Customer Self-Service: How to Take it to the Next Level

Do you remember how many times you went into a bank for service in the last several years? Maybe once. ATMs virtually eliminated the need to go inside a bank, and mobile banking has taken it one step further by eliminating the need to even go to the ATM.

When it works, customers like the ease and efficiency with which they can accomplish their goals through self-service. But I believe they want it to go beyond simple queries like checking their account balance or order status so they can get more done. It should be smarter and more conversational. And that is where I think self-service often falls flat. Here are some examples I’ve encountered:


  • Question: How do I sign up for autopay for credit card bills?
  • Answer: Unrelated hits. (I had to call an agent to get it done.)

Insurance Firm

  • Question: Do you offer earthquake insurance?
  • Answer: No results.

Communication Service Provider

  • Question/Query: Blurry image on TV.
  • Answer: Unrelated hits.

Furniture Retailer

  • Question/Query: Fake leather sofa with footrest.
  • Answer: Sculpture and artificial plant SKUs.

Home Appliance Manufacturer

  • Question/Query: Espresso machine.
  • Answer: Unrelated products on several pages with a coffee maker far down the list.

Interactive voice responses (IVRs) struggle here as well — they often lead to conversational cul-de-sacs that cause you to keep making U-turns. In my company’s 2021 consumer survey on IVRs, “The State of IVR Customer Experience,” a huge 88% of 500 respondents said they were not intelligent enough, and 73% complained that they had to repeat what they told the IVR to human agents when their concerns were escalated.

The much-ballyhooed chatbots are no different. Many barely go beyond meet-and-greets and sending a link to an FAQ page.

In fact, in 2019, Gartner said that only 9% of customers reported solving their problems through self-service alone.
How can we take self-service to the next level?

The Path to Excellence

To fix self-service, we first need to deconstruct the steps involved in self-service: connecting, understanding, solving and optimizing. Coincidentally, they also apply to agent-assisted service.

1. Connect

Self-service can happen at many touchpoints — including an IVR, website, mobile app, messaging function, chat box and so on. Point products support specific channels, often just one, for connecting with the customer. And do-it-all toolkits, while they check all the boxes in some cases, often fail to take advantage of the richness of individual touchpoints. Ask potential solution partners how deeply they support individual touchpoints and how easy it is to add new touchpoints.

2. Understand

Many self-service systems do a poor job of understanding customer intent, as is evident through the examples I provided earlier. Customers don’t often state their problem. They just know what the symptom is and express it in different ways, which are called “utterances” in tech parlance. Ask potential solution partners how their tools map utterances to true intents and go on to solve problems.

3. Solve

The “solve” phase may entail finding the answer needle in a document haystack or going through a self-service conversation with the customer to resolve an issue. It is like what a doctor might do in the case of a diagnosis or what an expert advisor might do in the case of a product recommendation. When it’s not done well, this can lead to a phenomenon called tech support rage, as the New York Times so eloquently articulated (paywall).

Legacy self-service systems often throw FAQ lists or encyclopediac documents at the customer and do not give them the exact information they need. The result is that the customer has to call the contact center. Or, the self-service system transfers them to human agents, often without retaining the context of their inquiry.

The solution is to make sure your self-service system is backed by a knowledge management system that can drive a conversation with the customer and ask clarifying questions where needed.

4. Optimize

Without connected insights into customer journeys, agents’ use of knowledge, and the operation of the contact center, customer service managers are often flying blind. We all know about Customer 360, which refers to a state in which you have complete context about a customer. To optimize self-service (and agent-assisted service) performance, you should also work toward creating a state of “Insight 360” to ensure you have connected insights across customer journeys, use of knowledge and contact center operations. For example, connected insights can tell you how knowledge content served agents proactively at friction points in a customer journey to reduce journey abandonment. You can gain insights like these through A/B testing. As another example, you can use A/B testing to assess how the use of knowledge impacts first-contact resolution across two groups of contact center agents: one that’s using the internal knowledge base and one that is not.

Best Practices

While technology clearly matters, so do best practices for self-service success. Here are some you can leverage over time:

  • Make sure to back self-service with knowledge. Use the 80/20 rule to prioritize the scope of knowledge you use to answer customer questions, starting with the most common customer queries first.
  • Keep expanding your knowledge base so it can handle more complex questions over time. That way, customers can do more with self-service than find answers to FAQs.
  • Always provide a safety net of human-assisted service, but make sure that customers can escalate to human assistance without having to repeat the context they’ve already provided.
  • Advertise self-service options when the customer is waiting for human-assisted service.
  • Ask for a no-risk, no-charge production pilot to see if you like your experience with the technology. This is a novel way to consume technology while virtually eliminating risk.

Final Word

Self-service can be a win-win for the customer and the business. Make sure you execute the “connect, understand, solve and optimize” phases well, follow best practices and look for risk-free adoption options to take self-service (and human-assisted) experiences from “rage” to “rave.”



The article was first published on Forbes.com

Skip to content Contact us