Delivering great customer support almost always includes some form of self-service, ranging from customers pumping their own gas all the way up to managing their financial investments.

For online customer support teams who may support hundreds or thousands of people all over the world, providing individual help to each customer quickly becomes prohibitively expensive.

According to an HBR article titled Kick-Ass Customer Service, self-service in its various forms makes it possible to help large numbers of customers at a significantly lower cost:

“Self-service offers companies a tantalizing opportunity to reduce spending, often drastically. The cost of a do-it-yourself transaction is measured in pennies, while the average cost of a live service interaction (phone, e-mail, or webchat) is more than $7 for a B2C company and more than $13 for a B2B company.”

What is self-service?

Self-service originated with physical retail stores. In 1917, Clarence Saunders received patents for his self-serving grocery store, Piggly Wiggly. Saunders introduced the idea of customers picking their own goods of the shelf, instead of having a store clerk do it for them.

One hundred years on, supermarkets are still at the forefront of self-service, but the concepts are now used much more broadly.

Self-service is any activity where the customer performs work on their own behalf without the assistance of company staff.

Online self-service is a growth area, as companies serve huge customer bases with relatively small teams. Self-service portals, knowledge-bases, and online preferences and account tools have seen significant numbers of tasks shift from company-driven to customer-driven.

Even if it was feasible to provide personal human support for every customer, research shows that people often prefer to answer their own questions without having to contact support:

“Across industries, fully 81% of all customers attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live representative.”

Many customers will abandon a transaction rather than face the uncertain timing and outcome of opening a customer service request:

“53% of US online adults are likely to abandon their online purchase if they can’t find a quick answer to their question; 73% say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good online customer service.”

The benefits of self-service

1. Reduced service costs: When customers can resolve their own issues online, it costs orders of magnitude less than having a support team member solve the same issue.

2. Greater availability: Web self-service portals can be online all day, every day.

3. Customer expectations met: Customers expect self-service options from companies they deal with online, and they will be frustrated if they are forced to wait for personal service.

4. Better use of customer support staff: Rather than paying staff to handle repetitive basic questions, their time can be used to improve systems and handle more complex situations for customers.

Of course, not all self-service is effective at helping customers. What makes for a great self-service experience, and what are the signs of a poorly executed self-service program?

Good self-service vs. bad self-service

Bad self-service Good self-service
Forces customers to do work that would be much more quickly or easily done by the company. Gives customers faster access to the answers and information they need.
Has customers performing tasks that are workarounds for problems in the product or processes of the company. Allows customers to control their experience by making changes without needing to call or email. For example, a bank might let their customers change their daily withdrawal limit online.
Uses complicated or frustrating technology. Offers a clear path to contact a live customer support team when necessary.
Prevents customers from getting human help when they need it. Frees up customer service staff to answer more complex questions and have more meaningful interactions.

Our friends at Wistia are a great case study for effective self-service. In 2012, Wistia removed their phone number from their website in order to better scale as they added many new customers.

Wistia didn’t just remove phone support and leave their customers to figure out their own answers, though. They invested heavily in their knowledge base, producing a ton of informative, entertaining resources to help their customers learn and solve problems.

As of 2017, that self-service strategy has been a resounding success, with consistently high levels of customer satisfaction and a support team that is better able to handle its workload.

A reading list for delivering and measuring effective self-service

Self-service doesn’t replace human-powered support

No matter how good it is, self-service cannot be a way to avoid investing in skilled support staff. Self-service is a powerful tool to help you scale up your support, empowering your human staff to use their time and skills more effectively where it really counts.
Mathew Patterson

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.