Younger Generations Increasingly Self-Serve Through Non-Company Digital Channels

It is a common belief among many service organizations that older generations, especially baby boomers, prefer to call a customer service rep (CSR) to resolve service or product issues. As a result, customer service and support functions invest significant amounts of effort and expense to evaluate customer journeys on company-owned channels like phone and web chat.

However, a Gartner survey of 4,300 customers reveals 71 percent—including baby boomers—prefer to resolve their issues without having to contact customer service. This has been on the rise for the past five years. The 2021 Gartner "Customer Service and Support State of the Customer" survey reveals significant differences in digital channel preference between older and younger generations. Nearly half (48 percent) of baby boomers and more than one-third (38 percent) of Gen X customers begin their issue-resolution journeys on company websites. On the other hand, younger generations (millennials and Gen Z) are more likely to start their resolution journeys outside company-owned channels.

Although younger customers do use company websites to begin their issue resolution journeys, they more often rely on channels outside of what companies' service and support function offers. Specifically, 46 percent of millennials and 48 percent of Gen Z customers turn to non-company channels, such as search engines (including Google, Bing, and Yahoo) and third-party sites (including YouTube, Quora, and Reddit) to self-serve. In fact, younger generations frequently try to resolve their issues without involving the CSS function at all (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Bar chart showing which channel customers across generations would typically use to begin their issue resolution journey.

Rest assured, this tendency among younger generations to rely on non-company channels is not, in fact, a problem for customer service and support leaders. Instead, service leaders should embrace this trend because it helps increase customer loyalty. Gartner found that Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and value enhancement scores (VES) are higher among customers who begin their issue-resolution journeys outside the company's channels. Additionally, the overwhelming preference among customers of all generations to self-serve should reassure service leaders who are prioritizing future investments in digital capabilities, particularly self-service channels such as online portals, community forums, and chatbots.

This data indicates that digital capabilities are necessary investments. However, service leaders must remember that the world is advancing digitally alongside their organizations. As a result, customers have more options for issue resolution beyond company channels, of which they often take advantage when trying to self-serve.

With this shift, Gartner recommends that service leaders assess the issue-resolution journey for external channels and the contributions of those channels to customer loyalty. To do this, service leaders should take the following measures to expand the scope of their voice of the customer (VOC) programs to better reflect customers' behaviors:

  • Audit the entire customer service journey by researching the most common service issues solved in popular search engines;
  • Ensure company-owned web pages dominate the first page of search engine results by investing in search engine optimization (SEO);
  • Dedicate a portion of employees to reviewing third-party content to enable customer service representatives to confidently dispel misleading or incorrect information in their service interactions with customers; and
  • Enable service and support employees to create issue-resolution content on the third-party sites customers most frequently visit so they can have credible information to resolve issues themselves.

By taking these steps, customer service and support leaders will better understand the pain points their younger customers will likely face when attempting to self-serve. These steps will also allow the service function to help customers successfully self-resolve their issues without having to directly engage with agents.

Deborah Alvord is senior director analyst in Gartner's Customer Service & Support Practice.