Last updated on Apr 9, 2021
You know the value of adopting a self-service support strategy, and yet companies are struggling to implement them successfully. 71% of customers now expect self-service as a customer support option, but are frequently dissatisfied with the options available.
The last thing you want is for your shiny self-service initiative to languish like a poorly tended garden. You can plant the seeds, but you can’t expect the garden to grow without careful and methodical tending. You owe this much to your customers.
“Any customer that walks away, disrespected and defeated, represents tens of thousands of dollars out the door, in addition to the failure of a promise the brand made in the first place. You can’t see it but it’s happening, daily,” says Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur.
The problem with self-service may fall into one of three categories: one of quality, one of access, or a psychological barrier. But first, why is self-service important?
Customers have one priority, and one priority only: to reach their goals using your service as a tool. They part with their money in exchange for your promise to deliver success.
As part of your service agreement, you pledge to provide them with the tools they need to accomplish their objectives. Any failure in service is already regarded as poor value for money, so it’s crucial to provide quick and effective solutions to every problem, and in the most appropriate way.
Millennial customers in particular are accustomed to helping themselves, and quickly grow frustrated if they don’t immediately find a self-service solution. Matthew Storm, Head of North American marketing for NICE systems, says “Millennials prefer quick, technology-based resolution rather than the human interaction that was a hallmark of excellent service to their parents.”
Self-service is good for customers, and good for business. It has the potential to reduce service costs by up to $11 per call – happy news for companies with a rapidly expanding customer base. Self-service also helps customers while you sleep: a knowledge base is accessible anywhere with an internet connection, at any time.
It’s no wonder that companies are rushing to offer self-service support. Whether they are succeeding is another matter. Here are the main obstacles preventing them from doing so effectively, along with solutions.
Self-service takes time and effort to implement, and executives expect to gain a return on this investment. Unfortunately, returns are not always high if customers fail to use your self-service portal.
For example, in companies who achieved less than 25% ROI from their self-service solution, 87% of customers preferred the human touch over self-service. “It’s time to consider an entirely different approach: Building human-centric customer service through great people and clever technology,” says Kristin Smaby, Customer Service Manager at Pivotal.
How do we reconcile this desire for human service with the decidedly inhuman self-service method?
Self-service must always be subordinate to your customer’s needs. Give them support options instead of ultimatums. Write your content in a friendly, accessible way, and make your content easy to find. Combine quality self-service support with the ever-present option of human support.
Allow customers to readily pick up the phone to your team, even though you also provide them with self-service content, like Zappos does:
Failure to promote your self-service solution naturally results in poor uptake: this is a disservice to the 32% of new visitors to your website looking for technical content, according to a study by IBM.
If no one knows that your customer service knowledge base exists, then you can’t expect them to use it. And as much as we might feel invested in our own knowledge base, it’s likely that customers will need to be repeatedly reminded of its existence.
Promote your self-service content in the same way you would any other type of content.
Use every available method to promote your knowledge base: customer support email footers, social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, customer community forums, email marketing, training sessions, and if you have one – a contextual help widget. You can also use live chat applications to recommend particular articles directly on specific pages of your website.
It’s not enough to tell your customers about your self-service option once. You must repeatedly and consistently guide them towards your content.
Surface your documentation in an obvious place, just like Atlassian:
If your customers are used to your company offering them phone and email support, and you suddenly try to point them towards a newfangled “knowledge base”, the likelihood is they will resist at first.
The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon that explains why we like things more when we find them familiar. It’s the reason why “We do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it” is a popular refrain in business – though often this mode of thinking irrationally prevents employees from improving their productivity.
Fear of the new is why customer education must take place over time, in order to give people a chance to slowly change their behaviour. Introduce your knowledge base articles in a phased approach, weaning your customers gradually away from one-to-one support towards self-service.
You won’t be able to eliminate all support tickets that could be solved by your knowledge base overnight. It’s important to frame your self-service content as providing extra value for customers, rather than being a poor substitute for a previous level of service they were accustomed to.
Biologically speaking, it’s very important to conserve energy. That’s why customers won’t expend effort unless they have to. Customers will always follow the path of least resistance – which presents a problem if it’s quicker to fire off an email to support than plough through the thicket of your knowledge base content.
Sometimes, customers keep contacting your agents because it’s just plain easier than navigating your knowledge base. On the other hand, many customers only use help content because companies make it nearly impossible to reach a live agent. This doesn’t mean they are satisfied with the experience.
