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What happens when self-service works well

Aprill Allen


It’s really exciting to see customer support and customer service becoming a career path of choice. In the 90s, customer service was something most people sought to transition out of. In my case, it was burnout that drove me to seek more specialised L2 & L3 analyst roles, before ‘retiring’ from customer-facing roles altogether. It’s that same burnout that drove me to take on stewardship of the knowledge base and then ultimately consult to others wanting to have the same sort of access to team know-how.

Nowadays, thanks to the SaaS economy, there’s a growing area of expertise in customer-facing roles that include customer success, customer engagement, and customer experience. And plenty of people are choosing those options as longer-term career moves for the joys of problem solving and the excitement of working in a fast-paced tech environment. With Everything As A Service, customer service etc may well be this era’s jobs boom. The growing demand for customer service talent has also led to services that provide talent on a contingent basis. As with any company that experiences a boom in sales and production, a contingent workforce is a great solution to meet sudden demand, not to mention the coverage for timezones!

The self-service channel is quickly becoming part of the remit for customer success to deliver on. That makes sense, of course, because more than two-thirds of customers prefer to search for answers themselves, before they engage with support. Making self-service successful is the goal of my Keys to a Kickass Knowledge Base course, but I want to talk about what happens when it IS succeeding. When self-service works well, there are some cascading effects that will influence how you structure your support & service teams to maintain positive outcomes.

So, let’s imagine a knowledge base populated with relevant articles; the search function is responsive to what the customer is asking for; maybe there’s some contextual in-product help for navigating the on-boarding process; and the knowledge articles are updated whenever one is found in need of fixing.

Let’s also revisit the common tiered support & service arrangement-Level 1, level 2, level 3 and product engineering. A company may be small enough that they don’t have L3, but there’s usually at least one escalation before going to engineering. Typically, L1 are generalists. They know lots about the product they’re supporting, the know lots of common use cases, they see a lot of the on-boarding questions and deal with repetitive known issues. Levels 2 & 3 are closer to being specialists with deeper product knowledge, have seen a few hairier things and curlier questions, dive into technical details and often collaborate with engineering.

When self-service works, those often-seen issues are being handled by the customers. Have a question, find an answer, on their way again. Excellent. The customers who need to take their query further, and engage with a team member via contact form or email or what-have-you, may also have a simple question, but it’s more likely they have an exception that the self-service knowledge base doesn’t adequately answer or hasn’t been experienced by anyone before. That means L1 are going to get harder questions than they would’ve had when self-service was non-existent or new and incomplete or not fulfilling the customer need for whatever reason. That means, L1 will need to have the capacity and the capability to go deeper into inquiry with the customer.

I made an assertion on Twitter last night that L1 support should be an internal function when self-service does the bulk of known issues. That is, directly employed by and representing the company. It isn’t to say there’s no room for contingent workforce and timezone coverage from a service provider, but a 100% outsourced L1 (when structured as a generalist triage group) brings additional needs that should be planned for or there’s a risk of customer churn.

  • You’ll need robust internal comms between you and your provider for expertise location, collaboration with specialists, and an escalation trigger that kicks in sooner rather than later.
  • You’ll need your L1 team to be prepared to spend more time per ticket/incident to manage the increased complexity. This is a hiring and training responsibility to ensure team members can determine what the customer is really asking. Some back and forth is ok, as long it’s productive.
  • Incentivisation and contract terms that value accurate responses over shorter handle times and case closures are important and can be challenging to negotiate.

Essentially, when self-service is working the way it should, your L1 will need the tools and trust to make the kind of judgement calls that the increasing complexity will demand.

Have you managed a situation like this? I’d love to know what worked for you.

Originally published at on June 12, 2019.



Aprill Allen

Knowledge management is your platform for growth | KCS adoption, training & certification | Early-stage investor & advisor |