Self-Service to the Rescue

Dive into the reasons for considering self-service, the benefits gained to you and your customers, as well as the problems you should try to avoid.

What should I consider when implementing self-service?

Customer/user and IT benefits
Involve the right stakeholders
How to avoid common mistakes

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by Stuart Rance and Stephen Mann  
Many IT organizations see employee self-service as a ‘knight in shining  
armor’, ready to solve all their service desk issues in one quick project.  
The sad reality is that instead of the white knight they are hoping for, their  
investment in self-service often results in a white elephant, a possession that  
is useless or troublesome and which soaks up money and other resources  
without delivering much return on the investment.  
In this paper we look at some of the reasons for thinking about self-service,  
what benefits it can bring to you and your customers, and what common  
problems you should plan to avoid. Hopefully this will help you to create real  
value with self-service, both for your customers and for your IT organization.  
webinar on the same topic.  
Customer and User Benefits of  
Employee Self-Service  
Like every IT project, you should always start by considering the benefits  
for your customers and users . From this point of view, a great self-service  
implementation can deliver many benefits:  
Faster access to help for users. A well designed form, that is easy  
to fill in, can be much quicker and easier for a user than holding on the  
phone waiting to talk to an agent.  
Improved user communication. Users can check the status of  
incidents and service requests to discover the current status, how  
much progress has been made, and when they can expect things  
to be completed. Users can also enter information using their own  
words; what they say will be accurately captured and maintained as a  
permanent record.  
Increased service hours. Self-service can be available to users 24  
hours a day, 365 days a year, even if you only staff your service desk  
during office hours.  
Support for more languages and time zones. Self-service can be  
translated into multiple languages much more easily than providing  
telephone support in every language. This can enable people to get  
first line support in their native language, with telephone assistance in a  
smaller number of languages.  
The term ‘customers’ is used in this paper to refer to the people in the business who fund IT services, and  
agree what service levels will be provided. focusing on the user and customer benefits listed above.  
The term ‘users’ is used in this paper to refer to the people in the business who make regular use of the IT  
services to help them do their work.  
Fast incident resolution. An incident that is resolved using self-  
service is typically completed much faster than one that is handled  
by telephone support.  
Faster request fulfilment. If service requests are fulfilled  
automatically, from initial request all the way to delivery and closure,  
then users can receive services much more quickly than if a manual  
process is used.  
Better user experience. Self-service can deliver a reliable,  
repeatable, and predictable level of performance. This allows an  
IT organization to be consistent in meeting user expectations for  
responding to and resolving incidents and service requests.  
IT Benefits of Employee Self-Service  
Self-service can also deliver significant benefits to the IT organization.  
Typically, benefits to the IT organization include:  
Improved efficiency / reduced cost. Incidents and service requests  
that are resolved with self-service require significantly fewer IT resources.  
This can save not only head-count but also equipment, office space,  
software licenses, etc.  
Ability to leverage automation. Self-service for service requests  
delivers most value when fulfilment of the request is automated. Ideally  
the entire value chain can be automated so that the user request is  
fulfilled with no manual intervention at all. Even if financial or other  
approval is needed to fulfil a request, this can be largely automated, with  
the request being approved by a business manager without needing IT  
Better ability to handle high volumes of incidents when problems  
occur. If a problem affects a large number of users, then this can result  
in lots of people trying to contact the service desk. A good self-service  
implementation can immediately direct these users to a simple one-  
click “me too” button, so that they can log their incident as one of  
many. Without self-service, the service desk could be inundated with  
calls, making response times very slow as well as adversely affecting  
the ability to handle incidents and requests not related to the current  
These benefits may be important to you, but you must start by focusing on  
the user and customer benefits listed above.  
Is Self-Service Right for You?  
The benefits listed in this paper can certainly be achieved, and they may be  
exactly what your organization needs, but you need to consider self-service  
along with all the other opportunities for investment, and make an informed  
decision about your investment priorities. Just because most organizations  
can benefit from self-service, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for  
you, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should invest in it immediately!  
