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Article 10 min read

Customer self-service: a guide to helping your customers help themselves

Empower your customers to solve their own problems, because self-sufficient customers are happier customers.

By Elaine Atwell

Last updated May 20, 2021

The best support ticket is the one that’s never created. Instead of asking customer service reps to put out every fire, empower customers to find their own solutions whenever possible.

When your company masters customer self-service, you make it easy for consumers to solve their own issues without having to send an email or make a call. You dramatically cut down on costs, increase live agent efficiency and improve the overall experience for customers.

What is customer self-service?

Customer self-service is the process by which customers resolve their own problems without help from a support agent.

With today’s omnichannel support technology, self-service isn’t relegated to one platform. A customer can chat with a bot on your mobile app which connects that customer with a help centre article. Your company can follow up via automated text message to see if the customer got the answers they needed. If not, the customer can schedule a call with live support at their convenience.

6 key customer self-service channels

As more customers adopt mobile and digital technology, more companies will take an omnichannel approach to delivering self-service through a variety of support platforms. They include:

FAQ page

FAQ stands for frequently asked questions. FAQ pages contain answers to customers’ most common queries. The FAQ for a retailer will probably include “What is your return policy?” followed by a brief explanation. The key word here is brief — FAQ pages need to be simple and concise.

One guideline for good FAQ design is to provide links to other resources, such as a knowledge base with more in-depth articles, a customer support phone line or a live messaging service.

Knowledge base or help centre content

With an AI-powered knowledge base, you can proactively answer questions without making customers hunt for the right information. To find help centre content, customers use a search tool on a company website or on web search engines like Google. In addition to the company website and search engine, a company’s mobile app can deliver help centre content.

The robust FullStory knowledge base powered by Zendesk, is a great example of a smart help center.

screenshot of FullStory's AI-powered help centre

Articles are immediately suggested as the end user types a query. Help centre content is organised into sections based on topic, type of content and type of user. And since the content is created on templates optimised for search engines, users will hopefully find the help centre just by googling their problem, even if they weren’t already on the FullStory website.

These helpful features for discovering help content are critical for FullStory as their customers, engineers and software developers often need to easily and quickly retrieve answers at any time.

Community forum

A community forum is a place where users can ask questions and receive answers from other users, as well as search previously asked questions. Companies can operate a community forum as part of their knowledge base or as a separate area of their website. Forums typically have community moderators, with some oversight from company admins.

screenshot of the InVision community forum

There are a lot of reasons for companies to maintain a community forum. The most obvious is that sometimes the best people to address customer issues are other customers. They’ve interacted with your product as a real-world user, so they can see issues that people in-house may have overlooked. Furthermore, they may have helpful insights on workarounds or customising for specific use cases. Customers also trust the objectivity of fellow users because they’re not trying to sell the product or sugarcoat problems — they usually just want to share their expertise and enthusiasm.

Users will likely have online discussions about your product anyway. By hosting the conversation yourself, you can establish guidelines for conduct, connect with users (both satisfied and unsatisfied), get candid feedback about your product and more. In the InVision community, users discuss design inspiration, in addition to asking questions about support or unique use cases.

Mobile app

Customers can use a mobile app to trigger a support workflow automation. For example, through the Grubhub mobile app, diners can make changes to their orders and get refunds with the tap of a button. Likewise, with their mobile app for delivery drivers, users can report delivery issues without having to call dispatch for support.

screenshot of a mobile app interface

AI-powered chat and messaging

Today, we see chatbots answering questions everywhere customers are messaging. This includes messaging via websites, mobile apps, SMS and social channels like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Messaging and bots enable customer service teams to scale their operations and provide always-on support at the customer’s convenience. Meanwhile, agents are freed up to focus on the conversations that truly need a human touch.

Learn more about the widening world of customer service chatbots.

screenshot of a self-service chatbot interface

Gartner predicts that by 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve chatbots and mobile messaging. That number is likely to increase as machine learning and natural language processing advances.

Automated call centre

Even in the age of emails, texts and DMs, phone calls and supporting technology play an important role in customer service.

In a self-service scenario, a customer calls a company to solve a problem without speaking with a live support agent. Interactive voice response, also known as IVR technology, makes this type of customer self-service possible. Combined with automated voice menus, IVR can also provide pre-recorded answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) like “What’s your postal address?” or “What’s the status of my order?”.

What are the benefits of self-service customer support?

Customers prefer to help themselves these days. A recent Gartner report shows that 70% of customers use self-service channels to resolve issues.

Customer desire isn’t the only reason to adopt self-service — it also helps support teams work efficiently. The team at Stanley Black & Decker learned this after implementing a unified approach to support that included self-service. After improving help centre content and embedding a knowledge centre web widget, the company saw a reduction in resolution times across the board. Also, the average customer satisfaction score increased from 85% to 90%.

