The 5 Rules of Self-service

I read an article in Inc. Magazine about self-service in customer service. Self-service is extremely important to a lot of companies (like the company mentioned in article, Carfax) because it helps reduce the number of necessary customer service interactions, thus keeping costs low. It also keeps representatives from going insane because they keep answering the same questions, which reduces turnover and saves money by itself. As a customer service consultant, I advocate self-service, as long as it isn’t the only option and isn’t forced upon the customer.

I found it difficult to get a live demo from any of the companies mentioned in the articles without going through a lot of hoops, but did I manage to track down these two pages, which are good examples of self-service at work (and I think use software from RightNow and eGain, respectively):

Quite frankly, I think both of them are terrible (which is often the case with self-service). I like how the Carfax articles show related questions and how the LucasArts one has a “did this help answer your question” prompt with a comments box. If you look at a third example such as Google’s Help Center, you’ll see both the “was this helpful” and related articles feature. There is also a contact us link for all three, which is good.

Self-service FAQs are terrific, but there should be some quick rules associated with self-service:

  1. It should not be forced. Companies should never require their customers or users to use self-service. They can suggest it or make it more noticeable, but they should never force it.
  2. It should be intelligent. FAQs and self-service options that are static are worthless. The systems should update based on popularity, helpfulness, etc. There should also be humans watching the self-service systems and how customers are using them. Use Google Analytics if your system doesn’t already have an analytics tool.
  3. It should ask for suggestions. Like Google and LucasArts, good self-service centers should ask if articles were helpful, if they helped resolve issues, etc. To take it a step further, human representatives should ask if customers tried self-service. If they say no, ask why. The answers may be surprising.
  4. It should be up-to-date. There are very few things that are less helpful than an out of date help center. Make sure yours stays up-to-date and contains relevant information.
  5. It should be easy to navigate. It should also be easy to search. Make sure your help center is easy to navigate. It should be easy to go back, easy to explore relevant entries, and all of those good things.

There you have it, the 5 Rules of Self-Service. Try to apply them to your self-service systems and see what sort of results you get.

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8 Responses to “The 5 Rules of Self-service”

  1. AhmedBouzid said:

    Feb 19, 08 at 11:10 pm

    Very interesting how the 5 requirements above closely match to some best practices in phone self service: (1) don’t hide the zero out option, (2) use information that you can gather about the caller and the context to serve them intelligently, (3) get feedback from callers and monitor caller satisfaction, (4) offer accurate information and solve caller problems, (5) make sure the call flow is coherent and rational (for instance, don’t drive people crazy with jumbled menus full of holes – “For Support, press 1, for sales press 7, for billing press 5,” etc.). See more about this in article I wrote recently about IVRs needing to treat humans humanely:

  2. Service Untitled said:

    Feb 19, 08 at 11:51 pm


    The parallels are indeed interesting. There seems to be a lot of parallels in quite a few areas of customer service.

  3. Steven Di Pietro said:

    Feb 20, 08 at 7:32 am

    Good thought provoker.

    Although 5 points are neat I think there is a 6th with FAQ’s.

    Don’t assume knowledge. Err on the side of dumbing down because it ensures you help as many people as possible. Those in the know will skim while the majority will be thankful of the effort.

    By the way I referenced your blog in mine.

  4. IVR Blog by said:

    Feb 20, 08 at 3:30 pm

    […] Their latest post focused on self-service FAQs on the web and the author offered the following recommendations about what a good FAQ should be and should not be: […]

  5. Jeff Toister said:

    Feb 21, 08 at 9:25 pm

    Good post — not enough attention is paid to the “service” component of self-service, so I’m glad you tackled it.

    I’d propose an addition to your rule #5: self-service options should be customer-focused and not simply employed to make things more convenient for the company delivering service. A lot of companies that implement self-service options track metrics like productivity improvement and cost-savings, but quite often little thought is put into customer satisfaction.

  6. Service Untitled said:

    Feb 21, 08 at 10:44 pm


    You’re absolutely right! Everything in customer service should be customer focused. Things should be as easy as possible for employees, but customers should be the number one priority.

  7. Service Untitled » To Offer Phone Support or Not - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    Mar 04, 08 at 6:41 pm

    […] A reader suggested I write a post targeted at small businesses that aren’t quite at the point of being able to offer phone support. It also applies to companies that may not have it in their business model or just aren’t setup to offer phone support. His fundamental question is what sort of message does a lack of phone support give. It is definitely a good question and most certainly a question that a lot of companies that are deciding whether or not to offer phone support end up asking themselves. The biggest factor any company that is on the fence about phone support should consider is: does the business model call for it? If you pride yourself on quality service at an affordable price, then you most likely get away with providing support over mediums like email and live chat exclusively. However, if you are a premium provider and you are in a business where the low end companies offer phone support, it should be something you do as well. I hate to say it is a case of “keeping up with the Joneses,” but when you’re dealing with competition in business, it really is. If your competition offers phone support, then it would probably serve you well (from a competitive standpoint) to offer it. Some companies simply can’t afford to offer phone support based on what they’re charging — if you are one of those companies, then you should look elsewhere for ways to support your customers (such as considering more self-service options). […]

  8. Service Untitled » Expect self-service to help, not cure. - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    Aug 28, 08 at 6:11 pm

    […] thorough answers to their questions and don’t have to wait for anyone to respond. I’ve written about the best practices for self-service before, but I didn’t cover an important aspect of self-service is enough […]