Like most of those in the millennial generation, our patience typically falls somewhere in the range of “none” and “I’m hungry.” And nothing tests our patience like thumbing through forums and websites that address every issue in the history of the entire world except the one I’m having.
Thankfully, the world of customer self-service has evolved significantly in the last few years. More companies are sharing resources online, customers have spaces to share and brainstorm together on platforms like Reddit, and virtual assistants are understanding us better, except maybe Siri:
Since nearly every aspect of life relies on technology—the alarm to wake us up in the morning, the CRM we use to track leads and contacts, or the app that insults you based on the weather outside—it’s becoming more and more important to provide the best possible customer experience.
Of course, this includes having an intuitive product, a highly effective customer success team, and a product that grows and adapts with its users, but it also means providing your customers the ability to find solutions to their problems.
We’ll look at how your company can use self-service as a powerful tool for proactively engaging with your customers. We’ll explore:
- What exactly is customer self-service?
- What are some examples of customer self-service?
- 3 key elements in a customer self-service strategy
- What are the benefits of customer self-service?
- Okay… But do customers actually prefer self-service?
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What exactly is “customer self-service”?
In general, customer self-service is a flexible term—it can be as simple as pressing “Forgot Password” and resetting your password through an email link, searching forums that address your issue, and even navigating through those automated menus you hear when you call a company. Yeah, the ones that always find a way to loop you back to the main menu.
”Main menu: Press 1 for billing, 2 for account information, or 3 to speak to a customer representative.”
You press 3.
“To speak with a customer representative, please state why you are calling.”
You say, “I’m locked out of my account.”
“I’m sorry. I’m having trouble understanding you. Please state why you are calling.”
“I am locked out of my account.”
“I’m sorry. I’m having trouble understanding you. Please state why you are calling.”
“I. am. LOCKED. OUT. OF. MY. ACCOUNT.”
“I’m sorry. I’m still having trouble. Main Menu: Press 1 for billing, 2 for account…”
In the best ways, customer self-services are designed to empower the customer to find their own solutions, on their time, in the way they prefer.
They can be incredible assets for a company, as long as you know which tasks should be automated and which ones are better designed for person-to-person interaction.
What are some examples of customer self-service?
We know it might sound risky, letting customers interact with automated systems and programmed robots—but many of these applications have been around for decades in many different forms, you just might not have realized it:
Probably the most obvious example is an ATM. Before Automatic Telling Machines (we didn’t know that’s what it stood for, either), you had to go into the bank with a withdrawal slip, and the bank clerk had to manually calculate everything to take the money out of your account.
Now, ATMs are everywhere, not just at the bank. You’ll see them in laundromats, bars, concert venues, and gas stations. Put in a card, type in a pin, type in how much to withdraw, and it spits out cash. Your transaction is over in under a minute.
Self-service kiosks have existed for a while in some form—doing baggage check or printing out your ticket at the airport has been around since 2003, and it’s become a regular routine of many passengers. It has significantly helped reduce long lines and congestion before reaching your gate.
Ones in restaurants or gas stations—like Sheetz—let customers be in total control to customize their order. Their tickets go directly to the chefs, so there is less opportunity for wrong orders and frustrated customers.
Gas station pumps
Speaking of gas stations, even pumping your gas is considered self-service. Almost all of the US has self-service gas stations, but in states like New Jersey or countries like Brazil or South Africa, it’s illegal to pump your own gas.
Art gallery kiosks
More and more art galleries are introducing tablets or mobile devices to coincide with the exhibited art.
At Yale University’s Art Gallery, they direct you to a mobile app that gives you an interactive tour of the gallery and local architecture, artwork search, and, for special exhibits, audio recordings that extend the experience of the art1:
Finding the perfect car is so much easier than it used to be. With companies like Carmax, you can search online for the exact model you want, and go in to pick it up and drive off. And, if they don’t have it in stock, they can transport it to your preferred location:
As you can see with these examples, customers engage in self-service every day in all sorts of industries. In fact, many companies have flourished with the introduction of automated systems and really improved their customer engagement and satisfaction.
3 key elements to include in your customer self-service strategy
You’ve read why you should consider customer self-service for your company, why customers love it, and what it can do for your business, but now you may be asking how to utilize this tool.
1. A comprehensive knowledge base for your customers
A knowledge base is basically a library of information and resources that visitors to your website can access.
By the time customers reach out to you—through call or live chat with an agent—they’ve hit up Google, YouTube, Reddit, or any one of their favorite places to find consumer feedback.
