How to Use Customer Self-Service During an Economic Downturn

When will the next economic downturn take place? Some say it has already begun; some predict it's about to start; and others expect it to start next year. Predictions aside, we won't necessarily know the timing of the next downturn until it strikes.

Despite increased connections across global economies, every country is affected differently by economic downturns, as is the unique impact on businesses around the globe. What is consistent across firms of all sizes and industries around the world is that companies must be prepared to quickly adjust when a downturn starts to survive and thrive during this period.

Economic downturns are often times when firms are challenged in driving revenue growth, and as a result, aim to decrease operating costs to maintain and improve profitability. This typically translates to decreased marketing spend and a reduction in investment across other areas of the business, including customer service.

Firms aiming to decrease service costs have a higher risk of eliminating important capabilities that help them delight customers while retaining and growing their spend. For example, reducing agent headcount will likely result in increased wait times for customers to connect to a live agent. This frustrates clients and negatively impacts customer experience.

On the other hand, businesses that understand the building blocks for customer satisfaction are less likely to reduce investments and spend across those necessary areas—decreasing the risk of alienating their clientele. Frustrated customers of service organizations that aim to blindly cut cost are also more likely to prefer working with businesses that see service activities as a value add. Firms that are solely driven by cost-cutting measures during economic downturns are more likely to lose their clientele to their competitors and will, therefore, emerge weaker than competitors when the economy starts growing again.

Why Self-Service?

There are many levers service leaders can pull to keep their customers happy while still reducing costs. One of the most important ones is focusing on getting self-service right. Aberdeen's research shows that 85 percent of contact centers already use self-service capabilities, such as web self-service, interactive voice response, chat bots, or online communities.

Self-service enables customers to skip navigating several steps in the IVR system, such as explaining their issues to agents or potentially getting transferred to another agent to explain the issue once again. In other words, when designed effectively (more on that below), self-service helps reduce customer effort and frustration. For the contact center, self-service reduces reliance on agent-assisted service, and thus, allows firms to reduce labor and telephony costs for interactions that would have otherwise been handled by a live agent. As such, firms aiming to control and decrease costs should consider incorporating self-service capabilities within their activities.

It's important to note that solely building a self-service website or adding a chat bot isn't enough to achieve the maximum benefits from self-service. The measure of success in self-service isn't just reduction in service costs. Rather, it's improvement in customer satisfaction rates, resulting in increased customer loyalty and spend. It isn't just firms without self-service capabilities that should consider how to successfully use it to weather an economic downturn. For companies with current self-service programs to survive and thrive during an economic downturn, they must use the following fundamentals:

  • Integrate self-service within your omnichannel activities. Customers get frustrated when they observe conflicting or inconsistent messages from companies with which they work . For example, if a customer changed his address through the self-service portal, this information should be reflected to the agent in the customer's next call for support.
  • Use self-service for simple issues. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) mean that AI can analyze vast volumes of structured and unstructured data to find hidden insights and use them to steer customer conversations. Despite these advances, AI is not yet advanced enough to show a customer empathy or address more complex issues, such as various insurance coverage questions from a patient or questions from a customer seeking guidance on repairs for an insurance claim. To this point, Aberdeen's research shows that the number one reason why self-service fails and customers call into the contact center is not being able to find the information and/or help they need through self-service. We recommend determining interaction types that have the highest traffic volume and identifying those that are rather simple in nature. In other words, interactions that customers can handle on their own without special knowledge or skills. Examples for such interactions include account balance checks, password resets, bill payments, etc.
  • Use Voice of the Customer (VoC) data and analytics to gauge self-service success. When self-service fails, customers are frustrated. Using customer feedback data available through online surveys, social media portals, online communities, post-interaction surveys, etc., sheds light into customer sentiment regarding effectiveness of self-service. Savvy contact center leaders use analytics to observe the most common complaints from customers using self-service. The resulting insights can reveal that the company might not have an article on the self-service portal that would help customers address an issue. Upon this discovery, an article can be added to alleviate a common issue for clients. Similarly, customers interacting with a chat bot might find that the bot can't handle certain tasks, such as checking order delivery status for items purchased in the company store but delivered to the consumer's address. Again, upon discovery, the firm can integrate store systems with its order management system and ensure that the chat bot accesses the right data to answer client questions.

Self-service isn't a new concept. It's been used in different ways across many contact centers. The three activities above are designed to help establish a strong foundation for an effective self-service strategy. However, success is by no means limited to using only those three activities. If you're using self-service and have tips you'd like to share with your peers, please comment below. What activities have you used when designing and managing your self-service program to maintain and reduce costs while delighting your customers?

Omer Minkara is a vice president and principal analyst for contact center and customer experience management at Aberdeen. Follow him on Twitter @omerminkara.