In 1822, the world saw its first glimpse of self-service in London with the introduction of a coin-operated vending machine for envelopes, postcards, and notepaper. Fast forward to today, and self-service has undergone a remarkable evolution. It has become an integral part of our lives, from self-service gas pumps in the sixties to supermarket self-checkout in the nineties and airport check-in kiosks in the aughts.
However, the landscape of self-service changed dramatically when the pandemic hit, turning self-service from a novelty into a necessity. In the blink of an eye, we all became digital natives. A Pew Research study revealed that 40% of US adults began using digital technology and the internet in new and unprecedented ways. As a result, e-commerce sales in the United States surged to a staggering $870 billion in 2021, marking a 14.2% increase over 2020 and an astonishing 50.5% increase over 2019, according to the United States (US) Census Bureau.
Notably, the US’s four major food delivery companies—DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates—generated a combined revenue of approximately $5.5 billion between April and September 2020. This figure was more than double the $2.5 billion in revenue they collectively earned during the same period in 2019, as reported by MarketWatch.
The Shift in Customer Expectations
While the initial fervor of daily dinner delivery may have subsided, the demand for instant gratification remains as strong as ever. According to NICE’s May 2022 Digital-First Customer Experience research, more than 81% of consumers desire additional self-service options. Additionally, a study by Acumen Research and Consulting revealed that 45% of customers are now more inclined to use self-service compared to the pre-pandemic era.
However, many businesses are struggling to keep up with this significant shift in consumer preferences. Their estimates suggest that only 60% of consumers desire more self-service options, creating a considerable 21-point gap. Shockingly, a mere 11% of businesses prioritize enhanced self-service as a vital component of their customer experience offerings, even though 36% of consumers consider this a top expectation.
In response to this disconnect, customers are turning to online search as their primary solution. Google has become the prime contact center for the entire humanity. Recent research indicates that 46% of consumers initiate their quest for solving a product or service issue with a Google search. Astonishingly, just 15% of businesses surveyed believe that Google is the first-choice resource for their customers, highlighting a significant misperception.
Embracing Smarter Self-Service
Consumers undoubtedly desire more self-service options but also want them to be smarter and more efficient. The success of telehealth and online grocery ordering has raised the bar for instant service. However, most brands need to catch up to these expectations.
According to our research, only 15% of consumers are highly satisfied with the available self-service tools. On the other hand, businesses overestimated this satisfaction rate by nearly 40 points, projecting that 53% of their customers were highly satisfied with their self-service tools.
To meet consumer demands, brands must make self-service more effective by infusing it with advanced artificial intelligence and data-driven technology. The complexity of customer engagement today, which is omnichannel, seamless, and personalized, has prompted 52% of companies to expedite their adoption of AI in 2023, as per Forrester.
The Ingredients of Smart Self-Service
With AI at the forefront, companies can make smarter self-service a reality. A 2020 Gartner survey of 8,000 customers who had recently interacted with a customer service organization identified seven key attributes that are likely to drive a smart self-service interaction:
Clarity is the cornerstone of exceptional customer service. When information is presented in a straightforward and easy-to-understand manner, customers can effortlessly comprehend and act upon it.
Ensuring that customers feel their issues or concerns are resolved is crucial. Effective messaging should signal a successful resolution, giving customers the peace of mind that their needs have been met.
Empowering the customer to have a say in the solution is vital. A great customer experience allows customers to influence and provide input, making them feel valued and heard.
Information provided must be not only useful but also relatable. Customers should trust the source and find the content relevant to their needs.
The best self-service interactions are those that mimic the warmth and personal touch of a live interaction. It’s about making customers feel like they’re talking to a real person, even in a digital setting.
Recognizing and acknowledging a customer’s relationship with the company can go a long way. Tailoring the experience to the individual builds a strong bond and fosters loyalty.
Interacting with a company should be dynamic and versatile. Customers should have the freedom to engage with a business in multiple ways, ensuring their needs are met on their terms.
The Coexistence of Self-Service and Human Agents
While customers increasingly seek self-service options, human agents and their ability to handle complex and nuanced issues have become more critical than ever. Self-service takes routine tasks, allowing agents to focus on addressing vital customer needs when it truly matters.
Identifying high-stakes issues and orchestrating customer journeys to address them should be a top priority for customer service leadership. Providing the option to connect with a live human support person, as highlighted in a 2022 Harvard Business School working paper, significantly alleviates customer apprehension. However, identifying and seamlessly guiding customers from self-service to agent support must become a core capability for businesses.
Powered by proactive conversational AI, the role of an agent can evolve to include predicting customer needs. New AI-powered solutions engage with customers through their preferred channels to anticipate needs before customers even reach out for service. Armed with this insight, agents can proactively initiate customer engagement, adding value in ways previously unimaginable in the traditional reactive customer service dynamic.
Embracing the Digital Future
Our preference for digital self-service is not a fleeting trend; it represents a significant shift in behavior. Therefore, organizations must align their self-service strategies with customer expectations by creating seamless and efficient customer journeys. The digital age remains here, and customers have clarified their preferences. Listening is no longer an option; it’s a necessity.
Self-service dates back to 1822 when the first coin-operated vending machine for envelopes, postcards, and notepaper was introduced in London. Since then, it has evolved to include self-service gas pumps, supermarket self-checkout, and airport check-in kiosks, becoming an integral part of our lives.
The pandemic transformed self-service from a novelty into a necessity. With the increased use of digital technology, e-commerce sales in the United States surged, and food delivery companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats experienced substantial revenue growth.
Studies indicate that over 81% of consumers desire more self-service options, and 45% of customers are now more inclined to use self-service compared to the pre-pandemic era. However, only 11% of businesses prioritize enhanced self-service despite 36% of consumers considering it a top expectation.
To meet consumer demands, businesses should enhance self-service by incorporating advanced artificial intelligence and data-driven technology. This can make self-service more efficient and in line with the expectations set by telehealth and online grocery ordering.
Smart self-service should include attributes like clarity, confirmation, control, credibility, human touch, personalization, and variety. To implement these, businesses should focus on presenting information clearly, confirming issue resolution, empowering customers, providing credible information, adding a human touch, personalizing interactions, and offering versatile engagement options.