AARP’s Journey to Strategic Self-Service: How to Maximize Both the Top and Bottom Lines


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Dissatisfaction is only one touch away

For the past five years, my local drug store, part of a large national chain, had a simple, very effective, Interactive Voice Response System (IVR) for requesting refills. Their IVR did three things well: take refill orders, give pharmacy hours and transfer the customer to the pharmacist. Recently, the drug chain “upgraded” the system to include a broader voice recognition process which began with the general question, “How may I help you today?” Unfortunately, if you say you want to refill a prescription, the IVR only recognizes the request half the time, and the other half sends the customer into a rabbit-hole from where there often is no recovery except to hang up and try again. The company took a good system and made it highly frustrating.

In another frustrating example, a major delivery company highlighted a chat-bot system on its help page while hiding its 800#. When I typed “file a complaint” and “report a problem” the bot replied that, “Complaints cannot be submitted via this channel,” but provided no other channel. When I described my experience to the SVP of Strategy for the company I had worked with, he was incredulous. After investigation, he confirmed my experience and stated that no one in management was aware that the chatbot was giving such an unsatisfying response: “We don’t take complaints.” 

In both cases, the companies had Customer Experience (CX) executives, but the implementation of self-service was delegated with little oversight to Operations and IT Management.

Commmon Self-Service Pitfalls

Six common pitfalls must be avoided if self-service is not to end up doing more damage than good.

  • Self-service: i.e., no human service, is viewed as cost-savings and the best service. – Self-service cannot be a barrier to human service if the customer wants it. You should recognize that you are forgoing the opportunity to connect with, delight, and cross-sell to that customer. Customer Care Measurement & Consulting’s National Delight study demonstrated that small delight actions can drive higher margins and sales and foster powerful word of mouth.[i]
  • Self-service does not view customer onboarding as part of self-service. If a customer is effectively onboarded and educated on the product/service use, the need for support is reduced by as much as 50 percent. Unfortunately, most companies have not created accountability for initially onboarding customers, thus customers are educated one question/issue at a time by Service.
  • Many companies intentionally establish barriers to accessing a human. Many companies fear that making human channels too easy to access will inflate service costs, yet 80-90 percent of customers prefer to self-service if possible.
  • Continue to use artificial intelligence (AI) too long after the customer has become frustrated. Customers will tolerate one error by an AI-driven chatbot. Multiple errors create frustration and often lead to customers abandoning their search and high levels of dissatisfaction.
  • Treating self-service solely as a tech play. While technology is an important part of self-service, the analysis of workload, identifying the range of phrases for each question, planning of the centralized knowledge base and tuning of the response process are the keys to success.
  • Treating self-service as a one-time fix. Unless nothing changes in your corporate offering, marketing strategy, or the business environment, you will need to refresh your self-service process at least quarterly.

AARP’s Transition to Strategic Self-Service Process

At an international forum of CX executives, Matt Chinn, VP of the AARP Help Network, recently presented AARP’s two-year journey to advanced self-service.[ii] AARP, with 34 million members, had a service system heavily based on telephone and email communications – along with a remarkable number of (physical) letters, given its older member base. 

The first step put all member communications channels under one executive and created the Help Network. This included chat, email, social media, SMS, search, phone, letter, and online community. The data on failed searches from the search function provided especially helpful guidance on what customers were looking for that they had difficulty finding. The second challenging step created what Chinn called “the single source of truth” which contained all the answers in the KMS to support the website and all contact centers. This action required all departments, including Marketing and Finance, to keep policies and response rules up to date in the KMS and enhance internal support agreements and commitments.

A series of new technology tools were required to support both response and channel management. AARP acquired an AI-driven chat-bot (supported by Coveo, a leader in AI-powered search, recommendations, and personalization), social monitoring tool, and SMS integration. It also upgraded its mobile app. Adoption of the mobile app assured that members would most likely use self-service to execute basic transactions. Thus, a strong push was made to encourage adoption of the mobile app, including offering loyalty points that could be exchanged for other benefits. The adoption rate is currently at about 35 percent which is good, but not where Chinn would like it to be. After handling initial calls from members, the contact centers offer to assist the member in loading the app.

