The covid pandemic produced a strong move to self-service while still maintaining phone access for more complex issues. However, the results have not always been positive. In his Washington Post Magazine column, “Your Call Is Unimportant To Us,” Gene Weingarten noted that, “the delay is deliberate. They want you to rot and fume on the phone until you give up and go to their website. That is why the hold music tends to sound like an all-chimp kazoo band.” Many customers still call because on-line self-service is often a nightmare to navigate, especially for more complex issues.
To avoid the above diatribe directed at your company, consider taking the six actions described below.
1. Assign accountability for onboarding to one executive to assure proper customer expectations and employee training: proactively address on the website homepage the top five issues that customers may encounter.
Up to 30 percent of all contacts and queries are either a function of a predictable incorrect customer expectation or customer mistake. Most of this service workload can be prevented if you effectively communicate UP FRONT with customers. The reason companies fail at this task is that no person or department is responsible for effective onboarding of the customer. Further, Marketing views the website home page as purely for marketing, however, 90 percent of existing customers first try to self-service on the website. Research from Customer Care Measurement & Consulting (CCMC) finds that the damage from frustration can be great because a majority of customers do not complain even about serious issues. However, they still spread negative word of mouth (WOM). This is especially damaging in a B2B environment where 50-90 percent of all new customers come from WOM referrals. 
The strategy for preventing these 30 percent of contacts is effective onboarding of customers and highlighting top issues on the website home page or help page. Here are six steps for onboarding customers, once a company executive is made accountable:
- Identify/characterize the customers to be onboarded in terms of technological and product knowledge
- Motivate the customer to get educated – scare, bribe, challenge or cajole
- Provide basic education via multiple channels (speech, video, graphic) and assure that the company’s mobile app is downloaded to the customer’s mobile phone
- Guide the customer to self-service from every entry point to the website
- Provide advanced education on product features after the basics have been mastered
- Conduct evaluation of each approach to customer education to determine which worked best
After onboarding the customer, be sure to put the top five issues on the home page and the main help page. Most companies’ Marketing Directors push back at having service issues on the home page – but more than half of all home page visitors are existing customers trying to get something done. Putting hyperlinks to the top five issues in a section of the website home page will result in at least a ten percent (and often much more) decline in the calls on those five issues. At one insurance company, placing the hyperlink for “Print my invoice, ” diverted 90,000 additional contacts in one month.
2. Analyze your service contact workload and escalations, rank order the contacts, and then divide the full list of contacts into simple, moderately complex, and very complex issues.
The objective of the analysis is to identify opportunities for prevention via proactive education, just in time delivery (JIT), and self-service. Draw upon all data sources describing your service workload, including Website visits and page views, failed website searches (which few companies ever look at – every failed search probably results in a phone call), Mobile-app use, Chatbot, live chat, and SMS activity, issues raised in the online community and your telephone and IVR volume.
You should use three levels of query complexity and consider four response approaches to each query. Responses could include proactive education, website or IVR self-service, JIT education at a particular stage of the customer journey, or handle upon contact by the customer.
Prevention can be as simple as having a banner at the top of an online form that says, “These are the three most prevalent mistakes made on this form!” A banner like this on an HR benefits insurance company intake website dramatically reduced the three most frequent errors made by agents filling out the form, thus reducing both returned forms and delayed enrollments. The moderately complex issues are perfect for ChatBots driven with Artificial Intelligence (AI) with one caveat. Like interactive voice response systems, the first time the customer is misunderstood, there must be an offer of connection to a human or you risk creating significant frustration and anger.
JIT interventions require that the CRM system track the customer through the journey, e.g., applying for a mortgage, and flag when certain information is most appropriate. For a simple issue, in the case of a mortgage application, the JIT could provide a definition of the item of information requested when the customer encounters it in the online form. For a moderately complex issue, a tip sheet on submitting documentation could be provided or a notification that all paperwork is submitted except for two items in the list, respecifying what those two items are.
3. Identify, via text analysis, the dozen ways simple and moderately complex issues can be addressed by Q&A and provide an AI-driven type-ahead (suggest next word or phrase) query box to direct the customer to the best answer.
Identifying the appropriate keywords and intentionality are two of the most important and challenging issues. The keywords provide links to specific articles and answers. Understanding intentionality points to the best of the articles addressing the keyword. For example, a question about a dog food product, “Where was this product made?” may not want to know what manufacturing plant. The question may actually indicate concern about the geographic source of the ingredients, i.e., “is it a country with which has had ingredient purity issues?”
The ultimate intention of the customer must also be understood. For instance, a question might be, “what is this charge?” If you say the charge is a late fee, the customer could have meant “why do I have this late charge?” The best approach is to provide an answer that defines the issue, explains how the answer was derived, the policy behind the answer, and, hopefully, anticipate the answer to the next question.
4. Assure that your self-service is available via the full range of channels, e.g., website, SMS, Chatbot, and online community, thus discouraging the use of email.
Customer accessibility to information is often an issue of simple website navigation – all the possible channels must be visible at once. The customer will start at the top of the page and read down so that what is highlighted at the top will most likely be used, BUT, all channels should be immediately visible. This eliminates addressing the chicken-or-egg question of whether customers really prefer to call on the phone or call because they cannot find the answer via other channels.
