Coupled with our increased expectations of any service we receive, it’s no wonder more and more providers have started to look for ways to shift some of their customer support responsibilities onto us. After all, we can’t give ourselves a bad review, can we?
This is how customer self service came about. Let’s start from the beginning.
What is customer self-service?
Customer self-service is the process in which customers set up their own solutions or troubleshoot an existing one on their own without the help of a client support representative.
One of the first instances of commercial self-service was the humble supermarket, born in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, as the brain child of cost-cutting maverick Clarence Saunders. In letting customers pick their own items from a shelf without the help of a clerk, Saunders found a way to appeal to people’s need to control their experience and save on hiring staff.
It basically meant customers took it upon themselves to do some of the work and they were happy about it. So is it any wonder the concept took off with business innovators looking to cut costs and keep customers satisfied?
With the development of automation-based solutions and software, self-service has become a way to maintain that personal touch without losing out on the efficiency such a system guarantees.
Do customers prefer self-service?
More than 100 years later, we have countless variations on self service that we take for granted, from booking our own holidays to assembling our own furniture. The magic of it all is that we consider it an improvement on travel agents and transporting bulky, expensive items.
Statistically speaking, there is a multitude of studies exploring the value of customer self service with a couple of highlights being:
69% of customers try to troubleshoot their problem on their own first (Zendesk)
73% prefer to solve issues themselves (Aspect Cloud Solutions via BizReport)
67% prefer self service to having to talk to someone on the phone (Zendesk)
In the end, it comes down to the aforementioned need to feel in control. It’s difficult for an individual to rely on another party to provide a perfect experience but through self service, they can get a little closer to that ideal.
Why do you need to rethink your customer self-service strategy?
The pinnacle of customer self service used to be the existence of a knowledge base or an FAQ. If that seems a little lacking these days, it’s because the bar has been raised higher and higher every year.
Microsoft reported that 54% of customers have higher expectations of service providers than they did the previous year. As more disruptors come onto the market, the trend is only accelerating.
Customer experience, of which service is a natural component, is a key decision factor and falling behind can put any provider at a disadvantage. Low prices or convenience are not enough to draw people in anymore, unless they’re backed up by great service, too.
Think of how Uber took the transport industry by storm. Their cars or drivers weren’t all that different from traditional taxis but the experience they brought to the table made a world of difference to consumers.
If you consider it closely, what people like about Uber is that they don’t have to speak to a person in order to call a taxi, they input their details, check the driver and prices beforehand, then leave a review, all of it on their own and in full control. If that sounds like self service it’s because it is.
The challenge comes when Uber becomes such an ubiquitous presence that they set the standard for customers’ expectations of every other service they use. This means it’s important to be aware of the following elements and how you can implement them into your own customer journey strategy:
Common elements of customer self-service
Various industries make use of different self service elements but thinking outside of the box is paramount here. By exploring your customer’s journey and identifying steps where they might be happier doing things themselves, you can make use of non-traditional elements and gain an edge on the competition.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but the most popular self service tools these days are those that shift admin burdens onto the customer, starting with:
A booking portal is basically an online calendar that a customer can use to schedule a service. It can be either an individual online appointment scheduling solution or it can be a feature of your business’s general management software. They’re most common in the hospitality industry, with well-known brands such as Booking.com or OpenTable having made this self service element a must-have for any restaurant, hotel, or travel website.
Keeping in mind that Uber raised customer expectations across the board, regardless of industry, the fact that the Booking.com experience is such a mainstay in people’s lives means customers will be looking for the same process on every website. That, coupled with the fact that Millennials would rather choke on their avocado toast than talk on the phone, means that everyone from dentists to plumbing companies is expected to have an online booking portal.
A chatbot is a great example of communication automation progress used for self service. Instead of a droll FAQ page, a chatbot can provide customers with more personalized interactions.
At the same time, it saves support teams from having to waste time on very basic queries of the “have you tried turning it off and on” variety because the chatbot can deal with these standard questions on its own.
When choosing chatbot software, it’s important to consider both how much effort you’re able to put into making the most out of this tool and what your customers want from you. Some businesses only need their chatbot to answer straightforward questions,e.g. “Do you ship internationally?”, while for others, a chatbot is a lead generation tool that needs to provide self service features to the customers, while also capturing and storing their data.
“Price upon request” is both a sales technique and a customer nightmare. On one hand, it qualifies a potential visitor as genuine lead, helping your sales representatives and opening the conversation for them.
On the other, it puts pressure on the visitors who are simply looking around or who don’t want to waste time waiting for a quote. This being said, having a price list isn’t practical for every business, as some depend on various assessments being made before committing to a price.
Quoting tools help customers navigate these situations on their own. They’re either displayed online as 100% self-service portals (like IKEA’s customized furniture planner), or they’re part of a business’s management software, where it communicates with their inventory, payment system, and more.
They’re essential for companies who understand that unnecessarily prolonging the buying journey isn’t great for business and that being able to send a quote on the spot, while the customer is on the phone or a representative is present with them, can make or break the purchase. Bonus points if they can accept the quote online and pay orleave a deposit right away.
It’s a particularly modern day activity to continuously refresh a map, hoping to see a little pin getting closer to your house. Whether it’s the local takeaway place or an Amazon delivery van you’re eagerly awaiting, tracking portals definitely provide a customer self service boost to an experience. Calling support to check where your parcel is has become an absolute last resort thanks to tracking information coupled with automatic notifications.
