Improving Self-Service - Before Customers Turn Away

Customer Service
Customer Service
Customers expect a top-notch self-service experience; deliver less and risk customer defection.

There's a major shift in customer behavior that's transforming the customer relations paradigm: Customers are demanding more self-service options and flexibility to do business on their own terms (even if it's at 2 a.m.). And in a world where loyal customers are businesses' biggest assets, there's competitive pressure to oblige with these demands.

Results from a recent Harvard Business Review and Corporate Executive Board survey speak volumes: Among 75,000 consumers, self-service is the number one preference for customer service and building loyalty. Customers want control over how and when they interact with companies. Anything less can result in major competitive disadvantages, irreversible brand damage, and a loss of key revenue opportunities.

The effectiveness of the self-service channel is essential. According to the HBR study, customers who attempt to self-serve yet fail-and are forced to pick up their phones to solve the issue-are 10 percent more likely to be disloyal than those who resolved issues through the channels of their choice.

Understanding customer preferences: no "one size fits all"

More than ever, businesses must align their customer communication strategies with where, when, and how the customer prefers to receive information. Yet, it's a lot easier said than done.

Understanding and integrating customer preferences carries different sets of requirements across customers. For instance, when checking in to flights, some airline customers prefer to use self-service kiosks, while others still embrace the human touch of having attendants check their bags. Furthermore, preferences may shift under different circumstances: Some of those customers who prefer self-service kiosks may only do so with domestic fights, opting to visit the counter during international flights. These are radically different circumstances, even many times, for the same consumer.

To keep pace with the continual evolution of customer preferences, here are five ways businesses can be more effective with self-service:

1. Don't stop at opt-in

Opt-ins should be the first step in an ongoing dialogue with customers, as you begin to align customers' communication preferences with your self-service options. Use this opportunity to describe your communications philosophy and privacy policies, walking through the many options customers have and the benefits associated with each. Educate them that you value them as a customer, take their opinions seriously, and won't spam or share their information with third parties.

2. Understand both stated and observed preferences.

Collecting and understanding your customers' stated communications preferences is not as straightforward as many think. Preferences need to be collected across a variety of interaction models. For instance, one customer may want a fraud alert from their bank sent to their mobile phone, while receiving their monthly statements via email.

And it doesn't end with stated preferences: Actions may speak louder than words. Observing and analyzing consumers' interaction patterns, both on an individual and aggregated basis, delivers invaluable information on the communications and self-service channels your business should be providing.

3. Anytime, any device, anywhere communications

Consumers lead busy lives, making it more important to reach them at the right time. Provide customers with more options on not only how they can interact, but also when and on which channels. A communications and self-service approach that supports multiple channels-including phone (both agent- and IVR-based), email, and interactive text messaging-opens new opportunities to get closer to customers and increase effectiveness. Furthermore, augmenting outbound communications with a number of inbound options that can consumers can use at their convenience lends itself to even more flexible self-service. This includes setting up a call-back number that enables an automated dialogue to be conducted, or an option to engage in a text message interaction at any time the consumer prefers.

4. Be proactive

Self-service provides new ways for businesses to be even more proactive and build more loyalty among their customer bases. Telecommunications providers, for example, can use interactive voice messages to welcome new subscribers with information about their rate plans, voice mail setup, and self-service options, creating a positive first-time customer experience. Loyalty programs could be supplemented with proactive communications to promote special offers, like discounted points, etc. This has the added benefit of verifying the contact details on file and collecting communications preferences while reducing inbound calls.

5. Embrace change

Customer behavior, habits, and preferences can change overnight. An email newsletter that is positively received from a certain customer can be viewed as annoying spam the next month. Or a customer who has called into call centers on a seemingly monthly basis would rather communicate via text messaging after receiving his new smart phone.

You should remain constantly dialed in to these changes and use a proactive approach to stay ahead. This means offering other self-service options or using proactive customer communications to frequently update consumer communication preferences. Continuous observation, measurement, and improvement help businesses stay one step ahead of the constant shift among communications preferences, and help ensure that each communication remains timely, relevant, and actionable.

The rise of self-service, combined with a social-media driven world, provides an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to reshape how they engage with customers and maximize the effectiveness of their intended message. Keeping aligned with customer preferences is no longer a tactical customer service strategy; it's drives how customers view, and do business, with organizations.

It remains critical to embrace communications platforms that can capture and manage consumer preferences while providing flexible options for interactive multi-channel communications that build long-lasting, profitable relationships.


About the author: Debbie Braunert is vice president of solutions and product marketing at SoundBite Communications, Inc. Contact her at