Unfortunately, if customers attempt to self-serve and fail, then feel forced to pick up the phone, they are 10% more likely to be disloyal to your business.
Self-service can also suffer when there is a lack of contextual relevance in your self-service content. There are too many steps between the problem a customer encounters, and the relevant help article. The end result is the customer failing to find the solution on their own.
The antidote to this problem is to ensure content is offered at the time when it is needed. For example, linking to returns and delivery info on the product page, like ASOS:
Provide your content exactly where your customers are looking for it to ensure maximum engagement.
Most companies don’t intentionally set out to have bad content – it’s usually a result of lacking the time to invest in improving it, for whatever reason.
The substandard documentation may be overly detailed, fail to fully explain processes, be out of date, or missing altogether. Maintaining content gets harder as you acquire a wider variety of products, or if your products are more technically complex.
You may be relieved to learn that your top five articles in your help centre are likely to account for 40% of all daily views. This means you can identify your most popular articles through your solution’s analytics, and focus on improving this content as a priority.
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better,” says Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX.
It’s important to keep collecting feedback from your customers to check the performance of your content. Your support team must consider your content useful in order to feel confident recommending it to customers, since bad content will only serve to frustrate annoyed customers even further.
One of the biggest reasons for a substandard self-service offering is a lack of dedicated resources. This is the root cause of why you don’t have the time to update it.
Most of the actual work on your self-service content will be completed by support staff or technical writers, but executive buy-in is still required. Your leadership team needs to justify allocating extra time and budget for content writers to produce end-user documentation, or your writers will be continually pulled towards other tasks.
Writing content is also not a one-time project, but rather a task requiring continual maintenance. Published content will quickly grow stale. Even though documentation ultimately saves your staff time and effort, it still requires substantial time away from pressing tasks to produce.
Whether your writers are support reps or dedicated technical writers, someone with executive power needs to dedicate the budget to develop and implement a self-service strategy – and potentially hire more staff if necessary. Make the case for self-service by emphasising the benefits for staff and customers.
As Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, says, ““My philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and you’re happy.”
One of the most important features of your knowledge base is the search, and after that the navigation elements such as the menu. Unfortunately, 55% of customers find web self-service portals hard to use, and 63% of customers said that they were annoyed by the search field in particular.
Without accurate search, customers will not be able to find the content they need.
Users have come to expect that any search function should match the power of Google, but in reality search is often far from adequate. It’s important to choose a self-service portal with competitive search and navigation capabilities (Document360 uses Algolia for search).
You should categorise your content properly, and spend the necessary time crafting the Information Architecture for your knowledge base. For example, manuals belong in a section which groups together “Getting Started” guides, while help articles that focus more on troubleshooting require more complex categorisation.
Your unique knowledge base structure will reflect your customer base, and how they interact with your products.
Invest in the right software solutions that enable you to deliver the quality of experience that customers expect. Consider SaaS-based knowledge base software like Document360.
Your self-service content must keep pace with the development of your product. If customers experience a problem, and call your support only to hear “Yes, we’ve encountered this issue before,” they’re going to wonder why you didn’t provide documentation. Undocumented errors erodes their faith in the quality of your knowledge base.
“A poorly implemented self-service customer support system can lead to frustration and irreparable damage to the brand,” said Vivek Lakshman, vice president of products for Chatlets.ai.
New releases will always throw up bugs that are not already documented comprehensively, and you need to build a process to capture solutions to these problems.
We recommend using a Just In Time approach to documentation. With this method, writers continually track new support topics and document the solutions as required. This is an iterative approach to documentation that aims for relevance rather than comprehensiveness. It’s particularly suited to smaller documentation teams, perhaps containing only one dedicated writer.
Support agents tag incoming tickets with a custom field such as “Document This”, which means the ticket is automatically passed on to the technical writer. You then write and publish the new documentation, and alert your customers with a list of recently published content on your homepage.
As we mentioned earlier, the problem with your self-service content will either be a question of access, a matter of quality, or a psychological barrier.
Make sure your customers can find your knowledge base, promote it regularly as a support option, and invest in a solution that offers robust search and navigation.
In terms of content, regularly maintain your documentation and continuously document new errors. “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage,” says Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.
Position self-service as a valuable addition to your existing human-to-human support, and give your customers time to get used to a different way of doing things.
Finally, all this will be pointless if your executive team doesn’t value self-service. Make it your mission to continuously champion self-service as a means of helping the customer and your support team. Self-service, when done well, is a win-win.