Self-service is not a new concept. Vending machines, ATM kiosks, and self-serve gas pumps have been available for decades. Today, only 10 percent of U.S. adults don’t use the internet. Websites, forums, chats, and information on everything imaginable have made things from banking and shopping to finding answers easier than ever. 

With today’s high levels of expectation for intuitive, useful online self-service options, it is no wonder that employees expect consumer-level IT self-service at their workplace. The challenge for in-house IT professionals is meeting these high expectations.

As a consumer and user of self-service in both my personal and business life, I have expectations of fast, efficient, and accessible online portals that allow me to shop for gifts for my girls, access my bank accounts, pay bills, purchase sports tickets, arrange travel, and access customer support when technology fails me. This article will cover the importance of IT self-service in today’s mobile, instant gratification world, myths, benefits, how to find the best tool for your business, and how to encourage usage.

IT Self-Service Statistics

In 2013, the HDI Support Center Practices & Salary Report found that IT professionals spent up to 78 percent of their day working on level 1 customer tickets and the average time to solve a problem was four to eight hours. On top of that, HDI also found that 72 percent of those surveyed would rather use a self-serve portal than make a phone call for help.

Enter IT self-service portals. As these self-help solutions gain traction in the business world, we’re seeing more IT departments respond to demand. A 2017 report from Service Desk Institute found that 73 percent of survey respondents anticipate a greater focus on end-user support experience and increased use of self-help portals in the next year. 

Particular attention is being paid to making these new IT solutions not only available but successful. In 2017, SDI’s survey found that 61 percent of respondents were focusing on succeeding with “self-service and/or service catalogs” (versus just 47 percent in 2015). More than 70 percent identified improving first-time fix rates as their top priority.

What Is An IT Self-Service Portal?

Self-service—the ability to complete a task or gather information independently—isn’t a new concept. The origin of self-service likely began with the first vending machine in the 1880s. Although prior to the vending machine, stands had offered a form of self-service using the honor system—a customer could leave money behind and take the product from the stand. Self-service gas pumps arrived in the 1940s and ATMs in the late 1960s. The modern-day online self-service, including online shopping, was sparked with access to the internet in the 1990s. 

Most of us have become so comfortable using self-service portals for our day-to-day business that we are unaware of how good they have become. One-click or voice-activated shopping from Amazon is now second nature for most consumers. Online bank deposits are now made using smartphone cameras to bypass a visit to an ATM or bank. If a solution is needed for a problem, we look to online tutorials, YouTube videos, or articles in just about every discipline for quick, painless solutions.

IT self-help portals have followed suit. As technology became the backbone of a business, IT departments developed as a core component providing essential services. Business users, accustomed to consumer-friendly self-service, have driven the demand for business and IT self-service portals as technology has progressed.

As a result, IT departments are having to adjust to the new normal. They are finding that it is no longer enough to just automate basic service request functions, such as requesting a new laptop. Business users want additional control of everyday services, such as instant password reset, finding “how to” options, and provisioning of apps, software, and even cloud services. The challenge for an in-house IT department is in providing consumer-level self-service options to the in-house end user.

Why Is An IT Self-Service Portal Important to Business?

Now that consumers are well attuned to the benefits of self-help and self-service, a demand for such functionality is focused on the workplace. Staff throughout an organization rely on IT self-service including HR, legal, marketing, development, finance, and external vendors. In fact, the 2016 Technical Support Practices and Salary report states that only 10 percent of support organizations saw a decrease in ticket volume over the past year, but 22 percent attribute the decrease to self-service.

Since level 1 problems, such as password resets or device registration, can be done through an IT self-service portal rather than through IT personnel, time and resources are better managed. Allowing employees to find their own answers through FAQs, user forums, tutorials, or knowledge articles allows end-users to have an appropriate level of control over finding their own quick solutions. The prize of dramatically reduced level 1 calls makes effective do-it-yourself opportunities an important addition to overall IT service offerings.

What Are the Benefits of Self-Service Portals?

An IT department is generally seen as the backbone of the entire enterprise providing technical and data driven functions to support operations, customers, finance, human resources, and technical services. Strengthen that backbone and you strengthen the entire organization. The benefits of a self-service portal serving up IT information and solutions ranges from cost savings to improved productivity. IT self-help allows organizations to achieve a range of benefits, including:

Decrease overall support ticket volume - While IT tickets will never completely disappear, enabling end users to find answers to the simplest and most common issues themselves will decrease ticket volume. 

