To Serve or To Foster Self-Service, That Is the Question

To Serve or To Foster Self-Service, That Is the Question

What's the Right Mix to Optimize Customer Success?

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It's 10PM. Do you know where your customers are? You can be sure at least a couple of them are using your application, maybe with varying levels of success. What if one runs into an issue, or has a how-to question? Can they easily find an answer on their own, so that they can complete their task? Or are they destined to go to bed frustrated?

Or what if it's 10AM, and you notice that a customer in the midst of onboarding has submitted several questions in your online user community, and they aren't getting any answers. (Wait, did you even notice?) Should you reach out and provide personal assistance? Should you make sure the answers are available and easy to find in your knowledge base? Should you do both?

Hamlet's not the only one facing a dilemma. In our role as purveyors of Customer Success, we're continuously working to ensure that our customers are seamlessly achieving value by utilizing our SaaS application and interacting with our company. But to that end, how do we know when it's the right time to jump in and serve them personally, and when it makes sense to direct them to non-staffed resources that can provide assistance, perhaps even faster and better than we can? When do they really need that one-on-one attention via phone, chat, email, support tickets, social media, or in-person meetings? And when is self-service – delivered through a rich set of materials including a knowledge base, user community, feature request forum, best practices guides, recorded trainings, etc. – the best way to help? What are the right guidelines and considerations to establish a balance that will allow our customers and our company to succeed?

And balance is definitely the goal. Too far over to the high-touch side, and unless you're charging north of $5k/month, the service model will at some point likely become difficult to scale. And even if your application and pricing do lend themselves to supporting an assigned Customer Success Manager for every customer account on an ongoing basis, if you're not taking advantage of self-service at all, you are missing out on potential cost savings as well as some other key benefits.

No matter the size of your company, customer base, or customer accounts, self-service resources tend to have the advantage in the following circumstances:

  • When a customer could benefit from another customer's expertise. Online user communities do take some amount of staff resources to moderate, especially when first launched. But that effort will pay off in spades when you see users interacting with each other to answer questions (that your support reps otherwise would have had to), share experiences (or "what I did in a similar situation"), or serve as a reference. (Remember you need to provide your trial users with access to your online user community to enable that last one to happen!)

  • When the same questions are being asked again and again. Here's where a knowledge base is critical. And even more critical is ensuring that it's easily accessible, searchable, up-to-date, and overall well-maintained. Again, a small, consistent time investment is needed to achieve this. But a well-coordinated, collaborative effort that empowers your team members to share their knowledge will allow your customers to easily access that information without requiring one-on-one attention. Even if your team had all the time in the world, wouldn't you rather they spend it being proactive and generating value for customers, rather than answering the same FAQs over and over again? Trust me, you'll feel like a proud parent when one of your customers asks a question in your user community, and another customer answers it by pointing them to a knowledge base article. And you will find nuggets of gold in your customer data when you analyze what users are searching for, what results they are finding, what they are clicking on, and what they did next. (Did they submit a support ticket? Successfully accomplish a task in the application? Something else?). The keys for customer and employee satisfaction, scaling, growth, and success for your company lie within.

  • When DIY is the customer's preferred learning style. Some people (including yours truly!) are just wired to crave doing their own research to solve their own problems. They might submit a ticket or jump on a chat as a last resort, but they won't love doing so. And they definitely won't love being forced to do so by a lack of available information. Don't start them off on the wrong foot. Make sure you are providing the resources they need to easily find their own answers. These are often also the users who will repay you by readily chiming in with pointers when other users ask questions in the online community!

  • When staff just isn't available. Whether it's due to welcome growth, or because it's the middle of the night, there will inevitably come a time when it's difficult or impossible to find someone who's around and free to answer a customer's question. (This can especially become a problem as you look to expand your customer base internationally – it's hard to cover business hours in every timezone.) If your self-service resources are robust and accessible, this kind of capacity or availability crisis can be easily weathered. If not, your social reviews, NPS scores, or other satisfaction measures could rapidly and drastically suffer. Don't wait until this happens. Be proactive in building out and maintaining your always-available knowledge base, user community, feature request forum, best practices guides, recorded trainings, and other valuable resources. Enable your customers to serve themselves even when it might be harder than usual to reach their account manager, or when ticket turn-around times are longer than ideal.

Notice I did not have on the list above: "When your customer is in the top tier." Don't make the mistake of assuming that your highest value or enterprise-level customers only want one-on-one service. What they ultimately want is the ability to get excellent answers quickly via the channel that suits their needs at the moment. Make sure they have options and that they experience excellence every way they might turn.