For example, if you are supporting expensive staff who generate significant  
revenue and have little expertise or interest in solving their own IT issues, you  
may want to continue to provide personal support to them indefinitely.  
What’s Included in Self-Service?  
Self-service can include lots of different things. A typical self-service  
implementation includes many of the following:  
The ability for users to log incidents. Almost every self-service  
implementation includes front-end automation that allows users to log  
incidents for themselves. This may be via a web form, or using an app  
on their phone or tablet.  
Provision of solutions to user incidents. For example, the user could  
be offered an article that describes the issue they have, and explains  
how they can resolve it for themselves. The self-service portal should  
capture information about which solutions have been used, and whether  
the user was satisfied with the outcome, to enable reporting and  
improvement of these solutions.  
The ability for users to log service requests. This is almost always  
included in self-service. Ideally there’s a service request catalog that  
is agreed upon with customers, and published to users. Self-service  
allows users to request things from this catalog. Typical requests might  
Requesting access to a system, a service, or some data  
Requesting software to be installed on a PC, phone, or tablet  
Requesting new or replacement client hardware  
Password reset capability. There have been endless discussions  
about whether a password reset is an incident or a service request. We  
certainly don’t intend to add to those discussions here, but regardless  
of how you categorize this activity it’s important to include the ability  
to reset user passwords in your self-service capabilities. In many  
organizations, password resets can account for a very large percentage  
of calls to the service desk and automating just this one thing can lead  
to a significant increase in productivity for both users and the service  
desk. An initial implementation of self-service might include just this  
capability, with more functionality being added over time.  
Automated fulfilment of service requests. Self-service delivers the  
maximum value when the entire end-to-end value chain is automated.  
For example, a user might request a software package and this could  
be automatically delivered to their PC or tablet; the process could  
include updating license information, charging the users business unit,  
and creation of audit trails to support software asset management. If  
management approval is needed for financial purposes, then this could  
also be automated, with managers using the self-service portal to  
approve (or disapprove) requests from their staff.  
Access to FAQs and IT knowledge articles. This should be in a range  
of formats, not just written documents. For example, there could be a  
video showing how to configure Wi-Fi on a smartphone. These FAQs  
and articles should help to answer the most common queries that the  
service desk has to deal with, and should be in a style and format that  
the users find helpful.  
Access to business information and knowledge articles. This  
could include guidance on how to complete a business process, such  
as submitting an expense claim or processing a common business  
transaction. It might include maps and travel directions for company  
locations or any other useful information. This could also include links to  
external articles and sites that are relevant to the users.  
Status updates on outstanding incidents and service requests.  
Self-service should enable users to check on the status of their incidents  
and requests. For this to be effective the underlying data needs to be  
present, which means that IT needs to regularly update records to show  
what progress has been made. Updates can be automatic or manual  
depending on the specific workflow.  
Service status updates, and broadcast alerts. When users connect  
to self-service they should be presented with information about the  
status of IT services, so that they can rapidly see if their current issue is  
related to an existing problem. The self-service portal can also be used  
to broadcast important information to users. For example, the portal  
can be one channel for communicating planned downtime for a service  
to users (but it may be important to use other channels to supplement  
this). It may also be useful to provide a service calendar, showing future  
releases, and any planned downtime. This could be integrated with a  
calendar that shows significant business events.  
The ability to engage with service desk agents via other channels  
when needed. For example, the self-service portal could include a  
“chat” option that allows the user to exchange text with a service desk  
agent. This can be a very efficient use of time as both the user and the  
agent can continue to carry out other tasks while the chat takes place.  
Peer-to-peer support. Many self-service implementations include  
the ability for users to offer and receive help from each other. For  
example, there may be discussion threads where users can comment  
on knowledge articles, or offer solutions to problems that don’t yet  
have knowledge articles. This can extend to support for a range of  
communities, which may offer value far beyond IT self-service.  