Reduce IT cost - IT professionals are highly skilled, in-demand, highly compensated employees. Having these highly skilled personnel solve simple and routine technical issues isn’t the best use of resources or budget. 

Improve employee productivity - Allowing end users to quickly find answers in a knowledge base and resolve simple tasks (such as password resets) on their own without submitting a ticket or waiting in a chat queue means they can get back to work faster. It also means IT professionals can focus on more complex tasks, improving the bottom-line productivity of the IT team.

24-hour support - Not all employees work at the same times, but if an employee encounters and IT issue, their productivity can be brought to a halt until IT is available to assist. IT self-service portals—particularly ones with robust knowledge centers—create a type of 24-hour support, allowing employees to solve issues regardless of manned-support availability. 

Streamlined communication - When an issue that needs higher-level attention does occur, an IT service portal can facilitate ticket submission, tracking, automated status updates, and centralized responses. The portal can also streamline communication regarding company-wide outages and maintenance notifications.

Improve customer satisfaction - For IT teams, in-house users are just as much business customers as paying clients. Making IT issues fast and easy to solve, in a way that end-users want to interact, can improve customer and employee satisfaction and the relationship between IT and end-users.

What to Look for in IT Self-Service Portal Software 

While self-service may sound simple, successful IT self-help portals are robust, providing users with all the information and solutions they could possibly need about IT questions and issues. To support that breadth and depth of knowledge, look for a solution that is feature-rich to meet current and growing user expectations. Not all information or services can (or should) be delivered in the same way, and you’ll need a solution that can support the appropriate range of communication channels. Look for software that has built-in or native support for:

  • A knowledge base or article library (including video capability)
  • Easy search functionality
  • FAQ capabilities
  • Live chat
  • Community forums
  • In-solution ticket handling

Also ensure your chosen solution can integrate with any tools you’re currently using, such as IT support ticket management and Active Directory. To gain additional benefits from the self-help portal, opt for a solution that has article rating and analytic capabilities baked in. These functions will allow IT teams to solicit feedback on what people are using the portal for and how valuable they find the information, resulting in actional data to improve IT support.

Finally, ensure the portal is easy for the average end user to navigate. Software that is slow or confusing will result in low adoption rates. For more tips on implementing and maintaining a successful solution, look below at 4 Tips for Designing a Usable Self-Service Portal. These tips are applicable whether you’re designing a portal in-house or evaluating service provider solutions.

How Do You Know That Your Business Needs a Self-Service Portal?

Fast service equals higher customer satisfaction. And self-service is the key to faster, seamless service in both "consumer-life" and "business-life." A Zendesk infographic noted that 75 percent of survey respondents find self-service a “convenient” way to address issues and 91 percent would use online knowledge bases if available. There is no question that consumers use, appreciate, benefit from, and demand self-service. Accordingly, every business that intends to build a great relationship with business users and provide staff with IT services that increase productivity and growth are in need of a self-service portal.

In addition to building a better end-user relationship and business growth, you may need an IT self-service portal if:

  • Your customer base is larger than your IT team can support via traditional communication channels
  • Many requests have become repetitive and can be automated, such as password resets
  • Response and/or resolution times are outside best practice expectations
  • Valuable in-house personnel are spending too much time on support and not enough time on business-driving initiatives
  • Users are requesting self-service capabilities
  • Users expressing frustration with the current state of support
  • Productivity metrics are falling or stagnate based on support response and resolution times
  • You are looking for ways to cut costs by working more efficiently

Common Myths about the Self-Service Portal in 2019

While IT self-service portals are being deployed in businesses of all sizes and in all industry verticals, with more convenient functions, and to provide faster end user service, there are some misnomers to dispel.

Myth #1: It’s Easy to Deploy

There are numerous scenarios and situations to consider when developing an IT self-service portal. End users expect the portal to be easily accessible with the ability to access multiple types of interactions such as knowledge articles, chat functions, tutorials, request submissions, and status monitoring. The interaction must be easy for the user, provide the results they expect, and be quick to use. This is not a simple feat. An IT self-service portal requires time and planning to ensure adoption, use, and satisfied end users.

Myth #2: It Saves Money

There are operational costs, employee development time, and training involved in establishing, maintaining, and upgrading an effective self-service portal. The main goal should not be face-value cost reduction, but the efficiencies and productivity gained by the usefulness, ease, and speed of response to user issues. A well-designed portal puts some power into the hands of the user. The need for technician expertise overall may not be reduced but, instead, they can be assigned to more operationally valuable tasks.

