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Help Yourself

Customer self-service is finally catching on with consumers — and saving businesses a bundle in the process.

Ask engineers to name the great scientific innovations of the past 20 years, and you’ll probably end up with a list like this:

1. Packet switching

2. Nanotechnology

3. Robots

4. 64-bit microprocessors

5. Computer-aided design/manufacturing

Ask consumers the same question, and the list would probably look more like this:

1. E-mail

2. Cell phones

3. ATMs

4. Digital cameras

5. Those machines at the airport where you can change your seat.

Admittedly, the consumer list may seem superficial. In the grand scheme of things, ticketing machines at an airport hardly compare with devices that operate at a subatomic level. Nevertheless, frequent fliers who have repeatedly found themselves in the middle seat of a 12-letter row on a 15-hour flight will no doubt vouch for Number Five — assuming, that is, they get through the security line in time to use it.

The truth is, in the day-to-day exercise known as living, small gains in convenience are usually the advances most appreciated by humans. That simple fact may explain the corporate obsession with customer self-service. Over the years, companies have spent millions rolling out cutting-edge CRM systems, including automated phone programs and, later, Web-based systems. The dream: improve customer care while reducing the cost of providing it.

The dream didn’t pan out. Automated phone systems were confusing, forcing callers to navigate a maddening series of menu options. Web-based programs, which promised quick answers, often left customers waiting hours for a response to a simple question. Says Esteban Kolsky, customer service research director at Stamford, Connecticut-based IT advisory firm Gartner Inc.: “There’s no question that at some point self-service developed something of a bad reputation.”

That reputation appears to be changing. Indeed, customer self-service is quietly and steadily gaining acceptance with consumers. Some of that acceptance stems from a change in demographics, with younger customers preferring to do for themselves. Mostly, though, the sea change in C-service stems from a dramatic improvement in the self-service technologies themselves. Voice-response systems, the onetime bane of banking customers, have improved so dramatically that many patrons now prefer them to live customer service representatives. And intelligent instant messaging (IM) “‘bots” — computer programs that “chat” with users — can provide real-time responses to even complicated questions.

The result? Self-service is beginning to fulfill its initial promise of providing easy and personalized customer interaction while substantially cutting support costs. Says Laura Preslan, vice president for CRM at AMR Research, a technology research company located in Boston: “Self-service is one of the highest-reward, lowest-risk investments across the entire customer management spectrum.”

To wit: a recent AMR survey found that a large company that invested $400,000 in self-service technology could expect to reap nearly $900,000 in savings from the outlay. “Companies are not maximizing the value of self-service,” notes Preslan. “There is at least a six-figure benefit waiting for most.”

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