Self-service systems will never completely replace the need for the human touch in the customer service experience, argues Kevin Meltzer, business development executive of Consology.
In the late 1990s, as the Web was rising and creating new ways for companies to let their customers serve themselves, Apple founder Steve Jobs was thinking about the future of retail. He decided that his products needed to be beautifully showcased in slick retail environments where customers could experience his products hands-on and get expert advice from well-trained reps.
With companies like Dell Computer squeezing costs out of the supply chain and focusing on selling computers online at the lowest cost and highest efficiency, Jobs’ focus on a high-touch retail experience for a struggling computer brand seemed like madness.
But a decade later, Jobs has proven to be ahead of the curve. He understood that technology and the human touch are not mutually exclusive – something that many of his competitors are just beginning to grasp.
While Web self-service, e-commerce and self-service kiosks are experiencing runaway growth in South Africa, the need for the human touch is still apparent in most industries. Rather than excluding the need for human service, the shift to more self-service enables companies to think more strategically about where and when they will offer a more personalised human interaction.
As a rule of thumb, self-service works best where it is about convenience, efficiency and transparency for the customer, and usually fails where companies are merely trying to use it to save money by reducing headcount.
Another rule is that human help should be accessible for all self-service transactions – this is as important as ever with many customers now looking for companies’ social media presences for an “authentic” and human interaction.
There should be no need for a mobile subscriber to go into a store to request international roaming when he or she is about to go overseas as it’s a perfect example of a transaction that should be quick and easy to do online or from a mobile device.
But if the subscriber needs help understanding which phone and contract of the dozens of options is the right one, he or she should be able to seek help from an expert in a call centre or store.
In the store, the human touch and electronic systems may come together with the sales rep using a tariff optimiser tool on a tablet to show the customer the permutations of smartphones and contracts on offer.
Customers could also look up inventory or research products in-store at a kiosk and then ask a rep for more help. At a clothes store, they could use augmented reality, for example, to try on a virtual pair of sunglasses.
The consumer may be happy to place the order online after getting help from the branch or may do the research online and then come to the branch to buy. Companies should be flexible enough to accommodate either preference, if they are truly striving for customer-centricity.
For routine transactions – like allowing customers to check and pay their accounts online, change address details on the Web, and query their accounts – the value of self-service is indisputable.
But self-service is not right for every business process, customer or company, especially in industries such as telecoms and financial services where products and services are becoming more complex and where customers need a lot of pre-sales advice and post-sales support.
The trick, therefore, is to achieve the balance of automated systems that make life simple for consumers and the high-touch human care that enhances the customer experience.