Skip to main content

Will Self-Service Eventually Replace the Live Agent?

This article was originally published on ICMI here.

When it comes to customer service, as consumers, we can do a lot on our own thanks to the copious amounts of technology at our fingertips. In fact, most of us tend to prefer self-service to relying on a live connection to help us reach a solution. According to a recent consumer survey commissioned by Nuance Enterprise, 75 percent of respondents said self-service is a convenient way to address customer service issues. Just think about how much simpler it is to check your bank balance and transfer money between accounts through an automated attendant interactive voice response (IVR) app--or through SMS or a secure web site--than by the old way of relying on a live agent for all transactions.

The same report found that 67 percent of respondents prefer self-service over speaking to a live customer service agent. These statistics prove that self-service is going to continue to take on a much more critical role in the future. Time consuming tasks such as calling customer service 1-800 numbers and writing lengthy emails to help desks are becoming less frequent as self-service gains momentum.

However, as consumers and customers of countless of brands, we sometimes do not have a choice and are required to seek the support of a customer service agent in order to reach a resolution. When an issue requires complex interactions that require a lot of backstory, multiple questions, decision points, steps, automated operators or IVR, the website help center just won't suffice. In these instances, the assistance of an agent is invaluable. For this reason, self-service will never replace the assistance live agents can provide. With companies that deliver best in class customer service, self-service and assisted service work in concert to provide an elevated customer experience.

Are you there, agent? I need you!

It's clear that more and more, calling an agent is seen as the last resort. Because more customers are self-serving, they are often incredibly frustrated by the time they reach an actual voice, as they have probably already attempted to resolve the issue in multiple ways. Complicated IVR trees and long wait times compound the frustration, resulting in cranky reactions from customers. Instead of feeling like they were helped, by the time customers speak with an agent, they are extremely irritated and even more upset with the brand than they were before calling.

Although self-service is rising in popularity, there are still many instances when customer service is successful only if there is a live person present to resolve the issue. When customers are in need of this human element, here are three ways in which companies can use their contact centers to an advantage in order to deliver a competitive differentiating service:

1. Teach agents to exercise empathy and sympathy

The value of a human touch within a company's customer service efforts cannot be automated. At a recent conference I attended, a pharmaceutical company who works with consumers shared its methodology behind its customer service. The speaker said that they train their agents to believe that the person on the other end of the phone line or web chat could be your father or grandmother. They shared that their agents need to treat customers accordingly, as if they are a part of their family because you never know when you could be speaking to your supervisor's mother! All companies should strive to make customers feel like the agent is attempting to create a genuine connection. Self-service doesn't allow for this experience.

2. Empower your agents: Emphasize the importance of making judgment calls

The best contact centers enable their agents to make informed decisions and add a human judgment component. Should agents give a free service to a customer who is angry over something like a billing issue? Will a discount appease a customer who might abandon their brand loyalty? Self-service cannot provide this level of personal thinking, so many contact centers have found that the human discretion of agents is crucial to ensure customers have the best possible experience. Computers cannot operate by the same case-by-case basis humans can when it comes to making valuable customers happy.

3. Choose intelligent agent tools

Even in the next five years we are going to see a greater emphasis on intelligence in relation to customer service. Systems with the ability to tap into cross channel (aka omnichannel) customer history will be an absolute must, giving the agents the ability to see what a customer has done on any channel at a glance. An intelligent knowledge management system integrated with agent software is needed to provide consistent resolution to increasingly complex transactions. Features like advanced search and next best action are crucial, intelligently guiding the agent to the correct resolution. Without reaping the benefits of the smart aspects of technology, companies will fall behind their competitors, standing on the sidelines wondering why their NPS and CSAT scores are far below industry standards. I believe that's where it is really critical that companies work with their vendors to understand how they can best implement the best practices in contact center customer service.

Yes, technology is ingrained in practically every aspect of our lives, so it is easy to believe that it can help us achieve all of our customer service issues. However, no matter how advanced and complex, customer satisfaction begins and ends with the individual. While extremely helpful and time efficient, self-service will absolutely never replace the live agent. The human element is crucial to your customers' satisfaction as well as your company's overall brand health.