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Balancing self-service and direct customer support: Chatbots, portals and more

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jacek Dudzinski / Shutterstock)

Picture self-service. You’re imagining a portal, right? Whether it’s online banking or logging an IT ticket, self-service portals have become ingrained in the way we experience services. They bridge the gap between the customer and the service department, problem-solving, providing knowledge, and encouraging independence.

Organisations are, therefore, striving to find a way to balance their traditional service methods with the endless possibilities that self-service offers. So, with the emergence of AI, such as chatbots, how do organisations navigate the busy market and figure out what service delivery methods will work for them?

Traditional working: direct customer support

Phone calls and emails. Neither are particularly efficient, but before self-service these were the chosen methods of communication between the user and operator – in many cases, they still are.

This direct customer support has benefits, such as the personal feel your user gets from the interaction.

However, it’s a time-consuming way to deliver a service. Phone calls are long and result in extended waiting times for the rest of your customers. Emails can go back and forth multiple times before the problem and solution are found. For your busy service desk department, relying on this traditional method of service delivery just doesn’t work.

Self-service and artificial intelligence (AI)

There is no wonder, then, that self-service, an efficient tool for service delivery, has become so prevalent since its arrival in the market. A portal, populated with knowledge items, forms, and services allows the customer to become independent, therefore saving the service desk time and effort.

A comprehensive form will provide all the essential information about an incident or request, reducing the need for back and forth communication between the user and operator. Knowledge items empower customers to solve their own problems, reducing traffic to the service desk. And, one of the biggest benefits of the self-service portal, the user has full visibility of the services offered. Creating transparency and managing expectations, so to avoid confusion and disappointment.

However, self-service is no longer defined by a portal. Right now, every CIO and CEO in the world is being bombarded by the hype of AI. When it comes to self-service, this most likely means a chatbot.

Chatbots: How do they work?

Chatbots run on AI engines. How well they work is dependent on the quality of the algorithms they’re running, but more crucially, on the quality of data they are being fed. The important thing to remember about chatbots is that they need data, and lots of it.

You might remember back in 2018 Google demonstrated their ‘Google Duplex’ AI voice assistant. They gathered data from millions of phone conversations to provide the data for their voice assistant. Their AI technology was able to independently call a hairdresser and Chinese takeaway to book appointments – without the abundance of data collected, this most definitely wouldn’t have been possible.

AI isn’t for everyone. Smaller organisations often don’t have the quality and quantity of data to really utilise the technology. If a chatbot cannot access information on 80 per cent of the questions that your customers are going to ask, then it’s no better than having a person at the end of a telephone, email chain or form.

Balancing AI, self-service and direct customer support

Your service delivery approach doesn’t have to be limited to either direct customer support or self-service or AI, it should incorporate all three, if possible. This is where we must find the balance.

By all means, invest in the emerging technology that is enhancing the self-service experience. But remember, there will be times when these avenues don’t solve your user’s problem. They will resort to calling the service desk just to speak to an actual person. Maybe their problem is so urgent that they need somebody to resolve it right now.

As an organisation, you must take this into account.

There is no perfect extreme of doing one of the other. Pure self-service, having no people in the background to pick up a call, respond to an email, call a customer in need, or deal with the maintenance of your automated infrastructure, doesn’t work. Similarly, approaching every interaction with a face-to-face personal touch is not possible or practical.

You have smart, passionate service desk operators who want to help people, but not necessarily for their password reset. Provide them, and your users, with a comprehensive self-service portal and/or intelligent chatbot for the simple or recurring incidents. Allow your highly skilled operators to be there to answer the more complex issues and deliver service excellence.

Identify the best approach for you

When it comes to choosing how to serve your user base, ask yourself one question: Are we implementing this because it fits our needs or because our competitors have applied this approach?

Each and every organisation has unique customers, unique data quality/quantity, and unique goals. So, what works for your neighbours, doesn’t necessarily work for you. The world of AI and chatbots isn’t quite ready for the masses yet, so only look to implement these if it really suits your organisation.

Remember that your entire service delivery is interconnected. When designing a self-service portal, ensure you have the tools in the background operation to meet its demands. Also, consider carefully how components like chatbots can work together with your wider operation, rather than in isolation.

Ignore the hype, focus on your needs

Breaking through the hype, breaking through the jargon, it’s vital to really understand the core strengths of each of these different components. And, if you have the requirements as an organisation to utilise them.

A portal is not there to completely replace your direct customer support. However, direct customer support if never going to be able to provide the same level of automation, efficiency, and ease of use as a portal. Putting these two aside, a chatbot is not the be-all and end-all of service delivery and customer engagement.

The publicity and excitement around AI can make it seem like you should be looking for a way to employ the technology. But, if it isn’t going to be the answer to a problem you’re having or value you’re trying to achieve, then look elsewhere to self-service and traditional methods to realise service excellence.

Sumit De, head of consultancy, TOPdesk UK (opens in new tab)

Sumit De is the head of consultancy at TOPdesk UK.