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When self-service first entered the public consciousness, customers saw it as businesses forcing them to do work they shouldn’t have to do. Now, customers are singing a different tune, preferring to not involve a business — or any human, really — unless necessary.

When a business does enter the picture, customers prefer its service to find the right mix of human interaction and automated convenience that provides just as seamless an experience. What’s more, they want it on their own terms and in a time frame that’s near-impossible to meet without the technology they originally scorned.

In other words, expectations for self-service continue to increase. These days, customers would rather speak to a bot than an actual person and generally crave an easier, more seamless buying experience. Embracing self-service gives brands the ability to smooth out that buyer journey and provide a service that can stand up to competition for years to come.

Help Customers Help Themselves

A McKinsey Global Institute study estimates that automation can increase productivity by 1.4 percent each year and notes that it keeps businesses aligned with current cost structures. However, if automation is not paired with some level of self-service, a company risks pricing itself out of business.

Self-service is all about helping customers buy rather than “selling” them a product you think they want to buy. Sure, you still do the necessary work to convince them your product is the obvious choice, but it’s now through education.

You’ll arm your website with a bot to answer questions, and then make sure there’s a bot to assist potential customers and provide them hints and answers during the purchase. It’s all part of the pre-purchase process.

From there, of course, you need to put a troubleshooting bot on the site to address any unexpected issues. Those answers will center on customer care, ensure visitors feel taken care of and build customer loyalty. The easier brands make self-service for customers, the quicker they’ll latch on to the concept.

Simplify Self-Service

Brands that skip self-service will miss out on customers who prefer this level of engagement. In fact, you could alienate a growing segment of the population that demands purchasing products and services in this way.

For any company looking to make its self-service options as easy as possible, the following is a good place to start:

1. Think beyond basic automated telephone service. For years, companies have used interactive voice response to gather general information from customers before routing them to the appropriate representative. But natural language processing has come a long way since then to help fulfill customer requests.

Start thinking about all the different interactions that voice response can now handle. Can you leverage this technology to automate even more of the customer experience? You know what sort of questions agents repeatedly field, so use that knowledge to enable a truly self-service option for customers.

2. Consider your tech stack. It isn’t uncommon to partner up with a company to help build demos that amplify the business value in the current crop of self-service tools. But besides being able to implement the technology, you need the means to optimize it over time so it can get smarter and work throughout the entire customer experience.

Take Sephora, for instance. It launched a chatbot on Facebook that allows users to upload a selfie to try on its more than 90 million different lipstick shades. The company recently optimized the bot to detect and estimate the shade of lipstick a customer is wearing in the photo and provide a color match in store. Make sure your technology is on top of every innovation possible to keep customer interest in your self-service tools high.

3. Never forget the context. Companies tend to cobble together many single-use bots to enable self-service. The main problem with this tactic is that the technology isn’t connected: Once customers get to the point of actually needing the call center, all context is lost.

What you need is essentially a digital worker factory in which you can add use cases and train the bots — not only to answer increasingly difficult questions, but to also connect to a knowledge base that’s linked to the CRM environment. Then, the context of the bot conversation can be carried over if a live conversation is needed.

For so long, we’ve been led to believe that self-service is a bad thing — which it can be when done badly. But if you think about the customer journey and build tools that enable a seamless experience, you’ll meet expectations, which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to customer service.

Are you looking to get your brand into the self-service game? Check out the e-book “To Bot or Not to Bot” to see whether it’s the right move for you and your customers.