Three Benefits of Being Wrong

By: Craig Higdon

Recently, a client asked us to research a user experience question that seemed obvious; they asked, "Does providing digital resources to customers decrease call-center costs?" This question was almost an aside, a quick detour to help settle an internal debate.

My instincts said, ‘Of course digital resources decrease call center volume! Web search allows customers to research on their own, social media allows them to ask questions of peers, and click-to-chat allows call center staff to engage multiple customers at once.’ Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut.

As we dug into the project, our secondary research into web, social and other digital tools in customer service found a couple of incredibly applicable studies. It turns out I wasn’t quite right. While Interactive Voice Response and Decision Support Systems measurably decreased the time spent to manage a call, our client was more interested in customer-facing self-service tools. Of those, click-to-chat is a winner (almost doubling call handling volume through multi-tasking), but the research suggested human nature was throwing me a curveball.

The studies found that self-service digital tools were indeed being used by customers and led to a decrease in call volume for straightforward, unambiguous questions or requests (I.D. card replacements, address changes, etc.). But what I didn’t anticipate was that the increasingly engaged customers were learning enough to begin asking more complicated questions; and these complicated questions couldn’t easily be answered on the website or in an FAQ. As a result, a lot of these newly engaged customers picked up the phone, leading to a 66% increase in call center volume for complicated, ambiguous topics. This increase negated the decrease observed for calls about simple issues.

In another study, researchers followed the roll-out of self-service tools in banking. One bank similarly hoped digital self-service tools would decrease call center volumes and were confounded when it increased them. Turns out, the convenience of online and mobile tools made it more likely that previously unengaged customers would get involved with their bank accounts. The researchers found that instead of the tools being a substitute for call centers, they were a substitute for not being involved at all! And of course, this overall increase in customer engagement had a proportional increase in call center volumes.

Humans are wired for assumptions, and mine wasn’t much of a stretch. It seemed intuitive to believe digital tools decrease call center volumes. Inconveniently, it was wrong.

Despite being wrong, this work benefited us in three ways:

  • It deepened our understanding of digital products in the customer experience and customer support space, particularly the relationship between digital and human interfaces.
  • It provided direction and insight to our design teams in developing experiences with complicated content.
  • It reinforced the value of research in our client’s eyes.

What’s the moral of the story? When designing complex digital customer experiences, take the time to challenge your assumptions at the beginning of a project. This can be the difference between a product that works in the real world and one that just seems like it should work.