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Customer self service: What it is and how to get it right

16 min read
Customer self service is used in all industries to help customers proactively find answers themselves, leading to happier customers and reduced cost to serve. Learn how you can optimize your customer self service.

Written by: Rosemin Anderson

Fact Checked by: Dave Pabley

Customer service can be expensive — particularly when there are people involved — and in some cases it can be a real effort on the customer’s part too, leading to frustration and potentially churn.

Over the past decade, more and more companies have looked to technology that enables customers to self-serve and resolve their issue with as little effort as possible, all at a lower cost to the company. As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology becomes more sophisticated, the options for using software to help your customer service reps to meet customer needs have expanded significantly.

But getting self service right is critical. If customers can’t get the support they need quickly, they’ll switch to another channel such as phoning your contact center. Not only is that frustrating for them, but it costs the company more to serve them.

In this guide we’ll look at how customer self service works, how and when to use it (and when not to), and how to optimize the experience to help drive customer spend, loyalty, and advocacy.

What is customer self service?

Self service is where customers carry out actions or tasks themselves, rather than getting in touch with an agent. It’s most commonly seen in customer support through tools like FAQs, support portals, and chatbots as well as in subscription businesses such as telcos where customers can usually log in and manage their account themselves.

Benefits of providing customer self service

There are benefits for both the customer and the organization by adopting more CSS touchpoints.

Self service helps your customers by…

1. Giving them a choice
Some customers feel comfortable using technology and find it easy to use— in fact many prefer it to talking face-to-face. 67% of customers prefer helping themselves instead of speaking with customer service.

XM Institute research has found that customers will choose to self-serve for some tasks, while for others they still prefer to deal with it in person. In particular, low effort and non-urgent tasks like checking delivery status or an account balance tend to be actions people are happier to do themselves. On the flip side of that, complex or time-sensitive issues are ones most people still prefer to do through human interaction.

2. Reducing wait times
If every interaction needed to be carried out with human interaction, contact centers would be very, very busy. In fact, most large organizations would struggle to meet demand, and you’d have long wait times for customers who want to get in touch. Many tasks can be completed without human interaction – by using humans for repetitive tasks, it can become very inefficient.

3. Lowering effort
Customer effort is a key part of the experience. If you can help customers achieve their goal with as little effort as possible, they’ll be more satisfied as a result. So rather than having to phone, wait, explain their issue to an agent and walk through the process, providing self-serve options can massively reduce the burden on them.

Self service helps your organization by…

1. Increasing cost efficiency
Every customer service agent you hire is an investment. When you can deflect simple customer queries to a self service portal, you free up your agents to focus on the more complex queries and tasks that only they can do.

2. Increasing flexibility
As self service can be carried out without employee support, support channels can be available 24/7 and customers won’t need to wait to complete a simple task.

3. Driving loyalty
We know customer effort score drives satisfaction, and satisfied customers are more loyal — so by making things easy for your customers you can have a direct impact on the bottom line as customers are happy to continue to work with you in the future.

Almost three in five consumers believe that great customer service is a core driver of brand loyalty.

Find out how to use contact center support to your competitive advantage 

What is a customer self service portal?

Some of the examples below can be referred to as a customer self service portal, because it is a place (a web page or an additional site) where information is stored and available for searching. For example, a knowledge base or training area can be called a customer self service portal.

By design, it looks like part of the main brand webpage, but might have a separate web address or have a sub-page from the main brand URL web address. They may also have different systems connecting into the portal, that help capture data for CRM systems or inform customer support systems.

At Qualtrics, we have self service digital support portals like the Customer Support Portal, and Qualtrics XM Community. Check them out to see how they work!

Examples of customer self service

There are a whole host of ways you can help your customers get the answers they need quickly. Here are some of the most common ways to provide self service options to your customers:


As a first port of call, most customers will usually seek out a frequently asked questions (FAQs) page. This is a list of common questions that come up in support calls, or answer foundation questions (who, what, where, when, how and why) about your product or service.

They should cover answers to queries from across the customer journey, and be easy to navigate with simple search functionality to help people get the answers they need, quickly.

Consider your FAQs as a dynamic site — always keep it updated with new questions or topics that arise in the contact center. Similarly, if you notice a large volume or increase in calls about a particular topic, it could be worth revisiting your FAQs to ensure they are clear.

Knowledge base

Try creating a dedicated place on the website for support documentation or easy-to-search support articles. This content can be in a customer self service portal (see below) or as a separate website that is linked to from your main brand website.

This is a free reference-style collection of technical information, which can come from all over the business, and is separated into themes or products. Customers can choose which areas to explore, to gain more information and understand more details.

Online forum

Similar to a website knowledge base, online forums can be a useful tool for customers to search through previous topics and questions. Customers can ask questions to the community and receive answers from other customers or support agents.

The questions and answers build a database that, over time, will cover a large proportion of the most common issues your customers face. It’s really efficient too – if a customer has a query, it’s likely someone else has asked it before, so rather than using up your agents’ time answering the same questions over and over you can help customers find the answers in the community.

It’s important to tie any forum into your customer care tech stack too — agents should be able to respond to forum questions, and even take them offline to get in touch and close the loop. This is essential to help identify queries that would be better dealt with in person, and then reaching out directly rather than leaving a customer to get frustrated at not finding their answers from the community.

