Retail Customer Experience: The Shifting Self-Service Paradigm

Discussion
Mar 12, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a website devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

"I am emphasizing the self-service nature of these platforms because it is important for a reason I think is somewhat non-obvious. Even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation." – Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s 2011 Annual Report

Recent surveys conducted by Nuance Communications and Corporate Board Executive revealed that two-thirds of consumers prefer self-service over speaking to a person for customer service inquiries, and 60 percent prefer to make a company’s website the first stop when attempting to solve an issue.

In fact, consumers are not looking for service at all, at least not in the traditional form. They simply want to get something done or resolve an issue — track a package, change a flight or fix a problem — and they want to do so quickly and efficiently. Retailers that approach the self-service model with the customer in mind will be differentiated by the level of immediacy, empowerment, personalization and customization their self-service capabilities offer.

Understanding this evolving class of active customer’s end objective is vital, and it can be more difficult than many companies realize. But the payoff is substantial.

Five key concepts retailers should consider when developing a self-service architecture include:

Design everything from the customer’s perspective. This means involving customers/partners/vendors in the design of self-service capabilities.

Rethink policies and the need for manual intervention. For example, manage service matters by exception. This will allow the vast majority of customers to make real-time decisions and complete their objectives. With the right analytics and algorithms, an automated system can make the repeatable decisions in tandem with a separate exception process for the minority that requires intervention and review.

Create a balanced set of metrics for the self-service experience. The purpose is to measure the financial, operational, cost and quality facets of the customer’s self-service experience. Break and cascade metrics into detailed sub-processes assigned to specific internal owners. Use routine meetings to review the metrics and encourage peers to challenge each other to improve performance that hurts any phase of the process.

Invest in user interface design to improve interactions. Insist on user experience excellence in all interactions, including vendors, partners and employees. The goal is to increase the number who use self-service, requiring far less support from your organization.

Analyze data to create new customer insights. Collect as much data about customer self-service interaction as possible. Use this data to understand how the customer interacts with the system, and provide the feedback to both the customer and internal teams.

While retailers can use self-service to become more efficient and performance-oriented, the real power is in using it as a strategic mission to respond to shifting consumer behavior. True self-service proves that a retailer’s thought process is structured to resolve customer pain points, which goes a long way with an audience that demands more autonomy in the consumer experience.

Which of the author’s steps would greatly improve the self-service shopping experience for customers? What do you think of the article’s suggestions around developing a “’self-service architecture,” including metrics, exception reporting, and vendor collaboration?

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23 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: The Shifting Self-Service Paradigm"


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Anne Howe
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Resolving customer pain points is an excellent mantra for designing self-service options in the retail environment—whether in the store or in the cloud.

My sense is that more retailers need to focus on having senior staff who really own and understand the customer from the lens of experiences and pain points. The Chief Customer Officer is way too often an idea that is talked about instead of an actual human role with deliverables and accountability.

Shifting consumer behavior is not the new bright and shiny, it’s a reality we know will continue to evolve as we move to a more social and relationship based economy. Those who infuse the knowledge of how people behave in a new economy have a chance to really differentiate based on making all aspects of customer relationship more simple, more intuitive and less painful.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

These steps are not new. They are all about helping the customer get what he/she is looking for efficiently and quickly. The key is for a retailer to put himself in the customer’s shoes and design the store or online experience with the customer in mind. The more a retailer can do this, the better.

I wonder if the self service emphasis is due to consumers giving up on corporations to provide real people who can help problem solve.

Joan Treistman
Guest
9 years 2 months ago
I applaud the concept, but question the implementation. On too many occasions I’ve observed executives convinced that their systems have been designed to do just what is prescribed. However, no one gets into the trenches to see if they actually do and feel how they were intended. I’ve tested many websites that have exactly what the marketer agreed to on the PO. But consumers don’t have a chance of using those tools. They are either hidden with graphics, or the text is not consumer friendly, etc. No one tested the site with actual consumers. The article concludes with: “True self-service proves that a retailer’s thought process is structured to resolve customer pain points, which goes a long way with an audience that demands more autonomy in the consumer experience.” I couldn’t agree more. I just don’t think enough retailers take the time, make the effort and investment in truly evaluating the consumer experience. That’s not what is recommended here either. Retailers are advised to “Create a balanced set of metrics for the self-service experience.” Metrics… Read more »
Brian Numainville
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

I think that whether a transaction or event is self-service or full-service really depends on the need that is being fulfilled and individual preference. For routine tasks, like scheduling an appointment for an appliance repair or checking the status of an order, I would much rather have a well thought out self-service approach. On the other hand, if I want advice on the best wine to buy for a given event, I would much rather have personal interaction in order to be able to ask questions.

