Celebrate the Success Stories of Knowledge Management - 2022 KMWorld Awards

  • April 28, 2016
  • By Marydee Ojala Marydee Ojala, Conference Program Director, Information Today, Inc
  • Article

Are You Being Self-Served?

We live in an increasingly self-service world. From pumping our own gas to making our own travel arrangements, our expectations of service have changed. We increasingly accept the concept of customer service without an intermediary. We choose our own products without anyone standing between us and what we want to buy. We don’t need a sales clerk to take a product from a shelf and show it to us. We expect to be able to touch the merchandise. We can do it ourselves. We want to do it ourselves.

Companies see self-service as a cost-savings initiative. From the customer perspective, I appreciate being able to control the process, to choose what I want at my own pace and without feeling pressured to make an immediate purchase decision. The speed and convenience of self-service become particularly apparent to me when I’m in New Jersey and have to wait for an attendant to come over to my car and fill it up. Or not fill it up, as was the case the last time, when I was driving a rental car and only wanted the attendant to put in $2 worth of gas. There was no “service with a smile” following that request!

Levels of Complexity

The decisions involved in self-service run the gamut from very simple to extremely complex. If you’re at the gas station, you only need to choose between 87 and 91 octane, with a possible addition of diesel fuel. Travel’s a bit more complicated. Are you going by train or plane? Low price or convenient schedule? Airline/hotel website or aggregator? Hotel in the center of a city, near the airport, or in the suburbs? But these choices don’t take away from the essential simplicity of getting from Point A to Point B and finding a place to stay.

My grocery store offers a hybrid system of customer service. You can buy prepackaged meat or talk to a butcher, pick up a box of cookies or have the bakery staff select some for you. You can go the traditional payment route, with an employee scanning and bagging your groceries, or you can do it yourself. I generally opt for self-service, but sometimes encounter taxonomy problems. (I doubt my grocery store would phrase it like that.) To buy fresh produce, I need to input a code. If I don’t know the code, the machine has a lookup function. But not every fruit and vegetable displays, so I have to ask an employee for the code. They have the codes memorized; I do not.

Complexity increases when you move from the physical world to the virtual. Taxonomy problems are exacerbated—and there’s frequently no employee to answer questions, which leads to customers abandoning the site and going elsewhere. This is lost business for the seller and aggravating to the buyer. Getting a website to meet and exceed customer expectations requires planning. As a customer, I can tell when a company has put thought into the design rather than just throwing something up quickly. I want the website interface to be intuitive.

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

The trick to providing excellent customer service in a self-service world is describing the product in the words of the customer. Every industry has its jargon and customers may use a variety of terms to search for products. If I want to buy slacks and the retailer’s website calls them trousers or pants, I won’t find the slacks I want. And if it doesn’t suggest jeans as an option, I might forget I need a pair of them as well.

Continuing with retail therapy, consider buying a top, blouse, or shirt. But wait, it could be a t-shirt, a turtleneck, or a dress shirt. What about a hat? Is it a cap? Or more specifically, a baseball cap? And now there’s even a made-up word, skort, which is a cross between a skirt and shorts. I once went to the website of a specific clothing manufacturer because I wanted a second pair of jeans exactly like the one I owned. I confess to over-thinking this, because I entered the SKU number. The manufacturer did not include this information in its metadata, probably because only over-thinkers like me would consider searching by SKU number.

Language Is Tricky

Getting the taxonomy right means understanding the customer—and recognizing that customers don’t necessarily agree on the terms. Describing content isn’t as easy as it looks. Acronyms can be a problem, since they can mean different things. Take my SKU search. SKU stands for stock keeping unit, but it could also be Save Khaki United and there’s a SKU restaurant in Loveland, Colorado. There could be regional variations. Soft drinks are called soda, pop, sodapop, cola, or a brand name, depending on where in the U.S. you are.

I appreciate it when companies pay attention to describing content so that I can find what I’m looking for, quickly and intuitively. I can pump my own gas, make online plane reservations, and order clothing online. But I don’t want to memorize fresh produce codes and I shouldn’t have to.

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