The content to be offered via self-service was selected using three criteria, frequency, simplicity, and low probability of emotional connection or cross-selling. Issues with a higher probability of connection and cross-selling were steered to the human channel. 

Coveo’s Relevance Cloud™ assisted AARP in identifying the full range of keywords and phrases associated with the question- assuring that the feeds to the website information complemented the SEO strategy created by the Marketing Department. Verbatim customer comments were analyzed to identify alternative wording/phrases and to identify gaps. Criteria were specified to exit the self-service/AI tool and offer live chat or phone. Mark Floisand, SVP Product Marketing at Coveo added: “Key to AARP’s self-service success has been the ability to provide members the specific answers they are looking for, irrespective of content source or type (from knowledge articles to videos).  These answers can be provided via whatever channel the members prefer, such as their help website, agent workspace, and the portfolio of chatbots. Coveo’s Relevance platform unifies disparate information into a single index and feeds the same answer to a question, asked a dozen different ways, into a variety of delivery systems that pass the most relevant content to each member.”[2]

The next step was to present all the communication channels on a single Help Network screen with the Chat-bot leading. The screen is shown in the figure below. The dropdown/typeahead list driven by the AI Chat-bot is at the top, followed by videos on frequently asked issues and new initiatives. All six of the available channels are presented near the bottom of the screen. Note that the email channel is presented even though AARP is discouraging email. This is achieved by responding to any email with an auto-response stressing the ease of other channels. This approach reduced email by over 80 percent. AARP expects to eliminate email in the foreseeable future.

Source: Presentation by Goodman/Chinn at the ICMI Expo, Session 404, Thursday October 7, 2021

The impact of the shift to the Help Network has been significant. Self-service is now handling almost 15 percent of the total contact workload, which is above Gartner’s benchmark for self-service. Email is down 80 percent while phone traffic is down over eight percent. Member satisfaction metrics are at record levels.

Matt Chinn’s advice to other organizations starting the self-service journey is, “Avoid customer confusion upfront with simplified marketing offers and effective member welcoming and onboarding. Phone agents should provide customers with links to encourage the transition to digital channels. Be careful with AI – do not overcommit. Finally, evaluate the impact on satisfaction across all channels and continually monitor the adoption of digital tools. If one approach is not moving the needle, experiment with another approach.”

Getting the Most Out of Self-Service

Five customer behaviors to keep in mind:

  • Customers do not read contracts or directions. Thirty percent of business customers do not carefully read their contracts and even more do not clearly communicate the details of the product or service purchased to the staff that will be using the product.[1] Therefore, basic questions and transactions are optimal targets for self-service.
  • A majority of customers (often 75-90 percent) do not complain, especially when befuddled by sales and marketing issues. Two failures in using self-service will cause the customer to go to the next vendor or escalate to higher service in a negative disposition.
  • At least 80-90 percent of customers go to website and Google Search before calling. Highlight self-service on the website home page and assure your answers appear high in internet search results using Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
  • Response can create delight. Half of delight experiences are created digitally, so design your self-service responses to create delight via transparency, empathy, enthusiasm, humor, and intelligent cross-selling.
  • Customers spread Word of Mouth (WOM) about their experiences. Intentionally design self-service responses to elicit delight (e.g., with words of enthusiasm and empathy) since WOM from delight is twice as impactful as WOM from satisfied customers.

Access the entire service workload to identify top opportunities

Look at the current service input from all channels including failed searches and social media. When appropriate, also look at contacts to non-service areas like field sales, receptionists, and finance offices. This inventory is the basis for the dissection of the workload into what is appropriate for self-service in step 4 below.

Enhance your onboarding process first

Identify the major personas of customers, e.g., technical vs. non-technical and develop an onboarding process that motivates customers to get educated on the top issues and questions they will encounter as basic users. Ideally, in a month, follow this basic education with advanced training via the customer’s preferred channel. See more on onboarding here.

The chart below shows the impact effective onboarding can have on customer problem experience, and by inference, the need for support, in a technology setting.

