Taking Service Out of Customer Service


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It followed a keynote at a conference of Fortune 100 CIOs. This type of high-level audience always enjoys Q&A. One senior leader of one of the 10 largest banks in the U.S. asked: “How can we maximize the profitability and efficiency of our call centers while minimizing the customer’s involvement?” Something about the question left me momentarily confused. “Let me make sure I understand you,” I queried. “You want to remove all of the service out of customer service?” The audience laughed. But, he was dead serious as he continued, “Actually, I’d like to take most of the customer out as well!”

There has been an assertive migration toward self-service. Self-service has had a positive side. By shifting the lion’s share of the work on the service experience to customers, it has lowered operating costs. With the rising cost of wages for people who, unlike machines, are expenses rather than annual depreciation items on the balance sheet, cost-saving can be accomplished by taking people out of the service equation. It has freed up human resources to be used in roles and functions truly requiring a high touch.

Self-service has also made customers more self-reliant as “do-it-yourself” has replaced “I’ll take care of that for you.” Learning to fend for oneself can trigger education and confidence; customers are less dependent and far more competent.

Is there anyone back there?

But, there is clearly a downside to taking service out of customer service. Remember the famous Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” advertisement? (If you don’t know the ad, watch it on YouTube.) The final line in the ad is a prophetic one: “I don’t think there’s anybody back there.” It epitomizes the potential one-sidedness of self-service.

Before self-service, we could influence, critique, affirm and help guide the service experience as it unfolded. The service deliverer could adjust, respond, slow down or leave us alone. It all seemed quite fair. Now, without the capacity to quality-control it in the moment, customers are more cautious and skeptical of the value they receive. It explains why, according to Convergys research, 63 percent of e-commerce customers rate “live web chat” as the most satisfying channel. Live chat says that self-service can be quickly transformed by the customer into full service if the customer determines “there’s no beef, just a very big bun.”

Remarkable service experiences

What do the best service providers do…those with reputations for remarkable service? They design self-service with the customer in mind, not just the short-term profits of the organization. They craft self-service with a bias for customer trust, a preference for a great service experience, and a desire to always let customers be in the driver’s seat of how much high touch they want to add to the high tech of self-service.

Before self-service, we could influence, critique, affirm and help guide the service experience as it unfolded.

Remarkable service providers trust their customers. Airport concession stores sometimes put the morning newspaper purchase on the honor system. Instead of standing in line just to buy a USA Today, customers pick up a copy as they put a dollar through the slot in the money container above the papers. When store operators are asked about the end-of-the-day shrinkage, they will tell you that, while they may lose a paper are two, it is more often due to customers’ accidentally picking up two copies instead of one. The trust practice benefits the in-a-hurry customer trying to catch a flight. And, it helps the store to manage efficient traffic flow with customers buying either more items or items less common than a newspaper.

Remarkable service providers prefer creating great customer experiences. The best websites are easily tailorable by customers with obvious access to “somebody back there” via numerous channels––”call us, web chat with us, email us, pony express us.” The message should be, “We are here for you and enjoy communicating.” Ensure all customer-contact people have easy access to customer information. At USAA every phone rep has instant access to all customer files, including the customer letter or e-mail that arrived this morning.

Remarkable service providers create a back door to full service. Customers also want to be able to quickly and easily connect with a human being to bring fast resolution to any problem that arises. Take a look at some of the great web-based companies. They practically scream, “We would love to talk with you if you need us!” “Partnering in the dark”—the essence of great self-service–means creating an experience that feels like there is a guardian of the transaction always watching over the encounter, eager and able to help if there is even a hint of consternation by the customer.

Best of both worlds

Take a look at award-winning Zappos.com. They took a simple business—online buying of apparel&mdsash;and added the experience enhancers that make them the talk of the neighborhood (and cyberhood). Sure, you can do all your buying without communicating with a soul. But, every web page has a deliberate invitation to interact. And, when the customer clicks to talk, they get over-the-top attention, customized communication, and a live rep who wants to be your new best friend. Zappos offers the perfect blend of self-service with full service that respects the customer while bolstering convenience and cost-savings. And, how has the market rewarded them? Their revenue went from zero when they started to over a billion dollars ten years later.

Zappos offers the perfect blend of self-service with full service that respects the customer while bolstering convenience and cost-savings.

When people ask questions like “Is self-service better than full-service?” it implies either-or thinking that may be missing the point––sort of like asking a senior citizen in a nursing home which is better, a back rub or a visit from the family. Customers have different requirements for different circumstances. The hotel a business traveler enjoys during the week might have a completely different set of guest preferences if that same business traveler is at the same hotel property on a weekend…and, with a significant other.

Remarkable self-service starts with an up-to-date understanding of customers to always make certain what customers need and the way they need it is available and supported when they need it.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. Great Post Chip! Providing multiple channels for customers to choose from helps companies to meet the needs, wants and expectations of a broader base of personality preference types.

    At The Dunvegan Group (www.customersatisfactionevaluation.com), we are using The Platinum Rule model of personality preferences to tailor our interactions between telephone interviewers and our clients’ customers as we measure customer satisfaction. Our interviewers are able to quickly assess the personality preferences of the customer and adapt their approach accordingly – whether to offer on-line or paper questionnaires, schedule a call back appointment etc.

    A quick overview of Dr. Tony Alessandra’s Platinum Rule model…

    … there are four preference types: Directors; Socializers; Relaters; and Thinkers.

    · Directors, who make up just 3% of the population, want Results;
    · Socializers, who make up 17%, want Recognition;
    · Relaters, the largest category at 70%, want Relationships; and
    · Thinkers, at 10%, want to be Right.

    The Senior Executive who suggested that his desire was to take both the Service and the Customer out of Customer Service may be expressing his own personality preferences – his focus on the bottom line without considering the impact on the customer is typical of the Directing personality type.

    Likely the Director type doesn’t really need or want Customer Service – they have little patience with mishap and will likely direct someone else to deal with any issues. That someone else, will most likely be of a Relater preference type who needs interaction – by phone or via on-line chat.

    The Socializer will likely prefer to connect with Customer Service by telephone so they can be recognized as important and served. They want to be heard and acknowledged as a valued customer. Calls from this preference type will be longer than others but once the customer’s issue is resolved, they will be most likely to tell others what special treatment (or poor treatment) they received.

    The Thinkers may prefer to connect via email or on line chat – some means that provides them the means to document their issues, provide back up and proof of the information transmitted. This preference type can be well serviced via email or on-line chat provided they receive instant attention or confirmation that their message has been received and when they can expect a resolution.

    All-in-all I am sure you can see how provision of multiple channels is essential to providing exceptional customer care.

    Visit our blog for further discussion on this and other issues related to customer satisfaction (http://www.customersatisfactionevaluation.com/blog/category/the-dunvegan-digest/).

    Anne Miner
    President and Founder
    The Dunvegan Group


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