Business Case for Digital Self-Service

Gerry McGovern
13 min readJul 20, 2017


(Chapter 13 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)

Digital is self-service

You must develop a deep understanding about how to design for self-service because the essence of digital is people in control of how they want to search, navigate, scan, read, and act. Humans used to deal with other humans in order to get things done. Now we increasingly deal with technology. Today, we want to do more and more for ourselves by ourselves, and we prefer signing up for services instead of buying products.

The shift to services — away from products — changes what customers expect and how they behave. Customers have never been very good at buying products, particularly complex ones. We’re basically terrible at predicting the future, which leaves us open to the complexity sell. The more features we buy the more we “future-proof ” things — or so we hope. Right now, we don’t need that feature, and we probably never will, but you never know, and it’s not costing all that much extra, so let’s have it anyway.

When we buy services we tend to buy based on immediate need. If we need an extra “feature”, well then we’ll add that on to our subscription later. When we buy based on immediate need, we focus very strongly on simplicity and use. If the service doesn’t work right now — right this instant — then many of us will move on until we find a service that does.

One of the things that attracts us to self-service is the sense of control. We want to control things today as much as possible, and sometimes that can be a challenge when designing for self-service, because the more sophisticated the controls are the more complex the environment can become. Getting the balance right will be important and you will discover where this balance lies by constantly testing with your customers.

People have an expectation that if they’re serving themselves, they get some sort of reward or payback for the effort they are putting in and the effort they are saving the organization. Of course, this may be balanced by the convenience and control factor. If self-service is so much more convenient or gives you much more control, then the customer might even be willing to pay more, but that would be an exceptional situation.

There is an expectation at play here: “I’m doing all the work myself. I’m saving you money. What’s in it for me?” If you are the “waiter” in a fast-food restaurant, you expect a discount. at’s why McDonalds is cheap. That’s why Mcdonalds is cheap. That’s why Amazon is cheap. That’s why Walmart is cheap. That’s why IKEA is cheap. It’s also why so much is cheap or even free in the self-service digital economy. If you want to maximize self-service uptake then you make it cheaper, faster and simpler.

Business case for digital self-service

On the surface, the digital self-service business case seems like a no-brainer. Consider the following:

· A typical banking customer call to a call center in the United States cost $7.50 in 2013. The same call handled by an overseas agent cost $2.35. If that call went through an automated self-service voice response system, it cost 32 cents. (Gallup, 2013)

· A call-out for an IT technician in the US cost an average of $797 in 2010. Dealing with such a problem over the phone cost $162. Dealing with it over the Web cost 6 cents. (Technology Services Industry Association, 2012)

· For FedEx, tracking a shipment by phone cost $2.40 in 2003. On the Web it cost 4 cents. (FedEx, 2003)

· Dealing with a legal question on the Microsoft intranet cost $33 by phone in 2009, $10 by email and $1 using the Web. (Microsoft, 2009)

· Dealing with a typical council query in the UK cost £8.15 in 2013 for a face-to-face interaction. Over the phone it cost £2.59, and over the Web it cost 9 pence. (Socitm, 2013)

Based on the above figures, everything should be driven through self- service. However, it’s not so simple. There is a cost to purchase and design the self-service environment, as the costs for phone and face-to-face have already been allocated. ( The phones, offices, desks, etc., are already in place.) Below is a hypothetical scenario that uses an average for the cost of a task completion/ transaction in a self-service environment (web, app).

Thus, even though the cost of a task completion is 15 times cheaper for digital self-service compared to phone and almost 40 times compared to face-to-face, there is an upfront cost of $60,000 to be accounted for.

Cost-benefit analysis of self-service

Here we learn one of the most basic rules of self-service design. It needs volume. The higher the volume, the better the business case. Look at how quickly the blue line (face-to-face) increases. That’s because it costs $15 for every face-to-face task completion. However, because it costs $60,000 to develop the self-service environment, we don’t reach breakeven until about 4,000 task completions. Thus, for low volume — what I call “tiny tasks” — it is often a better business case to facilitate them by phone or face-to-face.

We’re missing something. We’re missing something big here. The above is the old model business case for self-service. Just buy the technology system and/or do some development, launch and leave. And what happens? Task failure. Self-service only works if it works. Consider the following:

  • “Nearly 60% of all phone interactions saw the customer start on the company’s website,” according to the book, The Effortless Experience.
  • When online self-service fails, 75% escalate to more expensive channels, according to Forrester.
  • Success rates while using self-service on technology websites was only 51%in 2014, according to the US Technology Services Industry Association.
  • In our own testing, with a large range of clients over a 10 year period, we see failure rates averaging about 40%.

