..On Self-Service technologies

I found an old interview I'd done with Contact Centre World back in 2005 about self-service technologies (while I was at BT). Everything that was said then is just as relevant today.

Nik Sargent - Self-Service Product Manager, BT On Self-Service Technologies

What do you think are the three biggest mistakes managers make when choosing a self-service technology?
A common mistake is getting too bogged down in the technology. It's important to remember that the technology is a means to an end, a way of delivering a better service to customers. The three most important things to consider are usability, usability and usability. It is also important to have a framework that can grow and adapt with your business without holding you back. But that's as much about your people and processes as it is the technology.

In your opinion, what criteria should be used when evaluating different self-service solutions?
It's easy to be lured by cost alone, both in terms of cost of the solution and the promise of cost savings.  This should absolutely be part of the decision-making process, but it's also necessary to understand that your self-service solution is an important customer touchpoint: it can win and lose customers for you.

From a service point of view, how are you going to be able to deliver a slick customer experience: is designing this your core business, or do you need to buy this in? What flexibility will you have to modify your solution as your business evolves – and who will ensure your service works as well after it is changed as it did on day one? From a technology point of view, are you getting robustness and flexibility to shrink and grow and handle the volume you need to? If customers like your solution, then they will start to depend on it.

Within the next five years, which self-service technology do you think will have the biggest impact on the contact centre industry?
Speech Recognition will have a huge impact. Adoption rates of the technology are steadily increasing and organisations are seeing significant benefits. The availability of mass-scale solutions demonstrates that the technology is totally viable, and also educates the public about these types of services and how to use them. As we have seen, anything that can transform the cost base of the contact centre industry – such as outsourcing – can have a big impact, and Speech Recognition fits this profile.

What types of questions do you believe online self-service technologies should be able to answer?
I think the days of the Internet solely being a glorified brochure-publishing medium are over. Users are increasingly savvy and looking for more. What organisations shouldn't forget is that consumers are using this medium to educate themselves and to ask and answer complex questions. As a result, consumers that call your organisation may actually have more knowledge than some of your employees, which then results in frustration and wasted cost.

Traditionally, self-service only catered for the "average" consumer, yet the technology can now segment and analyse customers to provide personalised experiences. This is a major boost for companies that want to offer a more comprehensive web service. For example, if I'm looking for car insurance, but cannot get an answer online because there is no way to ask if my particular circumstances are covered, I will have to revert to speaking to an agent. This costs the organisation a series of calls that could have been answered online, and costs me my "web discount" – so effectively results in a lost sale.

What do self-service technologies aim to accomplish?
From a user's point of view, self-service should be simple, speedy and satisfying.  From our own personal experiences we know this is what makes for a good self-service experience, be it a vending machine, a cash machine or a telephone transaction. From a service provider's point of view, self-service technologies shouldn't divert you from your core business – they are a means of extending your customer touch points to offer choice, capacity, flexibility and reduce costs. A good self-service solution reduces costs, but a great one also delivers a rewarding and effective user-experience.

How can a contact centre utilise its self-service technology to increase contact centre capacity?
It's about finding the right business processes, or parts of them, that are simple and repetitive enough to automate, and driving volume through this. This might be self-evident for certain businesses, but for complex technologies like speech recognition it usually needs an expert to analyse processes.

The important thing to realise is that a self-service channel and an agent are not the same thing, and do different tasks differently. Rather than using self-service to try and fully replicate your agents and create capacity that way, have it do the tasks that it is suited to, and take those tasks away from agents in their entirety. This changes the balance of how your run your contact centre, and the roles agents perform – to get maximum value from them.

Once again, it's about having a user-centric view. Getting it wrong can end up generating more work for your contact centre. This was one of the great "shocks" of the web for early adopters – they ended up generating even more support calls.  Businesses should also tread carefully when thinking about forcing customers to use a self-service solution. This means you may take your eye off the usability ball, and in the long run this could backfire. On the other hand, a well-designed solution will have customers sailing through it and completing tasks that used to require an agent. If you can automate 30 seconds of a 2-minute call, then you've effectively increased your capacity by 30%.