Six Ways to Dramatically Improve Self-Service

Over the past few years, I have done advisory projects with a dozen or more companies to help them understand how to improve their knowledge management processes and their self-service websites to improve self-service adoption, success, and ultimately, deflection. With the average cost of a B2B support incident costing more than $200, the savings from deflection can be significant. Based on these advisory projects, as well as the data collected in TSIA's annual knowledge management survey, I have identified these six best practices to improve self-service. Some of these are core best practices that will not be new to you, others represent pace-setter capabilities that companies with the highest self-service success and deflection numbers are leveraging.

1. Google Index Your Content.

According to the results of TSIA's 2018 Channel Preference Quick Poll, 91 percent of respondents said they started with a Google search when needing help with a problem. Allowing your content to be accessed via Google is a critical way to build visibility for your self-service site and content, so customers will know to come directly to you in the future.

According to the 2018 Knowledge Management Survey, half of companies (51 percent), now index their self-service knowledgebases with Google, and almost half, (49 percent) index their online community content with Google, a significant increase from 2017. If you are concerned about competitors or others accessing content, then make registration or authentication required when the link is clicked in search results.

2. Offer Unified Search.

One of the most frequent recommendations I make during self-service assessment projects is to invest in unified search for self-service. This means that a single search string will retrieve content from every repository, including the knowledgebase, online documentation, the customer community, release notes, learning content, etc. If customers must search each repository separately, it is unlikely they will find the needed information and self-service success and deflection will suffer.

Unified intelligent search includes natural language processing, so it searches for the intended concept, regardless of how it is spelled or phrased. Vendors include Attivio, Coveo, and Squelch.

3. Enable Multiple Paths to Content.

With the popularity of Google, companies might think that offering a search box is the only method they need for customers to find content. But use case analysis on why various types of users access self-service and how they prefer to find information will reveal that different user cohorts prefer different access methods. While the search box might be ubiquitous, it might also be intimidating to more novice users who do not know the proper terminology to use to find what they need.

In addition to a search box, the following access methods for content should be considered:

  • FAQs. A list of frequently asked questions is a great shortcut to common problems. If the list is kept updated based on usage analysis of top-used content, it can be a very helpful shortcut to content for customers.
  • Personalized FAQs. Instead of a static FAQ list, which might contain content not related to the products or versions a customer owns, personalization can be used to filter content to only show information relevant to each customer.
  • Real-time suggestions. This highly recommended feature prompts customers with suggested content when they are creating an assisted support case online, using case fields selected by the customer, as well as all text entered about the problem, to search for content.
  • Decision trees. Offering an indexed view of content was the original self-service approach before search became popular in the late 1990s. Appealing to both analytic types and novice customers who might not know where to start, a decision tree allows customers to step through an index structure to narrow on specific topics.
  • Virtual assistants. Chat bots provide a guided search experience for customers and appeal to less-technical users, in particular, end-users who might not know what to search for. Virtual assistants offer a low-effort customer experience with their conversational approach and can prompt customers for additional details to help hone in on the right answers.

Starting with interviews with customers who were unsuccessful with self-service is a good way to identify problems with your current approach and learn which additional access methods would be most useful to prioritize.

4. Embed Self-Service into Your Products.

Self-service should really begin within the product when a customer encounters a problem. Ideally, the same self-service options available on your website should be embedded in the product, so the customer doesn't have to navigate away from the application to find an answer.

Basic field-level help is not enough, and while allowing access to product documentation within the product is a start, this rarely helps with problem resolution. The same search technology used on the self-service website to offer unified search can be embedded within the application, giving customers access to knowledgebase articles, release notes, community discussions, and more, all without leaving the application. This creates a very low-effort customer experience and encourages use of self-service.

5. Create a Video Library.

Today's customers prefer to learn in bite-size chunks, and video content is easier to consume than reading text. Particularly for how-to questions, a video walk through of how to perform a task or complete a process is preferred to a written procedure. As a result, companies are investing in more videos for self-service, ranging from WalkMe videos, which are easy to send via email or embed in products, to having a dedicated YouTube site for popular learning and support videos.

6. Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly.

Many studies have proven that today there are more Internet sessions conducted via mobile device than laptop or desktop. With system administrators usually working away from their desks, whether in equipment rooms or coaching end users, it is increasingly likely that self-service will be performed via a mobile device. It is critical that companies ensure their web self-service capabilities work seamlessly across devices or this becomes just another barrier to adoption.

In every self-service assessment I have conducted, there have been features or content on websites that were not accessible or very difficult to use via mobile device, so even if IT tells you they've done enough, this might not be the case.

According to my 2019 Support Services Tech Stack Survey, 80 percent of B2B companies have budgets for additional investments in self-service in the next two years, so hopefully you will be able to include some of these best practices into projects you have planned.

TSIA's 2019 Knowledge Management Survey is now open, through Aug. 31. Everyone who completes the survey will receive a complimentary copy of the 2019 State of Knowledge Management, to be published in late October.

John Ragsdale is vice president of technology research at the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA). John has spent more than 25 years in the customer service industry, as a technical and call center manager, in marketing and product management roles for knowledge management and CRM vendors, and as an analyst for Forrester Research and now TSIA.