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Customer Service Physics and the Impact of Self-Service

No surprise, self-service continues to climb in importance. Web self-service use increased to 76% in 2014, up 9% from 2012, Forrester research data shows. But have self-service channels completely removed strain from customer service contact centers? Have they improved the overall customer satisfaction scores?

Not exactly...

Customer satisfaction is actually on a slight decline, and relatively flat over the past few decades, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Source: American Customer Satisfaction Index

This chart shows the turbulent path customer service has taken. Despite years of innovation, billions invested in better technology, and recent developments in self-service, the drop in customer satisfaction is clear. Is it because new technology doesn't work, or merely that the definition of good "customer service" has shifted in parallel? Most likely the latter.

Consider the following:

The Physics of Customer Service
A quick lesson in physics: Imagine you are standing in the back of a truck that is moving at a constant speed. You jump straight up in the air and land in the exact same spot. Relative to the truck, you haven't gone anywhere. Relative to the street, you've advanced quite a bit. But you are still in the back of the truck, not in front of it.

In this example, you represent company innovation, the truck represents customer expectations, and the street represents the industry advancement over time. Customers are looking forward and want to accelerate and progress. Though you are advancing at pace with the industry, matching speed of customer expectation, you still aren't in front of the customer. And while you may be facing the back, marveling at how far you've come, your customers see how much further you still have to go.

The Self in Self-Service
Today, many companies see self-service as the catapult that will help their brands overtake customer expectations. But the reality is that expectation is moving a lot faster than most companies anticipate. Similarly, companies are only getting partial credit for enabling self-support.

The modern customer is of a "let me Google that" generation. When customers have problems, their knee-jerk responses are to jump around on the company search bar, scour forums, and sift through all immediate selections. Then, when they've exhausted all other options, they call or engage customer service.

Most wouldn't even consider "let me Google that" a support option; it's just something they intuitively do. But their irritation mounts when they can't find answers to simple questions.

Therein lies a deep customer service paradox. When self-service is missing, customers blame the company for the oversight. When it is available, customers disassociate the solution from the brand.

Yes, forums, FAQs, and other nifty guides for basic problems can alleviate call volume for company contact centers. But they won't necessarily improve customers' impressions of a company's "customer service" capabilities. Customers view satisfaction as the ability to exceed their expectations, and self-service is fast becoming baseline.

The Weight of Bigger Problems
When self-service does work, it thins the call volume in company contact centers. However, customers are coming to the doorstep with bigger baggage. Self-service has taken the easy problems out of the equation, leaving nothing but thorny interactions as the sole representation of customer service.

As Forrester analyst Kate Leggett explained earlier this year in blog, "Today, customers resolve straight-forward customer service interactions via self-service, leaving complex issues like account closure, booking a complex multi-city set of flights, or an explanation of smart metering billing policies for phone conversations. These questions often take longer to resolve and are opportunities to build positive customer relationships with an end-goal of increased customer loyalty. They also demand a higher caliber of agent for effective issue resolution."

That agents solve these problems is not enough. They need to finesse relationships that, more often than not, are starting on the wrong foot. To win greater customer satisfaction, agents need more information and context for their conversations. They need to solve problems and win hearts. Businesses that don't will lose their fickle customer bases.

Bridging the Gap
To improve customer service and satisfaction, companies must bridge the information gap. They need to know what simple problems customers are having and provide self-service tools to expedite solutions. Even more importantly, they need to arm agents with enough information so they can counter the toughest issues with the most positive experiences.

I would argue that much of this strain still falls to phone channels. The company/customer first point-of-contact may no longer be the phone. But the weight of phone conversations on customer satisfaction has never been greater.