Research has often shown that customers prefer the self-service approach when trying to resolve a query with a company, because it allows them to feel in control of the situation and go at their own pace. If it’s a simple enough query, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to try and find out for themselves.

But if you ask a Customer Services Manager what their biggest customer services problem is, a sizeable proportion will say: ‘Not enough people use our self-service channels ; they always want to call us the phone and it puts our call volumes – and our costs – through the roof. Why don’t they try looking on the website first?’

Fair enough you may think, but the reality is that around half the people calling your company on the phone have already tried looking on the website and haven’t been able to find what they are looking for. In fact, many of them are still searching on the website at the same time that they are calling Customer Services.

Typically, as our internal research shows ([24]7 data from a poll conducted with voice customers of our clients), around 67% of people calling into the call centre have tried to self serve on a website but have failed and so have to continue their “journey” on other channels, including the phone.


Even though the telephone is still the most common way of contacting customer services, it is rapidly being overtaken by self-service digital channels such as FAQs on the website (called virtual agents) which more and more people find gives them the control over their query that waiting endlessly on a phone line lacks.

In January 2015 a blog from industry analysts Forrester noted that channel usage rates are changing rapidly: for the first time in the history of their survey, respondents reported using the FAQ pages on a company’s website more often than speaking with an agent over the phone; online chat adoption continues to rise – from 38% in 2009 to 43% in 2012 to 58% in 2014. The use of communities and virtual agents jumped by over 10 percentage points each.

Customers who have a poor service experience – estimated at 30% – are at risk of defecting to a competitor, even if they do not complain about their bad experience at the time.

Virtual Agents

So for a self service solution, virtual agent technology is increasingly being used to offer end users 24-hour-a-day support and immediate access to information without having to wait for a live agent to respond to a call.

Self service support can be used to keep repetitive, standard questions like “how do I return this item?”, “does my local shop open on Sundays?” – away from the phone lines. But now it also enables more complex tasks to be carried out interactively online such as “balance check” or “pay bill”. So instead of having to search through the website to locate the instructions to carry out your task, you can ask the virtual agent to help you and they can guide you through an end to end process without even traversing the website home page.

Assisted Service

When customers need assistance from a live agent, because the question is complex or very specific to a customer situation, they need service immediately. Live chat (texting with an agent on a website) is increasingly preferred by customers and much faster than waiting to get through to telephone support. Chat agents have the ability to help several people at the same time; there are no telephone costs, even if you are calling from another country, and there is no more struggling to understand what’s being said because of phone line issues.

Of course the telephone, I predict in our lifetime, is always going to stay. There are issues or questions that are so complex or sensitive that they need a skilled human to deal with and respond appropriately. There are also customers’ preferences to take into account and some want to talk to a person and will pay for the privilege, so organisations will always offer this service regardless of other services on offer.

First Line Of Engagement

Traditional human customer service (eg telephone calls to call centres) has the personal touch, but it’s expensive, inconsistent and doesn’t always scale well. The non-human alternative (eg online self service) is faster and cheaper for companies. But if that does not answer the customer’s question the customer needs to be connected to assisted service, such as chat.

So as most customer journeys start in the digital world, the logical conclusion is that virtual agents should be the first line of engagement to solve customers’ issues. Then when that is not going to resolve the issue, the organisation should quickly determine the best course of escalation to human assisted and do that seamlessly.