Management of personal IT asset information. The self-service portal  
can provide the ability for users to check, and update, information about  
the IT assets they use, for example the model and serial number of their  
laptop or phone.  
You don’t have to offer all of this functionality in your self-service portal,  
and it would almost certainly be a mistake to try to include all of it in a first  
release as this would take a very long time to develop. You should consider  
all of these things and think about how much value they might have for your  
customers and users, and you may include many of them into your vision for  
self-service. You can then implement self-service in stages, but keep a clear  
vision of where you are trying to end up.  
Remember that Self-Service Is a  
Capability, Not a Technology  
With all of those benefits, you’d think that it would be easy to get a great  
ROI from an investment in self-service, but in fact many self-service projects  
result in increased costs, poor service levels, and unhappy customers. There  
are many different reasons for this, but the most fundamental mistake is  
treating self-service as a technology project. You certainly need to deploy  
some technology to support self-service, but this is not usually where  
difficulties arise, and if you spend most of your time and budget on the  
technology, then your project will almost certainly fail to deliver value. For  
your self-service project to succeed, what you do need to focus on is the  
other things that need to be in place to support the technology.  
For example, a focus on customer experience is crucial. People will only  
make use of self-service if they have a good experience; they will stay away  
if they have a bad one. So every process, every screen, every touch point  
should be designed to create the best possible user experience. That way  
you will have willing volunteers, rather than reluctant conscripts.  
Similarly, you need to ensure that the solutions you put in place are capable  
of modification to support potential future expansion of self-service. Once  
you have a portal in place, for example, other business units in your  
organization may wish to offer their services via the portal. Your design  
should be sufficiently flexible to ensure that you can add features and  
services that might be needed in the future.  
Make Sure You Involve the Right  
There are many stakeholders who should be involved in your self-service  
project. Some of these may only need to be involved at the start, or at other  
specific points in the project, but others should be included as part of the  
team developing the solution. Remember that self-service isn’t primarily  
going to be used by IT people, so it should probably not be left to IT people  
to define and design the solution. Some of the key stakeholders that you  
should involve are.  
Users. It’s essential to consult with users throughout the project. Ideally  
you should have some user representatives as part of the design team.  
These users will help to ensure that the self-service solution you deliver  
is going to meet their needs. It’s the users, not IT, who should define  
and approve the look and feel of the user interface. Getting the right  
involvement from your users goes a long way in helping to ensure that  
self-service actually gets used.  
Customers. Your customers are responsible for defining and agreeing  
the IT services. They understand the relative priorities of different business  
processes, and they can make sure that you prioritize the needs of the  
correct users. If your service level agreement (SLA) includes metrics  
relating to response times and resolution times for incidents and service  
requests then you’ll need to renegotiate these with the customers.  
Financial controllers. If you plan to automate resolution of service  
requests, then your organization’s financial controllers will help you to  
ensure the approval process is acceptable to the business. If you just  
automate the technical aspects and leave financial approval as a manual  
process, then self-service will have many significant delays; it’s much  
better to automate the entire end-to-end workflow.  
Service desk, technical support, and application support. The people  
who currently resolve incidents and fulfil service requests will help you  
to prioritize what should be included in early releases, and what can be  
left until later. They’ll also have the knowledge and understanding of how  
things are done now, which is an important input to deciding how they  
should be done in the new world of self-service.  
IT management and ITSM process owners. Self-service could have an  
enormous impact on the way IT is managed within your organization. At a  
minimum, it’s going to affect the processes you use for managing incidents  
and service requests, but it could potentially impact every other IT service  
management process. You need to make sure that the people who own  
these processes, and the people who are affected by them, are involved in  
the project.  
