“Help yourself!” Avoid these 7 mistakes and rock your self-serve customer service

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself,” said Napoleon.

That philosophy seems to have stayed around, as evidenced by the behavior of not just  generals but regular people here in the 21st century.

Fixing the lawn mower, dying your gray roots at home, upgrading your living space with a DIY remodel. The romantic appeal of trying to master a project yourself — that is, if you know how to do it or can watch a couple of YouTube videos and figure it out — is firmly entrenched in our culture.

Never mind that people’s well-intentioned self-help projects can get off on the wrong foot or stall indefinitely for some unforeseen reason (like a cargo ship being unable to dock). Or that “real” (expensive) help may need to step in and repair damage caused by self-helping gone wrong. The rescue phase can be traumatic compared with simply having had it done professionally to start.

“I did it!”

Still, the spirit of self-help isn’t going away anytime soon. People would rather avoid the rigamarole of hiring a professional (often referred to as “paying money”) to have something done that they could “just as easily” do themself, and they’re thrilled to proclaim success when they prevail.

The same is true when it comes to resolving technical problems consumers have with products. Surveys back this up: according to Microsoft (in a 2018 global study), 66% of people needing technical support opt for the self-serve route before making contact with a human support agent. And even if they don’t ultimately choose to tackle something themselves, people still widely expect self-service options to be there. The Harvard Business Review found that 88% of customers in the U.S. expect companies to provide a self-service support portal, which could encompass things like a knowledge base with frequently asked questions and chatbot-supplied answers.

It’s not just that there are high customer expectations for self-service; companies also prefer to offer it because not only can it help them make customer issues go away, it translates into less work for live agents, which saves them tons of money.

The catch: as a company, you can’t just give lip service to self-service troubleshooting. You have to actually provide effective self-service solutions that solve users’ problems, and that kind of great customer support isn’t always easy to nail. If you miss the mark in any number of key areas, you run the risk of your customers pulling their hair out, with all the attendant bummers that brings, such as stressing out your live customer support team, increasing turnover among your customer support representatives, losing loyal customers to competitors that provide better self-service, doing damage to your brand reputation, perhaps even going out of business if you simply can’t get it together.

So how can you make absolutely sure that your customer self-service portal and support process will work perfectly; that there isn’t some kink in your knowledge base system that’s going to create a low-grade (or catastrophic) fail?

Perhaps the best way to evaluate your effectiveness with self-help customer support is to look at what will certainly not help. In terms of supplying the worst customer support experience, here are ways a company can prevent its self-reliant customers from wading into the self-help pond and coming up with a fish.

The 7 habits of bad customer self-service

We now commence with the 7 habits of highly terrible…oh wait. Stephen Covey used the magic number 7 too? At any rate, here are 7 things to never do when it comes to self-service strategy: 

1. Make people jump through sign-in hoops.

While requiring your prospective self-helpers to sign in or “join” your self-service support system may seem like a smart procedural thing, if you do that, you’re going to slow people down and lose some of them. They’re already enrolled on so many sites, so they may simply decide to abandon you rather than spend time entering data (such as their product ID) to gain access to your self-serve goodies. In addition, some people prefer to protect their privacy; they resent the fact that so many sites collect information and they want to stay as anonymous as possible.

There are legitimate reasons why you might feel the need to require self-helpers to log in, such as tracking and security. If you must require some sort of registration, then at least keep the sign-up process short and sweet, and collect only the information you vitally need.

Still, it would be better for your customer satisfaction rating if you can simply skip the gate-keeping mumbo jumbo in favor of achieving the best customer experience. Make self-service the quickest option for support and your customer support agents will be hit with  fewer emails and phone calls.

2. Neglect your knowledge base.

Have you ever struck out looking for information on a company’s website? Then you know that Job #1 for the best self-serve customer service is to cast a critical eye toward all the resources you’re offering your self-helpers.

Whether among your customer self-service tools you’re providing online manuals, tutorials, videos, knowledge base articles, community forums, a FAQ page, blog posts, even bots supplying interactive voice response, it all needs to be crystal clear and well presented. 

