The Past, Present, and Future of Internet Self-Service

A few years ago Internet-centric companies were the next big thing.  It was purported that they would change how business was done, render traditional commerce models obsolete, and usher in a new way of valuating companies — at historically unfathomable and untenable levels.  They were the dotcoms!  Their basic premise was insightful, if not somewhat simplistic.  With the pull of the ubiquitous Internet and the support of massive server farms, their business models (via their technological infrastructure) would be infinitely scalable, while customer service would be strictly self-service.  This would hold costs down and the employee count even lower.  Page hits and profitability would be the inescapable conclusion.  Unabashed euphoria was everywhere.

The problem was that most people were not ready for self-service via the Internet.  Not surprisingly, the dotcom bubble burst.  Stock prices plummeted, bankruptcies ensued, and liquidated hardware was peddled for pennies on the dollar.  Most dotcoms dematerialized.  Some tried to retool, adhering to the faltering dotcom mantra; it was an effort in futility.  A few insightful innovators changed their paradigms, wisely supplementing their limited self-service Websites with full-service human beings.  Call centers were built and staff was hired; these adaptable entities survived and some even thrived.

The call center industry breathed a collective sigh of relief, sensing that the threat of self-service had been proven an implausible fantasy.  This reprieve from the threat of self-service, however, is not long-term.  Although wide-scale defections from full-service call centers to self-service Websites is not an eminent concern, it is one, nonetheless.  Call centers are therefore advised to pursue a two-prong strategy.

The short-term — and ongoing — initiative should be to look for ways to differentiate oneself from the competition, including other call centers and contact centers, as well as self-serve Websites.  Make your services stand out; do what others don’t; position yourself to be indispensable.

Long-term, be aware that commerce, in general, and customer service, specifically, will migrate to the Web.  What can your call center do to capitalize on this?  Certainly offering email support, text chat, and assisted browsing will mitigate this trend.  For the ultimate answer, ask yourself what services — any service — can you provide to support the self-serve model.  The answer may have little to do with the traditional call center business, but it will have everything to do with your long-term viability.

Fortunately, there is time to plan, but preparation is requisite because the self-serve threat isn’t going away.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]