Today's busy customers are becoming increasingly willing to find service solutions themselves before contacting an organization for help. This trend not only helps customers get what they want faster, but it's also a plus for organizations, helping them decrease their service costs.

In fact, a report by Mintel analysts identified automated self-service as a growing global trend. "Moving forward, automation is going to be about cutting to the chase, skipping past laborious processes, to get us to the experience or the product more quickly," notes Richard Cope, Mintel's director of insight and trends. In a recent blog post, Forrester analyst Kate Leggett notes that self-service closely follows voice as the primarily used communication channel, and in the past three years there's been a 12 percent rise in the use of web self-service, a 24 percent increase in chat, and a 25 percent increase in community usage for customer service. Survey findings released by Amdocs last month found that 83 percent of customers would be more likely to recommend a company which offered "easy-to-use and consistent" self-service over mobile phones, while Nuance found that 67 percent of people prefer self-service over speaking to a company representative. "Self-service is more effective and convenient for people than human service," notes Robert Weideman, Nuance's executive vice president and general manager.

With this in mind, forward-thinking organizations have been looking for ways to bolster their self-service offerings, allowing customers to get what they want faster and improve the overall experience. Banks, for example, have long been catering to customers' affinity for self-service through automated teller machines, cutting queues inside their branches and allowing customers to withdraw or deposit money at any time of the day. Advances in technology are making it easier for organizations to deliver self-serve solutions to their customers. Elizabeth Cholawsky, Citrix's general manager and vice president of IT support, notes that younger individuals are even more likely to seek self-service. "The generational shift means that workers and consumers expect to be able to help themselves first," she notes. Perse Faily, EMN8's CEO, agrees. "We're seeing that customers, especially the younger ones, have a higher expectation for more self-service," she notes, adding that consumers are recognizing the advantage of self-service. A characteristic of today's customers that is pushing them towards using self-service is their desire to get what they want immediately, notes André Cichowlas, vice president and global practices head at Capgemini's financial services division.

Because customers are engaging with organizations in multiple ways, business leaders need to integrate self-service solutions in different areas, allowing customers to self-serve online, over their mobile phones, in retail stores, and when they contact an organization by phone. These are some trends that organizations need to be aware of to offer the best possible self-service experience to their customers.

Self-service in brick-and-mortar locations

These past years have seen a huge move towards in-store self-service. CVS and Home Depot are among the increasing number of retailers that are tapping into shoppers' willingness to serve themselves by introducing self checkouts. "In the past couple of years we've seen an increased focus on the shopper experience," says Balaji Narayanswamy, pre-sales and consulting head for retail, CPG, and manufacturing at Mindtree.

Additionally, customers want to be offered the option to self-serve. Dusty Lutz, NCR Corporation's general manager for retail self-service solutions, says a survey carried out by the organization found that the vast majority of consumers believe it's faster to use self checkout rather than go through a cashier-assisted line. They also expressed their wish that more stores would introduce self checkout counters. "We're definitely seeing a growing customer demand for self-service as a way to get better service in stores," Lutz says. "It also gives consumers better control of the transaction."

This year's National Retail Federation's show was full of vendors showcasing their latest self checkout technologies. But while consumers should expect to see more stores introducing self checkout counters, savvy businesses are also leveraging customers' own devices to improve their shopping experiences. Earlier this year Fujitsu launched a mobile app that allows customers to scan items they're buying right at the aisle before putting them in their shopping bags. Brian Yates, director of retail product marketing at Fujitsu America, explains that once customers finished shopping, the app will create a QR code that can be scanned at either self checkout or full-service counters, where the customer can pay without having to take all the items out of the shopping cart to be scanned and bagged, saving time for both shoppers and checkout clerks.

While Fujitsu demonstrates the benefits of using handheld devices for self-service purposes, today's tech-savvy customers are also becoming accustomed to the advantages of using kiosks to serve themselves. For years travelers have been checking in online or at airport kiosks where they can print their own boarding cards rather than interact with an agent. But it's not only airlines that are leveraging self-service kiosks. Domino's Pizza implemented a similar strategy at its Camp Pendelton location, which experiences busy weekends when marines at the nearby Marine Corps School of Infantry are no longer confined to their barracks. In order to deliver a better experience to walk-in customers and make up for any staffing inefficiencies during the busiest times, Domino's set up a kiosk by EMN8 that allows diners to self-order in either English or Spanish, resulting in an increase in weekly orders and a higher average per order.

