Don't confuse self-service with no service

Quocirca has recently published a free checklist to help those looking at investing in self-service solutions. So, why might it be useful?

Well, there has been a rush in the UK in recent retail situations towards customer self-service and automation. Pay at pump petrol stations, self-checkout tills and so on. The reasons for this are presented as ‘customer convenience’, but it is pretty clear that it is all too often about cutting costs and too little thought is given as to how to how it might affect the overall customer experience.

Specialist retailers will argue they have to do this in order to compete with either online or other higher footfall locations such as supermarkets, hypermarkets and shopping malls. There may be some truth in this, but by simply commoditising the shopping experience, those making knee-jerk decisions to automate customer service run the risk of further business decline.

Clearly something is amiss as so many major and well established specialist companies have and continue to disappear, mainly with a wail about “habits have changed”, “it’s all gone online” after they have narrowed stock ranges, made the stores feel like warehouses and trained the staff to be as friendly as bent nail.

The best (and surviving) retailers – whether online, mobile or physical stores – provide service excellence irrespective of the technology or channel. Automation and self-service has a very important part to play in all these routes to the market, but it has to be delivered with the customer in mind, not simply as a cost cutting exercise.

The first thing to realise is that self-service is not a standalone tool or alternative to existing processes, but has to be integrated into the wider business in order to be successful. It should be viewed as a strategic and well-researched investment, not a simple tactical option. For this reason, the decision making process of how to implement self-service and what solutions or tools to should be implemented has to be well thought out and comprehensive.

To start with, an organisation must identify why the move the self-service is being made in the first place and what the main requirements are. There may be cost reduction element, but how important are other matters such as increasing cross-channel co-ordination or improving customer service levels and internal communications? For example are customers automatically invited to chat if their website interaction indicates they might need help or can support agents see what customers have done, requested or replied in order to avoid duplication of effort on the part of the customer?

However, this process may reveal that there are underlying issues with poor business systems, such as lack of a formal handover at shift changes or problem departments – e.g. a technical group refusing to get involved in customer contact. These will need to be addressed separately to the implementation process as simply deploying self-service alone will not fix these internal problems.

Next consider which suppliers will need to be approached and investigated. As well as taking the partisan views of the vendors themselves and some of their ‘tame’ customers, dig deeper and find out the broader market perspectives from a wider mix of customers, perhaps through trade shows and conferences. Industry analyst perceptions may also be valuable, but be aware that some analyst houses may overlook specialist or niche vendors and it is best to take a broad view.

The bulk of any product or service suitability assessment will come down to comparing features and functions, and a checklist will be useful. However, as this is an important investment, it is always important to check the people, company and its current client base of an intended supplier to get the full insight.

It is never easy going through the process by oneself, and even self-service benefits from some sort of external guidance. So for an idea of how to approach the self-service product and vendor selection process, download a free checklist