Promoting Self Service Versus Easy Access to Live Agents


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Promoting Self Service Versus Easy Access to Live Agents

An article in the Wall Street Journal on November 2nd hit the nail on the head about where customer service is headed.  Christopher Mims, a technology columnist for the prestigious financial paper wrote it.  The title is Customer Service: From Touchy Feely to Do it Yourself.  Thank you Mr. Mims for your clear insights and explanations.

As a customer service expert I am always thinking about the best way to provide the most excellent customer experience in various business settings. I appreciate Mr. Mims’ summaries of two competing and viable philosophies; promoting self-service or easy access to live agents. On one side, Tony Hsieh, chief executive of Zappos says “we are actually trying to figure out how to get customers to call us more often.”  On the other hand, Uber has no customer service line, preferring that customers file complaints through their app. There is also the monetary aspect to consider. It is less expensive to solve problems online, but people still must be employed to answer emails and chat queries. Whatever the vehicle, bottom line, as the author says, “customer service is straightforward; at the end of it, you want people to like you.”

Some highlights from the article:

  • Touchy Feely
    • Zappos’ goal is “by the time the customer gets off the phone, it’s like they’ve made a new friend.” Their phone number is on every page of its website since the lifetime value of a Zappos customer who calls is five to six times higher as those that don’t
    • Zip-car answers questions or resolves a consumer’s issues on the phone before communicating to the customer that they could have used self-serve options such as their app and received faster and more efficient service
    • Companies are aware that in the age of social media, any customer-service interactions, good or bad, can go viral
  • Self-Serve
    • Customers don’t want to talk to customer service representatives anymore, especially with long hold times
    • “I hate calling customer service says”, Everlane CEO’s Michael Preysman. Their company is built on the premise that customers want high-quality clothes for less. They do not have a dedicated customer-service line. They feel their customers want to solve problems themselves or with little assistance. Instead Everlane uses Facebook Messenger for tasks ranging from confirming an order has been placed to resolving issues with delivery.
    • For lean retail start-ups growing at an exponential pace, it’s easier to acquire new customers than to worry about those who might be alienated by a lack of customer service.

There are pros and cons to any customer service delivery system.  Easy access is key, whether on the phone or through an app.  The real test, in my opinion, should be based on the percentage of repeat customers, specifically first-time users.   No one has come up with a strong argument countering the proven notion that it costs significantly more money to bring in a new customer than keep the ones you already have.

Customer service is not black or white, telephone conversation or app.  There are always gray areas.  Uber doesn’t offer live agent support. However, when I had a problem with my first Uber experience, not their fault, I received an extremely customer friendly and timely email apology from their team.  That’s good customer service. However, when I called American Express recently and wanted to speak with an agent, the voice recording told me, “due to unforeseen circumstances, we are not able to take calls, but you can either go to our web page or leave a message.” Immediately I pressed “O” and just as immediately I was transferred to a live agent who solved my problem.  I don’t think it is a wise business decision to mislead customers by telling them you can’t answer in a timely manner, when the real reason is that you want customers to self-serve.

While it may be true according to current research that self-serve has become the first option, emailing second, and calling third, what remains constant is that customers still demand good service. What’s really important is that if a customer has a question or concern, the company can be easily reached to address the issue. The customer service department is the heart of any company and must be reliable, transparent and consistent.

Which side of the argument do you favor: self-serve or full-serve?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Richard Shapiro
Richard R. Shapiro is Founder and President of The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR) and a leading authority in the area of customer satisfaction and loyalty. For 28 years, Richard has spearheaded the research conducted with thousands of customers from Fortune 100 and 500 companies compiling the ingredients of customer loyalty and what drives repeat business. His first book was The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business and The Endangered Customer: 8 Steps to Guarantee Repeat Business was released February, 2016.


  1. Actually I favor both sides!

    The trend today is personalization – in this case let the customer choose which form of support she wants. I know from personal experience that sometimes I want to speak to a person (ideally someone who actually is empowered to take action or share information) and sometimes self service is just fine and without any attitude. And it not only depends on the reason for my call but what happened immediately before I need to make something happpen – and I am the only one who knows that!

  2. This seems like a “guns or butter” issue in customer experience,t it really isn’t; or, at least, it shouldn’t be.. It’s fundamentally about what, functionally and emotionally, works best for the customer such that the experience will drive positive downstream customer behavior.. Comcast, for example, has made tremendous investment in electronic self-serve issue resolution; however, they have also hired and trained thousands more CSRs, and opened new centers. However service is delivered, the name of the game is optimal customer-perceived value; and that goal is paramount. Again, it’s far less about either-or, i.e. electronic self=serve vs. touchy-feely contact, than it is about profitable relationship-building, positive image, and high trust.

  3. I agree with the thrust of your post and with Michael’s view that either-or thinking can paint us into a corner.

    One of my business partners and I travel a lot together to work with clients. We stay at quite a few Hilton’s. He loves the new app that lets him remotely check in and bypass the front desk entirely to access his guest room via his smart phone. Self-service at its best! Not me. I like to go to front desk and build a relationship with the front desk clerk. I can influence the type and location of room I get, sometimes landing an upgrade. It enables me to have a friend should I have a unique need during my stay. Which one of us is correct? We are both platinum; we both are advocates.

    One of dad’s favorite Mutt and Jeff jokes had Mutt and Jeff chatting on the golf course. “You know,” quips Mutt, “If everybody saw like I did, everybody would want my wife!” Jeff chides back, “That may be so, Mutt, but if everybody saw like I did, no one would want your wife!” It was funny in the 1950’s! Customer affinity is complex and varied. And, we need to respect their differences in how they are served.

  4. Chip’s quip reminds me a bit of Pogo’s slogan, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are all customers of somebody or some entity, usually many somebodies and many entities. As customers, seeking value in relationships and transactions, we want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. How we get it, i.e the trust and value, is less material than the emotions and memories created.

  5. I can only speak from my recent India experiences. There are real time problems and problems that do not need resolution right away (meaning right now!)
    An Ola cab was to pick me up in 15 minutes. I got the drivers number via text message. The driver would not pick up my call. I finally called Ola, and they asked me to call the driver. When I told them I could not reach the driver, they said they will send some one else. 45 minutes later no one had come.
    Uber in India is difficult to get to under these circumstances.
    My payment to Uber did not go through (now for me this was no longer a real time problem). Via e mail they insist my card is faulty. No email resolution. I would like to talk to a person.
    VFS is a visa processing company working on behalf of several embassies. Their contact sites for checking your passport do not work. When I call the call centre (it takes half an hour because of several attempts to get through) I am told there is a different site.
    This site does nto get updated. Back to VFC call centre. The call centre cannot help, please send an email to info@…..
    This is the real problem. The company is not really wanting to help. Their own convenience is more important than the customers!
    Who cares!
    I only care that I get my answers,a nd that the problem did not happen in the first case

  6. The key point is that customers want to use both self-serve and full-serve, dependent on their circumstances or the complexity of the interaction. You wouldn’t call if you just wanted to know a store’s returns policy – just as you wouldn’t send an email in an emergency that needed immediate action. More on the need for choice in this recent Eptica blog post

  7. Chip, Michael, Sam and Gautam, thanks for sharing your personal stories. It’s true, everything is about what’s best for the specific person. Chip brings up an excellent case, where some people would prefer using an app to check into a hotel and others would prefer to go to the front desk to schmooze and build a relationship. A relationship that might equal an upgrade or finding out something from a person that you can’t always discover from app. Have a wonderful day! Richard


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