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How to Calculate (and Maximize) the Value of Your Self-Service Channels


Self-service channels such as FAQs, public knowledge bases and customer communities are among the fastest growing resources for customer service. This trend has many advantages for companies; one major one being they can spend less on more labor-intensive support channels (such as phone, email and chat), while still responding to an increasing number of customer issues.

Take Hewlett-Packard, for example — some of their community users spend upwards of 30 unpaid hours per week helping other customers troubleshoot issues, while their most active knowledge base articles are viewed as many as 1,500 times. Imagine how many customer service tickets might have ended up in the call center had these channels not been available.

Recently, I set out on mission to quantify exactly how much value companies derive from such self-service support, relative to what they would have spent if an employee had manually responded. Companies have long used key performance indicators to closely monitor call center performance (these KPIs from Zappos, for example), so I wondered if anyone was applying the same level of scrutiny to self-service channels now that more customers are using them.

After consulting with experts from six top customer service software companies, I devised the following formula.

Calculate Self Service Value Formula

The green and blue equations essentially calculate how many issues a company solves per month through communities, FAQs and knowledge bases. Depending on what self-service vendor you use, the “c” variable might be number of “likes” or “thumb ups” that an article receives, rather than votes for “this article helped me.” If your system uses a “star rating” method for user engagement, measure the quantity of articles with high ratings (three or more stars on a five-star scale, for example).

The “.10” in the blue bracket accounts for the percent of pageviews our experts agreed could be counted as resolving a customer issue (on the conservative end). They said the other 90 percent is more likely someone casually browsing articles, doing research, clicking through to several pages before finding an answer, or ultimately still calling support.

The formula doesn’t assume customers who solved their issue through self service would have otherwise called, emailed or chatted an employee (though this is likely the case for many). It’s simply meant to quantify how much value you hypothetically generate from the service you do provide through these channels.

The individual metrics in this formula are valuable for another reason — they provide a benchmark for improving performance. Here are a few ways our experts suggest companies use these measures and others to maximize the support they provide through self-service.

Measure Percent of Response in Communities to Expose Missed Opportunities

The first variable in the formula asks for the “number of new community questions that receive a response per month.” In addition to this number, you should regularly monitor the percentage of questions in the community that receive a response. Ideally, the response rate would be 100 percent. If your response rate is less, you could be missing opportunities to deflect issues from the call center.

Even if you have to increase the percentage of community topics that employees respond to, you are still likely helping more customers than if you just wait for that person to call or email a customer service agent. Consider that one response can actually help several customers if more than one person has the same question. This is particularly useful in cases where there is a sudden, widespread issue.

If you do have to increase employee involvement in the community to increase your response rate, you can leverage self-service automation tools to streamline this process. Many customer service systems can be programmed to alert employees if a question doesn’t receive a response within a certain time.

“Sometimes community moderators have to double as support agents. … We have our people jump if a community thread doesn’t receive a response from a customer community within three hours,” says Spiceworks Community Manager Nic Tolstoshev.

Employee responders can either respond to the thread themselves, or send the question to an active customer community user who has demonstrated expertise in that area in the past.

Identify Popular Topics, Make Them Easier to Find

Three of the variables in this formula will help you identify the most popular questions and topics among your self-service channels: the number of “this article helped me votes,” the number of FAQ page views and the number of knowledge base pageviews. This will tell you which current and future content to prioritize and make easier to find.

Let’s say, for example, that you have an FAQ index. If you find that one question receives more click throughs than another, you might move it to the top of the list. Or, if you organize articles by topic area and have a list of tags or sections, you might move the most popular ones to the top of the list. You might even create a new section based on the kinds of questions that you receive the most. Additionally, you might move popular community threads to the front page (many systems do this automatically).

Here’s an example from the Get Satisfaction community. Threads are ranked automatically by popularity, and there are separate sections, e.g. “ideas under consideration” and “common problems.”