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and gauge whether you’d come away from the experience satisfied with your self-help automation. Would you instead be picking up (or continuing to use) your mobile phone to call support (and perhaps complain about the self-service channels)?

Key boxes to check:

  • Point to up-front FAQs. Identify which common questions customers typically ask when they’re looking for help about the product. Include a list of FAQs front and center on the home page, with prominent links on other pages. When an FAQ list beckons, customers may jump in to see if their problem is addressed before going on a fact-finding mission. Regularly monitor what your call-in customers are asking about. Are there common themes? Maybe there’s some new glitch you haven’t mentioned anywhere in the self-help material. Add FAQs as needed.
  • Make everything easy to understand. Your customers may be the type who look for YouTube videos to help them fix things. If a solution is too laborious to explain in print and a video would work better, take the time to create a quick one. Also make sure your help content is written in plain English, or if applicable, in the customer’s native language. There’s nothing worse (or more hilarious?) than trying to understand a poorly written translation of instructions.
  • Be consistent. Ensure that what you’re suggesting as the problem-solving process in your knowledge base is the same process as what a support agent would walk through on the phone. That way, if someone does end up calling in, they’ll recognize that what they may have read was indeed correct (even though they couldn’t grasp it).
  • Have a well-managed knowledge base. It’s not only important that your self-service crowd be able to find details they need, it’s critical that they’ll have no trouble finding it super fast. Did you know that the right knowledge management practices can shorten the time people spend searching for information by as much as 35% (McKinsey)?

Imagine how much happier your self-helpers (not to mention your support reps) will be when they can immediately proclaim victory with a solution in hand. 

Now it’s time to make your self-service experience a veritable breeze by doing a little “spring cleaning” and ongoing maintenance:

  1. Get rid of anything that’s no longer applicable, such as an FAQ related to a discontinued product; combine duplicate versions of similar support content
  2. Update anything that needs even the slightest bit of retooling
  3. Roomba-ize: do proactive information polishing (as often as every week or every day, if needed)

3. Provide antiquated search.

Let’s say you’ve made step 2 a big priority, and you now have a glowing knowledge base full of answers your self-helpers might be seeking. Good job!

The next question is “Will my eager and determined self-service gang be able to make my knowledge base search feature work for them?”

Uh-oh. Is your search in need of repair? Well if it is, you’re certainly not alone. This aspect of enhancing their customer service skills is where some execs throw up their hands, maybe because management has admonished them that it doesn’t have a budget for upgrading the old search, which technically “still works.” 

But now that you’re on a roll with this customer-centric process, putting in some self-help of your own to make things happen, it might be worth pushing harder for upgraded search.

What would be some concrete ideas to float with management? Focus on modernizing to encompass any or all of these types of search:

  • Federated search. This means your self-helpers can compile all related information from multiple data sources that you may have (silos) by entering just one query. For instance, when they search on a topic, they might discover that there are not only FAQs compiled by the customer service team but an article written by an engineer in the product community. If you don’t provide federated search, you risk having the key information a self-service customer needs overlooked because of incomplete search results.
  • Artificial-intelligence augmented search. If you’re not familiar with AI as it relates to search, it’s search that’s able to act like an intelligent being, that is, learn from and adapt its output to the input data it receives. (Hey, It’s almost like a self-helping search engine?) With AI-powered search, the platform learns from queries and responds by providing the most relevant search experience it can “think of.” With semantic search, the search engine decipers the searcher’s intent based on the contextual meaning of the query, rather than relying on the exact words entered. And everything is fluid: the search results may even be fine-tuned in real time as the person is searching.
  • Self-service-focused search. What could be more welcome than search functionality that’s fluent in the language of support and “understands” the complexities of self-service queries? One solution in this category is AIgolia Answers for customer support, which is designed to back up help desks. Self-service seekers can query for answers to their problems without having to bother your call-in support team.

4. Have no online community.

Who needs an online community when there are already so many types of online user groups out there?

If you want to extend the depth of your support and impress your do-it-yourselfers, you do. An online community frequented by trustworthy subject-matter experts and focused around the kind of information customers may be seeking makes an excellent component of an accessible self-service mix.

