The Myth of Self-Service


by Brandon Caudle
June 2, 2015

Self-service: The phrase evokes deep emotion in customers and support personnel alike, though they perhaps occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. From the CIO who views self-service as a technology-enabling headcount reducer, to the harried service desk manager hoping for a call-volume miracle, self-service seems like a cure-all for many support woes. Analysts, on the other hand, hear the words “self-service” and see their jobs evaporating in a puff of smoke. Customers see self-service as something that’s frustrating, hard to use, and doesn’t solve their issues. Meanwhile, vendors struggle to understand how process and technology must serve each other to be successful. All of these add up to self-service being the least comprehensible and most maligned concept of the past twenty years. It’s easy to see why self-service is often viewed as just another IT myth.

Self-service is probably the least comprehensible and most maligned concept of the past twenty years.
Tweet: Self-service is probably the least comprehensible and most maligned concept of the past twenty years. @ThinkHDI http://ubm.io/1JyjROh

Take heart, service and support professionals! Self-service is possible—many companies have fully functional self-service programs, and practically everyone reading this has experienced great self-service. In this article, we’ll look at three self-service myths to explain why they’re so persistent and identify what successful self-service programs do today to overcome obstacles and provide seamless experiences for their customers.

Myth #1: Self-Service Is a Technology

We can hardly blame our executives for believing a tool can solve all of their customer, resource, and financial issues. After all, there are countless studies—which our vendor partners are all too happy to share—showing how specific self-service solutions have reduced Company A’s call volume by 85 percent, and how Company B downsized their support center by X people after implementing a specific solution. As CIOs and CFOs have steadily felt increasing pressure to reduce costs, the siren song of packaged self-service solutions has proven hard to resist. Millions of dollars are spent annually on technologies that often fail to launch and are abandoned entirely within eighteen months of implementation. If that wasn’t enough doom and gloom, the three-to-five year software lifecycle is an ever-present reminder that the “next best thing” is just around the corner.

By contrast, successful companies have dedicated time and effort on developing people and processes to meet self-service needs in a customer-focused manner. This requires a change in focus, from a “purely fix-it/highly technical staffing” mentality to a “knowledge helps everyone/technical plus ability to document and educate” resource mindset. This is often challenging, as finite resources require a conscious decision to endure short-term pain while employees and managers are trained and retrained to document everything, so that issues can be shifted left from engineers to the service desk, and from the service desk to the customer.

Unfortunately, this can often cause disruptions in SLAs, increased hold times for service desks, and increase mean times to resolution as organizations move methodically through the steps needed to identify, analyze, train, and teach both staff and customers to utilize new processes. This requires an increased level of communication within IT and with the customers, and often may require a temporary increase in headcount to handle additional workload while self-service is implemented and stabilized. A key component of this culture change is accepting that self-service isn’t just a job for the service desk. Nor is it a job for just one team or individual, which leads us to the second myth.

Myth #2: Self-Service Is a One-Man Job

Self-service is often associated with knowledge management, and with the best intentions, organizations often dedicate a full-time resource to the self-service initiative, in the form of a knowledge manager. In this scenario, the knowledge manager is tasked with the Herculean task of analyzing, defining, creating, implementing, and reporting on self-service. But self-service isn’t a project; it’s an ongoing program that will need care and feeding in perpetuity. However, the stark reality is that many organizations are still stuck in the legacy mindset of thinking that self-service can be successfully implemented and run by a single person.

Organizations that have successfully implemented self-service have discovered that not only does the identification and creation of self-service material require involvement across the organization, but the adoption of self-service is greatest when there’s buy-in and commitment from all levels of IT and the business. Naturally, the service desk is a key component of self-service. Analysts, who should understand the strategic importance of shift-left, should also understand that their jobs won’t disappear but will instead evolve and change. Each analyst must be trained to look for opportunities, so that as each customer contacts the service desk, a decision can be made as to whether a given issue could be best resolved via self-service. For those scenarios that fit, the function of the analyst is to steer the customer toward the self-service option and sell the customer on the concept.

