The Future of Self Service: The Next Channel You Can’t Ignore


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Self-service is a common element of commerce that most of take advantage of on a daily basis – from self-checkout lanes at the grocery store to ATMs to Redbox – it’s become the norm for transactions. But it hasn’t always been this way. Back in 1916, Tennesseans would unknowingly become patrons to a growing revolution that was forever changing how Americans would interact with businesses.

And it all started in a grocery store. Specifically, a store called Piggly-Wiggly.

Photo credit: Polycart
Photo credit: Polycart

Yesterday’s self-service

When Piggly Wiggly opened its doors on a September day in Memphis, commerce underwent a drastic change. Instead of relying on clerks to hunt down their items for them as they once had, customers could walk into a grocery store and select for themselves whatever items they desired – oh what freedom and luxury! As Piggly Wiggly grew to be a successful, nationwide chain, they learned the value of helping the customer to easily find what they want, on their terms and in a convenient fashion.

But this wasn’t the first instance of self-service in the modern world. The 1880s brought the Sears catalog to Americans, allowing them to order products by mail, and in 1905 gasoline could be pumped by the customer instead of a clerk. Across the pond, the coin-operated vending machine first appeared in London and with it a new era was slowly born – the era of customer empowerment and self-service.

Today’s self-service

Today’s world of self-service continues to offer innovation after innovation. The now 25 year-old Internet quickly changed many industries, from communications to commerce to customer service. People can now search online for solutions to their problems, or check their account balance without having to talk to an agent. And frankly, people prefer to manage customer service themselves when they want, from where they want. In fact, Forrester found that more than 70% of customers prefer self-service to talking on the phone or sending an email.

We may not realize it, but self-service is all around us. The most ubiquitous examples are ATMs and gas stations, but consider IVRs or apps that let customers manage their bank accounts, or a forum in the help section of a company’s website. Some of the key principles of self service that have made it meaningful and satisfying to our society include providing customers with:
● Convenience
● Information
● Options

Integral to today’s self-service is automation — an email automatically sent to confirm your purchase, a text message to indicate a bill being ready or to remind you of your upcoming visit to the doctor.

For many businesses, though, their primary communication with customers is over the phone. And with many businesses, if and when customers decide to actually call them, the call is received and serviced by automation. We’re all familiar with both good and bad automated phone experiences. Automation, being our modern extension of self-service, is not by its nature problematic — it’s only when it does not successfully help us to get what we want that we become frustrated with it.

Tomorrow’s self-service

With the deeply integrated role of text messaging in our lives, companies are adapting to offer self-service experience (sometimes similar to that which would be offered over the phone) via SMS. Not only does it save money for the business, it’s also something customers want. In fact, a Harris Poll study commissioned by OneReach found that 64 percent of consumers would prefer to use text over voice as a customer service channel.

A lot of industries are already using texting to support their business, and the customer response has been overwhelmingly positive. That might be because it’s faster than any other channel, has a wide global reach and is available on any mobile phone. Not to mention, it lets them manage customer service conveniently, and on their terms. The same Harris Poll found that 81 percent of Americans say they are frustrated being tied to a phone or computer to wait for customer service help.

As was the case with Piggly Wiggly, customers just want what they want, when they want it and they want it to be easy. The idea hasn’t changed, but the delivery and the channels have. Companies can start taking that next step by integrating channels to help customers do things quicker and better than ever.

Elias Parker
Elias Parker is a Managing Partner at OneReach where he is focused on enabling companies to offer effective, meaningful customer support over text message. With over eight years of experience working with a user experience agency that pioneered the user experience (UX) space, Elias is skilled in ethnography, user experience research, workshop facilitation and crafting highly specialized product research, design and development teams. Elias' work spans multiple industries and his client portfolio includes Fortune 500 companies such as FedEx, Boeing, Fidelity and Condé Nast.


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