For example, AARP has done a great job of making every channel visible on one screen on the AARP Help Center page. Further, they have diverted almost all email via an auto-response, which directs customers to the Help Center home page. Brian Clancy, AARP’s Head of Consumer Care Learning & Performance Improvement, reports that, “We are 100 percent done with email now. The knowledge base, facing both outward to the public via Help Search and the chatbot, and inward to the contact centers, is even more developed,” assuring a high-resolution rate. The AARP Help Center page, which includes all channels, is shown below – even email is shown although members that use email are directed to try faster, friendlier channels.
Further, put in a “safety valve” of an escalation channel to a higher level contact handling group who are adept at handling frustrated customers. The cause of their frustration will guide you on how to continuously improve your self-service system. The best example I’ve seen of a low-key offer of escalation is TELUS, the progressive Canadian communications company. TELUS does not hide its escalation channel, it is easily accessed from the help page or even Google. The page is illustrated below. It also assures executive response within a day, which is also refreshing.
5. Identify which queries can lead to opportunities to emotionally connect and cross-sell and develop response strategies to take advantage of them.
CCMC’s 2021 Customer Delight Study found that simple inquiries and requests can provide opportunities for creating delight using education, cross-selling, humor and enthusiasm as well as eleven other delight actions. Some service experts have suggested that “the best service is no service,” because no service expense is incurred if the customer self-services themselves. This is not necessarily true from a big picture perspective, because no service interaction also means no opportunity to connect with, delight, and cross-sell that customer. Therefore, there must be an analysis of the opportunity that exists for education, delight, adding extra value and cross-selling to the customer.
For example, if a customer searches the website or sends an email concerning exclusions and limitations of his/her homeowner’s policy, this may present a cross-selling and education opportunity. If the customer does not have their auto insurance bundled, after receiving great service on the homeowners policy, they can be cross-sold the auto policy. If the cross-sell is offered and rejected, the CRM record will flag that fact and delete future cross-sell offers. Further, providing a broader list of exclusions will prevent future surprises and possibly create delight. Likewise, if a customer asks about or wants to buy a lipstick, it makes sense to suggest lip-liner and cheek blush along with education on how to match products in the future. Cross-selling and educating the customer on items they can really use often creates delight, which then fosters powerful word of mouth and gains new customers. In summary, the best service is NOT always no service.
6. Continually analyze and evaluate your success rate and add new issues to your knowledge base.
Both self-service and customer onboarding must continuously evolve as your products and services do. An effective approach is to require Marketing and Product Management to provide you with new responses and website entries each time their offerings are updated. Some companies create Service Level Agreements where Marketing and Manufacturing are evaluated on the Knowledge Base update process – with a metric being the number of customer requests for information that lack answers in the Knowledge Base.
For example, AARP has viewed the Help Center as an ongoing process. Member phone calls are down over eight percent and satisfaction is at record highs. Further, email volume has almost gone to zero as members have found other channels more satisfactory. Evaluation via surveys and other approaches to Voice of the Customer are continuing monthly.
Some of the metrics that should be applied in self-service include:
- Reduction of issues targeted by the onboarding process – primary issues can decline by 75 percent and secondary issues by 20 percent
- Channel success by issue along with the satisfaction of customers by issue. Lower customer satisfaction indicates an opportunity to enhance the explanation and content of the reply or onboarding process
- Failed website searches and escalations both indicate where the customer has looked for information and failed
- Customer effort scores along with willingness to recommend and value for price paid
- Instances of delight and success in cross-selling – add a delighted or exceeded expectations category to your satisfaction survey
Self-service is not a panacea or one-size fits all, self-service is:
- Preventing the need to call by proactively answering questions
- Providing easy access and response to basic transactions and questions 7/24
- Reducing customer effort by providing answer via desired channel
Self Service is NOT:
- A technology play – the hard part is inventorying and assessing issues
- A solution to handling complex issues
- A one size fits all solution – requires granular analysis of workload and granular answers
- A one-time fix – significant resources are needed for maintenance and update
Companies error in implementing self-service by having the service function expand the website FAQ listing and search engine and then declaring, “Mission Accomplished!” If they do not simultaneously expand customer onboarding and education and only link search to a limited number of ways of asking the question, they will only partially achieve their goal and cause more expense and customer dissatisfaction.
A more intelligent approach is to first make one executive responsible for effectively onboarding the customer and then provide links to the top five issues on the home or help page. This step should be followed by addressing the top five issues in each step of the customer journey using terminology that accommodates the top ten ways each issue could be asked. Next, provide escalation channel and analyze and address why customers need to escalate. Finally, continuously evaluate and update as the company offerings evolve.
 Gene Weingarten, “Your Call Is Unimportant To Us,” Washington Post Magazine, January 10, 2021.
 David Beinhacker and John Goodman, “No News is NOT Good News”, Quirks Media, November 20, 2017, https://www.quirks.com/articles/in-b2b-environments-no-news-is-not-good-news.
 Email exchange with Brian Clancy of AARP, August 2021.
 William Price, The Best Service is No Service, Jossey Bass, 2008.