If you have a question about a product after purchasing it, you might expect to be stuck in multiple layers of an automated phone decision tree when you call to talk to a live agent. It’s a far cry from the helpful drugstore pharmacist or the doctor who made house calls depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings, and to some it reflects a progressive marginalization of service that most companies have undertaken to keep costs down.

Is it working?

As a service-oriented person, I would like to say “no,” but on many fronts, it does seem to be working. In most cases, consumers, if given a choice, seem willing to sacrifice high-quality in-person service for lower prices, even if it means purchasing an item and not being able to get technical product questions answered.

Some pundits maintain that service isn’t really getting marginalized because in-person service isn’t as good as it used to be. Instead, service has been reinvented over the years, and today’s internet-savvy consumers have new service expectations that their predecessors in the brick-and-mortar world of retail didn’t have.

For instance, customer service consultant Micah Solomon wrote in a recent Forbes article that today’s e-commerce consumers expect to be in control of their purchase transactions. They like self-service, they expect 24/7 communications with their retailer, and as long as live chat is good, they don’t really need to have a “real person” help them. Solomon says, “Customers expect accuracy. Typos are no longer acceptable in a cut and paste world. Nor are inaccurate claims of what is in stock, or missed delivery dates.” E-consumers also expect retailers to know everything about them (e.g., buying habits, likes, dislikes, and even what their overall dealings have been with the company), because this information can be readily captured on the internet.

Talking about the importance of this “connection” and the ability of companies to deliver favorable online buying and service experiences to their customers, Kevin Gao, founder and CEO of Comm100 and an online customer service expert, cites the importance of training live chat agents so they can deliver consistently great online experiences for customers.

“When seeking to deliver a great online experience, perhaps the most important ingredient is your live chat agents,” writes Gao on the Comm100 blog. “The customer is depending upon your agents to possess product or service knowledge and have the ability to deliver the information in a quick yet pleasant manner.”

Gao emphasizes training chat agents in soft skills like how to greet customers and then carefully “listen” to customers. He also believes chat agents should thoroughly understand the features and functions of the products they sell, possess strong writing skills, and, most importantly, be able to empathize with the customer. One of the best ways to accomplish the latter is by placing chat agents in the position of the customer in practice dialogues, so they can directly understand what the customer is experiencing, as well as the potential pain points.

By focusing on live chat agent training, Dell improved chat agent productivity by 25% — a vital statistic since overall, online chat utilization has risen 24% over the last three years.

Still coexisting with the new internet consumer service models are the traditional in-person service strategies that companies with major footprints in brick-and-mortar trade use. Companies thriving in this area are Starbucks — which revolutionized the coffee experience in part because of the personalized attention baristas give customers in every custom drink they blend, while other patrons wait so they can experience the same level of service — and Les Schwab Tire Centers, a western US tire supplier with legions of mechanics who run out to personally greet customers as soon as customers pull into the parking lot. In both cases, customers are willing to pay more for premium service.

What’s the takeaway for C-level executives?

The lesson is that it’s essential to understand what you’re selling, and how much of your ware is product vs. how the customer is treated. In some cases, a stellar e-commerce performance with self-service and live chats might be the best service model, while in others, attention to traditional in-person service is the best approach.

The key is determining exactly where your service sweet spot is and then delivering the kind of service that your customers expect. If you do this well, no matter which service approach you adopt, service — and most importantly customers — will not feel that they are being marginalized in the process.