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Self-service checkout lines have become more and more common.

Online consumers are accessing digital customer service and resolving their own issues without speaking to a live person. Chat features on e-commerce websites can often resolve customer issues as well.

Yet there are still those customers who want to speak with a live person via telephone, even if they have to push number after number and sit on hold.

With all of these varied preferences, and surveys continuing to show that a majority of consumers remain dis-satisfied with customer service, how does a business decide on the right customer support model for its customer base?

Given the increasing demands for rapid and successful customer support, and the ability of customers to “trash” companies all over social media, getting it right is and will continue to be critical.

Here are some considerations as you look to find the right model or combinations of models.

The Three Options for Customer Service

Companies have three options for providing customer support, and most use a combination of them. The key is to make each of them as effective as possible and to find the right balance among them for your customer base.

Call Centers – The Human Touch

Here’s the thing about human contact for customer service. Very recent studies show that, while 88% of consumers have used digital methods during their shopping/customer service experiences, and while 41% state that they want more digital service options, 63% of those surveyed do not think digital methods are better than human interaction.

These stats may not actually mean that call centers should be expanded at the expense of digital channels. It may mean that digital channels as they stand are not doing their job.

The obvious advantage of human call centers is that personalization is at a maximum. And the potential for up-sells is greater, to be sure.

There are obvious disadvantages too.

Call centers are the most expensive type of customer service, because the costs of salaries, high turnover and training are permanently high. And if there are not enough agents to handle the calls quickly, customers become frustrated and angry. The other difficulty with call centers is that the agent himself is often not provided enough flexibility to make decisions that will satisfy a disgruntled customer.

Companies that intend to maintain solid call centers will have to ensure that they track volume and average time spent per call. This will provide the data to design a call center that meets customer needs. It will also be important to track the types of questions and issues that come into that call center and to train agents accordingly, perhaps giving them flexibility to offer discounts, rewards, and resolution options to the customer.

And, if the enterprise is large enough, providing different phone numbers based upon the specific inquiries, issues or complaints can be a more efficient method of phone contact. Amazon does a good job of this for their Prime subscribers.

Digital Solutions

These can be as simple as an FAQ page on a website or more complex elements such as a chat feature, a customer service email address, or a ticket system.

Digital solutions also mean that businesses will have to be in tune with all social media channels used by their customers and to monitor these channels every day. A customer complaint that hangs “out there” with no response can kill a brand’s reputation.

According to a recent report from McKinsey, the right digital solutions can result in as much as a 33% increase in customer satisfaction and reduce call center costs by as much as 30%.

These figures are certainly encouraging, but the challenge for businesses is to develop an effective e-care strategy – one that will realize these gains in customer satisfaction.

Currently, though companies are offering chat, email, and e-forum support features, only 2% of their customers are actually using them. Customers are tending to use digital methods (apps) for receiving bills and making payments, but are slow to use digital methods for resolution of issues. Many prefer to go to social media with their questions, problems, or complaints.

One of the reasons for the slow movement of customers to digital customer service, based on the above-mentioned study, was lack of convenience, even though the care itself was rated adequate. What happens when this is the case is that customers return to call centers, something that defeats the purpose of digital solutions.

Another reason is that companies themselves are not actively encouraging customers to migrate to digital solutions.

One of the options during a call center initiation would be to provide customers with information about which answers and solutions they can find digitally and how they can get to those digital solutions.

AT&T does a good job of this. When customers call for help of any type, they are offered the options of accessing the website for specific types of help. But if customers simply stay on the line and wait for a customer service rep instead, the purpose is defeated.

If customers are not migrating to digital solutions when given that option, then something different must be done.

One of the more effective solutions, that AT&T has adopted is to have the customer service rep serve the immediate customer need and then walk that customer through getting to the digital option in the future.

Companies are also hesitant to migrate customers too much. They have discovered that there can be a loss of up-sell and cross-sells when only digital solutions are used. This means loss of revenue. Some companies are experimenting with pre-recorded videos and incentives for switching to digital service and support with varying degrees of success.

Still another attempt to migrate customer to digital channels is the establishment of a customer forum, a peer-to-peer digital “helpline” so to speak.

Again, Amazon has implemented this channel. Often, a customer who has purchased an item on Amazon will receive emails from Amazon later on, asking for responses to other consumer inquiries about the product. People like to be helpful and will often respond to these emails.


Younger, tech-savvy consumers actually prefer customer self-service, if it is done right and they can accomplish their customer service objectives quickly and easily. These are consumers who are wedded to their mobile devices and want to be able to use them whenever possible. Recent research conducted by Nuance, brought the following results:

  • 67% of study respondents said they preferred self-service over call centers. If it works well, they get their answers or resolve their issues faster without having to explain them to customer service agents.
  • Unfortunately, 59% of respondents also found that their self-service attempts were not successful and that they ultimately had to contact a call center for resolution.

If it is done well, self-service cuts significantly the need for staffing of call centers. For example, if a customer has the need to return an item, either for a refund or an exchange, a return shipping label can be made available on the company website, along with a form explaining what the customer wants – an exchange or a refund. And the process of doing all of this can easily be explained on the self-service page of the website.

Disadvantages are the same as those with digital service. If explanations are not clear, and if customers cannot achieve their service objective, they end up at the call center anyway.

Here is what companies can do to encourage and support consumer self-service:

  • Through surveys and data gathering, companies need to identify the different customer service needs their customers have. The most common will be evident, and self-service options can be designed based upon those numbers.
  • Use data to optimize the customer experience. From surveys to tracking customer experiences in self-service, companies can discover what works and what needs improvement, and must take measures to improve the customer experience.
  • Market the self-service features just as you would a product. Customers are not going to find self-service on their own. Your website and social media platforms must promote the self-service options that are offered and the benefits of using them.

Finding The Right Combination

Getting to that magical balance of the three customer service options is not easy. It will require collecting data, analyzing it, and then identifying which channels your customers use most, what customer can be migrated away from your call center to digital or self-service solutions, and then working hard to migrate them through effective marketing.

You will never reduce your call centers to nothing. But, what you can do is funnel customers to the right solutions based upon their specific characteristics. You will obviously have a combination of all three of these options.

Getting the right balance means greater cost-effectiveness and satisfaction of your customers.