It’s easy to believe that great customer service can only happen when there’s a helpful person available to answer all of a customer’s questions. But the reality is that customers don’t always want to reach out to your support team. In many cases, they’d rather just find the answer on their own and get on with their day.

As long as the resources you provide are backed by human support so customers aren’t left to fend for themselves, customer self-service is a key component of delivering excellent support.

What is customer self-service?

Customer self-service is any activity where the customer performs work on their own behalf without the assistance of company staff. The term applies to a wide range of activities — from customers picking their own groceries to searching an online help center for answers to their questions.

As modern companies aim to 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.

What are the benefits of customer self-service?

Customer self-service provides a variety of benefits for everyone, customers, companies, and support teams alike:

  • Improved customer experience: 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.”
  • Increased sales: Many customers will abandon a transaction rather than face the uncertain timing and outcome of opening a customer service request: “53% of U.S. online adults are likely to abandon their online purchase if they can’t find a quick answer to their question.”
  • Lower support costs: According to HBR, self-service makes it possible to help large numbers of customers at a significantly lower cost: “The cost of a do-it-yourself transaction is measured in pennies, while the average cost of a live service interaction is more than $7 for a B2C company and more than $13 for a B2B company.”
  • Greater support availability: While you may only be able to provide human-powered support on certain days of week or certain hours of the day, self-service tools can make support available to your customers all day, every day.
  • Happier, more productive support staff: Studies have found that support agents find 40% of customer tickets to be “mind-numbing and repetitive.” Self-service reduces the number of repetitive questions in your queue, which makes support work more engaging and frees agents up to handle more complex situations for customers.

4 options for providing customer self-service

There are a number of different options available for companies that are looking to start providing self-service to their customers.

Below, you’ll find four of the most effective customer self-service methods, plus a few examples of companies that had a lot of success with these methods.

1. Create a knowledge base

A knowledge base is a tool that makes it easy to create a help center for your customers. You can publish how-to articles and answers to frequently asked questions, organize those articles into a logical taxonomy, and make your content easy to find through both your help center’s search tool and search engines.

help scout's help center

Wistia is a great case study for providing effective self-service via a knowledge base. In 2012, they removed their phone number from their website in order to better scale as they added many new customers.

But Wistia didn’t just remove phone support; they replaced it by investing heavily in their knowledge base, producing a ton of informative, entertaining resources to help their customers learn and solve problems.

The self-service strategy was a resounding success. They decreased phone support by 25%, saw a boost in the speed of conversion, were freed up to provide more in-depth support when needed, and received “extremely positive feedback” from customers.

2. Provide automated support

There are a couple of different ways to provide automated support with self-service tools.

One option is to use a chatbot. Chatbots are generally available in a live chat tool and can be trained to provide answers to frequently asked questions. However, poorly trained chatbots can be frustrating to customers, so it’s extremely important that the chatbot you use makes it easy to get in touch with a human agent.

Another option is to use a tool like Help Scout’s Beacon. Beacon is a live chat tool that surfaces relevant articles from your help center so customers can find the answers they need without chatting with a live agent. And if customers can’t find the answers they need, they can easily get in touch with your support team.

switching between contact options and knowledge base articles in beacon

At Help Scout, Beacon helped us scale up live chat support without getting overwhelmed by the volume of incoming chats. It was so effective that, as our CEO Nick Francis said, “It surprised even us.”

3. Publish pre-recorded classes and tutorials

If your product is complex — or if you get lots of questions from new customers about how to use it — pre-recorded classes and tutorials can be a great resource for helping customers get up to speed.

help scout's recorded classes and tutorials

If you already offer live classes for customers, creating pre-recorded classes and tutorials can be as simple as recording one of your live sessions. When you’re finished, you can use those videos in many different ways:

  • Publish the recordings on your website and help center.
  • Showcase them in-app to help with new user onboarding.
  • Include links to them in new customer onboarding emails.
  • Crop your video to create mini-tutorials for different tasks and features, then use those for in-app onboarding or embed them into related knowledge base articles.

4. Build a public forum or community

While it’s always best to have experts on your team helping and creating support content for your customers, there are some cases where it makes sense to create a forum or community where customers can help each other:

  • If your company is growing rapidly and you’re either struggling to keep up with your support queue or don’t have time to create knowledge base articles for all of your frequently asked questions.
  • If you offer a free product/service and can’t provide support to all of your customers.

Google is a great example of where having a community makes a lot of sense. The company has more than 250 products, many of which are free. And it’s most popular free products have more than 1 billion active users each.

To help its customers get the answers they need to succeed, the company has built communities for many of its products. Customers can post in the communities to get help from other users and Product Experts — regular contributors to the communities who provide excellent answers and support.

google chrome help community

However, forums and communities have the same needs as chatbots — they work best when they’re backed by your support team. In many cases, customers can answer each others’ questions, but when they can’t, you’ll ideally have a community moderator from your support team who jumps in and helps where needed.

Good self-service vs. bad self-service

Not all self-service is effective at helping customers, so let’s take a look at what makes a great self-service experience, as well as the signs of a poorly executed self-service program:

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.

If you want to learn more, check out this webinar on the right kind of self-service, featuring Help Scout CEO Nick Francis and Jeff Toister of Toister Performance Solutions.

Self-service doesn’t replace human-powered support

No matter how good it is, self-service is not a way to avoid investing in skilled support staff.

Instead, it’s 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.