When Wendy's announced last spring during a conference call that it was rolling out self-service kiosks across its 6,000-store chain, it was the latest sign of a trend toward self-service that is sweeping across many industries. Key factors driving the change include rising wages and customers' general preference for self-service.
"Self-service is a win-win for customers and customer service organizations," according to a 2016 report from Forrester analyst Kate Leggett. "Customers are satisfied because service is efficiently delivered in a frictionless manner, and companies are satisfied because they can contain costs by deflecting agent-assisted interactions."
In "Trends 2016: The Future Of Customer Service," Forrester found 84 percent of U.S. adults surveyed reported using a self-service phone app or consulting help files or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on a company website. That was more than any other customer service channel, including phoning or emailing a customer service rep.
The Business Case for Self-Service
The promise of lower labor costs drives many enterprises to investigate self-service. "A lot of businesses are looking at how to increase margins, and self-service seems to be a way to do that," says Darren Nicholson, vice president of sales and marketing for iPourIt, a Lake Forest, California, maker of self-service beer dispensers.
When technology such as iPourIt's software-enabled beer taps replaces humans, business operations become more efficient. For instance, Nicholson says with human bartenders, roughly a quarter of the volume of a typical keg is lost due to over pours, giveaways and other errors.
With iPourIt's self-service taps, on the other hand, every ounce that flows through the system is billed to a customer's credit card. Revenues also increase, Nicholson says, because customers are more likely to taste-test higher-priced craft brews when they can pour themselves a few ounces instead of ordering a full glass from a server.
—Darren Nicholson, vice president of sales and marketing, iPourIt
Customers prefer self-service because they can get their beverages faster when they don't have to wait on a server, Nicholson adds. Similar concerns motivate people who aren't thirsting for a cold one, according to Robert C. Johnson, CEO of Dallas-based customer support software maker TeamSupport.
"Customers like self-service because it allows them to find the answers they need on their own time and they can work through the answer at their own pace," Johnson says. "They also appreciate that it reduces the time usually spent waiting on hold or sending emails back and forth trying to get a solution."
Supplementing human customer service providers with self-service options offers companies benefits similar to the ones that come from replacing bartenders with self-service beer taps, Johnson adds. "Self-service can help businesses in a number of ways, including substantially improving key metrics such as first contact resolution, cost per contact, speed to answer and abandonment rates," he says.
Obstacles to Self-Service
Self-service isn't the right solution for all products, services or customers. For instance, Nicholson says that iPourIt works best when not in competition with human servers. "If you're going to go down the self-serve path, go all in with self-serve," he advises. "Don't do a competing bar with a bartender in the back serving beer or wine."
Self-service may not be an optimum solution for companies selling highly technical or customized services and products, Johnson adds. That seems to be especially true for businesses that sell to other businesses. While consumers seem to be enthusiastic about self-service, business owners who have more complex needs have been slower to embrace it.
One reason may be that business owners have less time and other resources to devote to doing it themselves, says Mark Montini, CEO of Promio, a marketing-technology company for small businesses based in Buford, Georgia. "Business owners are saying they'll pay a little more for the same service if you'll just put the newsletter together and send it out every month," Montini says.
Whether serving consumers or business customers, companies that want to try self-service may find that creating the technology and content presents another obstacle. iPourIt has had to engineer in features that will, for example, limit how much a patron is served. And for customer service applications, assembling and maintaining the required knowledge base takes time and resources, Johnson adds.
Despite the challenges, quick-service restaurants, craft breweries, customer support organizations and others are finding that self-service is rapidly developing into an important option for interacting with customers. One of the biggest potential advantages may have yet to be exploited: the widespread use of data collected digitally through human-replacing technology to personalize the customer experience. iPourIt can do this by tracking customer beer-drinking preferences and alerting them to new brews that are likely to appeal. Montini says that sort of refinement will make self-service an even more useful option.
"How do we integrate data into self-service solutions so it's personal?" Montini asks. "That's the key to this being successful in the long run."
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