The Evolution of Self Service

By Elaine Cascio, Vice President  |  August 03, 2012

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Since this is a retrospective issue, let’s take a walk down memory lane with self service. Where did it start? 

We can go back to voicemail in the early 1980s. It enabled a caller to record a voice message rather than speak with an operator and leave a callback number. In the manner of true self service, it allowed people to actually complete an interaction, (“Hi this is Rick, will you fax me the Everett contract? Thanks.”)instead of playing phone tag (News - Alert). As facilitator of a now defunct group promoting better voicemail customer experience (though we didn’t call it customer experience back then), I authored a booklet titled Making the Most of Voice Mail with all sorts of guidelines for making the experience top notch.

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The next evolutionary step was integrated voice response, a much maligned technology (in case you’ve never seen the Saturday Night Live skits featuring Amtrak’s Julie, plug it into your search engine of choice). Voice response moved from prompting and call routing in the early 1990s to handling simple generic inquiries (What are your business hours? Where is the nearest ATM?). 

The next step was to provide callers with actual transaction processing, giving them access to their account balance or letting them hear recent transactions. Thinking they could reduce call center headcount, many companies pushed to handle every type of transaction in the IVR. And this is where many went off the rails with frightening applications that were entirely too complex for a simple touch-tone interface. I remember one client’s engineer who built an application that let callers estimate their 401K monthly payments at retirement. The application had more than 25 prompts and took well over three minutes to complete. As you’d expect, it was used by only a handful of people in the two years it was in production.

Speech enabling the IVR opened up a new range of self service that was more natural for the caller. Early adopters like United reaped huge benefits by automating transactions that were impossible or painful when limited to a touch-tone interface. And while speech is the interface of choice for many industries today, many companies are still reaping big benefits using touch tone.

Recent emphasis has been on creating more personalized IVR experience through links to CRM and other data, as well as using outbound capabilities for customer notifications and alerts.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Self service was becoming institutionalized in our everyday lives as well, showing up in the form of bank ATMs, self-service gas pumps, airline ticket kiosks, and self-service supermarket checkouts. Most of us seldom go through the day without using self service of some kind.

The World Wide What?

Meanwhile, other channels were developing rapidly. AOL (News - Alert) was a pioneer in e-mail in 1991, and the e-mail concept was rapidly embraced by consumers and businesses alike. Like voicemail, it let us have non-real time conversations. 

By the mid nineties, people were beginning to establish websites. Like IVR, the early ones were not transaction based. For many consumers, the breakthrough came with in 1994 and today, this online bookstore is a retail giant. The digital world opened another channel for consumer as well as B to B self-service interactions, and for many it’s now the only way they do business.

The Rise of Social Media

Social media began as a way to find friends (Friendster, 2002), then moved to creating communities. And communities influence lifestyle and product choices, what music we listen to, and what websites we shop. 

And while you may not consider social media self service, information is often the currency for transactions in this space. So consider how forums may handle questions instead of help desks, or how consumers can help themselves with tools embedded in sites like Facebook (News - Alert) and Google+. Delta’s Delta Assist Twitter team helps travelers who are stranded or can’t find the gate for their flight.

What does this all have to do with voice of the customer? It gives us a sense of how many ways we interact with customers and why it’s so critical to have a common voice across all media. I encourage you to look at all the channels your customers are using today and assess the customer experience – on each channel and across channels.

Elaine Cascio is a vice president at Vanguard Communications Corp. (, a consulting firm specializing in customer experience, self service, contact center processes, operations and technology.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi