper purchase on the honor system.  Instead of standing in line just to buy a USA Today, customers pick up a copy as they put a dollar through the slot in the money container above the papers.  When store operators are asked about the end-of-the-day shrinkage, they will tell you that, while they may lose a paper are two, it is more often due to customers’ accidently picking up two copies instead of one.  The trust practice benefits the in-a-hurry customer trying to catch a flight.  And, it helps the store to manage efficient traffic flow with customers buying either more items or items less common than a newspaper.

Remarkable service providers are biased toward creating great experience.  The best websites are easily tailorable by customers with obvious access to “somebody back there” via numerous channels––“call us, web chat with us, email us, pony express us.”  The message should be, “We are here for you and enjoy communicating.”  Ensure all customer-contact people have easy access to customer information.  At USAA every phone rep has instant access to all customer files, including the customer letter or e-mail that arrived this morning.

Remarkable service providers create a back door. Customers also want to be able to quickly and easily connect with a human being to bring fast resolution to any problem that arises.  Take a look at some of the great web-based companies.  They practically scream, “We would love to talk with you if you need us!”  “Partnering in the dark” means creating an experience that feels like there is a guardian of the transaction always watching over the encounter, eager and able to help if there is a hint of consternation by the customer.

Take a look at award-winning Zappos.com.  They took a simple business––online buying of apparel––and added the experience enhancers that make them the talk of the neighborhood (and cyberhood).  Sure, you can do all your buying without communicating with a soul.  But, every web page has a deliberate invitation to interact.  And, when the customer clicks to talk, they get over-the-top attention, customized communication, and a live rep who wants to be your new best friend.  It is the perfect blend of self-service with full service that respects the customer while bolstering convenience and cost-savings.  And, how has the market rewarded them?  Their profits went from zero when they started to over a billion dollars ten years later.

When people ask questions like “Is self-service better than full-service?” it implies either-or thinking that may be missing the point––sort of like asking a senior citizen in a nursing home which is better, a back rub or a visit from the family.  Customers have different requirements for different circumstances.  The hotel a business traveler enjoys during the week has a completely different set of requirements if that same business traveler is at the same hotel on a weekend…and with a significant other.  Remarkable self-service starts with an up-to-date understanding of customers to always make certain what they need and the way they need it is available and supported when they need it.

 

Written by  Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson, customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers.  They can be reached at www.chipbellgroup.com.