Essential services: How self-serve communications became vital to business success in 2020

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    Kaysie Garza
  • Oct 16, 2020

Before COVID-19, self-service communications was just another layer in a quality customer experience.

Communication software let everyone from enterprise software makers to global brands connect with and help people more efficiently—without requiring them to go through a human touchpoint first. 

But today, during the global coronavirus outbreak, these self-serve experiences aren’t just nice to have: they’re essential to adapting in the pandemic and growing beyond it.

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Why it’s time to lead with self-service communications

Building self-serve communication experiences—or “contactless” customer service—is about more than responding to shifting needs during the pandemic. Resiliency alone is important, but these days, being resilient means also embracing technological changes.

According to Forrester, resilient companies do four critical things:

  1. Build strong, trusted, and dependable relationships with customers,

  2. Become a preferred employer who can recruit and retain the best talent,

  3. Protect revenues and reputation during a crisis,

  4. Recover quicker than competitors.

Introducing or building out self-serve options can buoy each of those points, especially now that sentiment and behavior tracking shows consumers flocking to digital and omnichannel touchpoints.

What better way to build and foster online-only customer relationships than with virtual tools like web chats or interactive voice responses? A recent Twilio survey on COVID-19 communications showed that as many as 53 percent of respondents want "critical updates about material changes to availability of their products and services" most from the organizations they interact with. That means your messages and chats are providing real value to your customer by giving them the option to find the answers they need right now.

Beyond stronger customer relationships, implementing self-serve communication options gives employees the autonomy to tackle more in-depth customer problems. When they aren’t tied up on the phones answering common questions that could easily be handled by a website chatbot, their work is more purposeful and human-focused, making them more productive and more likely to feel supported in their role.

Finally, setting up self-serve communications for contactless customer support is a direct way to protect revenue by preventing customer experience-related churn. Staying ahead of technology and rolling out increasingly better ways to serve customers in your respective market will give your company a reputation as an industry leader with resilience.

Whether you’re just beginning or are rounding out your communications playbook, this guide showcases how other resilient companies—in multiple industries—are adopting, scaling, and benefiting from smart communication solutions that offer customers more autonomy to find resources and information for themselves.

Adapting retail environments to COVID-19 with personalized notifications

Business closures, in-store occupancy limits, and reduced shopping hours have all pushed the retail industry to look for a new way to keep business afloat.

One such successful method has been embracing a direct-to-consumer (D2C) model. One third of Americans bought groceries online in March 2020 and American restaurants now make more than half of their revenue from delivery, drive-through, and takeout.

This has given rise to what’s widely recognized as contactless delivery. Shoppers have less opportunity to connect with a retailer face-to-face, and instead rely on timely, relevant updates or self-service as the crux of their customer experience. In this model, restaurants and grocery stores lean on live alerts and notifications to communicate everything from delivery times to order changes.

While it’s not as interpersonal as an in-store encounter, these personalized text engagements operate similarly to a human support member by relaying info with context regarding quantity, type, size, payments, and most recently, safe-handling. Further, activating “buy online, pick up in-store” (BOPIS) notifications can also guide customers and explain how to prepare for pick ups.

Communication technology opportunities don’t end with proactive text alerts. A self-service voice response (IVR) system can be connected with other systems such as a customer relationship manager to make the end result more conversational and natural for your customers to talk to.

For example, UK retail giant Marks & Spencer’s IVR translates customer queries into actionable intent with more than 90 percent accuracy. It automatically routes customers and handles more than one million inbound telephone calls a month.

This type of communication technology integration is more important than ever. Contact center staffing may be reduced or limited for a lot of retail HQs, and getting the right person at the right time can make or break a customer’s experience.

Helping nonprofits scale accessibility with IVR

And speaking of the benefits of IVR, handling large call quantities isn’t the only opportunity.

United Way Worldwide, the nonprofit coalition of charitable organizations that fights for health, education, and financial stability, has seen an increase of call volumes up to four times higher than before the coronavirus outbreak.

Along with that uptick, the calls have gotten more complex, with people trying to navigate changing legislation and unfamiliar systems. To help with this increase in volume, the United Way staff developed a streamlined routing system with a front-end interactive voice response (IVR).

With this new setup, people can call into a single 1-800 number or their local 211—which automatically delegates calls to the IVR depending on context. There, an AI-assisted IVR bot can help answer commonly asked questions about COVID-19 and how to seek further assistance around the virus.

In the event a caller still wanted to speak to a specialist, they would be routed to a live agent logged into the platform or back to a local 211 with available specialists seamlessly.

Improving healthcare patient engagement with self-service technology

Demand has skyrocketed for doctors appointments, but with reduced in-person visits, providers are introducing solutions (self-serve and otherwise) to continue seeing patients. Specifically, many health systems have started employing chatbot to help with the increase in volume. Chatbots are scalable and available around the clock (unlike humans) and they’re an excellent self-serve tool for companies looking to adapt to the new normal.

Kettering Health, a large health system based in Ohio, collaborated with Asparia Health to develop an electronic health record (EHR) integrated chatbot to engage with patients and determine if an in-person visit is necessary based on their symptoms.

Using this chatbot, staff have a better idea of the infection risk a patient poses before they come in for an in-person appointment. During the first few months of the pandemic, Kettering Health identified over 130 patients per day who may carry such risk, enabling them to better protect frontline staff delivering care.

Along with patient health, there’s also the administrative benefit that comes with self-service technology.

Inbox Health, a company that makes paying medical bills simple, gives customers more control with a self-serve over-the-phone payment option.

