The State of B2B Self-Service in 2014

In the last few years, deflection seems to have become a dirty word. Many companies that focused on the customer experience were concerned that trying to deflect assisted support interactions equated to not wanting to talk to customers—not a message you want to send when trying to dazzle customers. However, companies concerned about the impact of deflection strategies on the customer experience need to realize that customers want self-service.

In the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA)'s 2013 social media survey, respondents were asked which support channels they preferred to use when seeking help for a product problem. The largest percentage of respondents (65 percent) said self-service was their preferred channel. Very few customers (less than 20 percent) prefer the phone or email for product support.

What percentage of customers that attempt self-service actually find the answer they need? In 2011, according to TSIA's support benchmark study, that number was a shockingly low 39 percent. Luckily, we seem to have hit rock bottom, and things are now improving. In 2013, the average self-service success rate rose to 49 percent—a big improvement over 2011. The average self-service success rate for 2014 rose to 51 percent, and Pacesetter companies are doing even better.

If all of the survey responses are sorted into three categories, the bottom-performing group averages only a 28 percent success rate, the middle tier saw a 54 percent success rate, and the top third (i.e., Pacesetters) saw an average success rate of 74 percent—an impressive average. The bottom third and the Pacesetters both saw significant improvements over last year, while the middle third averages remained flat.

The companies with the highest self-service success rates usually have something in common: They have done extensive use-case analysis of their customers to understand exactly what types of questions are being asked, and what tools are needed to encourage self-service adoption and success. Pacesetter companies include multiple paths to content on self-service sites to encourage adoption by the widest array of customers:

Search Box. Perhaps surprisingly, not everyone is enamored with the traditional search box, which almost all companies offer on their self-service site. While search is a great tool for experienced users who know exactly what they want, it can be intimidating for a more novice user who doesn't know where to start or how to phrase a search string.

FAQs. FAQs are a great shortcut to common problems, and many companies extract the FAQ list to use in multiple places on the Web site, in the customer community, in external social media sites, and in customer newsletters. The FAQs should include direct links to the knowledge article for complete information. Ideally, the FAQ list is constantly updated, and some companies even filter the FAQs to only show content for products the customer owns.

Decision Trees. Offering a decision tree or index of content is less intimidating for nontechnical customers to find what they need by stepping through a series of topics to narrow down their desired subject. Decision trees are especially helpful for new customers who are not yet familiar with your naming conventions or technical vocabulary and are not able to find what they need using search.

Virtual Assistants. These tools, which may include a friendly avatar that greets you and offers a conversational approach to problem solving, are common in the consumer world but are now slowly finding adoption within enterprise support. Virtual assistants are especially helpful for novice users and end users asking general and "How do I?" questions.

Auto-Suggest. Most companies offer customers the ability to create a support incident online. However, you want to be sure customers have at least attempted to solve the problem themselves before resorting to creating a ticket for your support staff. Auto-suggest is a feature that analyzes the short and long description entered for the ticket, as well as any required fields concerning product and version, and then executes a search and displays all likely matches for the customer. This approach forces the customer to at least review self-service options before creating an assisted support incident.

For companies with budgets for new knowledge management or self-service tools, there are so many options for investment it can be difficult to know where to start. When creating 2015 spending plans, be sure to prioritize investments in these key areas:

Unified, intelligent search. The first step to improving self-service is to adopt an intelligent search platform that can search all content repositories (including the knowledge base, forum discussions, product documentation, release notes, etc.) with a single query, giving customers a list of matches from across the enterprise—and even from the discussion forum.

Use case analysis is required. Successful self-service is not "one size fits all." Depending on customer skill level, education, age, and other demographics, different customers need different tools for self-service, ranging from a search field to lists of FAQs to index trees and diagnostic aids. Do a thorough analysis of the types of customers who access—or would like to access—your self-service site, and find out what different tools or search paradigms appeal to them.

More rich media.Today's customers will not read a 15-page procedure to fix a problem. With screen capture, application emulation, and video-editing tools now available for a fraction of the cost from five years ago, it is getting easier and cheaper to create rich media self-help content. When possible, show customers how with a video tutorial or step-by-step instructions with pictures, not just text.

Increased mobility. Multiple sources claim there will be more Internet activity from smartphones than desktops and laptops in the coming years. Even companies with highly successful self-service Web sites need a wake-up call—what works perfectly on a 15-inch PC monitor may be useless on a four-inch smartphone screen. It is time to rethink Web page infrastructure and design to maximize effectiveness of self-service on mobile devices.