If you include tutorials and knowledge bases on your website, not only are you bringing in more traffic and educating your customers, they are more knowledgeable than someone blindly calling. This will shorten the complexity and time it takes for agents to resolve customers’ problems, which saves the sanity of both agents and customers.
A useful knowledge base won’t be as easy as throwing any cheat sheet or product manual on your site, it will require you to anticipate customer needs before they actually need it.
Research areas where customers are having problems—check forums or places where customers post questions, send out surveys for feedback, conduct research studies, and definitely talk with your employees in the contact center, who have direct interaction with customers.
Use the information you collected to develop informative articles and blogs, so customers have easy access to answers for their problems.
You can also explore keywords that customers might search for, just remember to search words and phrases that a customer would know, not your own company’s jargon. There are a ton of free websites that let you search keywords and related phrases and the traffic volume. If this becomes a resource that you think is beneficial, upgrading to a premium product can give you even more information.
Ultimately, you want to keep the customer’s end goal of what they want to solve in mind and make sure customers have all the information they need to reach their goal.
2. Informed customer service reps
A day of training when an employee first starts may seem like an efficient way to save money, but if your agent gets a question that only an “expert” would know, you’ve wasted the customer’s time, the first agent’s time, and the time of the person (or persons) that ends up helping the customer.
You’ve also wasted money. You’re paying for an agent to stumble through their resources to find an answer, only to put the customer on hold to find someone who can help, and then paying the time it takes for that employee to help the customer.
You’ve also hurt your reputation. If your customer is more informed than your employee, you have potentially affected the trust that customer has in your product.
Training is one half of it—the other half is communication. Someone may not know every single detail about your product or service, and that’s okay. But they do need some way to easily find that information. Make sure you’re using the right communication channels or software. Ideally, something that’s more responsive than emailing. Team messaging is probably the most commonly used option, and you’ve always got good old phone calls and video calls. If you can get all of these in one app, even better:
Every time there’s a new product, new process, new anything, train your employees, so they know the product, front and back. You’ll never complain about having employees that are too informed.
3. An interactive voice response system
For your customers, get a sophisticated IVR system, one that can handle multiple routes to different locations based on what a customer needs. With IVR systems, it’s important to revisit it from time to time to make sure it’s as intuitive and useful as possible for customers. This is also a great time to include your customer service team, so you can learn more from those who are in direct contact with customers, and they’ll have insight to overall strategies and product information.
Learn how to reduce your average handle time and keep impatient customers happy.
For your employees, consider using an auto dialer, which will maximize your agent’s time without overwhelming them. Our auto dialer service is uniquely designed to boost agent performance and stay on top of customer satisfaction with real-time call center manager/supervisor coaching capabilities and live-reporting dashboards that analyze agent success.
And when your agents use RingCentral Engage Voice™, they’ll have easy access to customer data through scripting and CRM integrations across fewer screens. This means less searching and more time saved for your business—and your customers.
What are the benefits of customer self-service?
Did you know that customer service or call centers began around 1963? That means it’s older than the internet6, and think about how much that has changed. We went from it looking like a scene out of The Matrix to overstuffed with pictures of cats, GIFs of children falling over, and endless amounts of sophisticated art known as memes:
So, our means of communication on the internet changed, then why hasn’t customer service?Yes, there are now databases to hold customer information, online accounts to view billing/contact details, auto dialers to keep calls coming and going, but, in general, not much is different. Customers call in, they wait on hold, and then (hopefully) speak to someone who can help them.
The modern, digital-first customer self-service—think virtual assistants, chatbots, and interactive voice response (IVR) systems—began with AssistU, the first virtual assistant company, but we will always recognize the true OG of virtual assistants, Clippy:
Thankfully, we’ve made some jumps in the virtual-assistant area—except, yeah, Siri—but they still take the backseat when it comes to customer service.
Businesses tout that they have award-winning customer service teams obsessed with helping their customers, agents who are available 24/7 (and in need of sleep) and who are ready to pick up your call right now, and those who’d rather talk to customers all day than waste time having a social life.
But how many businesses do you see promoting that they have the best chatbot or IVR?
Okay, they’re not as impressive to hear that you programmed something that works like it should, but customer self-service is so much more than that.
It really has changed the way we communicate and gain knowledge, but it’s also incredibly beneficial for businesses to adopt.
It reduces employee costs and saves money
It might not seem like it could save you a ton of money, but customer self-service automation can make a significant difference. Helping customers through self-service tools, such as a bot or IVR is vastly cheaper than using a human agent.
