Practical Tips on Customer care

I love those sushi restaurants where you sit around a revolving belt and select from a whole variety of delicious snacks on a small plate. I love being able to choose exactly what I want, how much I want, and only pay for what I eat. I also love the fact that you can eat and go within minutes, or stay as long as you want. And then, to top it off, you have the entertainment of sushi chefs preparing more delicacies with great skill in the central arena.

But self-service is not always something I enjoy, and I have noticed a trend in business that, quite frankly, irritates me – a lot. And what is most irritating is that you don’t get a chance to actually speak to a live human being when you need help.

Consulting firm Gartner declares, “Customer self-service software enables customers to conduct and fulfil transactions on their own. In the increasingly digital world, self-service options are becoming more prevalent and are providing unique opportunities for organisations. Organisations with a focus on self-service options can gain a competitive edge.”

Already about 55% of all transactions are done via self-service across most of the world’s developed countries, and in many industries. It is estimated that this will move up to about 75% by 2020. Since it seems to be this year’s “flavour of the month” for many large businesses, I think I’m going to become quite rebellious about this trend. I hated the modern day salt mines that we call “contact centres” from the first time I had to use one, but accepted them as a natural progression of the business world. This time, I’m not going to do so, because I’m grumpier and more cynical than before.

Why do companies want to alienate their customers like this? It is sold to customers as a more efficient and empowering way for them to transact with the company in this connected digital world, and words like “consistency” and “personalisation” are used. But in reality that is far from the truth. The main reason a company introduces customer self-service is to significantly reduce operational costs, and, of course, it is the shareholders who benefit, not the customers. I’m definitely not willing to sponsor their desire to buy a third holiday home on an exotic island.

I’m not suggesting that it’s all bad, as the sushi restaurant example demonstrates. I love buying books and gadgets off the internet, where websites like the oft-quoted offer a great experience that is better than most retailers. If it truly does save me time and effort, then I’m okay with that. I like the fact that I can check in for my flight and get the desirable seat from the airline’s website, (rather than pitch up at the airport three hours before the flight is due to leave. It’s wonderful to get a simple question answered, or order a new credit card, or scan and pay for groceries, or monitor how far the courier company has gone with my delivery of documents, without having to jump through hoops.

But it becomes intellectually challenging and emotionally draining when you try to reset a password on your digital satellite TV decoder by trying to follow a set of unintelligible commands. I get frustrated when I cannot talk to a reasonably intelligent human being about being nagged for payment of an account that was already paid last month.

It drives me crazy when the robot doesn’t understand my South African accent, (like when I recently had a simple question for ACSA about the arrival time for an Etihad flight. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the voice, and I found myself repeating “Etihad! Etihad!” several times before I just hung up.)

And it’s all very well to scan and pay for your groceries – if you vaguely understood how the system worked. ATMs and company websites are fine – when they work. Have you ever tried to redeem your hard-earned miles for an upgrade or a free flight without talking to a real person?

If your business really must go the self-service route, then please allow me to give you some free advice:

  • When you set out to create self-service capabilities, make sure that your customers can easily and seamlessly get help from a person. Never force customers to use self-service if they don’t want to.
  • Design the system so that it can be understood by the stupidest, digitally-uneducated human being – someone like me. (And, by the way, make it easy to read on my mobile phone without having to resort to a magnifying glass.)
  • Pay attention to all the information and questions that will be needed for a successful transaction, and also that all possible accents can be accommodated. Ensure that there is feedback on all insights that you can deduce to keep it all dynamic rather than cast in stone. Test your system again and again and again before you introduce it to the customers who choose to use it.
  • Do your best to establish your customer’s exact intention or goal in every transaction, and to respond to that effectively, (not only efficiently.)
  • Also determine all customer information that will affect your success. Things like how recently I last visited or transacted with your business, how long I have spent trying to do something right now, where I am transacting from right now, (I may be on the other side of the world,) and any other information that may be significant.
  • Be courteous in your communication, and remember that not all your customer touch points and experiences will be able to go through self-service.
  • Make sure that the self-service option first adds value for customers – save them money, time or effort, or give them access to information that they normally wouldn’t be able to find. Then, and only then, reward the shareholders by reducing operational costs.
  • Never, ever use a self-service system to sell your customers more stuff – unless you are absolutely certain that they will benefit.

Like all other interactions with your customers, you need to be clear about how much added value they will get from a self-service strategy, or you will eventually pay a high price for their frustration. If you don’t know where to start, visit your local sushi bar, or get onto the decent and successful websites to see how they do it.

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