Can Self-Service Deliver Better Service?

The top 10 mistakes companies make in introducing self-service—and how to avoid them.

Self-service applications remain a hot topic as the potential to lower costs by enabling employees or customers to help themselves proves extremely compelling to senior management—and increasingly to end users. However, while self-service can clearly enable greater efficiency (a trip to the airport, local bank branch or supermarket provides a real-life example), can it also deliver better service? This is a fundamental question whose answer determines the success of new consumer and business-oriented self-service models, and ultimately whether the current wave of self-service applications and tools will continue to be viewed as worthy IT priorities or simply the last “next big thing.”

Taking a more user-centric approach by adopting CRM v.2 models (see Is CRM Dead?) can be an important step in plotting your self-service road map. So can evaluating the latest in knowledge management, collaboration and even new tools such as user forums, blogs and wikis to add to your service and employee productivity “stack.” Better customer satisfaction, lower cost of sales and service, and greater knowledge sharing are ultimately the goals.

But in practice, as our consultants often see in the field, how to deploy and optimize self-service remains an inexact science for many organizations. In many cases we see IT, business units and support organizations making some of the same mistakes when it comes to planning, developing and deploying new self-service applications.

The Top 10 Self-Service Mistakes—and How to Avoid Them

In the spirit of late-night top-10 lists, some of my colleagues at eVergance and I have compiled a list of the foremost self-service mistakes as a way to highlight what works—and doesn’t work—when fielding and supporting self-service applications.

10. Thinking “if we build it, they will come”

Almost all large organizations have a corporate website, support portal and online content. A number have tools for online account management or e-commerce. Yet if employees or customers are comfortable with their current (non-self-service) options, what is going to cause them to change? Self-service options must offer at least as good an experience, if not a better one than alternatives, and offer a payoff for both initial and continued use.

9. Viewing cost savings as the only goal

Early self-service applications like vending machines or Web portals were about both reach and efficiency. They provided convenience and lowered the cost of a transaction or interaction. However, along the way, too many organizations started viewing self-service as only a lower-cost channel. Cost savings is typically a key benefit of self-service, but must be coupled with other goals like creating a better user experience, improving satisfaction or gaining greater insight into customer needs.

8. Not marketing benefits

Self-service drives and requires change. Changing behavior takes time—or lots of marketing dollars. Self-service is no exception. Beyond choosing a technology foundation and picking the right performance metrics, driving adoption remains a key challenge in many cases. Promotional campaigns and specific incentives—for both end-user adoption and to drive experts to contribute content or authored solutions—is a key starting point.

7. Underestimating time for content cleanup

Self-service can provide your customers and employees with a direct link to your systems, applications and content. However, much of this is often not ready for public consumption. Content may be in multiple formats or systems, may be inconsistent, and may support only a subset of the locations or languages you wish to offer. When estimating the time you should budget for content cleanup and creating new authoring processes, you should probably double or even triple the time estimate.

6. Believing your CRM or ERP platform has all the tools

Many of the large packaged software vendors like Oracle or SAP have extensive functionality for self-service within their portal, e-commerce and CRM solutions. But in many cases, these tools are not best-of-breed and address some but not all requirements, especially in terms of functionality like advanced knowledge management or intelligent search. That’s why specialized KM, BI and search vendors have had success extending existing platforms and tailoring solutions for specific industries.

5. Proceeding without an escalation strategy

Even when self-service works exceedingly well, not all customers will want to use it—or will be able to complete all of their tasks online. And for almost all businesses, each new online interaction channel is an addition to the mix rather than a substitute. For example, the Web has not replaced the phone, and chat is increasingly a “bridge” between the phone, e-mail and even self-service. With this in mind, self-service must be viewed as part of an overall multi-channel strategy, with specific roles, relationships and set workflow defined for each interaction channel.

4. Not segmenting customers

Everyone is unique. Yet online, many users are treated the same whether they are a customer or prospect, are from around the corner or around the globe, or have specific preferences. True personalization has long been the goal. But before you can tailor the experience, you need to understand who your users are by defining categories or segments, mapping entitlements (what they are allowed to do or see), and ideally considering their preferred channel for specific tasks.

3. Not tapping into communities

One of the more interesting recent trends has been explosion of social networks and review sites like Epinions.com. As we have observed at companies like Novell and eBay, user forums have significant potential to augment self-service support. Everyone is an expert at some level. Some of these experts are a terrific resource that can and should be harnessed.

2. Making it too complicated for first-time users

Web applications must be intuitive to the point that users of any skill level can easily navigate, find information and perform basic tasks. In fact, Forrester has found that “improving usability” is the most effective way to shift customers to self-service channels. Offering unique features (e.g., special offers for online users, exclusive content, faster service, etc.) and focusing on a design that is both simple and adaptable are the best ways to keep users from abandoning the online experience.

1. Making it too hard to reach live help

Even in the best situations, users will need special assistance at some point. Despite advances in question-answering technology and the potential of next-generation artificial intelligence and knowledge management approaches, this means providing live help via chat or a call-me button, or simply making contact information easy to find.

Of course, there are many more tips and suggestions that didn’t fit in this list. But this should provide a good checklist for assessing your own portal, online support or e-commerce initiatives, and helping make self-service a form of better service, at least in the eyes of your users.

Allen Bonde is the senior vice president of strategy and marketing at eVergance, a management consulting and systems integration company focused on CRM optimization and Web self-service. Prior to that, he was the founder of strategic advisory firm ABG, a practice expert at McKinsey, director of management consulting at Extraprise, and an analyst at the Yankee Group.

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