Best Practices & Trends / article

3 ways for self-service success

No, I don’t want to call you on the telephone. It’s nothing personal – you’re probably pretty awesome. As a consumer, though, I pretty much avoid doing business with companies where I can’t help myself in some form or fashion. I like to request things and schedule them and get status updates and even seek technical assistance by myself, online, with minimal human interaction. Apparently, I’m not alone. 72% of customers prefer to use self-service support rather than phone or email support, according to Forrester. The catch? We don’t just want self-service, we want good self-service. While good is subjective, here’s are two pretty good tests for what makes the cut and what doesn’t:

  • For customers (whether internal or external), self-service should be faster and / or more convenient than the alternative. That means easy to find and easy to use. Like this easy:
  • For businesses, self-service should ideally reduce Level 1 support inquiries. (It can cut costs, too, but don’t count on it according to Gartner.)

How do you meet these requirements? The answer is a threebie, which is a word I just made up specifically for describing a three-part process. Not bad for a native French speaker, eh? But enough nonsense. Here are the top three technologies you need for successful self-service.

A knowledge base, to help customers help themselves

Your customers have collectively asked you the same support questions a million times. If you document the most common support questions and answers, you can publish them in a knowledge base, which is just a centralized library of support articles that your customers can use to find answers to their questions quickly.

And they'll thank you for it. A study by Coleman Parkes for Amdocs found that 91% of survey respondents would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs.

The most effective way to get a knowledge base properly running and maintained is to adopt an approach called Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS), which gives you the processes and best practices you need to make sure you are properly capturing, sharing, and updating the solutions to every issue you resolve.

Knowledge bases (and self-service) aren’t just for IT teams, either. Just about every team in your company, from HR to procurement to legal to sales, can become more efficient, get more time back for strategic projects, and improve the relationship with their customers by giving them access to the information they need to help themselves.

Atlassian's own public knowledge base gets 4.6M page views from over 1M users per month, according to Google Analytics. We built ours on Confluence (because of course we did), but there are plenty of choices available. The important thing is ease of use to both the customer (easy to navigate, great search results) and your content creators (time saving, powerful collaboration). Like all self-service tools, the onus shouldn’t be on your customer to dig through page after page of search results. Look for a solution that is well designed, intuitive, and delivers meaningful results to your users.

Finally, don't put all your self-service eggs into a single basket. Your knowledge base is even better when paired with an online community where your audience can gather to share information and help each other. That leads us perfectly into our second technology recommendation...

Online communities, to help customers help each other

You're probably already familiar with online Q&A communities like Yahoo Answers, Quora, and Stack Overflow, where people gather and share their knowledge around their own favorite interests and topics.

Companies today are increasingly creating similar experiences internally, for their own employees, to allow them a central place to gather, ask, and answer work-related questions together. There's probably no better way to capture the tribal knowledge within your company than with an internal Q&A community, with the added advantage of deflecting support tickets, too.

Plus, internal communities allow you to see what employees are talking about, which can help you identify areas for improvement. You'll pretty quickly be able to recognize and reward top domain experts for their contributions to the community and your company, too.

Once you've mastered the art of the internal Q&A community, consider whether your external customers might benefit from their own place to gather and help each other. At Atlassian, we have both an internal community (for our employees to ask and answer questions for each other) and an external one, for our end-customers. They both run on Confluence Questions, which should shock exactly nobody.

At Atlassian Answers, our users can ask questions, interact with each other, and even “up-vote” topics to bring their most exciting ideas and requests to our attention faster. In the example below, a community member asked a question that was up-voted and answered successfully by other community members.

Lastly, a critical tip for running a successful community: Make sure it's well moderated. You'll want to make sure questions are categorized properly and don't go unanswered, or participation can suffer. In fact, our experience shows that unmoderated Q&A communities are the most likely to fail. Allow support analysts to spend part of their time moderating questions within your IT Q&A community, and you'll get much better results. Plus, Q&A posts are super easy to turn into knowledge base articles, so the resources you invest in one support channel will begin to pay you back exponentially across your others.

A well-designed customer portal, to make it easier to ask for help

Sometimes, even after searching the knowledge base and checking in with the community, a customer stills need help. In that case, asking for help should be easy, not a lengthy list of cryptic categories and confusing drop-down menus.

If you keep it simple at every step, customers will be far more likely to ask for help when they need it, and far more satisfied with the end result. Submitting a request to Atlassian’s own customer portal (we use JIRA Service Desk) takes three steps: select a request type (i.e. request new hardware, request new software, report a problem, etc.), enter a brief description, and click submit. That’s it.

Be sure to allow customers to describe their needs in their own words, too, and avoid technical jargon at every step of the way. Below is a sample IT portal, but the recommendation stands no matter what audience you are serving.

Done right, self-service portals will spread like wildfire within your company.

And that's a good thing! Your IT team might kick off the trend, but it will soon spread to other lines of business like HR, legal, marketing, and beyond as each organization looks to capitalize on a far more intuitive, efficient way to manage service requests and help users help themselves. As this happens, consider building a central "help center" portal that links all of your departmental service desks together, giving your users a one-stop shop for all of the requests they may have.

Finally, even though customers are turning to your support team for help, they may still be able to help themselves. Your customer portal is a great way to offer final self-help suggestions as they provide you with more information about their needs.

You can include links to the most popular or relevant tips and articles at each step as a customer raises a request, possibly leading them to the right answer before they even submit a new ticket.

Want more on self-service? 

5 Steps to launching a thriving Q&A community is a killer article on getting your community off the ground. If you're keen to get started, check out "How to build a self-service knowledge base". It’s a cool, short demo that shows you how to get going in just a few minutes.

About the author

Christophe Capel

Head of Product Marketing, JIRA Service Desk

I can't dance but I can move and shake. Once an engineer, now an imagineer, I build, create, and generate engagement as Head of Product Marketing for JIRA Service Desk. I've spent the past seven years selling, implementing and marketing enterprise software for tech companies, and bringing products to market faster. I've even helped several of these companies grace the stage to win IT innovation awards (but I still avoid the dance floor). Find me on Twitter! @christophecapel

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