But that's not to say self-service resources are the best answer in every situation. Again, it's all about balance. Here are some circumstances where personal attention is usually the best approach:

  • When the customer is just starting out. During the critical onboarding phase, no matter how "easy to use" your application might be, you have a unique opportunity to personally connect with your new customer, understand their goals and how they are measuring value, get to know their style and potential, and put in place the building blocks for a solid, mutually-beneficial relationship. Don't squander it – you will not get this particular chance again. But in addition to doing all of the above, do use this one-on-one time to personally walk the customer to and through the self-service resources that are available. They should feel that they are well supported, no matter which way they turn.

  • When your user is simply a people person. Just as some would prefer to dig into documentation, run a quick search query, or ask a question in an online forum, some users are naturally inclined to pick up the phone or hop on a chat to get some speedy expertise. Don't try to change this fundamental nature – you will fail. Make sure that various staffed channels are available (tickets, email, telephone, chat, etc.) and well covered, and provide that personal attention on request. But do remember to kindly and consistently reference self-service resources that could resolve the issue, or to take the opportunity to create them if they don't already exist. (If that happens, be sure to thank the requesting customer for saving you time down the road and helping other users!). At least some "people people" will learn to try their hand at some quick research before reaching out for one-on-one help, as long as the resources are easy to use and hold the answers they are seeking.

  • When emotions are at play. There is nothing worse than submitting a furious or urgent support ticket, and receiving an obviously scripted response or being pointed to a pre-written article and then asked: "Did that help?" When a customer is clearly irate or even just approaching anger, it is always worth it to take the time for a personal response. The simple act of corresponding with or talking to an identifiable human being, as opposed to a perceived "robot", can take the edge off and help make the conversation much more constructive for all involved. And on the other end of the spectrum, a personal touch when a customer is clearly delighted can be the special sauce that turns them into a reference for life or a fantastic case study. Learn to read your customers' moods and to handle the extremes with special care.

  • When revenue is on the line. Speaking of handling with care, make sure all customer-facing teams have the tools and understanding they need to be especially sensitive when a customer is showing higher-than-normal risk for churn or opportunity for growth. (That's not to say that other customers should be treated carelessly – any of them could, of course, choose to take their revenue elsewhere at any time.) To support this mindset, your teams need customer lifecycle, health status, usage trends, engagement measures, and results data at their fingertips at all times. And "flags" or "triggers" must be predefined and clearly communicated, so that staff can quickly know if a particular customer is struggling to achieve value during onboarding or as they are approaching renewal, demonstrating upgrade or advocacy potential, or heading toward a possible downgrade or debook firedrill. In such circumstances, when either risk or opportunity are clearly present, coach your staff to work proactively and personally with the customers for the best outcomes.

But does all of this apply, even at the very low end of the MRR spectrum? Is there any price point at which customers should only self-serve? If your SaaS offering is priced in the $100/month ballpark or lower, it goes without saying that you will not have one-on-one relationships with each of your customers, and maybe not even with any of them. But that is not to say that you will not personally serve them. Ensure that there are plenty of high-quality self-service resources at their disposal. But also leverage automation to send highly personalized outreach that reflects both the customer's lifecycle milestones as well as what they are doing in and achieving with your application. And in addition to steadily steering them to help themselves, give them at least one channel for connecting directly with your company if needed. Even for the low, low price of a Netflix membership, I'm given the option to chat or call if that movie just won't stream and I need to talk to someone.

So... to serve or to foster self-service? At the end of the day, it's not a matter of doing one or the other, but rather of doing both well. Here are a few key take-aways to keep in mind in the process:

  • Top-notch self-service resources boost productivity and proactivity. Once your customers are empowered to help themselves, your Customer Success team is freed up to spend their time where it matters most: providing one-on-one assistance when it's really needed, creating and improving their programs, and building relationships. And what's even more powerful, that extra time gained, in combination with insights into how your customers are engaging with your self-service resources and application, can be used to power proactivity. You'll find you now have the bandwidth and knowledge needed to get out of reactive mode and instead step in and help your customers before they might even know they need it.

  • It's a balancing act. Always strive for excellence in both staffed service interactions and self-service resources. Keep in mind that there are circumstances where each are essential, and one size will never fit all. The critical components for both modes are accessibility and quality. You must make sure that the customer is aware of these tools, can find and navigate them easily, and can successfully use them to answer their questions or troubleshoot their problems. If your self-service resources fall down on any of those points, they fail to do their job. And your customers will be quickly trained to ignore them.

  • Self-service is service! Just make sure you keep a laser focus on the service and not the self. If your users feel abandoned in an unstaffed void of materials that are clunky, convoluted, out-of-date, sparse, or otherwise difficult to use, they are not being served and they will not return to those resources or, worse yet, to your application. But if you and your team actively build, maintain, and enhance a high-quality set of self-service materials, your customers and your company will reap the rewards. In many circumstances and for many customers, self-service can, in fact, be the best kind of service.

Thank you to MindTouch, who originally posted this article as a guest post on their blog. MindTouch helps companies provide exceptional help experiences to create user advocates and product experts.

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