Your dishwasher stops working. Or maybe it’s the air conditioner. Or the cable box. What’s the first thing you do?

It turns out this is a pretty complicated issue, actually. While the more DIY-inclined among us may immediately reach for a screwdriver and a wrench, others are content to let the repairman have a go at it. Fewer still are willing to lug their broken device into a shop. But in the Internet age, it turns out many people’s first instinct is to hop online for some free advice on a repair job.

That’s important for field service management departments to keep in mind. Picking up the phone to call the customer support line, surveys show, is not the preferred way to get in touch for most customers. And yet for many service departments, the call center is still the hub of all inquiries.

A study released in late March by Amdocs indicated that three-quarters of respondents said they would prefer to contact a support center online rather than on the phone. However only about half that number — 37 percent — currently try self-service options, out of fear that they’re inaccurate or incomplete. Nine in ten respondents said they’d use an online knowledge base if they were confident it were “available and tailored to their needs.” Call centers, while still commonly used, aren’t especially popular.

“We are seeing a major shift in customer behavior,” said Ian Parkes, the director and co-founder of Coleman Parkes, in a release accompanying the study. “Consumers prefer to seek answers to common questions through online resources. However, many end users believe service providers’ online services cannot solve their problems, so they gravitate back to the call center. There is a clear opportunity for service providers to take control of the experience and reduce costs.”

Rebecca Prudhomme, writing for BillingWorld.com, suggested that service departments need to meet their customers on the channels they’re already using — that is, online and through smartphones. “Call centers will always be useful for isolated instances or the need for deep technical support, but utilizing mobile tools will give service providers a cost-effective way to meet demands and save consumers’ time,” she said, “thus strengthening the ever-important customer loyalty.”

It’s worth remembering that customers’ preferences appear to be constantly shifting in this regard. A study cited by ZD Net’s Kevin Kwang indicated 65 percent of respondents say they are continuously rethinking how they prefer to contact an organization — they appear to favor different channels for different types of requests. (Typically — and logically — the more complex an issue, the more likely they are to want to speak to someone face-to-face.)

In any case, there’s clearly a lot to be gained from having a mechanism in place to handle at least some types of customer inquiries online. Mike Moore has suggested in the past hosting video tutorials online to answer some common questions. Other companies allow routine scheduling options through an online portal. Besides saving money and relieving the call center of a little extra stress, the value of simply meeting your customer on their terms makes it a winning proposition.

More: Five Tips for Evaluating Field Service Techs.

Click here to download a free whitepaper, “Five Steps to Make Field Service Profitable.”

About Ian Stewart

Ian StewartIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.

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