Time is money for your company and keeping your employees focused and productive is a top priority. Providing IT support to your employees is a critical part of ensuring productivity in a technology-rich work environment. Every time a user seeks support – because something is broken, when they need access that they don’t have, or because they have a question, they are experiencing a work stoppage. They are focusing their attention on interacting with your IT staff (either in-person or virtually) instead of focusing their efforts on their job. That is why it is so important to have an efficient set of IT support processes and tools to get your users back to work as quickly as possible.

Seeking IT support doesn’t always mean the user needs (or wants) to interact with another human being – it just means that they need some help, they need to do something, or they need some information. In many cases, the features, functions and data they need can be provided to them efficiently using a self-service portal. A self-service portal is a place where your IT staff curate’s information, documentation and automated capabilities specifically to an audience of the end users of IT services. For users, the self-service portal is their “one stop shop” and first point of engagement for interacting with IT.

For your IT department, providing information and capabilities via a self-service portal is an efficient means of scaling IT support functions across a broad audience without the staff overhead of in-person support. Most user issues are simple to resolve and don’t require a lot of technical expertise. “How do I…?”, “I need access to…” and “I want to order one of…” are all common requests that most users could resolve on their own with the right set of tools and information. Your self-service portal enables your staff to create the information or capabilities once and then make them available to all your users.

For most companies, there will still be the need for agent assisted support for more complex or technical issues, support of new systems, and addressing business critical issues. Having a self-service portal available to handle the simple requests enables your staff to focus their time and expertise on higher value activities and areas where self-service support doesn’t fully address the user’s needs.

Self Service Portal Benefits

Self-service portals provide many benefits that make them an ideal way to interact with users. Whether you are looking for your self-service portal to be the primary means of supporting users or just a means of augmenting and extending the reach of your agent-based services, leveraging technology and self-service in your support processes is a good way to boost the value of your support operations.

Always available

Self-service capabilities and information are always available, even when you don’t have agents available to provide in-person support. Many users choose to engage in support related tasks (like requesting access, updating software and ordering solutions and services) outside of normal business hours. Self-service portals enable users to perform tasks and resolve issues at times that are convenient for them, without your IT staff having to pay cost premiums for shift-work and after-hours support.

Skip the queue

One of the biggest frustrations with IT support (and the reason why your users avoid asking for help) is the anticipated wait time to talk to an agent. If you are offering in-person helpdesk services, this could be time waiting in a line (take a number and wait for it to be called). For phone support, this is the dreaded delay listening to hold music waiting for an available agent to take your call. Time in queue is not only time that users aren’t spending on their job tasks, it often amplifies their frustrations and adds unnecessary tension to the support engagement. Nothing is worse for a helpdesk or call center agent than to have a customer already agitated at the start of the interaction. Self-service portals are designed to service many users at one time so there is no queue, no additional lost productivity, and less frustration.

Integrate with applications and IT services

Many self-service portals are stand-alone applications or interfaces that a user can go to when they need help; however, it doesn’t have to be that way. Most applications and IT services have help functions built into them that can be integrated with your self-service portal. Integrations can be as simple as a link to the portal or as sophisticated as integrated search directly from the application into your knowledge base. Integrating your self-service portal with IT services isn’t only about making information easier to access for the user. Support integrations can help your IT team by capturing the context of what the user was trying to do when they engaged you for support? Were they trying to perform a certain task? Did they receive an error message? What are the access permissions for the account they are trying to use? These are all questions that an agent would need to ask anyway that you can automate through your support integrations.

Quick access to simple information and tasks

Over half of the questions and requests that users make to IT departments can be classified as simple and routine. They often take less than 2 minutes to resolve and don’t require any technical knowledge or diagnostic skills. Examples include finding answers to common questions and performing basic tasks like requesting access to something or resetting a password. Often any approvals that are needed (for things like provisioning resources) are managed by automated business rules and don’t require any sort of manual approval. If the user had easy access to the information they needed, there would be no need to engage an agent at all. Your self-service portal can provide users with quick access to the simple information that they need and the ability to perform basic tasks without the delays of waiting for an agent.

