More and more companies are choosing to provide self-service technology options for their customers. Self-check-outs at supermarkets, self-check-ins at airports and online investment trading have proliferated recently, but what makes some of these “do-it-yourself” alternatives attractive to customers? And why do customers resist trying others? An article forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing (April 2005) by CSL Faculty Fellow Matthew Meuter (California State University, Chico) and CSL Marketing Faculty, Mary Jo Bitner, Amy Ostrom, and Stephen Brown investigates these issues. Their article entitled “Choosing Among Alternative Service Delivery Modes: An Investigation of Customer Trial of Self-Service Technologies” sheds light on what makes SSTs successful.

Consumer Readiness is a Key Predictor of SST Trial

The research team investigated the key factors that influence the initial SST trial decision, examining situations in which customers had a choice between self-service technologies and personal service delivery options. They focused on what they call “Consumer Readiness” as a primary predictor of SST trial. Consumer readiness is made up of role clarity (do customers know what to do?), ability (do customers have the ability to use the technology), and motivation (do customers perceive a benefit for using the technology?).

Data from over 1500 customers who had the choice of using an IVR or an Internet-based customer service option showed that Consumer Readiness dimensions were important predictors of whether they would try either of these SSTs when given the choice between them and using a traditional phone-based, personal form of customer service. In addition the research showed that Consumer Readiness predicts trial better than individual differences or perceptions of the SST’s characteristics. The findings provided significant takeaways for managers considering implementing new SSTs for their organization, and also for those managers who are struggling with adoption rates of current SSTs. The findings also contribute to the growing theoretical understanding of customer co-production and self-service.

SSTs: The Song of the Siren

Many companies find SSTs irresistible, and it’s no surprise why. Impressive SST success stories make the rounds, and their potential rewards are often too alluring to ignore. For example, IBM moved 99 million service phone calls to their online service and saved two billion dollars. But stories of loss abound as well—the gritty, and often ignored, side of the story is the fact that SSTs also come with significant customer adoption and implementation obstacles. In fact, one Forrester Research study showed that over 40% of companies end up not seeing any return on their self-service investments.

The Challenge: Getting Customers to Try Something New for the First Time

While technological hurdles must be passed when implementing new SSTs, the biggest challenges companies face are often the customer behavior issues. Customer behaviors are ingrained and typically hard to change. The difficulty is that not only must your customers want to change, but also want to take on the responsibility for their own service delivery and satisfaction. Based on their findings regarding the importance of Consumer Readiness, the researchers suggest tactical strategies that can makes these consumer readiness variables more actionable.

Train Customers

One of the critical components of consumer readiness is role clarity. Help make your customers absolutely clear on what their responsibilities are through training and education tools. For example, the research team suggest aids like wallet cards, magnets, mouse pads and posters delineating instructions. Make it as easy as possible for your customer try the new technology by creating a convenient and supportive environment, with lots of hand holding in the form of first time user help, instructions, FAQ’s and online live help.

Trade in the Same Currency

In order for your customers to try SSTs, managers must understand what motivates their customers and learn to speak their language. Explain the value customers can expect to receive by using the SST, in a way that uniquely appeals to them. Find out if your customer is driven by appeals to save time or money, for example, or if they are more driven by appeals of convenience and accessibility instead. To lower the barriers of entry even further, firms can provide no obligation trials of SSTs for first time users.

Treat Customers Like Employees

The relationship between your customers and your company is not unlike that between your employees and your company. In the case of SSTs in particular, customers are co-producers of value since they are responsible for the service delivery themselves. Taking a fresh look at your customers, and managing them the way you’d manage your employees, helps make them better customers by increasing their “readiness” to produce services for themselves. Shifting the lens through which customers are viewed, especially in the SST context, can help companies increase the likelihood of SST adoption and end customer satisfaction.
SSTs are an area that remain alluring to firms, but to make sure your firm sees the real benefits, concentrate on building consumer readiness as you go.