This paradigm shift requires a change to both training programs and hiring practices. Gone are the days when the service desk would hire “techies,” who would grunt at the revenue-generators (customers), or even smiling, customer-focused individuals who could be molded into customer-focused support analysts. Today’s service desks require a different set of skills: a solid foundation of technical and customer focus, with a talent for crafting self-service solutions and then teaching the customer to use those solution. In effect, analysts need the skills to work themselves out of a job. (Spoilers: There will always be work to do, and there will always be positions for effective people in every organization.)

Of course, of equal importance is the customer. All too often, self-service is created and implemented in a vacuum, with no customer input. These initiatives generally fail, no matter how well-intentioned or thought-out. Involving customers at the inception is not only a best practice, it’s also a guaranteed way of ensuring success and building bridges between IT and the business. Countless organizations have used the old adage “If you build it, they will come” to justify their self-service implementations. But without customer input and feedback from the start, any self-service initiative is doomed.

On the other side of the service desk, engineers and technicians, who often have decades of experience between them, can provide the final ingredient in the self-service formula. While the industry has spent the last two decades struggling to bring second- and third-level work to the service desk, a largely unexplored area for improvement involves bypassing the service desk entirely and enabling the customer to approve and resolve issues that historically needed second- and third-level involvement. At first glance, this seems contrary to established processes. However, by automating scripts and permissions-based changes, customers can perform their own IT work by simply filling out a form and clicking a button that launches the correct program and does the work previously performed by security, server, or any number of other IT teams.

While this view may seem daunting, organizations often start self-service initiatives with a defined start and end point defined, which brings us to the third myth.

Without customer input and feedback from the start, any self-service initiative is doomed.

Myth #3: Self-Service Is a Project

The idea of self-service being a project, in and of itself, isn’t a bad idea. The basic principles of project management are required—executive sponsorship, budget and leadership, defined goals and objectives, milestones and reporting—but there’s a key difference: a self-service initiative will never end. As fast as categories (or issues) are shifted to a customer-resolvable state, more systems, applications, and changes in the environment will be introduced. For each new system, application, or change, IT will need to determine which resolutions can be handled by self-service. Then they’ll need to be stepped through the process.

Recognizing that self-service is a long-term, ongoing initiative is the crucial difference between success and failure for many self-service programs. Coupled with proper executive oversight and reporting, the right expectations will ensure the company is moving in the right direction. With long-term expectations correctly set, all teams must be involved in training, goal-setting, and continuous improvement.

After the initial waves of success, it’s often tempting to declare victory and scale down the team, thinking that more and more will shift left, requiring a fraction of the resources needed before. On the contrary, successful self-service initiatives build on their successes by continuing the process, often requiring more resources as the effort is replicated throughout the organization.

Getting Started...

We launched this discussion by renouncing technology as the solution, but in truth, self-service isn’t really an option without a tool. There is a plethora of self-service solutions on the market, with many features and options. Whether an organization uses an existing tool, looks for a new one, or develops a solution of their own, new processes, cultural shift, and customer involvement are key components. From the look and feel of a customer-facing system, to the issues selected as self-service candidates, the decisions you make will have lasting ramifications, and it’s best to involve the customer in most, if not all, steps of the journey.

There’s no one best practice for self-service, and organizations may approach an initiative in many different ways, using many different methodologies. Regardless of the framework and direction chosen, companies are implementing, improving, and evolving their self-service programs every day. There’s a wealth of resources available. Pick and choose the methods that work for your company and culture.


Brandon Caudle is a seasoned service and support industry practitioner and consultant with more than twenty years of experience working in and with Fortune 500 companies. In past roles, he drove ITIL and knowledge initiatives across multiple companies and countries. Today, Brandon uses his expertise, skill set, and experience to assess, implement, and evolve solutions throughout the technical service and support industry.


Tag(s): self-service, support center, business of support, future of support, supportworld

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