Source: Survey of 3,697 internet customers of major ISP, 2019 by CCMC

Dissect workload into basic transactions, basic questions, somewhat complex and complex

Basic transactions such as password resets and account maintenance are perfect candidates for self-service. Likewise, basic questions about product size, weight, stock availability, pricing, and features/functionality can also be addressed by self-service. The challenge comes from more complex questions and trouble-shooting. A majority of this universe should not be assigned to self-service. When in doubt, conduct a pilot test and when you see failure more than ten percent of the time, take the issue out of self-service. Those issues with a failure rate of 3-10 percent can be redesigned, and if the failure rate decreases, keep the issue in self-service. Assume the cost (in terms of loyalty) of failure is five to ten times the payoff of success – so error on the side of human service.

Unify channel management

All communications channels must be placed under the same manager to assure that the same answers are given and the channels are managed coherently. This means that the website must be co-owned between IT, Marketing, and CX.

Unify the Knowledge Management System (KMS) and use it to drive both the website and the response process, including the human CSRs.

The KMS is often partitioned to allow customers to see most of it but not the service guidance and decision rules provided to the service staff.

Identify needed additional tools such as AI Chatbot, social monitoring, SMS integration, survey by issue, and the unified knowledge management system (KMS).

Chat has become the most popular communication channel because it is fast and provides a written record of the response. Social monitoring allows the identification of social posts requiring a response. SMS integration is needed to respond to text messages and automated email/text surveys are needed to measure success via every channel. The KMS is the heart of the self-service system. The answers to the customers must be the same for all channels.

Create unified help screen with dropdown type-ahead box

The website must present access to a unified help home page via one click from the home page. The SS channel can be highlighted (see the AARP example below), but all available channels should be instantly visible. Playing hide and seek with the 800 number or email channel does more damage than good.

Enhance digital responses to create delight and test efficacy for different issues

Analyze the major chat, email, and social responses and determine where one of the five delighters above can be woven into the response. A reasonable target to start with is 10 percent of responses going to 20 percent of responses based on ongoing survey feedback and learning.

Tune the response system; be conservative on the use of AI in chat-bots

AI is an important tool for selecting the self-service response based on the customer’s text question. However, when the customer indicates that the answer is not helpful, creating a smooth transition to offering a human channel is critical. Therefore, an important part of the AI system is its ability to identify failure and offer the channel transition.

Create process for updating self-service every three months

Plan on revisiting the workload mix every three months to see what has changed and what new basic questions have increased in volume. This will guide your update of the self-service system and the KMS.

Cconsider five metrics for process and outcome measures.

  • Transaction failure or exit rate from any channel – This is a flag that a process is not working
  • Satisfaction on a five-point scale, with a verbatim explaining why. The critical analysis is by type of issue – in most cases, it is the response rule not the CSR causing the dissatisfaction.
  • Technology adoption rate – if the rate is low, a better onboarding approach is needed. Experiment with other approaches!
  • Customer Effort – this includes the full range of actions the customer has taken, including attempts at self-service.
  • Easy to do business with (ETDBW) – this metric is very highly correlated with loyalty and willingness to recommend the organization


Self-service is not just a cost-saving approach. If it is approached with that mindset, self-service could end up doing more damage than good. It must be viewed as a CX strategy that will enhance overall customer satisfaction and occasionally create delight.


[1] Based on CCMC surveys of CEOs of 250 small and medium businesses.

[2] @[email protected]

[i] Customer Delight Guide, 10 Ways to Delight Your Customers, VIPDeskconnect, 2021, and, John Goodman, 5 Reasons to Invest in Delight, Call Center Times, October 1, 2021

[ii] CX Conference in Japan sponsored by Toyo Kezai, Salesforce and NTT. October 2021

John Goodman

Mr. Goodman is Vice Chairman of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting (CCMC). The universal adages, “It costs five times as much to win a new customer as to keep an existing one.” and “Twice as many people hear about a bad experience as a good one.” are both based on his research. Harper Collins published his book, “Strategic Customer Service”, in March, 2019. He has also published, “Customer Experience 3.0”, with the American Management Association in July, 2014. He has assisted over 1,000 companies, non-profit and government organizations including 45 of the Fortune 100.


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