Great customer support should always be available, even when you aren’t. In other words, sometimes the best thing you can do for your customers is to simply get out of the way.

We’ve seen this trend accelerate in 2013, and I’m confident that 2014 will see the continued adoption of self-service. But why is this?

So many aspects of business and commerce are moving online, and with this 24-hour customer base that spans the world over, it’s impossible for small companies to have live options for support all the time.

Fortunately, as you’ll see from the data and research below, providing self-service doesn’t mean losing out on having great service.

Is Self-Service Taking Over?

Is the customer service space really seeing a dramatic shift towards self-service? Take a look a this data from a 2013 Forrester report:

"71% of consumers reported that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service.”

It’s become very apparent in our “always on” world of the web that 24-hour access is becoming more and more important.

If you’re a small team, this makes self-service a must. Not only does self-service allow you to keep excellent customer service at a large scale, but the cost of providing such service is much lower than every other channel of support.

This research shows that online self-service is drastically less expensive than even email support (graphic via Salesforce):

Source: Forrester Research

Surprisingly, this cost-effective approach doesn’t seem to bother customers too much, as long as the online help content is accurate and useful. In fact, according to this 2010 study:

"72% of customers prefer self-service to resolve their support issues over picking up the phone or sending an email.”

This is likely because so many support queries come from new customers who don’t necessarily have a “problem” but are simply confused about something. Self-service provides them with a great tool, and also naturally attracts the DIYers.

An FAQ page is no longer enough for most customers, so being able to maintain an easy to use help center and knowing how to write a killer knowledge base article is now a must for support champions everywhere.

This is true even for mobile users. According to a 2012 survey conducted by analyst firm Coleman Parkes that examined responses from 2,900 mobile users:

“75% of surveyed consumers said they would prefer to use online support if it were reliable and provided accurate and complete information; 91% say they would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs.”

Sounds great, but are there any real case studies of companies benefiting from self-service?

Tons, actually, but one of my favorites comes from our friends at Wistia. They’ve taken a very interesting approach at scaling support while still maintaining quality:

  1. They eliminated their company phone number from their homepage in order to encourage more folks to contact them via email and browse their knowledge base.
  2. Instead of relying on text alone, the team has made a very concerted effort to create a ton of video resources in order to help their customers with recorded instructions.

This might seem like the team is trying to hide from their customers, but Wistia regularly gets lauded as one of the top software companies with amazing support.

Last but not least, this strategy has kept their support emails steady as their number of users has increased:

Think about that: by using self-service to help scale support, the Wistia team has given their support reps more time to spend with customers who actually reach out over email. Self-service customers can still leave feedback if they’re not happy, but as the team has seen, most walk away from their knowledge base very satisfied.

That’s the true definition of a customer-focused strategy that is win-win for both customers and the business. Without stepping back, Wistia would have found itself drowning in support emails for common questions that customers could have easily solved themselves.

Last, but not least, this data published on FastCompany seems to drive home the point that if you don’t have a way to help customers help themselves, you’re going to be left behind:

"70% of consumers expect a company website to include a self-service application.”

That is to say, good customer service can no longer just be about the face-to-face interaction. You have to loosen the reins a bit and help facilitate a strategy that lets customers solve their own problems.

In this way, you’ll be better suited to handle the support requests from customers who do contact you, a surefire way to increase your Net Promoter Score and your company’s overall satisfaction rating with customers.

Getting Started with Self-Service

To be perfectly clear, the demand for self-service indicates that it makes an awesome compliment to your human support, not a replacement.

Can we PLEASE not end up with another situation like this, where a customer sat on an automated service line for so long that he decided to tape the phone to his head:

First off, you'll need a knowledge base, or a platform to store all that help content you'll be creating. Not to toot our own horn, but we do offer Help Scout Docs, which can set you up with a knowledge base lickity-split.

Let's say you sell menswear. It'd certainly be nice to have a central hub for frequently asked questions that looks as nice as this:

Second, you’ll want to do some quick reading on creating help content that people will actually want to engage with.

Here are a few links to get you started:

Last, but not least (since many articles won't mention this), I highly recommend that you keep tabs on your knowledge base content, either through built-in analytics like Wistia's service, or through a product like Google Analytics.

You'll quickly find out which articles and videos people are instantly bouncing from—which will paint a very clear picture that something is wrong on your end.

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Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the customer success team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.