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Select 1 for Confusion. Press 4 for Frustration.

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Self service fail

Self service “kiosks“ are now appearing in airports, supermarkets and banks, and we’ve had automated call answering services for decades. Good ideas in principle, but too many companies get it seriously wrong.

As a customer, I’ve never been clear about why companies choose to provide self-service.  And based on my user experiences I am not sure that they are clear.

Most companies are schizophrenic, oscillating between the two options:

  • Reducing costs by eliminating customer facing staff
  • Improving customer satisfaction by allowing access when and where a customer wants it

Clearly self service is on the increase. Just, this week I have been a supermarket checkout operator, an airline check-in assistant and baggage handler, and bank teller.  And this is just the physical self service. There is an even longer list of online self service actions this week; buying books, ordering tickets, trying to book a US driving test.

Why offer self service?

So is it cost saving or improved customer satisfaction? The critical question is: “Can it be both, and if so what is required?”

Firstly, self service has some unique characteristics, whether it is B2B or B2C:

  • The user of the self service is an untrained and infrequent user
  • There is limited opportunity to get feedback on the experience from the user
  • In most situations, if it is too difficult or confusing a user simply walks away, into the arms of a competitor
  • It can make or destroy a customer relationship
  • Done well it can be a huge competitive advantage, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction
  • It is rarely done well

Self-service is rarely done well. 

At the heart of the problem is the strategy.  Self service should be seen as a way of providing far better customer service and a competitive differentiation. It should NOT been seen as a cost cutting.  Done well it will result in reduced costs.

Once the strategy is clear, then the things fall into place.  An outside-in, customer-centric view of the end to end process needs to be taken.  Although self-service is customer facing / front office, it will reach deep into the organization and may change back office processes. For most organizations this is a significant task requiring a senior level commitment in terms of time, resources and budget.

This is very different to the cost cutting quick fix where a website or telephone menu system is often slapped onto poor front facing processes and ineffective back office processes. Sadly this is the approach that most of us experience day in, day out.

Once the processes are clear, then the supporting technology becomes obvious.

So the aim is to design the best customer experience taking into account the different ways that a customer can touch you; email, website, telephone and post. That experience must be easy and painless as possible for an uninitiated, untrained, disinterested first time user.

Great customer experience is often difficult to explain. It is often easier to identify what causes a poor customer experience, so let’s explore these:

Getting it wrong: phone systems

Most organizations now seem to have some form of automated routing telephone systems. They were cool and cutting edge in the 1980’s. Now they are a bane of our lives with some appalling implementations.

Here are some examples of how to get it wrong:

  • Menu list from hell – long lists of menu and sub-menu options in no logical order or numerical sequence
  • Cul de sacs and dead-ends – if you cannot provide the information required to get to the next step eg a customer number you cannot get back to the previous option
  • DIY or DIY  – no option to talk to a human being so stuck in endless loop
  • Don’t you know who I am?  – You are asked enter a stack of customer information to “route you to the best operator” and when put through they ask you for it all over again
  • Your call is important to us – Yet you are still kept on hold for 10 mins being told that all lines are busy, but you are very important.

Every one of these issues could have been eliminated if a process led approach was taken, thinking about why the customer was calling and the possible outcomes; customer journeys.

Getting it wrong: ecommerce websites

Self service websites can really make a company shine or shoot itself in the foot. There was a brilliant blog called “How to make your shopping cart suck less” which was rather irreverently imploring people to improve their ecommerce websites by adopting some common sense.

The blog cites several examples including:

  • Hunt the icon – The Login/Register and Cart buttons are now typically top right. Why try and be clever and put them somewhere else?
  • First things first – Why make me register and enter payment details just to find out the cost of shipping and tax?

 However, self service now goes beyond ecommerce and is now tapping into the same data that customer support staff use, either to maintain customer details or to get support.  Examples of this are online banking and product support. These involve more complex customer processes and places even more emphasis on clear process design combined with a great user interface.

Potential competitive advantage

With more variability, (and therefore the possibility for confusion) this is the one area where true competitive differentiation is possible.

Self service “kiosks“ are now appearing in airports, supermarkets and banks. Normally there are staff hovering close by to support new users as they struggle to understand what they need to do based on the onscreen instructions.

Again, a little process thinking prior to implementation would smooth out the user experience or identify where additional support is required. As standard approaches emerge, then these need to be adopted for those who have a different approach.

If you do not offer self service, you are perfectly positioned to leapfrog the competition. Provided you take it seriously enough.

If you already have self service options when was the last time your Head of Customer Service tried navigating through it like a first time customer? That should be the catalyst to kick off a serious redesign.

And once you have fixed your customer self-service, you can focus on employee self-service which is probably just as convoluted.


Sometimes you will get it wrong, but not as wrong as this: (company name withheld)

I was struggling to use the self service website, so opted to phone the customer service number. Having navigated through the maze of options and sub-options I finally spoke to a real person. She patiently explained that she could not help me because the service was only available online, and when I said I wanted to formally register a complaint she gave me this response: “complaints can only be handled by email.”

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