You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Force Customers to Use Self-Service

By: on January 3, 2017

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. The thing is, we never get to hear the horse’s side of the story.

What if the water in the trough is all disgusting? It often is. Or what if the water isn’t in a trough at all… maybe it’s in a bunch of teacups or champagne flutes? You can’t expect a horse to drink out of those. But as the old saying implies, the horse is always to blame.

Customers looking for self-service customer support very often get the “thirsty horse” treatment. Companies put self-service resources online and point to traffic metrics to prove that they’ve clearly led the horse to water.

So why, they ask themselves, are all these thirsty horses still calling in with support questions? Chances are there’s a problem with the trough, or the water it contains.

horses drink water

Now, enough of the horse metaphor; let’s get down to business. Self-service is serious business. The benefits of self-service technology have been widely researched and confirmed and if you’re not offering it, you should start.

If you are offering it, but find customers aren’t using it to their full advantage, then you have a UX-related customer service problem to fix. We’ll show you how.

Read on to learn:
Why Online Self-Service Is a Must
Why Online Self-Service Fails
How to Make Horses Drink Water

Why Online Self-Service Is a Must

When customers have questions about your company’s products or services, what do they do? Some probably call you, and some will email you, while still others will chat with a live agent on your website. Phone, email and live chat are certainly very popular channels for answering questions and resolving problems.

By the time a customer has called, emailed or live chatted you, there’s a good chance they’ve already searched online for an answer. We’ve seen in previous research surveys that nearly three-quarters of consumers with questions begin by looking for answers online themselves.

What Consumers Do First When They Have Questions for a Company
when consumers question company
The fact that so many customers end up calling, emailing or chatting your service department likely means they were unsuccessful with their first attempt at service. It’s little wonder then that so many service interactions seem to start off on the wrong foot!

Traditionally speaking, a customer service interaction begins when the customer first contacts the service center. That’s when the metrics and KPIs start tracking the interactions. That first contact is the touchpoint around which success is measured and improvement initiatives are aimed.

This is a little unfair to the horse.

The practice of measuring from first contact has more to do with the limitations of technology than anything else. Calls, emails and live chats are tracked and measured mainly because they’re easily trackable and , all because they’re easy to quantify.

Though incomplete, they do serve as useful proxy measurements for the customer’s actual service experience. Their biggest weakness is that the don’t begin at the beginning, at least not for the 73 percent of U.S. adults that begin online.

Tracking and measuring self-service attempts is much more challenging. As a result, many companies underestimate the importance of self-service or simply write it off as not worth their time.

After all, as another old saying goes, “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed,” right? Actually, we take issue with that saying, too.

Why Online Self-Service Fails

Lacking clear insight into customer success when using online self-service resources, many companies fall back to the “set it and forget it” approach. This is understandable, but not ideal. It risks wasting effort on self-service resources that go unused or, worse yet, alienating customers with a poor self-service UX.

A better approach is to incrementally improve the usability of self-service resources, basing the improvements on what is known about consumer preferences and habits online. In other words, while it’s difficult to measure exactly how much water the horses are drinking, companies can still ensure they’re keeping the water clean and not serving it in teacups.

Topping the list of what we know about consumers and their habits and expectations for online self-service is the time factor. While it’s clear that a majority of consumers will search online before contacting a company directly, it’s also clear that their patience is only ever moments away from running out.

Amount of Time Consumers Spend Searching Online Before Contacting Company
consumer time online before company contact
We’ve written before about the “supernatural impatience” of customers, something which most service departments are well aware of, at least in the context of individual service interactions. The same impatience is evident even before that first contact is made, with over half of consumers reporting giving up after only ten minutes of searching online.

Five Steps to Make Horses Drink Water

When it comes to managing and improving your self-service resources, you can base your improvements on several relatively safe assumptions. These assumptions will hold true in most situations and can apply to many self-service contexts, whether online, on your own website or on a company app.

First, some ground rules. In most contexts it can be safely assumed that:
Customers will fail at their attempt whenever they:

  • Don’t find a clear answer before their patience runs out
  • Find one or more answers that only partially answer the question
  • Find information that creates more questions
  • Discover conflicting, inaccurate or unclear information

Second, put on your horseshoes and see what you find:
Put yourself in the shoes of your average confused customer. Search online using the terms and language your customers use and see what turns up.

Companies that compete with one another often have customers with similar questions. When those questions get typed into an online search engine, whose answers show up first in the results? And whose answers are most useful?

Third, consider alternative ways of serving up self-service.
Search engine queries that include the brand or company name are apt to have that company’s pages show up near the top of the results. But not all customers will be using branded search queries. If you can’t get your self-service resources to rank highly in online search engines, then your customers will have trouble finding them.

If your company offers a mobile app, then consider that as an alternative self-service channel. Apps don’t need to compete in search engine rankings and can also provide more insight into customer use habits and engagement. These days, even companies that dominate search engine results pages are experimenting with app-based service. Apple is just one example.

Fourth, consider the language used in your self-service resources:
Rushed, impatient people tend to overlook things, and so do customers searching for answers online. It’s imperative then that your online resources are organized in a way that makes sense to customers, and that each individual resource (knowledge base article, FAQ, chatbot answer etc.) is worded in the language of your average customer.

Calling an article “How to Configure Domain Name Server Settings” is a bad idea if the article is supposed to assist customers who call up asking how to resolve a “page not loading” error. While it’s true that the error is due to improperly configured domain name servers, it shouldn’t be left to customers to make that connection.

We’ve written before about our research into self-service metrics and KPIs, and one of our earlier findings is especially relevant here. The Level Zero Solvable metric (LZS) is an excellent, methodical way to ensure that your online resources speak the customer’s language.

Fifth, aim for incremental but constant improvement, and test any changes:
In the Gartner report Improving Website User Experience With Data-Driven Design (full content available to clients) analyst Magnus Revang observes,

“A surprising number of large organizations have fallen into a cycle of redesigning their websites every three to five years. After each big redesign, the website enters a period of continuous deterioration—even when sufficient funds and staffing are devoted to its upkeep and improvement. This deterioration continues until it becomes too embarrassing for stakeholders to ignore, and a new revolutionary redesign project is commissioned.”

Magnus Revang, Gartner Analyst

SMBs, however, aren’t “large organizations” and are in a good position to avoid this “revolution-deterioration cycle.” They can do so by committing to more frequent updates of their online resources, even—resource permitting—dedicating a small team to it.

Finally, measure your results. Ideally you’d A/B test your changes before committing to them. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you know what improvements will be improvements in the eyes of your average, rushed and impatient customer.

Need help choosing software to up your customer service game? Give our advisors a call at 855-998-8505 and they can walk you through the many options, including service platforms that make it easy to roll out self-service resources. Alternatively, follow this link to take a short questionnaire that will provide you with price quotes on suitable customer service software.

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