Don’t Get Distracted by the Need for  
a Service Catalog  
A service request catalog and a service catalog are not the same thing. If  
your organization doesn’t have a service catalog – listing everything you do  
in business terms – then you may be distracted by the similarity in name  
and think that creating a service catalog must form part of your self-service  
project. This can be a huge distraction, leading to a lot of additional effort  
with little direct impact on your self-service project.  
It’s certainly very important to have a proper service catalog, so your  
customers can understand the business services that IT can deliver. But  
that can, and (generally speaking) should, be a separate effort from setting  
up self-service.  
The diagram below shows the relationship between a service portfolio, a  
service catalog, a service request catalog, and a technical service catalog:  
Service Portfolio  
(Portal plus workflow  
and automation)  
Service Catalog  
IT services)  
Technical Service  
Service Request  
Service portfolio. A view of all services, including services that are  
currently available, services that might be delivered in the future if you  
decide to invest in them, and retired services that you no longer supply  
to customers. The service portfolio considers services in terms of their  
cost and value, and is used to plan and prioritize investments.  
Service catalog. A customer-facing view of services that are available  
to the business. The service catalog can be used to market IT services,  
and to help customers understand what services they may wish to  
provide for their users. An example of an entry in the service catalog  
might be “user enablement” and this could include: provision of  
standard computer, tablet, and phone; with software and software  
licenses, support services, email, and file services delivered from a data-  
center; and user accounts to enable services to be used.  
Service request catalog. A user-facing view of service requests they  
can place. It’s an important part of the self-service capability, which  
enables users to select the specific item they are trying to order. There  
is usually a one-to-many relationship between entries in a service  
catalog and entries in a service request catalog. For example, the “user  
enablement” service might allow the user to order specific models of a  
phone or PC, or to request the download of specific software packages.  
Technical service catalog. An IT facing view of capabilities that IT uses  
to deliver and support the services in the service catalog. For example, a  
“user enablement” service might be supported by Local and Wide Area  
Network services, Service Desk service, Backup service, etc.  
You need to understand what service requests are available for your users  
as part of a self-service project. If you don’t already have some sort of  
service request catalog then you may need to create something as part of  
this project. But it should not require a disproportionate allocation of time  
and other resources.  
Avoiding Common Mistakes  
We mentioned earlier that when self-service projects have disappointing  
outcomes it tends to be because they have focused on technology rather  
than capability. Here are some of the things that you need to think about to  
avoid the mistakes that lead to disappointment.  
Involve customers and users in the design. Customers know what  
value they want from self-service, which business processes should  
be prioritized, how much they want to satisfy user desires compared  
to how much they want to cut costs, etc. Users are the only people  
who know how they use self-service, what they use it for, how much  
time they are prepared to spend filling out forms, how many categories  
it’s reasonable for them to choose between, when they’ll run out of  
patience etc. Customers and users should not just be consulted for  
requirements; they should be actively engaged as members of the  
design team, providing input at every stage.  
Define the scope or purpose of the project very carefully. You need  
to be very careful when you define the purpose and scope for self-  
service. If you try to do too much in a single project then it takes far too  
long to deliver any value, and by the time it can be used it’s unlikely to  
be what was needed. If the scope is too limited then users will rapidly  
learn that it does very little to help them, and they won’t bother to make  
use of it. Once you lose their support any future expansion of the scope  
is likely to be ignored too. You need to strike a happy medium; just  
enough functionality to be really useful, but delivered fast enough that it’s  
still relevant when it’s delivered.  
Make as much use of automation as you can. If users can log  
incidents and service requests using a form, and then these are simply  
queued for eventual attention by someone on the service desk, self-  
service becomes just a new front-end for the service desk, delivering  
very few benefits. It’s really important to automate as much as possible  
so that users experience rapid service. Otherwise self-service is seen  
as a place where low priority incidents and requests languish with no  
action, and it will fall into disuse.  
Focus on user experience rather than cost saving. If the only  
purpose of the self-service project is to save money by reducing the  
number of people answering phone calls, then it’s very likely to fail even  
to do this because nobody will want to use it. If however the project  
focuses on improved user experience, it’s very likely to deliver cost  
savings, as well as a better experience for users.  
