Unpacking the New Self-Service Paradigm

The coronavirus pandemic brought many changes to the business world, most of which would have occurred anyway, although at a slower pace. One area where this is happening is the rise of self-service, which is today's preferred way of getting answers, placing orders, and making transactions. Consumers, more so than business partners, like to do things for themselves rather than interact with live agents. Consumers' preferred self-service channels vary greatly by region. In the United States, it is still primarily websites, interactive voice response (IVR), and chat. In Europe, websites and SMS top the list, and in Africa it's WhatsApp. (Please note that email is not considered a self-service channel.) There are many channels that customers can use to communicate with companies, which is a challenge in itself.

IVRs Are on the Decline

Interactive voice response was the earliest of the self-service channels, and for the past 40 years it has been one of the busiest, second only to websites in the past two decades. Many enterprises that receive millions of calls per week use IVRs to displace (fully handle) 50 percent to 95 percent of these interactions, eliminating the need for their customers to speak with agents. This is why many companies do not want to replace them. In many cases, the company wants to invest in new technologies and applications instead of taking the risk of enhancing an existing system that works well. (This is the classic "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" management approach.) Other companies are very concerned about the impact of providing alternative self-service channels; they are worried that they won't be as effective as their IVRs, and they cannot afford to add live agents. These concerns and others are legitimate and understandable but negatively impacting the brand and cost structure of many companies.

Companies that were using flexible intelligent virtual assistants/agents (IVAs) during the coronavirus crisis were much more effective at handling inquiries, particularly when the pandemic first broke out, when their interaction volume and handle times increased by anywhere from 10 percent to hundreds of percentages at the same time as the number of available agent hours decreased. This is because these businesses were able to make the necessary changes to IVA scripts and options very quickly, without waiting for IT, allowing them to be highly responsive to their customers' needs.

Organizations that used bots on their websites and to front-end inquiries from email, chat, SMS, messaging, and other digital channels, to automate as many inquiries as they could, were also more responsive when volume was high. Even if the bot couldn't fully resolve every inquiry, it could handle a portion of the work that would have been done by live agents, making the department more productive.

And organizations that used attended robotic process automation (RPA) to help their agents handle live inquiries and interactions found these solutions invaluable, as they mechanized many of the tasks that had previously been done by agents. This includes cutting and pasting customer information from one system to another, looking up answers from knowledge bases, finding relevant customer histories, filling in a lot of the information for new cases, next best action, and a lot more.

New Technology for the Changed Business World

Customers expect a great omnichannel experience. They want to be able to pivot easily from one channel to another based on their needs and for companies to know who they are during every step of their journeys. This was impossible as recently as three years ago, but companies can achieve this today with the right artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and analytics. While many companies are still talking about their digital transformations, leading enterprises are moving into the next phases. Companies that are leaving behind their voice-centric servicing experiences of the past and adopting a digital-first servicing mindset and approach are going to have a competitive cost and service advantage. This is not to say that voice is going away completely, as the pandemic made it clear that talking to agents continues to be an important communication and servicing channel.

There are hundreds of thousands of outdated touchtone and speech-enabled IVR self-service solutions on the market. DMG estimates that 95 percent or more of these solutions are in need of a major update in technology and functionality. If they do this properly, DMG expects companies to see a significant increase in the self-service automation rates, even where the displacement level is at 95 percent. (An increase of as little as 0.5 percent in interaction displacement will save millions of dollars per month for companies that handle millions of calls, emails, chats, etc.)

The new AI-enabled and intelligent omnichannel self-service solutions are generations ahead of what was available five to 15 years ago when many of these voice only-self service solutions were put into production. Now that self-service is the preferred channel for consumers, give them what they want – effective and feature-rich omnichannel capabilities that are easy to use. This will also help enhance your brand and give you a competitive advantage and major cost savings.

Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is an expert on contact centers, analytics, and back-office technology. She has 30 years of experience helping organizations build contact centers and back-office operating environments and assisting vendors to deliver competitive solutions. She can be reached at Donna.Fluss@dmgconsult.com.