• December 10, 2019
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

Customer Self-Service: Fast, Cheap, and in Control

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If you read the extant literature on customer service, self-service (sometimes called web self-service, which is not an entirely correct characterization) plays a big role in the considerations for how to engage customers via service interactions. The reason is pretty clear: Contemporary customers demand control over their interactions as well as the sculpting of their experiences as the price to pay for their continuing interactions with a company.

It has been perhaps the most important change in customer service in the past decade. Self-service has gone from not only an acceptable alternative but a desirable one. For the company, purely from a cost perspective, it has a clear benefit. As the Harvard Business Review points out, each self-service interaction costs pennies, while a live service interaction via phone, email, or web chat costs more than $7 for a B2C company and more than $13 for a B2B company—a lot more. The value when it comes to cost efficiency is obvious.

But there is another side. Customers are not necessarily wedded to how they get their problems solved or queries answered, but they are wedded to actually getting their problems solved and queries answered, and with as little friction as possible. If it’s possible to get a problem solved without a human being, so be it. In fact, it’s easier, and it fits the customer’s key criterion when it comes to interactions—convenience. And not only that, it allows customers to retain control of their interactions. A double win.


Self-service can be handled through a variety of channels. Behind the firewall, it can take the form of help files, frequently asked questions (FAQ), and a query to a knowledge base on a website. Outside the firewall, it gets more complex—it can be a YouTube video, an answer in a Reddit subgroup, a discussion in a user group built around a product or service, or an article online. Of course, the difference between the choice of providing answers behind the firewall and outside the firewall is the difference between quality control and the possibility of an unsubstantiated or incorrect answer.

But self-service isn’t only accomplished using knowledge bases, FAQs, and help files; it’s also done by the customer taking an action via an app or a website without another human involved. My ability to generate a return label from Amazon without a person issuing it and sending it to me or asking an agent to do it is a huge time saver and trust builder.

Since self-service is a popular choice now, and a cost-effective one, it becomes a smart move for companies to get their customers to come behind the firewall. The best possible way to do that is to have more complete knowledge bases that are easy to search, even if the query is complex.

When it comes to managing that process, there are a few things that are both no-brainers and absolute necessities:

  • Information should be accessible 24/7, as should the means to take actions.
  • The information that customers have available to them must be available to agents at the contact center (if there is one, of course), and the option for a customer to deal with a human should more often than not be routine.
  • Strong workflow and business rules must be in place so that additional information can be hidden from the customer and made available to the agents, if the customer service department decides it should.
  • Search tools should be able to craft highly personalized customer queries. The more they draw on customer records, the better, and analytics that provide customer information should, therefore, sit on the back end.
  • The sources can be help files and FAQs but also can be videos, articles, and best-practices white papers. Sufficient information should be made available to help customers make intelligent decisions on what they want to do—what action they need to take, what information they need to know, what experience they will have.
  • The idea of capturing and qualifying the answers to customer questions needs to be part of the practice and culture of the organization, or else valuable information will be lost.
  • The decision as to who handles which information, the employees and/or the customers, once made, means that the tools for either or both groups have to be made freely available.

Self-service is trickier than it looks and comes with enormous challenges. These challenges are broad and encompassing. Here is a partial list to give you an idea of why this isn’t just a matter of posting a knowledge base with best practices and a few answers to a bunch of questions:

  • An extraordinary range of customer problems, inquiries, and required actions must be dealt with. The questions can range from utilitarian (e.g., what’s your address, who is the supervisor of customer service tier-one support) to product-based (e.g., how do I fix this problem) to matters of pricing (e.g., how much will this cost if I want to do such-and-such this way). It’s almost impossible to anticipate all but the most common and obvious questions and provide their answers. But customer self-service may also involve being able to pay a bill, make a reservation, buy a book, or, more broadly, take any action that might have needed a human representative in the past. With apps on a mobile device, you don’t need humans to sell you something or take your credit card. You can do it yourself while walking down the street.
  • Many of the problems are discussed outside the firewall. When you receive a query, it might be the tail end of a much more “emphatic” discussion outside the firewall, so the urgency could be misread.
  • Problems often need to be addressed in real time. Sometimes it’s a matter of putting out a fire. How do you do that with self-service? You don’t, really.
  • Info needs to be captured via multiple channels. This is table stakes. But this is also a very doable process with the right tools in place.
  • One of the biggest challenges is separating what is merely information without value from information that can be an asset. If you are capturing data from external sources, the answer given might not be the correct answer, or it might not be a repeatable practice or process and is valuable only for a single query.
  • Information provided to customers in a self-service knowledge base is often legally binding. For example, if a query to a pharmaceutical company about what drugs are able to help a specific medical condition results in a patient reacting badly to a suggested drug, a lawsuit could await.
  • Distinctions must be made between employee-only and customer-available information. Some information should be made available only to agents, and some to customers. What goes into a knowledge base that should be publicly visible?
  • Real-time metrics are needed. How do you measure the cost of a self-service interaction, the results of the interaction, the level of customer satisfaction it produces, etc.?


Self-service, with all its challenges, still manages to provide a high level of engagement for the customer. It meets the cardinal rule: Customers engage with the company the way they want. But that means the company needs to spend the time to make sure the knowledge it provides is well organized, easily accessible, and can be personalized to the specific interests of customers. It also needs to be up to date. That means that all sources of knowledge, be they formal databases, employee knowledge, or unstructured data such as conversations or videos, should be continually plumbed. The data has to be captured and put through whatever quality-control procedures are in place to certify the new information as valid and valuable. Only then can it be put into service. Yet this is constrained by the need for speed—it has to happen quickly.

But you do that and you have customers who are happy to deal with you because you made it easy and convenient and allowed them to retain control. And you know that old saying: Happy customer, happy…life? Uh, try this one instead: If a customer likes you and continues to like you, they will continue to do business with you. If they don’t, they won’t.

That “like you” part? That’s what successful customer self-service promotes. So get crackin’ now and get your knowledge bases populated and have your info at hand. I’ll check out your site when it’s up—alone, thank you. No agent necessary. 

Paul Greenberg is the author of CRM at the Speed of Light, called the “Bible of CRM.” His new book is The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Business Success Through Customer Engagement (2019), available on Amazon.

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