Product or skills training portal

You can include product training how-to videos on the product’s webpage or physical ‘quick start’ guides with your product to give customers a self guided way of experiencing your product.


Live chat functions or chatbots are a quick and easy way for customers to reach out to get information using artificial intelligence. Common answers to questions are stored in the bot, where they can be brought into conversation by picking certain option buttons.

Bots save time for customers to search through records as the bot can interpret the question asked, draw out keywords and search for answers containing these. Complicated issues might need more help, so including an option to speak to an agent during the chat gives customers additional  reassurance.

The role of AI in customer self service

Your customer self service strategy can be greatly enhanced with the introduction of AI-based technology that can automatically suggest support options, run chatbots, and supplement the work of your support team.

Rather than creating customer self service options that customers need to find themselves, you can offer a more personalized experience at scale using proactive customer service driven by AI.

For example, if your customer needs help with a product or service, they can open a chatbot. The chatbot, using machine learning, AI modeling and Natural Language Understanding (NLU), can discern:

  • The topics of conversation
  • The customer sentiment
  • Customer emotions
  • Customer effort
  • Customer intent

sentiment within customer support

This allows your chatbot to respond appropriately to each interaction. Rather than applying a blanket response, it can provide a personalized interaction, improving customer service experience.

By using AI, your support agents are empowered. If an issue is too complex for the chatbot to handle, it can be escalated to a human interaction. Your support team will have extra information on the customer at their fingertips, helping them to provide better support.

If the issue is easily handled by the chatbot, your support team has one less ticket on their plate to handle, taking the pressure off of your team. They can focus on resolving important issues and handling the cases that are more likely to lead to customer churn.

At its core, AI improves efficiency and increases the efficacy of your customer self service options.

Customer self service strategy tips

How can you do customer self service well? Follow these six tips to implement changes with the right factors in mind:

1. Use your customer service team effectively

The first thing to get right is to understand which queries should be diverted to self service and which still need human interaction. In an ideal world, routine tasks and queries from customers should be handled by your self service tools, freeing up your customer service teams’ time.

However, while technology has come a long way to help improve self service channels, there are some instances when your customer will still want to speak to a person. If the issue can’t be solved without human interaction, or if it involves too much effort to use self service options, default to a human agent. The risk of frustrating customers and leaving them dissatisfied when they don’t complete a task is too great.

2. Integrate new technology into your current ecosystem

Using self service options should provide your support teams with relief, rather than increasing their burden. Customer self service options should be built not only into the customer journey, but into your tech ecosystem. When your AI self service tools are correctly implemented, for example, it should not only make your processes more efficient, but provide extra insights that can be delivered to your team to make their jobs easier.

3. Use customer feedback to keep your content up to date

Whether it’s an FAQ, knowledge base article, or chatbot, you should measure how your content performs and constantly update it based on user feedback. Content effectiveness tools are a great way to better understand if users are getting what they need, and identifying what you need to do to improve it.

You can combine this with other sources of data such as web traffic, page views, and shares to identify which content is performing well, used frequently, and which doesn’t.

4. Always provide a ‘bail out’ option

Whether you think your customer self service tools are great or not, the ultimate judge will always be the end user. Some might find your ‘manage my account’ portal easy enough, but others may struggle.

So on any self service page, provide an option to escalate the issue to another channel such as live chat or phone. That way those customers who don’t find it as easy to navigate will still have the option to complete their task.

5. Measure the effectiveness of digital support content and channels

How can you tell if your customer self service solution is working? You need to include a robust system for capturing the data from customer self service portals or initiatives, and interpret the results to see if customers are successfully serving themselves from start to finish.

There are plenty of different ways to measure it, including:

  • customer satisfaction (CSAT) — how satisfied overall were they with the experience of your self-service portal.
  • customer effort score (CES) — a key metric in digital customer experience, how easily were they able to complete the task.
  • task completion — a simple yes or no question asking whether they were able to complete the task they came to complete

For both CSAT and CES you can ask follow up questions about specific touchpoints, or invite open text responses to dig deeper into the key drivers.This is useful in helping you to identify actions to take to improve the experience.

These measurements can also provide a trigger to follow-up with customers who either weren’t happy or who weren’t able to complete their task. If they need more help, you can trigger a follow up for a customer support agent to get in touch and help them.

Bring your digital and offline support together

A good digital customer experience platform is essential to optimizing your customer self service. By integrating all your channels into a single tech solution, you’re able to get a holistic view of the customer experience.

We know customers ‘mix and match’ the channels they use and, if they can’t complete it through one, they’ll switch to another. So being able to track the entire journey, you’re able to see how they come together to deliver a holistic experience.

You can see where the experience falls down and needs improving, and where you’re having the biggest impact on the customer experience.

Trending topics coming into your contact center can trigger an update to your FAQs or self-service portal to help people self-serve and reduce effort. And feedback and data on your self-service portals can be a trigger to upskill agents, training them in handling any new, or trending support topics from your digital channels.

Plus, because you can see the end-to-end journey, when a customer does switch from self-serve to your contact center, your agents will have a record of their interactions, so they can meet them where they are and help resolve issues faster.

Make your contact center your competitive advantage