Myth #3: Set It and Forget It

Not so. In fact, the world of self-service is a constantly changing paradigm. Support for the growing range of devices (smartphones, tablets, bring-your-own-device, etc.) combined with information that needs to be constantly created and updated make on-going updates to the self-help portal an important element of success.

Myth #4: Build It and They Will Come

One of the primary problems in many portal designs today is that IT professionals (not schooled in customer service) develop the portal and content as if they were the primary users. This causes the users, who are non-technical, to find these systems cumbersome, which can lead to abandonment or low adoption. For example, often cited as a common problem is asking the user to prioritize their issue. Most don’t know the ranking system and will default to “I need it done now.” Even though many end users have more IT intelligence than in the past, an IT-only focus in portal development is not the most useful solution. You must entice users to use self-service by making it as good as or better than calling the service desk.

Challenges That Accompany Implementing a Self-Service Portal

One of the primary challenges in implementing a self-service portal involves the changing role for an IT department. They are now tasked with providing more than technical services over the telephone or in person. Customer service skills are called for, and they must yield some control to the end-users. This shift is not easy. The ability for end-users to solve their own problems must be balanced with appropriate controls and access. Defining what functions to allow, who has access, and maintaining data security is still critical. An employee using an HR portal to pick out a medical plan is different than a user reporting a dysfunctional printer, and each must be handled accordingly. 

We are well past a time when a crashed computer, a password lockout, or a new device registration demands a technician’s personal visit to an employee's office. Beginning with the ability to self-resolve level 1 contacts such as password retrieval or answering “how-to” questions can alleviate a high percentage of issues that take up valuable IT help desk time.

Another challenge is “selling” the service to business users. A portal that is not used is of little value. A method to solve this is constant communication with business customers that allow the IT department to understand concerns and challenges they find most important. This two-way communication can lead to populating the portal with exactly what the end-user expects. The key is to use the language of the customer, not the language of IT professionals. 

Finally, the portal must always be easy to use and up-to-date. Employee end-users of a business self-service portal have a vast array of experiences in the consumer self-help arena. They are used to a level of engagement that demands ease of use through interactive mechanisms, compelling graphics, and precise instructions. They are used to follow-ups, such as those in online shopping that track a package automatically and sends updates. A repair ticket or install request that does not use this method may encourage duplicate ticket requests, phone calls, or a walk-in to the IT department. A portal that is inaccurate or difficult to use will find a low level of acceptance and use. The high-level of basic IT knowledge that exists today has made end-user consumers more impatient when requesting services, especially those they easily solve in their personal life. The good news is that this level of engagement and knowledge can benefit an IT department’s reduction strategy for off-loading to users some basic IT challenges.

IT Self-Service Functionality Checklist

Many of the goals of IT self-service portal functionality include allowing greater productivity opportunities for the business user and improved IT department efficiency, as well as reducing some of the costs associated with providing IT services. To achieve these goals the following self-service functionality should be available in the ITSM solution you choose:

  • Standard and configurable request forms, metrics/dashboards, processes, interface, and navigation
  • Tracking and status updates via the web and email
  • FAQs and configurable knowledge base that answers common questions
  • Communication on service additions or changes
  • Self-service password reset or recovery
  • “How-to” tutorials or videos for self-discovered solutions
  • Engaging and intuitive interfaces/navigation for ease of use
  • Multi-device accessibility, including mobile
  • Business intelligence and analytics
  • Chat, forums, social capabilities, and communication tools
  • Searchability
  • One-click requests
  • Ability to automatically identify user and equipment

The functionality of a self-service portal is defined by the activities of the users. A portal that enjoys a high level of engagement and successful experiences will be in continuous use. However, problems with access or quality of experience in the portal may cause users to by-pass its use due to confusion, lack of communication, or slow response time. Monitoring engagement, numbers of request submissions, how the portal is used, and first contact resolution are all indicators of portal success or failure.

How IT Self-Service Empowers Users to Help Themselves

Functionality will aid in the adoption of your portal, but you must also design your portal to be compelling enough to make employees want to use it. Implementing a solution that allows employees to engage with IT the same way they engage with support outside the office creates a truly compelling sense of self-help that resonates with the way employees function.

Because we’re inundated with consumer-facing self-help options, employees are accustomed to being able to quickly and easily solve simple issues, such as resetting a password or Googling the answer to a problem. IT self-service portals are the business-facing counterparts to these solutions that employees have come to expect. If they can’t access these seemingly simple solutions, they’ll become frustrated. Knowing they’re able to perform these tasks in the self-help portal will lead to dramatically faster issue resolution for some of the most common problems.