Make sure all stakeholders, including the users, understand  
What’s in it for me”. An important aspect of change management is to  
understand “What’s in it for me” for all stakeholders. If IT simply create a  
self-service portal that they would like themselves, without identifying the  
value for other stakeholders, then the project will never succeed.  
Provide enough high quality knowledge articles and make sure  
they are accessible and comprehensible to the people they  
are aimed at. Self-service depends on the presence of really well  
documented knowledge articles that help users to resolve their own  
issues. These can be provided in a variety of formats, not just written  
documents but images, and audio and video recordings. They must be  
made available to users, be easy to search and locate, be available in  
the correct language(s), and be maintained so that they are up-to-date.  
Provide encouragement for users to adopt self-service. It’s  
important to promote the value of self-service and to encourage users  
to try it. It’s not enough to communicate with users just once, there  
needs to be an ongoing program to encourage users to make use of  
self-service. You have to do more than just send emails, you may need  
to use multiple communication channels, and you may need to provide  
training or other help for some users. Without a proper communication  
plan, most users will simply ignore the self-service option.  
Give users a choice. You may think that self-service is the ideal solution  
for all user incidents and requests, but there will be circumstances  
where users prefer alternative channels. It can be very frustrating for  
users when they have a simple query that they can’t ask because it  
hasn’t been anticipated by the people who designed the self-service  
solution. If you force people to use self-service with no choice, then  
you’ll cause significant frustration and end up with dissatisfied users. A  
user may be stuck in a location with telephone access but no ability to  
use a self-service front-end, or may have a disability that prevents them  
from using self-service. They may simply have a strong preference for  
using another channel. If you provide your users with a choice, then you  
can encourage them to use self-service by making it work better for  
them than the traditional channels. This way they’ll move to self-service  
by choice, and you’ll get all the expected benefits without reducing  
customer satisfaction.  
How to Run a Self-Service Project  
The first thing to think about is what project management approach you  
want to take. This depends as much on the governance and culture of your  
organization as it does on the outcomes you want to achieve. Think about  
your vision and the steps you need to get there. It’s usually a bad idea to try  
to deliver everything you might possibly want from self-service in a single  
monolithic project. Make sure you have an agreed vision and then think  
about the steps it will take to get there.  
My preferred approach is usually to use an agile project methodology.  
Start by creating the minimum viable self-service solution as your first step.  
This needs to have enough value that your users will want to use it, but be  
sufficiently small that it can be achieved in a short timescale. Maybe you  
could start by implementing password reset capability, or maybe you could  
start by automating common service requests without putting any self-  
service in at all, still using your existing front-end. There are many different  
ways you could start, so you need to base this decision on your priorities,  
which you establish with your stakeholders.  
Alternatively, you could run the self-service project using a big-bang (or  
waterfall) methodology. This does tend to take a lot longer before it delivers  
any value, but in some organizations it’s the preferred approach. If you  
are going to use this approach then it’s very important to get a thorough  
understanding of requirements very early in the project, and to avoid “scope  
creep” as the project progresses. Deliver the agreed functionality in the  
agreed time, and then consider requests for enhancements.  
Some of the things you need to do include:  
Find out what has worked for other IT organizations. Discuss your  
ideas for self-service with other similar organizations. You may be able  
to do this by attending IT service management conferences, or by  
participating in discussions on social media, or by talking to your peers  
in other companies that you know.  
Define clear objectives for self-service. Self-service should be much  
more than just enabling users to log their own incidents, and providing  
them with a shopping cart. Think about what it means in business  
terms. You may have objectives about improvement in user experience,  
reduction in time to solve incidents, increased financial control for  
service requests, or even cost reduction. Make these explicit and decide  
how you’re going to measure them.  