Get Satisfaction Community Front Page

Front page of Get Satisfaction's community forum

You should also ensure popular topics are easily found by customers who first search for answers using Google, or another search engine, as opposed to beginning their search in your community, FAQ section or knowledge base home page.

“It used to be customers would start on your website and navigate to support. Now Google is their home page,” Jason Duncan, HP’s Manager of Worldwide Consumer Support Forums, told me recently.

To ensure that your most popular articles rank when customers search in Google, you should optimize them around keywords that relate to terms other customers used to find the article. Traffic source reports in Google Analytics can show you both which articles receive the most pageviews and what keywords the visitor searched to get there. You can then plug those search terms in Google Adwords to find related terms that the article could also be optimized around.

“You should think of your self-service content as living documents that constantly need to be adjusted and optimized based on user feedback and engagement,” says SysAid Vice President of Customer Relations Joseph Zargari.

Some self-service systems will automatically optimize knowledge base and community articles for you. Here’s an example of a SmarterTools article that is optimized around “IIS logs:”

SmarterTools SEO Community Articles

How SmarterTools optimizes self-service articles for key terms

Analyze Other Channels to Proactively Create Content

If self-service engagement isn’t improving (you don’t receive a high volume of new questions, page views, or “this article was helpful” votes), this could be the result of customers not finding what they need and immediately, so they move to a more direct contact channel. Many customers won’t take the time to sign up for a community, so you need to make sure you constantly post content around questions your customers ask most.

Many help desk systems allow agents to associate tickets with a question type, or tag. This allows you to pull reports and instantly see which questions and issues are requested most over the phone, email and chat. You should ensure that your knowledge base includes resolutions to these common issues. Raju Vegesna, ZOHO evangelist, says the company has a lot of success increasing engagement by adding videos to their most popular content.

Zendesk, and other similar products, also allow users to pull a report that shows “tickets created” after a search in a community or knowledge base. This can easily show you which pieces of content customers are searching for, but not finding.

The Value of Self-Service Extends Beyond Ticket Deflection

All of these strategies are geared towards maximizing the value of your self-service channels in terms of solving customer issues. While this assumes the only reason to maximize this channel is to deflect tickets from the call center, companies can realize other benefits.

Earlier I mentioned that you can’t assume every issue resolved through self-service would otherwise have resulted in a ticket to the call center. This is primarily because some customers simply won’t reach out to you at all if they can’t find the answer through search. This lost opportunity to engage with customers is more difficult to quantify, but it could impact their loyalty, retention, or potential to spread positive word of mouth.

Going back to the HP example, think about the marketing value of those customers that spend hours of their free time participating in the community. They do this because they feel rewarded and appreciated, and therefore are more likely to advocate on behalf of HP. This kind of marketing is invaluable in a world where customers pay less and less attention to traditional forms of marketing.

“Customers are interested in marketing, but they don’t believe what your company says about itself unless it matches what they and their friends experience.” - Micah Solomon, customer service thought leader, professional keynote speaker and bestselling author.

Finally, these channels provide another medium for connecting with customers and other website visitors. This is useful for garnering feedback for product development, as well as for attracting and nurturing contacts that aren’t already in your system.

“I see self-service channels like communities as the new CRM. It’s really an opportunity to get an open, transparent relationship with the customer. It gives immediate insight into what customers are feeling and thinking.” – Doug Nugent, Vice President of Customer Success at Get Satisfaction.

The bottom line is, when thinking about the value of self-service, it’s important to consider more than what you will save in the call center. Your company can also actually generate revenue from self-service through word-of-mouth marketing, additional website traffic, and increased customer loyalty and retention.

Thumbnail image provided by Jake and Lindsay Sherbert.

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Ashley Verrill

About the Author

Ashley Verrill has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has been featured or cited in Inc., Forbes, Business Insider, TechCrunch, GigaOM,, Yahoo News, the Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal, among others.

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