Being able to quickly get the information you need or solve an issue is much more compelling than the thought of filing a ticket or spending time on the phone with support.

4 Tips for Designing a Usable Self-Service Portal

IT self-service portals are great in theory, but unless they’re well-designed and easy to use, you likely won’t see demand on IT support decrease. To ensure your IT self-service portal is usable, follow these four tips.

Tip 1: Take Inspiration from B2C Self-Service Portals

Designing your portal like a business-to-consumer provider is a great way to begin your IT self-service portal implementation journey. End users are already familiar with the standard features and capabilities (search, topic organization, chat, etc.) of many consumer-facing portals, so take advantage of this knowledge during design. To avoid the frustration that comes along with solving IT challenges quickly, it is beneficial to spend time developing friendly interfaces and toolbars for ease of navigation, much like you’d find in B2C self-service portals. 

A customer-centric approach demands clear communication, management support, and even a marketing campaign for self-service portal success—all approaches that will help your IT self-service portal be more successful. 

Tip 2: Customize the Portal to Your Organizational Needs

Implementing an out-of-the-box solution with little customization could mean you’ve spent time, money, and resources on something that doesn’t really fit your company or end users’ needs. Instead of designing an IT self-service portal within the silo of IT, work with other groups within the company to ensure the portal meets real user need. A few ways to do this are:

  • Defining and understanding your audience
  • Gathering feedback from users on what they would like to accomplish using an IT self-service portal
  • Testing out a small group of services with a sub-set of end-users (and adjusting as needed based on the feedback)
  • Gaining leadership support to understand expectations and promote usage 

You can even go so far as branding the portal with company logos and colors to make it feel like an integrated part of the organization. Finally, make it easy to employees to access via any integrated tools you already have in place (like Active Directory).

Tip 3: Keep It Current

Successful self-service portals involve development and access to an IT service catalog. Acting as a kind of online storefront for all things IT, a friendly, easy to use portal provides access to any of the available services. Problems that are identified as do-it-yourself opportunities can be supported through peer-to-peer discussions, tutorials, or knowledge articles. Regardless of the service request, IT is expected to provide easy access and responsive functionality including constant communication on resolution status be it requesting a new computer, setting up email, or troubleshooting simple processes.

Another element is keeping knowledge base articles, tutorials, and videos updated to reflect current needs. Make maintaining updated and relevant knowledge base content easier by using the Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) methodology. Continuously moderate and review your portal to identify areas for improvement.

Tip 4: Get Deep with Data—But Keep it Relatable

Ensuring that you are collecting all of the important information associated with a ticket is essential and improves the resolution speed. For example, contact information, a description of the issue, the device impacted, and what has been done by the user to troubleshoot is all useful for the technician. Gathering this information up front limits frustrating back-and-forths and can reduce time to resolution. 

When gathering or sharing information, limit technical jargon that could be confusing to people outside of IT. Remember, the IT self-service portal is intended to make it easy for people to find the information or solutions they need. If they can’t understand the information being shared or questions being asked, the portal can’t fulfill its purpose. If designed and managed carefully, this advanced IT solution can help mitigate user frustration, impatience, or abandonment.

Measuring the Success of the IT Self-Service Portal

Implementing the self-service portal is just one part of the journey. As with any other process, continuous improvement is necessary. To monitor and improve your portal, you can measure metrics such as:

  • Knowledge base article ratings
  • Tickets submitted via self-service
  • First call resolution rate through self-service
  • Number of visitors to self-service
  • Self-service portal bounce rates
  • Escalation rates on topics available via self-service
  • Self-service usage vs. other service channel usage

The Future of the IT Self-Service Portal

Because the use of self-service is now an everyday occurrence for many, no one wants to wait for service. Today’s IT departments are experiencing both the headaches and the opportunities that a technically engaged workforce provides. They demand instant solutions and want to have more control in finding and implementing those solutions. IT services are moving away from being a break/fix equipment department to providing engaging customer-focused activities that provide communication, support, and self-service opportunities to this increasingly tech savvy workforce. This trend won’t reverse, and smart IT teams will continue to shift more capabilities to end users as opportunities arise. As a result, IT self-service portals will become more sophisticated, robust, and entrenched in everyday business workflows.

*This post originally appeared on the Cherwell blog, prior to the acquisition by Ivanti.