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Call centers are vital but we’d rather not call them

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

A pug wearing a shirt looking into a laptop screen leaning is head in human hands and listening in a smartphone

A romantic weekend away in Paris has begun and you’re looking for that perfect restaurant for the perfect evening. But your mobile is not working and your partner is losing patience. You can’t surf or make calls so you can’t even book a restaurant in your broken French. There’s a wifi hotspot at the hotel so you go back to the lobby and decide what to do.

But what would you do? It turns out that 57% of those that call a helpdesk have already tried to fix the problem themselves online. Even if you know you can ring someone from the operator, most of us will opt not too. At least not at first.

While corporations make great efforts in improving physical customer interaction, it turns out that self-service is the most popular route for customers anyway. And this is regardless of age, issue or level of urgency.

Even if a self-service queue is longer than a queue to a customer agent, most people will still choose the self-service option. The reasons for this have not yet been fully established but there are several theories.

One is that self-service gives the customer an element of self-control. Another is that maybe customers don’t want a relationship with a company and brand loyalty is diminishing.

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that any company interested in investing in its customers needs to look at the self-service option carefully without dismissing the physical customer interaction either.

”We would say that you should let the customer solve as much as possible themselves but when they do call, then make sure your customer service agents have the right kind of information and skill to help solve that issue quickly.” says Andreas Jörbeck, CEO at Subtonomy.

The findings above come from a three-year research project from Harvard Business Review*.

Some 75,000 people were surveyed about their recent service interactions in major non-face-to-face channels. These were customers interacting with B2C and B2B companies and these interactions took place across the globe. The upshot was that customer loyalty has more to do with a company delivering on its basic run of the mill promises and less to do with customer service agents going out their way to help when a problem occurs.

”It all goes back to the fact that if I have a problem, I want it fixed and I want it fixed easily and smoothly,” says Andreas. ”If you can just go online to see why you’re sometimes having issues watching video, then you’ve got your answer without having to make a call and that’s what the customer wants. But if the problem is complex, we still need a skilled person at the other end of the line with the right information. So you can’t just ditch one for the other. You need both. You just need to know how to use them in the best possible way.”

So why isn’t everyone focusing on state-of-the-art online self-service applications to help their customers? Well. It’s not that simple. In fact, it’s easy to get it wrong. If you launch a self-service tool but it doesn’t solve the most common problems customers call about, then you’re not solving that much. And if you haven’t thought about what effect the self-service tool may have on other parts of the organisation, you may end up solving one problem but causing another. Some organisations have implemented self-service options but haven’t coordinated with the customer service agents who answer phone calls and the mismatch can lead to increased frustration for customers.

McKinsey recently wrote about an insurance company that witnessed a 26% increase in calls after a new app and new web functions were introduced**. The implementation had led to increased administration and there were also technical glitches. On top of that, the new tool wasn’t operating in the same way that the call center was. The call center focused on reducing the time per call but not necessarily solving the problem on the first call. In the end, the amount of repeat callers went up dramatically.

Another potential problem is that customers can now feel like they’re doing work while you’re doing nothing. You need to show them that your computers are working busily on your behalf. Just think about those airline aggregation sites that show you every single possible option for your trip.

However, sometimes you are being made to do the work yourself and this can be irritating for customers if it’s not handled correctly. There needs to be a clear argument for placing more work on the customer’s shoulders. Just take a look at how IKEA does it. You assemble the furniture yourself and feel happy about the fact that it cost less and brought out your inner-DIY-guy at the same time (well, most of the time that is).

A final aspect to take into account is that when you make it easy to solve problems, the amount of people looking to solve their problems, goes up. Take the Parisian weekend example at the start of this article. Some of us might just ask the concierge to order a table for two and just get through the weekend without a functioning mobile. However, when we can resolve the problem easily, we tend to give it a try.

Self-service then is likely to increase and is clearly an area that any B2C company in particular, needs to consider. Just remember that when the questions get complicated, you still need that knowledgeable voice at the other end of the line.

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