In this article we’ll explore customer expectations in relation to self-service, what aspects of the customer journey are impacted, what areas of your customer engagement should include self-service, and finally we’ll briefly consider self-service implementation.

Self-service is the new normal

Global studies suggest that 70% of users expect a company website to include a self-service application. So, welcome to the new normal. In the past, people dealt with people to get things done. Increasingly, we now deal with technology – and our appetite is growing to do more and more for ourselves, by ourselves, using technology.

When engaging with brands’ technology, customers have come to expect the simplicity of Apple, the intelligence of Amazon, the omnipresence of Google, the immediacy of Twitter and the experience of Uber. These experiences have evolved from being perceived as exceptional to be an expectation of the brands a person allows into their lives. Your competitors are re-imagining how they adapt to customers’ digital lifestyles. In light of all this, the question becomes: how does our digital experience stack up? And self-service is at the heart of the experience.

Self-service impacts every stage of the customer journey

Self-service is not just about handling complaints, or conducting your banking via an app. The principles of digital self-service apply to each phase of the customer journey, broadly before purchase, during purchase and after purchase.

For high-involvement purchase decisions, around 70% of people arrive at a decision before ever making contact with your sales team. An entire marketing discipline has emerged in recognition of this, called Content Marketing. In general, ensuring that all product or service specifications and availability information, store locations and times, and so forth are digitally available all form part of self-service to empower your prospects. Ecommerce is the obvious manifestation of self-service during the sale phase, similarly digital service desks are a manifestation of after sale self-service.

Intelligent use consumer data is essential throughout the customer journey to make self-service meaningful. Amazon is a great example of a company getting this right: prospects receive offers on the website and via email; all of this information is available at the time of the sale, when additional products are recommended; and automated complaint handling is offered after the sale.

Not every service should be self-service

Not everything works for self-service and a valuable skill to develop is the ability to evaluate which service – or which part of a service – is suitable to be digitised for the customer. In making these decisions, the following factors are instructive:

Online demand. Self-service thrives on high demand – the higher the demand, the better the business case.

Complexity. Self-service is ideal for simpler tasks, and as complexity increases suitability decreases.

Costs. The costs of delivering this service face-to-face, versus the design, development and maintenance costs of building the technology that provides the service.

The following chart provides a broad indication of self-service suitability in various contexts.

Invest in great service design before great technology

We do need to develop a deep understanding of how to design for self-service, however, precisely because we cannot control the digital journeys our users undertake. When using our platforms, people are in control of how they want to search, navigate, scan, read and click. Some user expectations are paradoxical: although ‘born-digitals’ prefer to perform most tasks online, when they feel they need to talk to someone, they expect to be able to do so right away. In general, customers prefer self-service, but shy away from poorly implemented self-service.

A couple of general design principles for self-service portals are:

Thoroughly research past customer enquiry data. We all know that a basic minimum is to have an FAQ section where most popular queries are featured most prominently. Our experience is that initial FAQ design is often inadequate, which then distorts the tool over time. For example, some customer queries are superficially similar, but substantially different and by grouping them in the same FAQ ‘bucket’ diminishes the usefulness of the tool for customers over time.

Use video, audio or images where possible. The jury is out: people prefer video to reading.

Design for search behaviour. Self-service portals are notoriously poor when it comes to search functionality, which frustrates users who are used to a Google-quality search experience. As the portal grows, this becomes more and more vital.

Design for mobile users. A significant amount of your portal traffic will be using their mobiles generally, but keep in mind those users actually in the traffic! Customers often require self-service assistance on-the-go, so designing the portal using a mobile-first philosophy is a good idea.