More and more companies find them a useful addition to their customer journeys, as it saves their admin from repetitive calls, and keeps the customer in the loop.
Benefits of customer self-service for your business
Until now we’ve had a look at the various ways in which a business can engage with customer self service via software tools, but what exactly do they gain? Assuming that making customers happy and improving the experience isn’t a priority, there are other additional benefits to implementing self service features:
The most obvious benefit of self service is that by having customers do part of the work (especially basic, repetitive tasks) admin teams can focus on other aspects of running a business that imply more cognitive effort and advanced skills.
For some companies, it can even be possible to introduce a zero-touch admin process, where with the help of more advanced management software, the customer can go through the full buying process with no admin help whatsoever.
When Clarence Saunders invented the modern supermarket, his priority was to reduce the number of employees necessary to running a shop. A bare-bones operation isn’t everyone’s idea of success, but if you’re looking to save money, self-service can help by eliminating opportunities to waste it.
Handling support is expensive, especially when you have too many customers calling in with obvious queries. A study found that even simple web self service (such as an FAQ) can reduce costs by up to $11 per call.
When it comes to scheduling or taking payments, self service can be a lot quicker than having an admin team put in every appointment in a calendar or take payments via phone. The booking portal we mentioned, coupled with some automation software features such as payment links sent off automatically when a transaction is finished, means a business can service a much larger number of customers, at the same time, and without spending any admin resources on it.
Improves traffic to your website
If you can provide all the answers and tools on your website, a customer will naturally head there first for any questions they might have. This means more quality traffic to your domain and, therefore, a much better chance of improving your Google ranking. It can also mean potentially restarting the buying journey, earning yourself some repeat business in the process.
Gives you a competitive edge
Standing out from the crowd is a challenge for any business so every little counts when it comes to having a competitive edge. At the end of the day, why would a customer choose a competitor when you offer more contact options, aside from the dreaded phone call, better services, and more peace of mind? It’s details like these that add up to provide the kind of experience where customers do all your marketing for you.
Drawbacks of customer self-service solutions
As with any business strategy, providing customer self service can have its drawbacks. It’s important to consider these and then decide if the benefits outweigh the negatives in your case.
An employee cannot be completely replaced
Despite general fear mongering that AI and software will replace everyone, that’s simply not the case right now and especially when it comes to customer service. While some queries and activities are simple enough that they can be “outsourced” to the customer themselves, this is more a matter of efficiency; by no means should every activity be assigned in this way.
You still need a human touch. A hyper-personalized service will always trump anything a tool can do, no matter how smart it is, and that kind of service can only be provided by a human who’s able to think their way through cognitively complex tasks (made easier by software) and provide the empathy that customers will always need and expect.
Customers might not know how to make the most out of self-service
One challenge of implementing self service features is making sure that the benefits are clearly communicated to the customer, as well as how to make the most of them. There is always a possibility for a person to simply feel like you’re trying to unload them quickly for the sake of efficiency, without actually caring about solving their problem. Making sure the customer still feels like a priority is essential, even with the best self service tools around.
The potential lack of an option to escalate
Following up from the previous two drawbacks, the most common problem with self service tools and features is the lack of an option to escalate at the right time and engage an employee when necessary. As mentioned, some queries are simply too complex for any AI and it’s important to make sure that those who bring forward these problems have an option that fulfills their needs without sacrificing the experience or business efficiency. This is why studying up on the customer journey is essential in order to identify when and how such an escalation option should be deployed.
From chatbots that don’t work on a phone to quoting portals that don’t fit on a smaller screen, there are many ways in which mobile self service can prove to be a frustrating experience. This is why reading reviews and doing research is vital before committing to any digital tool.
Setting up a customer self-service solution
Once you’ve decided on whether self service is for you, implementing a specific solution is a matter of research. More often than not, the type of elements you choose will depend on the industry you operate in and on understanding each step your customer takes in the buying process.
For example, mapping a field service customer journey will highlight the need for booking, quoting, tracking, payment, and after-sales self service portal. If you’re running an e-commerce business, that journey could look very different.
The deployment phase of your self service solution, whether it’s a dedicated tool or part of a more complex business management software) should eliminate the drawbacks highlighted in the previous sections by:
Reading reviews and scheduling demos/free trials before committing to a software; by reenacting a real-life situation during a free trial, you can identify any weak links in the journey.
Educating the customer on how to use self service tools, whether that’s through client training (e.g. when selling SaaS products, online or face-to-face training courses should include self service modules) or clear instructions.
Testing and prioritizing mobile ease of use before committing.
A remarkable customer experience every time
When businesses implement customer self service tools correctly, they stand to gain many advantages, from increased efficiency to lower costs, but the greatest benefit will always be a great customer experience. The tools you use to achieve this are what makes the difference between an average self service strategy and a remarkable one.
Make life easier for your customers.
Give customers the option to use self-service software tools to put the power back in their hands.
Cristina Maria is a Marketing Executive at
Commusoft, a job management software company, where she helps field service businesses discover the potential of digital solutions. A curious hybrid writer and marketer, you'll usually find Cristina doing what she loves most: using her work experience to produce engaging content for those looking to make the most out of their business strategies. An Asimov fan since childhood, she gets much too fired up whenever the topic of AI comes into discussion.
Make life easier for your customers.
Give customers the option to use self-service software tools to put the power back in their hands.