In customer service circles, the concept of web-based self-service often yields mixed reactions at best for consumers. Some sides feel that it provides a callous disregard for the interest of customers, while others feel it is a way to give customers much more rapid access to the information that at least some of them needed. While the question of how customers really feel about web-based self-service has been a gray area until now, more recently, customers are coming forth and giving their opinions, and the outcome is better than originally expected.
A recent report from Ajay Khanna, senior director of product marketing for KANA, suggests that customers are most likely enjoying the idea of self-service, in that it gives them a note of empowerment as they try to figure out just what it is they want to buy.
With the sheer amount of information out there about products and services alike, people are more able than ever to find out just what those products and services offer, and make the appropriate determination as to how well those products dovetail with their own needs.
Moreover, the rise of mobile technology has given customers a dizzying array of data sources right in their pockets, or possibly satchels, or if nothing else in their cars. Going into an electronics store is still an important point--going "hands-on" with a product is every bit as important to customers now as it's ever been--but a growing number of customers have a good idea of what it is they're looking for before they even hit the parking lot.
That's not to say that web-based customer self-service can completely replace the actual customer service presence, but in this case, customer service will be less about underpaid drones hovering over the customer desperate to make a sale (and in some cases keep their jobs accordingly) and more about trusted experts providing those last few key points of information about products and answering any questions that the user may have at the last minute. While customers will likely always enjoy things like Virgin America's self check-in system, where food and drink can be ordered from a touch screen mounted in the seat back, there will always need to be that last human presence to answer questions that the system isn't equipped to recognize.
An excellent summary of this approach came from JCPenney's Ron Johnson, who said "We want customers to shop on their terms, not ours." Indeed, that's what many businesses want, especially if it translates into more people shopping overall. So while customers may be enthusiastic about the concept of helping themselves shop, or even doing the homework before they shop, it will nearly always prove necessary--and beneficial--to have at least some human presence on hand to step in should something go wrong. Think of it as customer service insurance.
Edited by Stefanie Mosca