The Myth of Self-Service

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineWhat is your self-service strategy? Is it in-place and fully functional? Perhaps it’s moving forward, slowly but surely. Conversely, you may still be contemplating what your self-service offerings should be – if any at all.

If you do make available self-service to your clients or their customers, is it used much? How is it perceived? Has it proven to be a time-saver and relationship enhancer or merely as the lesser of several unacceptable means to solve problems or procure information?

The idea of self-service has existed in many industries for years and even decades. This includes self-serve gas pumps, checking your own groceries, buying airline tickets online, and banking.

First, let’s consider gas stations. Unless you are a 20-something driver, you probably remember the days of full-service gas stations. In fact, they were called service stations, because service was what they were all about. These service stations almost always had one mechanic – or more – on duty. For smaller stations, the mechanic was often the one who filled your car with gas. Here’s how it worked. When you pulled into the station, a strategically placed air hose pneumatically activated a mechanical signal. This alerted the attendant that a customer had arrived and he would scurry out to greet you. Staying in your car, you would roll down your window and make your request, “Fill it up, please.” Often you and the attendant were on a first name basis. As he was filling your tank, he would wash your front windshield and often the back. Next, he would offer to check your oil. (Unless it had just been changed or recently checked – which he remembered.)   That’s not all. He would surreptitiously glance at your tires and if one appeared under inflated, they would whisk a tire gauge out of his pocket and check the pressure, putting in more air if it was warranted. He would also offer recommendations based on other observations, such as, “Looks like you’re ready for new front tires,” “That muffler doesn’t sound too good” or “We better at a look at those brakes soon.” Yes, this was a full-service operation, deftly suggesting up-sells (“Do you want to try Premium today”) and cross-sell opportunities (“When do you want your oil changed”) – though that wasn’t what it was called; it was just good customer service. Today, with self-service, we are left on our own to keep our car in good operating condition and we only see our mechanic when something is wrong.

In an apparent effort to save on labor or cut overhead, some stations began offering “self-service” pumps. In order to entice the public to pump their own fuel, the self-serve gas was priced lower. Most people weren’t too interested, at least until the price of gas jumped and the discount increased along with it. Still some people swore they would never fill their own tanks, but over time they were forced to do so as full-service pumps became scarcer and scarcer. The truth is that most people didn’t want self-serve, but reluctantly did so to save money or were forced to when it became the only option. Today, self-serve gas pumps are an expected way of life, but that simply happened because it became the only option.

Then there is the grocery store. I’ll admit that I don’t often find myself there – and when I do, it’s only to buy a couple of things – but I do gravitate towards the self-checkout. For a few items it can be faster – providing that everything works correctly. Self-checkout can also be irritating, repeatedly barking out annoying instructions and getting obstinate if it thinks you did something wrong. Given a choice between a next-in-line cashier (think of a call center with no queue) and self-service, I will always opt for a person. I find it to be faster and less frustrating. I can’t imagine the time-consuming task of doing a large order via self-checkout. However, when the cashier lines are long – which is generally the case, I gladly duck into the self-checkout and hope for the best. In this case, self-service wins out when full-service lines (that is, queues) are too long. It’s not that it’s preferred, but merely the least objectionable.

Nowadays, it seems that everyone books their airline tickets online. It certainly doesn’t save me time, but it does afford the opportunity to check every conceivable option, finding the ideal balance between cost and convenience. Maybe I scrutinize my options too closely, but I would gladly spend an hour researching flights, times, and airports if it will save me from a long layover, an extra night in a hotel, or a $100 on a fare. Still, the days of calling a travel agent, giving her my travel itinerary in a few seconds, and having tickets arrive the next day provide an appealing invitation to return to full-service.

The banking industry is full of choices. I can select from two full-service options and three self-serve options. For transactions warranting full-service, I can go to the nearest branch or phone their call center. For self-serve, I can use an ATM, bank-by-phone (using an IVR system), or access my account via the Internet. The option I select is primarily a result of what I need to accomplish, but my focus is on speed and convenience. It’s nice to have options: self-service for some things, full-service for others.

The dot-com boom in the late 1990s brought the prospect of self-service to an unwise conclusion. In simplistic terms, their generic business plan (aside from burning through mass quantities of investor cash) was that they would create a scalable website, which could be quickly ramped up as demand for their product or service grew. Customer service would not be an issue (or so they thought) as they would offer self-service options that were likewise scalable. There would be no massive call centers to build and no agents to hire. Basically there would be no people to help their customers; computers would do all that via the Internet. It didn’t work. The few dot-coms that survived did so because they wisely realized that they needed to offer more options than just self-service.

Even with this history and varying degrees of success, it doesn’t imply that self-service is the way to go, especially for call centers, which have the potential to far surpass the generally mediocre service level of self-service. Yes, there are times when self-service is the answer; there are also times when it is not. When properly implemented (which means it must be user-friendly, accessible, and reliable), people will opt for self-service only if it can increase timeliness, save money, be more effective, or is more available. If it can’t do at least one of these things, people will only do self-service if they have to – grousing about it all the while. In reality, most people don’t really prefer self-service. What they want is full-service that is friendly, accessible, and reliable. In our global economy, that often means they want a call center – a good call center.

Self-service is generally not selected because it is the superior option, but because it is the least objectionable one. So what is the ideal solution? It’s a call center; not one with its own self-service options, but one with people. Think about it; who would prefer to spend an hour on the Internet, scrolling through FAQs or waiting for an automated response to an email query, if they could just pick up the phone and quickly get a response? Of course this means a call center done right. What does that look like? Ideally it is:

  • Calls answered quickly
  • No busy signals
  • First-call resolution
  • No transfer
  • No queue or short queue (or a creative, entertaining on-hold program with accurate traffic updates)
  • Trained, knowledgeable, personable, and polite representatives
  • Correct responses
  • Consistent experience

With that, why would anyone want self-service? Why would they ever switch to a different company? A call center, done right, will beat self-service all of the time.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine September 2005]

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