Helping customers help themselves: How to offer exceptional self-service

Posted August 9, 2016

Faced with a web’s worth of possible information, services and purchases, consumers often turn to customer-support channels for support or guidance.

Navigating to a site’s contact section, customers or would-be customers are often met with a menu of self-support resources — an attractive offering that has the potential to save them time and allow them to resolve a problem on their own (with a little guidance).

Economist Michael Schrage noted last year in the Harvard Business Review that studies on customer support channels consistently show that an increasing majority of customers like having self-service options — but only if they work, and work fast, at addressing their questions.

Changing economic climates and ongoing tech innovations consistently require customer-service strategists to re-evaluate how they allot resources, making self-service an increasingly attractive resource. Experts agree that successful self-service can play a significant role in cutting support costs, as well as providing a strong first impression of customer support. “There’s an enormous pressure on customer service resources [to] reduce expensive calls and emails without affecting customer satisfaction levels,” says Chris Eideh, enterprise account executive for Eptica, a France-based multichannel customer interaction management software.

To be successful, though, any self-service platform needs to strike that perfect balance between quality self-service and customized support by addressing key factors, stages and needs of the customer’s quest for a solution.

A website that keeps customers coming back

A 2015 study by Eptica tested customer service across 500 major U.S. businesses in ten leading sectors, and found that company websites are still the first and most effective resource for resolving customer queries across all channels. However, over half of consumers surveyed were willing to spend just five minutes searching online for answers before either giving up or escalating to other customer support channels.

Many companies still struggle to maintain informative, easy-to-navigate websites that can answer customer questions quickly without the need for further customer support from outside the self-service sphere. Patience and turnaround time run thin when customers visit websites, making smooth, informative navigation a necessity.

Utilizing forums, reviews and other community channels to build the kind of website that customers want to call home is important. Growing strong user communities can build customer loyalty as well as a sense of user participation. There, the nature of the peer-to-peer network can answer support questions while also contributing directly to the solution knowledge base. Developing such a community won’t happen overnight, however, so the knowledge base must be seeded by great content developed by the company and its core users.

Well-informed customers need well-informed knowledge bases

Whether the information is coming from a peer-to-peer solution or straight from the company itself, customers rely on FAQs, how-to-guides, troubleshooting processes and various other instructive tools for tracking down their own solutions.

Eideh says trackable insights on the kinds of questions customers are asking — and whether they’re being answered — help companies manage strong knowledge bases. Thanks to ongoing innovations in user-data collection and analysis, Eideh says companies can now track a knowledge base’s performance to see where its problem areas are, and where customers are hitting self-service dead-ends.

Customers have high expectations that self-service platforms contain consistent, relevant and up-to-date info, making it a vital customer-support channel in an always-connected world. “Centralizing information in a dynamic knowledge base that adapts itself based on the questions that consumers ask is a key factor,” Eideh says.

Taking the next step should be easy

Strong self-service platforms boast high success rates for resolving customer queries without escalation to other channels, especially in certain industries, like tech. “Web self-service works particularly well in sectors where there are a large number of generic or technical queries, rather than more complex, personalized questions from consumers,” Eideh explains.

However, it’s always important to give due attention and resources in addressing the remaining — and likely most complicated — issues that can usually only be resolved with direct contact.

In many instances, customers still prefer to pick up the phone for certain service matters. A 2016 Salesforce survey found that 60 percent of both Millennials and Gen-Xers and 71 percent of Baby Boomers polled preferred service by phone when making purchases or seeking product support.

One of many integrated channels

But whether customers want to escalate their query by phone, social media, or email, the key to a positive customer experience is the seamless transition between channels, explains Chris Bauschka, Senior Director of Salesforce’s Global Telecommunications and Media department.

He points to chat features that follow customers throughout self-service and website areas — tracking a customer’s progress, in some cases — as a strong and versatile option for bridging the void between self-service and live support.

Many companies have also been exploring the benefits of chatbots and similar tools for streamlining customer support and improving its quality along the way. “There’s a huge shift toward more intelligent service that leverages machine learning,” says Bauschka. “A chatbot can sometimes be more insightful, faster and can help [support staff] prepare for a conversation.”

Chatbots also have the potential to improve that experience of self-service by allowing customers to do diagnostics, offering some potential troubleshooting workflows, and making it really easy to continue that conversation with an agent.

Integrated channels also place a higher value on customers’ time. “Ordering products can be very complicated, especially in a high-tech world,” Bauschka says, “and people don’t want to get stuck in a ‘shopping cart’ screen and then have to spend 20 minutes explaining the problem to customer support to bring them up to speed.”

Outsourcing self-service, and the bottom line

When companies outsource one or more channels, including self-service, sharing information across channels is especially critical, in order to create a seamless customer experience. Closing gaps in available information and in customers’ support experience will help resolve queries quicker and more efficiently, as well as prevent some of the most common drops in customer satisfaction.

The cost savings of outsourcing self-service can be significant, and there can be additional benefits in leveraging a partner’s experience when developing knowledge bases, or integrating social media with self-service. Combining an outsourcer’s tools with your own technology, like chat systems and cloud-based software, can further enhance your ability to seamlessly serve customers across channels, and across global geographies, too.

When it comes to investing in self-service systems, the long-term benefits will most certainly outweigh the initial effort required to create the tools and resources. Given the booming purchasing power of Millennials and increasingly web-savvy older generations, self-service will only grow in its ability to satisfy and retain customers moving forward.

Most importantly, a strong self-service approach is essential to minimizing the risk of customers “helping themselves” to a competitor’s products and services.

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