According to technology exec Steve Richmond writing in Forbes: “Having an online community eliminates the need of spending hours doing a Google search on a topic that has more than likely been addressed in a community thread. Or better yet, you can receive the answer directly from a member of a particular community.” 

Plus, people like it when they can venture online and connect with a human (or that person’s approachable content) and then leave the cyber scene feeling good about not only their solved problem but the fact that they’ve made a new acquaintance in case they have more issues.

5. Annoy your mobile self-helpers.

If you’re like many customer-focused companies, you have beautiful, easy-to-navigate self-service all laid out — that is, on your website. Score. Now what about a mobile-optimized version for those (young) folks who do everything on their phone, in fact, maybe they don’t bother with a PC anymore. 

Not so much? Well darn. Because half of all web traffic on the planet is conducted using mobile devices. Yep, lots of people prefer to use their phone to help themselves to support. They aren’t the least bit interested in yakking with you; they just want to go the ’ol self-service route. 

That means a bad experience on a mobile device is probably not going to result in your having A-rated customer service. So it’s equally (if not more) important that you provide a mobile-optimized experience, either app- or Web-based. Your phone-loving customers will thank you by not using their phones to call up your support team.

6. Hide (or disconnect) your 800 number.

Have you ever gone to a company’s website looking for help, realized you were striking out, and decided to contact some live customer service agents? Only to slowly realize that there didn’t seem to be anyone home for you to chat with? 

No “You stuck?” footer with the 800 number in bold. No mention of a sympathetic soul who could come to your rescue. Not even a lurking chatbot offering the impersonal option of messaging with the right department. 

Only a clickable “Contact us” link dumping you back on the same pages that weren’t helpful before, giving you no way to grab a sympathetic human (or heck, any human).

We’re not experts on the cost of having an 800 number, but could that expense really compare with the cost of a disgruntled former customer boycotting your products, telling people you’re a loser, and abandoning you forever because of your lack of good customer support interaction?

Letting people easily find your contact number (and even if you do indeed provide the help they need right there on your self-service site) is a clear win.

7. Provide lackluster live help.

Self-help is of course just a subset of your total help, all of which can be refined to meet your customer needs. When a customer’s self-help spirit has been crushed, you need to be able to nurse them back to feeling good with a line to a competent, empowered service representative. Your call center must be full of warm and wonderful agents dedicated to facilitating smooth customer interactions. And that’s key whether a self-helper has been wandering aimlessly in your self-help system for an hour or simply chose to go straight to chatting with someone.

 If you’re a business owner, you surely know this, but for the sake of covering all the bases of good customer service: When dealing with customers’ problems, you don’t want support agents who are rude or indifferent, leave people on hold with long response times, or send them away with a “Sorry, I can’t help you.” Nope, nope, and nope.

The power of “friendship”

Any of these 7 self-serve customer service experience faux pas could catapult your valuable customers out your proverbial door, where they could grouse and also proceed to wreak havoc on your reputation. It’s best to avoid that, because among other things, they could bad mouth you to their friends. And they might have a lot of friends.

As expert on great customer service Jeff Bezos of Amazon likes to point out, because of the reach of the Internet, you have to watch out for word-of-mouth being magnified: “If you make a customer unhappy, they won’t tell five friends, they’ll tell 5,000 friends” by posting rants on social media

This could hold true whether a customer can’t get your self-help options to cooperate or they approached a live help agent whose abilities to assist were lacking. Potential customers who read something negative about a company will think twice. The bottom line is that when it comes to having happy customers and customer loyalty, you want the right kind of friends.

Congratulations! You know the 7 things you should skip when it comes to self-service support. You now have your marching orders for a winning customer self-service strategy. When your self-help seekers can succeed in finding what they need on their own without running into issues, they will also help you succeed as a company, in many ways and many times over. 

Remember that when your self-helpers are satisfied customers, you’re destined for business success. Or as the Beatles put it, you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.

Want to help yourself?

Here’s a bonus thing to avoid when trying to achieve the competitive advantage of excellent customer service: inertia. Help yourself to data points about how Algolia can steer you clear of the aforementioned traps and start quickly meeting your self-serve customers’ needs. Fill out this form and we’ll be in touch in a couple of days.

About the authorCatherine Dee

Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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