Review existing support channels. Make sure you understand how  
your users are getting help now. This should include reviewing data  
from the service desk about types and numbers of calls, but it should  
also include engaging with users to understand what they actually do.  
You may find that they are contacting support teams directly, or using  
informal peer-to-peer support, or just relying on their favorite internet  
search engine. You need to capture as much information as you can  
about how your users currently behave as a baseline, and to help you  
plan what is required.  
Review existing service desk metrics. What is being measured? What  
are the typical values? What are the trends? How do these compare  
to the SLAs? What do the customers and users think of them? After  
answering these questions, think about how these might be affected  
by the new self-service channel. For example, many IT organizations  
measure “First time fix rate”, which is the percentage of calls to the  
service desk that are resolved during the initial call. Implementing self-  
service may cause this figure to become much worse, as the simple  
calls will no longer be going to the service desk. Similarly, figures for  
average time taken to resolve incidents may need to have separate  
targets for self-service and other channels, to recognize that each  
channel will have a different balance of calls.  
Plan how to manage the knowledge that is needed for successful  
self-service. Your self-service portal needs access to a lot of knowledge  
if it’s going to provide value to your users. This means that your project  
needs to ensure that this knowledge is created, and that it will continue  
to be maintained and updated into the future. Start by talking to  
people on the service desk and in your support teams to find out what  
knowledge and information they currently use, what would make their  
lives easier, and what they think might be needed by users; also talk to  
a number of users about what they would find useful. Then identify who  
can provide the information you need. Think about what incentives you  
might need to encourage people to share their knowledge, and who  
has the ability to create knowledge in the format(s) needed. Remember,  
this should not just be writing articles, but could include creation of  
audio and video content as well. Finally, make sure that the project puts  
something in place to ensure that knowledge is continually refreshed  
and updated as part of your business as usual activity.  
Design and implement the technology. There certainly are many  
things other than technology that you need but it should go without  
saying that you do also need great technology to support your self-  
service project. The front-end user interface is the thing that your users  
and customers are most aware of, but this needs to be supported by  
sufficient automation that it actually delivers value. Start by automating  
things that you do frequently, and that you really understand. You  
should first simplify the activities, and then automate them, as this  
results in greater efficiency than simply automating your current manual  
process. Think about how the automation is going to interact with IT and  
business staff, for example if approvals are needed for a purchase, and  
ensure you optimize the end-to-end process, not just the self-service  
Create a plan for management of organizational change (MoC).  
The most difficult part of implementing self-service is getting people to  
change their behavior. This can only be done by focusing on MoC. If  
your organization has a preferred approach for MoC then you should  
for Leading Change. Whatever approach you choose, it requires careful  
planning and plenty of time. Don’t make the mistake of allocating  
a two-week timeslot in the middle of the project labelled “change  
organizational culture”, as that is never going to work. One interesting  
approach that has worked well for a number of IT organizations is  
gamification. This means making a game out of people doing the  
things you want to encourage: awarding points for sharing knowledge  
or helping themselves, identifying leaders and people who are making  
good contributions, and encouraging the behaviors you want to see  
more of.  
Keep the momentum going. Implementation of self-service shouldn’t  
just be a single project that results in a fixed set of deliverables. Keep  
talking to customers and users, and encourage them to offer you  
feedback, monitor how self-service is being used, capture detailed data  
about which parts are popular and which aren’t, understand which  
users continue to use other channels and why, find out about planned  
changes to IT services and business processes, think about how you  
can expand self-service to provide more value, and plan improvements  
that will ensure your self-service continues to deliver value to your  
customers and users.  
Self-service can create increased value, and reduce costs, for IT as well  
as for customers and users, but there are many things that can go wrong  
with a self-service project. The most important thing to understand is that  
self-service is not primarily a technology project, and the value it creates is  
much more than cost reduction. You need technology, and self-service will  
save you money, but the project should focus on customer experience and  
organizational change, rather than on technology and cost reduction; this  
way you’ll have happier customers and users, as well as reduced costs.