How Amazon, Google and Apple made self-service the new customer service


A man uses 'Siri' on the new iPhone 4S after being one of the first customers in the Apple store in Covent Garden on October 14, 2011 in London, England. (Oli Scarff/GETTY IMAGES)
March 14, 2012

No matter where you wander aboard Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, you’re never going to get lost.  And you’re never going to miss out on the action.  Every deck of the gargantuan new cruise ship is equipped with a touchscreen “concierge” that’s able to immediately answer these two critical questions: What’s happening now and how the heck do I get back to my room? 

Elsewhere as well, the self-service revolution is growing in power every day: from airlines training passengers to print their own boarding passes at home to Web-based e-commerce and, of course, the smartphone revolution. 

Businesses that want their self-service options to appeal to customers, rather than impose on them, need to ensure they follow the great rules of customer service design — even though the customers are serving themselves. Here are the principles of successful customer self-service:  

Model your self-service options on the great hotels.  

Great hospitality companies like The Ritz-Carlton strive to anticipate even the unexpressed wishes of their guests. This goal — what I term “anticipatory customer service,” in which the customer’s desire is foreseen and then fulfilled seamlessly — is also what you’re looking for with self-service. Happily, self-service is likely to be anticipatory by its nature, due to its ability to accept unique, customized input from the customers themselves, and smart self-service design can further enhance this.

 The most brilliantly implemented self-service helps suggest choices and behaviors in an intelligent manner. Exhibit A is Siri — the new go-to guide on your iPhone: Recently, I confided to Siri: “My teeth are bothering me. Siri responded: “I found a number of dentists… 23 are fairly close to you.”

And think of Gmail warning you that you’re sending out an e-mail that lacks an attachment — not to mention Gmail’s “mail goggles” preventing you from drunk e-mailing that you may regret later. Or Amazon.com discouraging you from an inferior product you thought you were interested in, and instead letting you know which items customers like you ultimately ended up buying.   Or IBM’s technology in dressing rooms that suggests complementary ties based on the sportswear you’re trying on.

  ●Don’t reinvent the wheel … and don’t relocate that search bar. Usability is a science that needs to be respected. Reinventing the wheel (or, more to the point, reinventing a location for the search bar on your homepage) is self-defeating behavior.  A wheel should be round, and the search bar should be smack dab at the top of a Web page, where your customers expect it. 

Don’t clutter your IVRs. Why do customers despise IVRs (telephone interactive voice response)? Because so many companies ignore or try end-runs around the rules of usability for such systems. For example, most people can’t retain in memory more than 30 seconds of information at a time, so an IVR with more than 30 seconds of options or information is just going to confuse customers.

There are similar hard-and-fast rules about how many menu items a customer can remember, yet some companies mangle their application of this rule by loading up each option with sub-options: ‘‘For Office A, Office B, or Office C, press 1.’’ That one single sub option actually demands that the customer remember four things: three departments and the menu number. 

 ●Build escape routes into your self-service. Self-service is fun for customers — until it isn’t.  Build in escape routes for customers that take them directly to humans who can help when they’re stuck. 

 If you ask, ‘‘Did this answer your question?’’ at the end of your FAQs, spend some time considering what should happen if the customer’s response is, ‘‘No, it didn’t answer my question.’’ In my opinion, it should be a response of ‘‘I’m so sorry, we obviously have room for improvement; click here and a live human being will assist you.’’ Or, ‘‘If you would like a phone call from a human, please enter your number here. When we call, our humans will have a complete record of your query/issue and its failed resolution, and we will make it right.’’

  Another prompt that bugs customers: E-mails that end with “Please do not reply…” Really? Automated confirmation letters need to come from, or at least prominently feature, a reply-to address. When huge companies send confirmations that end with ‘‘Please do not reply,’’ it’s a kiss-off. When smaller companies do this, they just look ridiculous. Either way, it can lead customers to desperation. The asymmetry defies our human desire for reciprocity: The company is sending you a letter, but prohibiting you from writing back!

 ● Self-service should be a choice for your customers — not a requirement. In most businesses, you serve your customers best by offering your customers a choice of channels. A choice means they choose, and you respect their decisions. Customers shouldn’t be calling your contact center on the phone only to be told, ‘‘You really should go to the Web site for that.’’ (Incredibly, this happens all the time.) There’s a reason they called you on the phone, so talk to them!

Micah Solomon is a customer service and marketing speaker, strategist and author based in Philadelphia.

 

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