Self-service, a category that stretches from water fountains and grocery store shelving to server management and online bill pay, seems inevitable in all industries right now. It usually provides more access at less cost for both customers and organizations. Thanks to technology advancement it can even provide features that would otherwise not be available to the customer through live service. Companies with online-only business models use self-service as their main channel for service and most companies aspire to have it as the main channel. It saves money, provides more opportunities for engagement, collects data, and helps customers achieve their goals faster.

Or does it? Self-service is a great addition to an organization’s service strategy when it is implemented as an add-on to already great service. Great service means that you know your customers’ needs, expectations, and behaviors well enough to deliver the service they need, when they need it, in the channel they need it without disappointing them while also achieving your business strategy.

Unfortunately, organizations usually implement self-service as a strategy when they are struggling to meet customers’ service expectations for quality or efficiency within a reasonable cost to serve that keeps profits stable without raising prices. This is the worst time to implement self-service. It is like saying “since we can’t figure out how to serve you, we are going to have you serve yourself? You are probably better at it than us.” Not only has the organization just signaled to its customers that it doesn’t understand them, it has put more distance between their organization and the customer, reinforcing that it doesn’t really want to engage with them.

Though there will be a lift in cost savings after implementation and possibly even a satisfaction lift for a little while, this has potential to reverse itself as human interaction, especially in retail environments, is reduced. This is especially true for retail stores that sell similar products – grocery, drug store, electronics stores – for which human-human engagement is critical for creating differentiation.

Here is how we think about self-service

  • Self-service, as a strategy, answers a lot of needs for organizations: it lowers the cost to serve, it speeds up service, and, thanks to technology advancements, can often provide features that wouldn’t exist in live-service.


  • Self-service as an option for customers can also meet a lot of needs: it can be more efficient, more effective, provide more information, enable the customer to get service at any time, and enable people who desire low-engagement to accomplish tasks quickly.


  • Self-service as the only option (mandatory) or close to the only option for customers is rarely ever a benefit to customers and usually makes them feel mad or rejected.

“But don’t customers desire self-service?” 

No. Customers, in general, desire service that meets their needs. If they have to serve themselves to get competent service than they will do that. They aren’t against self-serving, especially for routine tasks, but if they are engaging with your brand and exchanging money with you and serving themselves  – that better be one phenomenal product! Otherwise, court them. Let them know you like them. Interact with them.

We are a little obsessed with this topic so we often pose this question to our colleagues and prospects: Does self-service deliver as much or more value to you than live service?

When asked most people we talk to think of an experience they recently had in which self-service was a better option than live services and answer emphatically, “Yes!”  When we ask them why, it is followed with answers such as: Yes, serving myself was better than: waiting in line at the drug store, having to struggle with tech support for an hour on the phone, getting hung up on, having them get my order wrong, and so on.

That’s a pretty low bar. Yes, serving yourself is better than really bad service. We agree.

The best plan for an organization that wants to implement self-service options is to get their service strategy and their main service channel in top shape. Once you understand your customers well, you are serving their needs (in a way that meets your business strategy and operational needs), then look for ways to shift routine transactions from your live channel to self-service channels as an option for customers. Continue to maintain live service as an accessible (not hidden, not blocked by hurdles) option but entice the customers over to self-service with features they couldn’t get elsewhere.

This will apply differently in different industries of course. Retail stores, banks, doctors’ offices, software companies, cable, and utilities , for example, all face different challenges with self-service. In some cases self-service is never the right answer because it puts a barrier between you and the customer and creates burdens in the middle of the customers’ experience. But 80% of the time self-service done strategically as an add-on option that brings benefits to the customers is a good thing.