Digital Transformation & Maturity

The self-service dilemma

For many legacy communications service providers (CSPs) whose new mantra is transformation, increased self-service is one of their primary objectives. Those who haven’t considered this, could find themselves lagging behind.

Why self-service?

Customer enablement and satisfaction

CSPs are continually looking to improve customer satisfaction and NPS scores, and we’re seeing more and more that younger customers prefer self-service to a call center, preferring to complete a task efficiently, by themselves. This is further driven by the increasing adoption of phones and tablets, coupled with the desire to interact anytime and get immediate results.

Reducing costs

During transformations, CSPs are under pressure to maintain performance, market share and margin while simultaneously reducing the cost to serve. Many seek to mimic their over-the-top (OTT) competitors by delivering more digital services to increase customer self-service, shrinking staff and other such costs associated with the interaction.

Digital strategy

The move toward self-service is usually also tied with a business objective to improve automation and reduce order fallout (when an order fails during processing), further reducing manual work and operational costs. Interestingly, the current level of self-service in CSPs is low, and it is not uncommon for service providers to have near zero self-service for many legacy services. 

Benefits vs. drawbacks

Although many operators see the benefits of self-service, several still have reservations. Operators ask if the lower cost of a self-service experience is worth the removal of the human interaction and opportunity to cross- or upsell services. They point out that call centers generate revenue and good customer experience ratings from their interactions with customers.

The counter to these objections is a solid costs/benefit business case based upon the imperative that a self-service customer experience will generate the expected revenue at lower cost. The reduced cost to serve customers, without degrading customer experience, must be more compelling than the business case for taking customer service offshore, which has been so successful in recent years.

So, what is the potential for change? Traditionally CSPs have had low self-service levels with numbers as low as 5 to 10 percent of sales occurring through a self-service channel. There have been various key performance indicators (KPIs) around self-service, but one of the most common is a double-digit percentage increase in the number of customer-initiated actions performed via self-service. This is usually coupled with an objective for almost all (higher than 90 percent) of business processes becoming zero-touch, flow-through operations.

Business decisions

A wise person once said: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The consequences of each self-service action should be carefully considered to ensure the consistency of customer experience and the business outcome. Companies must decide what will be made available and through which channels.

For example, it is quite possible to have a web page with a ‘Click here to cancel your plan’ button. However, this revenue-impacting outcome would normally be regarded as a ‘save situation’, when customer service representatives can try to prevent the customer canceling by trying to resolve any issues. It is a prime candidate for human intervention rather than self-service.

The decision is more difficult when a customer wants to reduce the services they use by merely removing channels from an IPTV service. Is this another ‘save situation’ or should the customer be enabled to self-service in this instance? With just a small amount of thought, many similar situations can be identified. 

Architecture decisions

Implementing self-service can also be the catalyst for some potentially difficult enterprise architecture decisions regarding integration, master data and real-time data, in particular, which data to use and how to use it. There are huge amounts of data available, so wading through and finding the right data to continuously support a seamless self-service experience is crucial.

Furthermore, there’s the architectural challenges of omnichannel – where digital self-service tends to play out – whereby not only do manual processes need to be digitized but also made available across a number of different user experiences. This is commonly done by connecting individual systems together using a point-to-point pattern, however, true omnichannel self-service can only be achieved by abstracting the IT systems from the business process and then from the user interface. This is usually enabled by a loosely coupled and open standards-based API integration. This paradigm helps the creation of new business functions or new interfaces through composable technical functions.

A significant amount of customer self-service requires a single ‘master’ data lake of key information including customer and product information. No longer can siloed enterprise systems be hidden by the frantic ‘swivel-chairing’ of call center CSR’s. A customer master and unified product catalog allows customers to seamlessly subscribe to multiple services, while experiencing consistent support and billing interactions.

IT decisions

The underpinning enabler of the business and architectural change is the IT systems. These systems have often been in place for many years and were not developed with the vision of the architectural style needed for self-service. Many are written in languages, or are packaged applications, which do not enable the creation of open APIs.

Worse still, many have mixed the user interface (UI) and business logic making it nearly impossible to develop the API. With these challenges in mind, each system must be carefully evaluated to determine its suitability to be a part of this new architectural world.

Many CSPs have taken the opportunity to use the self-service challenge as the catalyst to retire legacy systems and migrate to more modern cloud-based applications. This decision is not to be taken lightly as many of the legacy systems have been heavily customized and are often business critical.

When you first consider self-service the answer seems obvious, with all CSPs implementing as many capabilities as fast possible using this paradigm. The benefits of self-service combined with the reduced cost to serve are hard to ignore. However, these must be carefully evaluated against the potential to lose direct communication and connection with the customer through human interaction, be it over the phone or in person. Added to this is the cost to change to the underlying IT architecture and systems.

In truth self-service is a must for CSPs if they wish to engage with all their customers in ways which are more and more becoming the standard, but, it must be done with open eyes and a strategy in mind.


About The Author

IBM Executive Architect - Telecom Industry


  1. Profile Picture

    Hi Ross, Thank you for your article which helps us a lot when we have discussions with our CPS clients!
    I can underline these points 100 percent and I am also sure, that self-service capabilities are necessary more and more.

    One of my findings was that these services must have a very high stability as if something goes wrong, the trust in the quality of the CPS’s brand will decrease immediately. There is no person who would explain to you what went wrong or provides our other options.

    • Profile Picture

      Thanks Bernd,
      I completely agree that the move to a loosely coupled service based architecture brings with it a new host of challenges. Not least of these is the stability across multiple platforms and increasingly multiple clouds.

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