While it's always preferable to solve a customer's problem first with automation, which means less friction for the customer and less cost for the company, the fact is that most companies' self-service offerings aren't advanced enough yet to be able to deal with all the exceptions and unanticipated circumstances that might give rise to a customer problem.
And when customers contact a company by phone or chat to solve a problem the "conversation" is usually quite predictable. The customer may be communicating with a real human being rather than with a computer voice or a series of Web choices, but the person on the company's end of the conversation will still be following a prescribed set of rules or a script for dealing with whatever issue the customer raises.
However, a chronic question for contact centers and the folks charged with handling person-to-person interactions with customers has always been how best to deal with the exceptions-situations that weren't anticipated, and for which no script or standard process applies. And while the traditional path has always been to require higher authority to approve out-of-policy solutions to customer issues, in my own meetings with clients in a variety of industries I've started to see companies empowering their frontline people and even customers themselves to come up with solutions more efficiently. For instance:
1. Whenever a problematic issue arises at one company, in which the customer may have been wronged but they also bear partial responsibility (perhaps having overlooked some rule or violated some policy), associates are authorized simply to ask the customer "What do you think would be fair?" This question is designed to get the customer's agreement to accept some responsibility, and to "split the difference" with the company in a way that leaves the customer satisfied but doesn't require something as expensive as, say, a full refund or make-good. "What do you think is fair" is the kind of empathetic question you might pose to a friend, and will almost certainly have a calming effect on an otherwise upset customer.
2. At another firm I learned of an original and innovative policy for managing collection calls. When a customer falls behind on payments and the company has to contact them to ensure that the debt is collected, it used to be they would put the customer on a schedule of payments dictated by the size of the debt and the company's own credit requirements. But while the customer would almost always agree to whatever schedule of weekly payments was suggested (anything to end the call!), the fact was that very often the amount required was still beyond their ability to pay, with the result that they would simply miss the payment deadline again and pay nothing. So instead, this company now asks its overdue customers, "How much do you think you can afford to pay toward this debt each week?" This policy gets the customer to accept responsibility, but does so in a way that leads to more realistic (and dependable) repayments. The executive who described this policy told me it was generating higher actual repayments than the prior policy, because once a customer commits to an amount that they choose themselves, they really do make payments.
3. And at still another company, an executive told me that when a customer service associate can see a way to resolve a difficult problem by tailoring some out-of-policy solution for a customer, rather than having to run the idea or suggestion up the chain of command and wait for a superior to decide whether or how to offer it, the associate can simply consult with another associate. If two associates agree together that a solution seems reasonable, the executive said, then that's all the authority needed to go forward with it. The company reviews such decisions later, but the executive said they very rarely find it necessary to make any corrections or admonish the reps involved, and my guess is that the entire contact center would be energized by this kind of empowerment.
As automation continues to get better, we should expect it to resolve more and more customer service issues without requiring human intervention, but this just means that those service issues, requests, and problems that cannot be successfully resolved with automated actions and scripted responses will require more time, initiative, creativity and judgment to handle. Forward thinking companies should begin planning now for dealing with this issue.