Old model organizations think that it’s enough to buy and install the system and that the customer will learn and adapt. That might have worked in the past but it certainly doesn’t work now. Let’s say John, the customer, tries to complete his task on the website and fails, and is forced to ring you. What’s the cost now? It’s not just $6 for the phone interaction. It’s $6.40 (the digital self-service cost of 40 cent plus the phone cost of $6). Here’s the dirty little secret: badly implemented self-service costs the organization more — not just in money but in the negative impacts of poor customer experiences. Poor self-service is a lose-lose situation for everyone.

So, how do we avoid that? Design and testing, of course. Ah, but that adds more cost, doesn’t it? And it also adds time, so we won’t be able to “launch- and-fail” as quickly as we had planned. And if it’s an old model organization that manages based on organizational inputs rather than customer outcomes, then the more cost added the worse the business case becomes. If a traditional manager sees the following table, he’ll go: “What? $40,000 for design and testing!? No way, José! We’re not paying $100,000 for this!!! $60,000 is all we’ve budgeted for.”

Old model organizations just don’t measure outcomes. They don’t measure the cost of task failure and the cost of giving the customer a poor experience. And forget about the employee! Who cares if they have a horrible experience finding an engine diagram or a sales presentation? We’re about being hardcore traditional managers here. We’re about stripping away costs, not adding them.

It gets worse for the old model organization. Now, this extra element will totally blow their bean counting brains. If we want high task completion self-service, there’s another cost: continuous improvement. Show them the following table and watch their expressions.

“$140,000!!!! And $40,000 of that recurring every year!!!!!!! THe nice software sales guy said it would only cost $60,000! That all we need to do is buy his amazing new software and then just add content and everything will be just be super-fabulous.” They’ll fall off their chair. They’ll slump on the door. They’re about to jump up and grab you by the throat and frog march you out the door.

Cost-benefit analysis of self-service

Doing the right thing is a hard sell. It’s a really hard sell. I know. I’ve been 20 years at it. It’s getting better, a little easier.

The breakeven point for face-to-face versus digital has now gone from about 4,000 task completions to about 9,000. But old model managers are not thinking about task completions. They’re thinking that costs have gone from $60,000 to $140,000, with $40,000 recurring every year.

You introduce the new model by stealth, because a frontal assault like the one above is bound to fail in most organizations. You begin to measure customer outcomes — task completions — and expose as many people as possible — particularly senior managers — to examples of task failures. Show them real customers trying to do real tasks — top tasks, tasks that matter — and failing, and failing again. Don’t for a moment think that you will change their minds the first time you do this. I have seen it take up to 5 years for the change in culture to truly embed. And you will probably have switched jobs by then, so why bother? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because even in year one, you will be able to show significant improvements. And because it will help you get a better job in a better organization that truly “gets it” and does genuinely want to manage customer outcomes. So stay optimistic, because much in the old model is managed by fear and, sometimes, the optimistic voice with compelling data can move mountains.

Not all services are suited to digital

Much of digital replaces humans with technology. For many things people want to do, that results in faster, cheaper and better experiences. But not for everything. The perfect business case for digital is self-service, where the customer does all the work on the website or app. This is both highly cost- e effective and scalable. But it’s not that simple. A 2015 presentation by Stefan Die enbacher at the UX STRAT Europe conference stated that one of Europe’s largest banks found that for every minute a typical customer spent at a bank branch, they spent 99 minutes online self-serving. However, branches made nine times more sales than online.

Some services are very complex. I talked to a manager of a council / municipality who told me that services connected with planning permission were very hard to deliver online. No matter how many times they rewrote the instructions they kept getting applications full of errors and misunderstandings. So, they ended up requesting that people phone them for a 30-minute discussion before they started their planning application. Much better applications were received, saving everyone time and money in the longer term.

Think about fostering or adoption. Parents could go to a website, fill in some details and then, in a couple of weeks, a child arrives at their door. They have never met the child up to that point. Does that make sense? Not everything works for self-service and one of the greatest skills you can develop is to be able to evaluate which service — or which part of which service — works best through which channel. A task might begin on a mobile app, then move to a desktop for more extensive research, then perhaps a phone call, then back to the Web for more research and filling out of forms, and it could conclude with a face-to-face meeting.

