Personalization Must Extend to Self-Service

Customer service organizations have long been focused on the benefits of self-service. Every customer that does not call into a contact center is money in the bank, and contact centers are nothing if not cost-efficiency focused. We might have moved on from interactive voice response systems to Web FAQs to bots and virtual agents, but the underlying driver for many remains taking costs out of the business.

Savvy customer service pros have also recognized that customers seem to prefer self-service, at least based on increased usage. This should be no surprise, since many companies offer sub-standard experiences on their agent-assisted channels, plagued by interminably long queue times, IVRs and agents both asking for the same customer information, and agents with little power to go off-script to solve customer issues. Were agent-assisted service of a consistently higher quality, it is possible that customers might actually prefer those channels more often.

That, however, does not mean that customers will never use the phone going forward. Phone use for customer service has steadily decreased over the past six years, and we predict it will dip even further as customers increasingly adopt digital channels. But phone still has its role: customers resolve straightforward 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 a phone conversation. These questions often take longer to resolve and are opportunities to build positive customer relationships with an end goal of increased customer loyalty.

Still, as it stands, customers increasingly leverage self-service channels for customer service. these channels offer minimal interaction friction. And that easy experience is critical: Forrester data shows that 72 percent of U.S. online adults believe that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good online customer service.

Self-service, however, does not have to value efficiency over experience. Excellent experiences can co-exist with efficiency. Think about a company brining to bear the information and context its customer service organizations knows about its customers and their situations to provide a differentiated service experience. Personalized self-service shows customers that the company values their time.

Let me provide a concrete example: When passenger calls Delta Airlines about a canceled flight, its IVR can tell when the caller ID field matches a mobile phone that recently received a cancellation notice via text message. When the IVR gets a match, it skips the standard menu in favor of a single, context-aware question "Are you calling about the text message we just sent you?" That personalized touch provides an excellent experience while also being more efficient for the customer.

That last bit is key: The efficiency is all for the customer's sake. Delta's IVR does not care if the customer had to wade through the full, normal menu to get to the correct option; the cost per call for Delta would be the same either way. Delta does this personalization because the customer receives a richer experience, one that shows the customer that the airline knows who they are and understands their situations.

Customer service pros should not limit this type of personalization to IVRs and speech applications. Customers logged in and authenticated in mobile apps, for example, should also feel that they have gone through the effort of registering and logging in for a reason. The same goes for customers logged in to a Web site. Companies can personalize everything from the script that a virtual agent uses to the knowledge presented in a knowledgebase search.

If customers feel that respecting their time is the most important thing that you can do to provide them great customer service—and they do—what better way to show them that you value their limited time than treating them as individuals while they are using your lowest-cost service channels?

Ian Jacobs is a senior analyst at Forrester Research.