With this feature, 61 percent of Inbox Health contact center callers were able to pay without speaking to a human agent at all. By following the guided prompts, callers took care of their bills in an average of 94 seconds, all without leaving their homes.

Other updates and logistics—like medication reminders or refill prompts—can be sent via SMS. Some patients may have previously relied on routine in-office visits to take care of these health housekeeping tasks. Now, it’s up to technology to keep them on track, which could prevent in-person visits and free up both patient and provider time post-pandemic.

Innovative, COVID-19-inspired trends in the financial services industry

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the world economy, and individual consumers are feeling the effects. In turn, consumers are looking to their banks and other financial service providers for a sense of security and trust by providing guidance and real-time responses to their pressing questions.

Given this, it should be unsurprising that live chat was chosen by 54 percent of financial services respondents as the new communication channel adopted due to COVID-19. Giving customers immediate answers to their questions means scaling the necessary personalized services and communications with intelligent self-service options—or AI-powered interactive voice response (IVR) and chatbots.

And while some financial giants are just now putting their digital transformations in high gear, others started with a digital-first approach well before COVID-19 made headlines.

Chime, a “fee-free” financial services provider handles all services through its mobile app. Not only is this appealing to customers who already sought out digital banking, it’s prepared the company for an event like the pandemic.

How do they support so many services in the palm of a hand?

The online bank combines SMS, an AI-powered chatbot, and an IVR solution that integrates with its existing CRM to automatically authenticate customers as soon as they call. From there, extra IVR personalization seamlessly takes care of nearly all inbound inquiries.

Not only are digital-first experiences like Chime thriving through the pandemic, they’re the future of financial services. In Italy, Spain, and the US, 15 to 20 percent of customers surveyed expect to increase their use of digital channels once the crisis has passed. For those in Fintech, this is a big opportunity to connect with their existing customers and establish new relationships.

North Carolina-based Truist Financial launched a handful of digital and self-serve technologies to give customers fast, safe, and digital-first service. In April 2020, they added a chatbot to their multi-channel approach. The bot has since fielded more than 20,000 questions—questions that would typically have answers buried in support content or require phone conversations.

Like retail and healthcare environments, removing the face-to-face aspect of customer service doesn’t have to be a customer experience shortcoming. Rather, adding in a digital approach simplifies customers lives and helps instill consumer loyalty long-term.

Contactless hospitality gives new meaning to service industry

Travel and hospitality came to a screeching halt with COVID-19. In order to survive and grow beyond the pandemic, businesses in these industries have had to creatively utilize self-serve technology to continue providing five-star experiences to their travel-loving customers.

In order to do so, these companies have had to take into account changing consumer behavior around travel and hospitality. With social distancing measures in place, switching to contactless cash-free payment and check-in options and rethinking high-touch models of guest service have been crucial in interacting with customers. After all, while people now have higher hygiene standards for travel, they still want the experience of being away from home.

Smart-concierge service, Ivy from Go Moment, is already stepping forward as a leader in the contactless hospitality industry.

Ivy helps hotels serve guests with a seamless, social distanced experience. It also gives the added benefit of protecting hotel staff from guest exposure by automating routine inquiries, providing smart suggestions, and offering “instant service” to guests.

With speed and ease no human can replicate, Ivy uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand and respond to guest questions via text message. It can shift checkout times, answer commonly asked questions, give recommendations for activities, promote on-site amenities, and connect guests to live human help when unable to complete a task.

Ivy debuted years before the pandemic, but it’s a great example of using self-serve communication software without sacrificing experience or quality.

Similar concepts to Ivy are showing up in response to the pandemic as well. Grace, a new AI platform, enables guests to contact hotel staff in real-time via messaging app of their choice like WhatsApp. By using messaging platforms like WhatsApp as the conduit, a guest doesn’t need to download a new app at all. And with Grace, hotel staff can respond without even getting a name or room number first.

And what about actual travel? Birmingham Airport, a major travel hub in the UK, adopted self-serve bag drop technology that lets flyers weigh their bags and scan boarding passes. From there, they can pull up instructions for printing luggage tags, which also include details of connecting flights, bag info, and a travel receipt.

This option helps cut check-in wait times (people move through the process 12–15 minutes faster) and keeps lines from getting too crowded. It’s also shown to have raised the airport’s customer satisfaction ratings and staff efficiency, proving that shifting mindsets and operations to embrace self-service can improve customer experiences and help businesses thrive.

With results like this, it’s easy to see that turning the most human-run aspects of an industry on to self-service isn’t just a temporary safety solution but a long term business success model.

Self-service pushes businesses toward a more resilient future

Digital transformation ranks somewhere on every CTO’s checklist.

Before the coronavirus, most enterprises took baby steps, and with good reason. It’s expensive and difficult to introduce new technologies under normal circumstances. It took a global pandemic to shake up all priorities, industries, and society as a whole.

Now, the companies who push forward and commit to serving customers in new ways—often by leaning on self-serve communications and technologies—are the ones who are retaining customers and adapting fastest. As customers see their needs being met, they’ll toss out old habits (like visiting physical bank branches) for alternatives that offer what they need, how they need it.

This is part of how a business can recover faster than competitors and be more resilient long term. Whether it’s ordering extra towels from a bot during a weekend getaway or bypassing hours of on-hold music with the help of an IVR, self-serve communications offer powerful ways to scale, sustain, and grow into the future.

Learn more about how to pandemic proof your business with scalable communication technology during COVID-19 and beyond.

Scalable comms

Pandemic-proof your business with scalable communication technology during COVID-19 and beyond.

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