Complex tasks that have low demand are what I called “tiny tasks.” These tasks can seem innocuous but there tends to be so many of them and they also tend to produce significant quantities of content because of their complexity. The result is that they often make things harder for the simpler, high volume top tasks.

For years, Excel Function Reference content was notorious for annoying Microsoft Excel customers. Microsoft discovered that the problem was to do with keyword overlap, a very common problem caused by tiny tasks.The function pages had names like IMSUM, ADDRESS, AREAS, etc. So, when people wanted to find out how to sum a number, many of them ended up on the IMSUM function page. When people wanted to find out how to set a page area for printing, they often ended up on the AREAS function page. The solution was to delete all the function pages and put them under a single page called “Maths Functions”. Satisfaction increased by 423%.

What happens with tiny tasks in most environments is that they go unmanaged and over time they make everything more and more cluttered, harder to navigate and understand. Tiny tasks feed complexity and if you want to achieve simplicity for your digital self-service initiatives, you must take great care to avoid the growth of tiny tasks.

In deciding what does and doesn’t work for digital self-service, you should take the following factors into account:

1. Online demand: Self-service thrives on high demand: Are there lots of people who want to complete the task online? There might be lots of people who want to or need to complete the task but might not want to do it online because they feel it’s not as convenient, or they feel vulnerable in some way, or they think it’s just too complex. The larger the online demand the better the business case.

2. Complexity: Self-service loves simple tasks because when we’re in self- service mode we tend to be much more impatient than when we are face-to-face with another person. The more complex the tasks, the more complex the content and app environment becomes, and the less suitable it is for self-service.

3. Costs: We have already looked at costs. They include:
a. Face-to-face employee costs: How much do the employees cost who currently deliver this task, and how long on average does it take them per task completion? Look for tasks where employee time is most expensive and time consuming. (Although the cost of the employee and the length of time they need to spend helping customers complete the task in question are also likely a factor of the complexity of the task.)
b. Development, Design, Continuous Improvement costs: Howexpensive is it to design and develop for the environment, and to continuously improve it? The higher the costs here, the higher the demand will be required in order to make self-service deliver value. The following chart illustrates the “sweet spots” for the various channels when it comes to delivering quality service.

Channel sweet spots

Channel sweet spots

The preceding chart shows us that the sweet spot for self-service is where:

a) The task is simple to complete

b) There is high demand to do it online

c) For example, standard contract questions on an intranet

The sweet spot for phone is where:

a) The task is fairly complicated

b) There is just reasonable online demand

c) For example, a complicated support request

The sweet spot for face-to-face is where:

a) The task is complex and has significant implications for the person

b) There is low online demand

c) An example might be divorce or fostering or buying a home or a highly complex and expensive product.

Of course, you’re right to think that certain sub-tasks in an overall task such as buying a home can much more e ectively be done online than in person. And this of course is where it gets interesting. In managing a particuloar task, you will need to know which channel is optimal for each step in the task.

Channel shift and hidden demand

Successful self-service causes channel shift . People move away from the more expensive channels of phone and face-to-face and use the Web. Everyone is happy, everyone saves time and money. However, when self-service works well it often unearths hidden or latent demand.

In October 2008, there were 2,202 calls to South Tyneside Council for waste and recycling tasks. There were 203 web visits. The council decided to simplify the waste and recycling webpages. By April 2009, there were 1,946 phone calls and 3,922 web visits. The number of web visits grew dramatically but the number of phone calls didn’t drop that much. The simpler website had tapped into a latent, hidden demand.

I dealt with a bank once that found that when it simplified its digital services, it stopped getting calls to support about basic questions. It was getting less calls but they were taking longer, as they were more complex. So be careful not to present a business case that depends only on channel shift. Look for other scenarios where value will be created. The bank in question found that the more complex and longer-lasting “support” calls were actually turning into sales opportunities, as customers realized they needed more sophisticated services from the bank.

Hidden demand, by its nature, is difficult to predict. It is equally difficult to quantify its costs and benefits. Some customers might become information addicts, checking the stock price or weather report every hour. This sort of customer behavior may become a net cost. Other customers may start engaging more with you, and as a result buy more / do more with you. It’s complicated and you need to be monitoring, measuring, getting feedback, and tweaking — basically continuously improving.

Read the previous chapter: Big Data Builds Relationships

Read the next chapter: Identifying Customer Top Tasks

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Gerry McGovern

Website top tasks management consulting for large organizations