In fact, Juniper Research estimates that chatbots will save businesses $8 billion in customer service costs7, resulting from saving over four minutes and $0.70 per chatbox interaction.
Beyond just chatbots, an automated attendant can greet your customers and manage workflows for your employees by screening callers and directing them to the correct department. With this, your employees can solve customer problems quickly and correctly, which can help deflect inbound calls and lower the average spend per interaction even further.
It increases employee efficiency
Once a customer reaches your rep—after navigating through the automated system—your employee will have a fuller picture of the customer because they will have contact info and details on the customer’s problem. This not only enables your employee to help the customer efficiently even before they get on the line with them, it also lets the customer know you respect their time because they are brought to the correct department immediately.
Automation, perhaps more importantly, lets a customer solve simple tasks like password resets or changing their address on their own without the need of a human agent, while more complex tasks that deserve more time and effort can be handled by customer reps.
It drives more and more traffic
When you develop a successful site, full of information that is useful and accessible for your customers, it will become the main source for finding solutions. When they run into a problem, your site will be the first one they go to, the one they link to, and the one they trust to give them the correct answers.
And with the increased traffic and linking, you could see a significant increase in your Google ranking, bringing even more traffic.
It helps keep your brand competitive
Typically, a customer will engage with your brand in numerous instances before actually speaking to a live agent.
They’re exposed to your website, social channels, marketing emails, and then, eventually, the team you’ve hired to support your customers and represent your brand’s mission and values.
For all the moments when a customer is wandering the busy streets of the information highway, looking for solutions to products they love, your business could (and should!) be their main source of answers and help. Otherwise, you’re leaving a gap open for your hungry competitors to fill with content—and you can bet that they’re going to position themselves as a better alternative to you.
Now, let’s look at the most common ways in which customers try to self-service.
How do customers typically try to serve themselves?
When a customer runs into a problem with a product, they usually begin by researching the issue in the broadest and easiest way: Google. They’ll type in their issue, more than likely with the company name, and get results (hopefully) related to what they need.
Maybe Google wasn’t providing the answers they needed or results were only from unqualified sites or those with low authority. The customer may then directly access the company’s website—or a website where users can post questions/answers like Reddit or social media. Maybe they’ll navigate to the FAQ page, the community forum, or the news page to see if recent updates have been made.
If your site is taking too long to load or not providing enough information for a customer to make a decision, they’ll either leave or maybe try your chatbot. This may be the first time the customer engages with your company—and even though it’s automated and runs on AI software, it’s still representative of your company.
If the chatbot doesn’t help, it will most likely direct them to a live chat or to email their question. Again, the customer may abandon their issue completely, wait for an agent to chat with, or send an email and wait for a response.
If they tried everything they could to find the answer on their own, they may accept defeat and call to speak to someone.
But it’s important to note that even though they were more likely to get the answer they needed with this option, they may have avoided it because of experiences with long hold times or their problem happened outside of your call center’s hours. And if they’re on hold for a long time after they had to wait until the next day to speak to someone, and then it turns out no one can help them, that’s a whole different level of frustration.
Again, you can see that a customer will interact with your brand in several ways before speaking with a live agent. By using self-service options and keeping your website filled with resources, you can be top-of-mind for customers when they’re searching for solutions. This keeps you more in control of your brand and company representation.
Do customers actually prefer self-service?
Oh, yes—almost two-thirds of consumers prefer self-service. Let’s look at some research:
- Zendesk’s report says that 67% of people prefer self-service over speaking directly to an agent, and this was in 2013 when Apple’s Touch ID first premiered and “swag” was not an embarrassing thing to say2.
- Over 90% of consumers expect a company to have some sort of self-service available on their site3. (And this was from back in 2015.)
- Lastly, over a third of Americans would rather clean a toilet than interact with customer service4. Ouch.
Why do customers feel this way? According to our research, waiting too long on hold is the top “very annoying” thing for customers who have to call the customer service line:
And the key here? Time.
Consumers care about their time. In fact, 73% of customers say that great customer service comes from feeling like the company values their time5, and this is what’s considered “too long” to wait on hold:
So, yeah, we think it’s pretty clear that most of the time, consumers would much rather handle things themselves than interact with customer service.
Ready to help your customers self-service?
How do we feel? Do you feel more comfortable with the idea of introducing customer self-service techniques and applications?
We thought so.
More importantly, we hope you feel like you have a solid understanding of moving your business forward and helping customers get the information they need from the most reliable source: you.
Originally published Jul 01, 2020, updated Jul 01, 2022