Mobile merges the in-store and online experience

According to Nuance's Weideman, more than 80 percent of customer service calls are emanating from a mobile device. This is a strong indicator that customers are using their mobile phones more than ever before and opens up opportunities for organizations to leverage smartphones to help customers serve themselves, for example scanning and depositing a check from their mobile phones.

Retailers are also leveraging smartphone technology to extend and improve the retail experience. The fact that so many customers are starting their shopping journeys on their mobile phones is allowing retailers to provide an endless aisle, Narayanswamy says. With retail space at a premium, this solution allows retailers to sell items that aren't available in the store. Last year, British retail chain Tesco announced its endless virtual toy aisles, allowing customers to use kiosks to browse the company's catalogue, and then use their phones to scan a QR code or send a text message to receive a web link and complete the purchase. The endless aisle also brings a new meaning to the concept of showrooming since retailers can keep one product in store, for example a coat in one particular color, allowing customers to try it on and know exactly how it feels before purchasing the item in their preferred color. "We fully expect retailers around the world to expand their use of self-service and the endless aisle, bringing the dot.com experience into the store," NCR's Lutz notes.

Helping customers serve themselves online

Ecommerce is a perfect fit for the self-service experience, allowing customers to reach the desired outcome without having to speak with anyone, notes Duke Chung, Parature's chairman and co-founder. In order to tap into customers' willingness to find information to answer their questions, some organizations are creating a detailed knowledgebase on their online properties. David Moody, KANA's head of worldwide product strategy for public service, highlights the need to remove all barriers to accessing online service.

Ask.com is one organization that has bolstered the information available online, allowing customers to seek answers to their questions without having to call the contact center. "People who use any Website have the expectation that self-service will be integrated within the whole site," says Eric McKirdy, Ask.com's customer relations and support manager. McKirdy says this initiative has reduced support ticket volume by 60 percent since November.

Another trend that, due to customer demand, is expected to continue growing this year is the use of video to share more detailed information with customers. "More and more customers are looking for this type of content to answer their questions," says Craig Wax, Invodo's CEO. The benefits of video extend beyond its ability to show customers what they need to do to address their issues, but its availability around the clock means that customers can access the information at anytime they want and at a lower cost, even when a contact center might be closed. Wax notes that while video can be beneficial for all self-service situations, it is particularly effective to address complex issues or ones that involve detailed instructions through visuals. The Home Depot has a substantial catalogue of videos, some of which give step-by-step instructions to help customers with DIY projects, for example getting a suede paint finish or installing wire shelving. Wall notes that the next natural step is for retailers to leverage smartphone popularity to integrate videos within the in-store experience. Speaking at the NRF show in January, Martine Reardon, Macy's CMO, explained how the retailer teamed with cosmetics giant Bobbi Brown to provide customers who scanned a QR code with a step-by-step guide on creating a smoky eye.

Accurate and intelligent IVR systems facilitate self-service

Even customers who call into a contact center don't necessarily have to speak to an agent. Cutting-edge IVR systems are helping organizations cut down on agent time and instead allow customers to find the answers they're looking for themselves. Nuance's Weideman says state-of-the-art IVR systems have highly accurate speech recognition technology that allow for more open-ended questions, making interactions more human.

Mike Hennessy, vice president of marketing at IntelliResponse, believes that another trend will be the growing use of virtual agents to answer customers' questions. The key to success is ensuring that the virtual agent is able to have a human-like conversation, recognize natural language, and learn from questions that aren't answered. Hennessy says that while it's not a good idea to automate every single interaction, there's a big shift in customers who want to serve themselves rather than speak to an agent, and virtual agents or intelligent IVR systems will provide an alternative for those who want to self-serve.

Finally, while self-service is imperative for organizations, business leaders need to make sure that this is seamlessly integrated with full support, avoiding the need for customers to repeat steps when connecting to an agent.