One of the key challenges for sales organisations to contend with is the fact that buyers are now far less reliant on salespeople than ever before. In fact, according to the CSO Insights 2018 Buyer Preferences Study, vendor salespeople are now ranked below online searches, vendor websites and colleagues or friends in terms of the resources that buyers most value when attempting to solve business problems.
The reasons for this trend are numerous include the increased availability of information online, as well as the role that artificial intelligence is playing in improving efficiency and making intelligent recommendations to customers. This is seen, for example, in Amazon making recommendations based on past purchases.
While this is most commonly seen in the B2C world, it has shifted expectations for B2B buyers too and has had an impact on the way they do business. Indeed, the Buyer Preferences Study also found that 70 percent of buyers now wait until they have already defined their needs before they engage with sales reps. There is an increased sense that, where possible, many customers would like to eliminate dealing with salespeople entirely.
All of this has caused many sales organisations to react and adopt more of a self-service culture, where the customer service skills of their teams are used to support buyers who do more of the service aspect of the buying process themselves. However, as we will explore in this article, it is important for companies to handle this shift carefully and to review their self-service culture frequently to ensure it is working in the right way.
Self-Service Should Be a Choice
The first thing organisations need to understand when trying to shift towards a self-service culture is that not everybody wants to serve themselves and certainly not every time. Again, there are various reasons for this. Some customers are stuck in their ways, some actually require help that self-service and AI options cannot provide, and some will even question why they should do your job for you by serving themselves.
Self-service is not an excuse to neglect customer service coaching, or core customer service principles. It is essential that businesses meet their customers where they are and provide them with different channel options. It is also crucial that none of these channels are viewed as being ‘wrong’.
“A choice means they choose, and you respect their decision,” says Micah Solomon, in an article written for Forbes.com. “Customers shouldn’t be calling your business on the phone only to have you tell them, ‘You should go to the website to find that out.’ – There’s a reason they called you on the phone… talk to them!”
Of course, for self-service to be a choice, it must also be a viable choice. This means that you need to ensure you are providing genuinely useful information on the company website, that your help section is as comprehensive as possible and that self-service checkout options work well. For most customers, the key benefit of self-service is efficiency, so ask yourself whether your offerings are actually efficient enough.
Understanding Views On Salespeople
Despite the increased demand for self-service and the later point of first contact with salespeople, business leaders need to understand that this is not personal and is not based on a dislike for salespeople. The aforementioned CSO Insights Buyer Preference Study found that 65.2 percent of buyers have a positive perception of the value of working with salespeople, while 32.2 percent are neutral, with just 2.6 percent having a negative view.
Although it is important to embrace self-service and provide customers with what they want, it is also equally important that sales reps still look for traditional sales opportunities. After all, 90 percent of customers are open to engaging with salespeople much earlier in the buying cycle – if the interaction offers value.
In particular, CSO Insights learned that customers are more open to early contact from salespeople when they are faced with a business challenge that is new for them, perceived as risky, or complex in nature. For this reason, customer service coaching should help to build the type of customer service skills that really impress in these situations. This means offering genuine insight, providing perspective, and selling value beyond the price.
This willingness to work with salespeople in the right situations is why the move to a self-service model should be handled with care. A key to success is understanding that most customers turn to self-service solutions for speed and convenience. Where similar benefits can be provided through human interactions, customers are open to it.
Seeking Feedback From Customers
Finally, it is imperative that sales organisations take the time to continuously measure the performance of their self-service culture and use the information gathered to make adjustments or improvements. To do this effectively, they need to gather feedback from customers about the quality of the customer experience.
There are a variety of different options available for actually generating such feedback, including customer surveys, or asking customers directly about their experience. In terms of information provided on the company website, one method is to include a ‘Was this information helpful?’ option at the bottom of pages, where users can share their views quickly and the information from multiple users can be easily gathered.
Again, when it comes to improving a self-service culture, efficiency is the order of the day. The better the information you provide, the more efficient the buying process is for customers or clients.
Moreover, the very best self-service solutions offer ‘exit points’, allowing customers to easily switch away from self-service when it is no longer the most convenient or efficient option for them. In the example of a website help page, for instance, if a customer answers that the information was not helpful, you need to be providing them with an option, such as launching an online chat function, or providing them with a number to call.
The Final Word
Over recent years, the sales industry has seen a clear shift towards customers using more self-service solutions and businesses are understandably responding. However, the move towards a self-service culture needs to be handled carefully. Self-service options cannot be used as an excuse to neglect customer service training and coaching, and self-service must simply be a viable choice, rather than a compulsory part of the customer experience.