So it isn’t as easy as “everything should be geared to self-service.” After all, how many of us like wading through a bunch of phone prompts and the inability to talk to a real person when we call to get help? I do think analyzing data to create new customer insights could be valuable in helping shape best practices based on customer desires.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

The focus on developing these solutions is to—first and foremost—design and develop the solution from the customer’s perspective. If you cannot implement a self-service solution that will resolve the customer pain point in an easy, straight-forward manner then don’t put it into play.

A bad self-service experience is worse than one with an actual person. The solution should function in a designed architecture where all of the requisite systems are integrated into a seamless and consistent experience for the customer.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Step #1, Design Everything from the Customer’s Perspective, is key. I would take this a step further: Identify every place/time/occasion in which a customer is forced to compromise in doing business with you. With these key compromises in mind, design the system, self-service or otherwise to eliminate or minimize the compromises.

The article is correct, customers are not looking for service they are looking for solutions. Identify the compromises and provide simple solutions and you will delight your customers.

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
9 years 2 months ago
This is all outstanding material. But I focus on just the first bullet point: “Design everything from the customer’s perspective. This means involving customers/partners/vendors in the design of self-service capabilities.” I am a little leery of what “involving customers/partners/vendors” means in this context. The two greatest advances in self-service in the past decade have come from Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. For certain, Jobs did NOT involve those parties enumerated. Jobs understanding of the “self” in self-service transcended what he might have found in the type of research I suspect is being touted here. And I doubt that Bezos is a great relier on that type of research, either, although I’m pretty sure he has leveraged massive amounts of actual behavioral data, back-linked to demographic/psychographic data, to drive the actual sales of nearly everything on earth, through very nearly exclusively, SELF-service. My own study of the click-click-click of the shopper coming down the aisle in a bricks store, with their shopping cart, more closely parallels Bezos’ approach, although I admit lack of detailed inside knowledge… Read more »
Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
9 years 2 months ago

We have seen similar survey results generally indicating that consumers prefer to self serve. Given this and the cost of labor for retailers, it is an area (for many segments and many functions) where retailers and customers can find common ground. For example, mobile checkout is an attempt at a win/win (not that it is “solved” yet).

The challenge always seems to be the investment in the experience design component. It is the most notable failure point when new customer facing technology is introduced.

Web kiosks, which we characterize as “web on a stick” are the more recent poster child for how to fail by not addressing design.

Many of the vending concepts emerging are a better example of how to to it right. Third party mobile apps are also tending to outperform the retailer provided apps with superior experience design.

Self service will continue to increase in the shopping journey.

Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

I think the self-service model is a bad idea and virtually impossible to ‘design’ for. Always has been, always will be to me. The challenge to this theory is that service has been so poor for so many years (mainly because of self service models like big-box stores), customers equate service with BAD service. They may have forgotten what good service is.

But when good service is in play, like with Starbucks, or Apple, or Whole Foods, or Crate n’ Barrel, or Houston’s Restaurants…the brand resonance is off the charts and customers stay loyal for life.

I’d say we need to go in the opposite direction from self serve and do a better job of hiring, training and retaining people who can provide good service. Old school….

Gordon Arnold
Guest
9 years 2 months ago
Find a parking place, find the entrance door, find the produce, pay for it yourself and now, if there is a problem, handle it yourself. This could mean full employment for the consumers in this great nation. I like the way the retail industry is finding ways to get the consumer to the trucks ultimately eliminating the need for those pesky employees. The truth of this matter is, the efforts to reduce costs for the consumer are taking a seemingly focused action to reduce labor costs. The reduced labor force vision is supported by numbers and reports like we see in this discussion. The most striking aspect of the data used is that it is collected in small samples outside the store sales and support operations. My question is, are we seeing the effects of complacency or concerns in these studies? A working visit to a store disguised as a sales or supply person might give our marketing mavens a closer look at what is needed to increase sales and customers for the store. If… Read more »
Kurt Seemar
Guest
Kurt Seemar
9 years 2 months ago

While the trend is distinct and notable, it is important to keep in mind the converse to these numbers; 1/3 of the customers do not prefer a self-service model. Additionally, the third that does not prefer self-serve likely falls into certain notable segments such as older segments that are less likely to be early adopters or quickly embrace new technology.

In light of this I think there should be a sixth key in developing a self-service model: allow customers to opt into a full service model.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Customer service is all about understanding the customer’s position and what will make life easier for him or her. Of course, it has to be tempered with a dose of understanding the company’s position plus what it takes to get the customer back for more.

If the results of our small sampling are correct, and the customer prefers doing the leg work on their own, we will be faced with another job crisis in the next few years. This will certainly require staff reductions as the customer becomes more savvy about using the tools available rather than wanting to speak with someone.

Zel Bianco
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Sometimes we make things overly complicated:

1) Know your audience
2) Research and develop customer experiences that are accurately based on actual customer experiences and views
3) Get feedback from customers and vendors to learn, improve, and grow
4) Evaluate findings, test, and implement necessary changes
5) Repeat

Lee Kent
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Retailers, be they online or brick & mortar, need to design every service with consumers’ expectations in mind. The list above can easily be applied to any service offered by the store.