When done well, self-service increases customer satisfaction and improves both live agent efficiency and the bottom line for companies.

Fast resolutions for customers

In the Zendesk CX Trends Report 2021, nearly a third of customers (32%) said resolving issues quickly was the most important aspect of a good customer experience. Self-service is a quick, direct way for people to solve their problems. People can find answers at any time and they don’t need to wait on hold for help — as partial as some might be to the greatest hits of on hold music.

Efficient informed customer service teams

While self-service is designed for end users and customers, there are benefits for support agents as well. For one, your help centre and knowledge base can act as a training tool for new agents.

“You can get someone on the phones or answering emails independently a lot faster when you give them a huge knowledge base that has the answers to all the common questions,” says Jeremy Korman, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Zendesk.

Korman also says a well-made self-service solution helps agents work quicker.

“When an agent is trying to provide an answer to a customer, instead of having to write it out themselves every time, they can just send a link to an article,” Korman says. That frees up the agent’s time to focus on resolving more complex customer issues.

Lower costs for companies

There’s no contest: it’s cheaper to have customers solve their own problems than to pay support reps to solve them.

“Every time you can take an in-person interaction and turn it into a self-service interaction, you’re dramatically reducing the cost for that interaction by orders of magnitude,” says Korman.

Gartner reports that an issue resolved through self-service alone can cost 80 to 100 times less than a live interaction — even when there’s just one step in the resolution journey.

5 ingredients of an exceptional customer self-service experience

The foundation of a great self-service experience is simplicity. You need to make it as straightforward as possible for customers to:

  • Find an answer
  • Understand the action they need to take
  • Act on resolving the issue

Follow that North Star of simplicity by focusing your self-service strategy on these five crucial elements:

1. Discoverability

In a great self-service experience, the right answers are easy to find.

Make your self-service options more discoverable by introducing them as the first touchpoint in every channel your company uses. Prominently feature a link to your help centre on your home page, and make sure your internal search bar takes people to relevant information for the terms they’re searching. The moment someone visits your website, your support chatbot should greet them and ask if they need help.

You can also increase the discoverability of your help content with search engine optimisation. That way, your customers are still likely to find the company’s own help resources if they google their problem.

2. Proactivity

Even better than making your answers easy to find, create proactive self-service solutions, so customers don’t have to ask for help in the first place. More companies are reaching out via text, email or phone before a customer reports a problem. Gartner predicts that: “By 2025, proactive (outbound) customer engagement interactions will outnumber reactive (inbound) customer engagement interactions.”

Here’s a commonplace example of proactive self-service in the pandemic era: the follow-up messaging after a grocery delivery. Customers get a message via text or a mobile app asking how the delivery went and if anything was missing from the order. If the customer has an issue, they can immediately follow the steps to resolving it — no search for answers needed.

3. Accessibility

Different customer support channels have distinct accessibility advantages. Call centres, for example, can be helpful for people with visual impairments, but not for non-speaking people. Web-based knowledge centres and chatbots are helpful for people with hearing challenges, but not for people without internet access.

As you evaluate your current self-service options, consider the barriers your customers may face when looking for help. Can your chatbot assist foreign language speakers? Does your knowledge base offer content in multiple formats (e.g. video tutorials, text-based step-by-step guides) to support the needs of people with disabilities? It helps to have self-service tools in place that consistently optimise accessibility.

4. Clarity

Simply put: don’t confuse or overwhelm customers with too much information at once.

Sometimes, companies use technical or corporate jargon instead of plain language. Study knowledge base search trends to see if you’re using the same terms your customers are using when looking for information.

To make sure your help content is readable for the average consumer, aim for a 13 year old reading level. Use an AI writing assistant tool to keep your language consistent, grammatically correct and clear.

A lot of these tactics follow from smart knowledge base design. Organise knowledge base articles in categories for easy navigation. If it’s too cluttered or chaotic, customers may give up their search before they begin.

5. Innovation

It’s a common misstep for companies to take a rigid one-off approach to setting up a self-service channel. As customers embrace new ways of looking for help, your self-service process needs to change with them.

Use key self-service metrics like customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores, tickets created and bounce rates to create benchmarks for improvement.

Korman advises companies to take an iterative approach: “Start small. Start with just the things that are most important and then learn as you go.”

Consider beta testing new approaches with small customer groups before rolling out changes company wide.

Set the stage for stellar self-service

Your busy customers are ready and willing to solve problems on their own. The more you empower them to do so, the more satisfied they’ll be with their experience with your brand.

It’s vital that you maximise opportunities for your customers to get their own answers without live agents. An omnichannel iterative approach will help you consistently improve your self-service channel.

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