The problem is making sure the service is completed. Too often, and especially with services that are related to automated systems, the service experience ends with the last push of a button online. Retailers/designers must ask themselves, “has the customer’s expectation been met completely?” If not, the service is not complete.

I see this time and time and that is why I am such an advocate of ‘Service Design’, a design approach used throughout Europe that helps the designer look at each project end to end. I know it was developed for store design and not so much process and/or system design, however, the principles are the same. I suggest we all get on board with this approach. Just sayin’….

Shep Hyken
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Not all customers want self-service. However the customers that do want self-service love it—until they need full service.

Depending on your business, the convenience model appeals to many customers. The key is to support it in such a way that delivers a full-service experience. Part of that is educating the customer on how to best use your system. The airlines did an excellent job training passengers to book online, print out their boarding passes at home, etc. Not all passengers do this, but the ones that do love it. It is when there is ever a problem that the full-service customer engagement comes into play.

Zappos.com is one of the best examples of a “self-service supported by full-service model.”

In the end, it’s all about convenience with support if needed.

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

The self-service ideal assumes a mostly utilitarian motive on the part of the shopper. While often quite apt, it’s not right for a significant subset of occasions or purchase types.

Despite Amazon’s and others’ notable innovations, from my perspective it’s not that impressive to design shopper interaction practices that suit the majority of occasions precisely, if the exceptions are handled ineptly.

Since it is virtually certain that a shopper will eventually encounter an exception situation if she shops frequently at any retailer, online or in-store, every shopper relationship is at risk.

So by all means, make certain the self-service mechanisms are intuitive and reliable, and measure shopper success relentlessly. Fewer exception events will make for better total outcomes. Ultimately, however, it’s how you perform on the exceptions that will define shopper success.

Kenneth Leung
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

Design everything from a customer perspective with a UI perspective. I think sometimes businesses approach self-service as a cost cutting measure rather than an improve experience measure. If you are driving customers to self service it should be because it is something that works better for the customer (e.g. subscribing to text message saying your prescription is ready at the pharmacy), rather than cost savings (reduction of need of pharmacists to call the customer on completion of order).

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
9 years 2 months ago

Invest in user interface design to improve interactions. If it is not easy to use, people won’t come back. Amazon’s support service (request a call back) is outstanding and a model other retailers should consider. People don’t like to wait and they don’t like menus. They simply want to solve their program, or even better, just shop.

Retailers need to consider the consumer when building their process not just the bottom line. That means thinking more about the long tail which investors don’t always allow.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
9 years 2 months ago

I would add a step: increase your search engine ranking. With the majority of people checking out products online before buying, it’s estimated that the average person is already 67% through the sales process when they get in direct contact with the product or service they are buying. They are reducing the amount of time spent interacting with sales personnel and trying to do research on their own. With this in mind, making it easy to find your product first and hear your story first is becoming most important.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 2 months ago

I agree with much of this article. The statement, “Design everything from the customer’s perspective” is seemingly a “no-brainer,” however, most websites today are not very intuitive. They are truly built from the merchant’s own internal operating perspective.

If this one suggestion alone was taken seriously by more merchants, more shoppers would return to these sites to make purchases. When the shopper gets frustrated with the site, you can be certain they won’t return.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
9 years 2 months ago

Service is exceptionally merchandise dependent—think high risk, infrequently purchased merchandise. But that’s not to say that a majority of the work can’t be self serve (especially given the depth of the information found in Amazon reviews.) No doubt, all of the hassles that can be codified and resolved by machine, will go that route, so the item that resonated with me was “Rethink policies and the need for manual intervention.”

I think the future of service will be architected around a help network that starts with triage experts that route issues to networks of experts, (internal, external and customers.) Escalation and queue management are overseen by audience/category experts. All wait times should be removed, customers should be able to ask and get answers asynchronously.

Design competency, use of modern service innovation methods and customer centricity just speak to how a modern company does things—that speaks to the issue of culture and talent. Retail.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
9 years 2 months ago

The more commodity-oriented the product, the more self-service is necessary to allow the consumer to intelligently and efficiently navigate through decisions, actions, and problem resolution.

The more high-touch, or luxury oriented the product, the less these methods add value to the customer experience. However, the main premise to understand the changing dynamics of the consumer’s desire to self-navigate in various areas of their experience is spot on and should be major focus of the retailer’s review of their customer touchpoints.

AmolRatna Srivastav
Guest
AmolRatna Srivastav
9 years 2 months ago

There are areas where customers will prefer self-service and this will vary depending on type of customer. For example, kiosks for tickets, and buying “one-off” goods may be preferred owing to quick checkout times (you save on the human interface). There are also areas where the same customer may not prefer self-service. Of course, the suggestions to develop the architecture are relevant….

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