No need for human interaction

One of the hallmark characteristics of the millennial generation of workers is a strong preference towards interacting with technology over interacting with other people. As one HR thought leader phrased it: “Millennials don’t want to talk to their mothers on the phone – they certainly don’t want to talk to your helpdesk unless they have no other choice”. The issue of employee preference in the mode of interaction is becoming increasingly important in an environment where workplace policies, processes and culture are being driven by individual employees more than from top-down mandate. Your self-service portal is a key tool in providing users a choice on how they interact with your IT function. By giving them the chance to solve problems on their own, perform diagnostic tasks, engage in support community forums (peer support) and then select a preferred modality for interacting with agents, you are giving the user control of their support experience.

Local language support

Inclusion and diversity are important for developing a highly effective workforce. Sometimes this can cause challenges for your IT staff. A diverse workforce often means that you have employees with a variety of native languages that you need to be able to communicate in. Some countries also have laws that specify that information be made available in their national language. A key benefit of self-service support portals is the ability to leverage translation services to localize content into the languages that your users want/need to communicate in without having to have staff available that speak those languages.

Self-Service Portal Features & Functions

Your self-service portal is only as good as the information and features that you make available. For most organizations, the information provided to end-users is a subset of the knowledge base and tools that are available to support agents. Content is refined and curated for the end-user audience, taking into consideration that users may not have access to administrative functions, technical understanding of underlying processes/systems or the same level of training that is afforded to support agents. As a result, the information and tools that you present through your self-service portal must be clear, easy to understand, and intuitive to use without any training.

Information should also be organized and presented in a way that the most common issues can be addressed most quickly. For most companies, that means prioritizing your self-service content and presenting them in this order:

Support Information

Service availability, known issues, outages

Technology breaks, issues occur, and outages happen. Users understand this is a normal part of using IT systems to support their business activities. Sometimes, just making them aware that an issue or outage is occurring is enough to meet their support needs. If they know you are working on the issue and they can come back to your support portal to see updated availability status when the incident is resolved, many users will shift their attention to other activities and wait to use the affected resource.

The most common way availability and outage information is presented in a self-service portal is in the form of alerts and/or banners. Users are presented with a short list of notifications that link to more detailed incident information (typically a support ticket or update feed). Color coding is also frequently used to denote service availability (Red for unavailable, yellow for degraded and green for normal system status).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

FAQs and common tasks are one of the most important components of your self-service support portal. By bringing the most commonly searched for questions to the forefront, you eliminate the need for users to go searching for the information they are looking for. Saving a few clicks may not seem like a big deal, but when you multiply this by many users, the impact can be significant. If possible, FAQs should be self-contained and not require users to search for additional resources to answer the question or perform the desired task. From the FAQ, the user should (within a few clicks) be able to access all other resources they need to resolve their issue.

Monitoring the usefulness of FAQ content is important to getting the most value out of this feature. A common way of doing that is to embed a survey question at the end of the FAQ asking the user whether the answer fully resolved their issue. If they answer no, the user should be directed to additional support resources such as a search function or agent assisted support options. The content of your FAQs will also need to change as your IT systems evolve. New system implementations and upgrades can often generate new support topics that FAQs are ideal for addressing.

Searchable knowledge base

Almost every IT support function maintains a knowledgebase of articles, troubleshooting guides and questions & answer content that agents reference when providing support to users. Your self-service portal enables you to make some of this content available to end-users directly. There are two key factors that contribute to the value of your knowledgebase: the quality of the data and the ease by which it is accessed. Knowledge base quality is simply about making sure that information is complete, correct and current (these should be part of your knowledge management processes already).

For content presented through your self-service portal, ease of access is all about search. If your content isn’t searchable, your users aren’t likely to find it. Browsing and tree-based navigation requires a lot of effort for categorization, classification and organizing data, while search functions provide a better user experience without the overhead.

Moderated community forums

Peer and community-based support have become commonplace in modern companies. Users submit questions that are organized into discussion threads and answered by other users and IT subject matter experts. Community forums are great ways to not only enable users to share information with each other, but also a means of capturing sentiment information about how well your IT systems and services are meeting user’s needs, where feature gaps exist, and when situations are causing frustration. This information helps your IT staff improve the quality of your systems and service offerings. Support forums should be moderated by someone on your IT staff to ensure discussion stays on topic, prevent the publishing of sensitive data and correcting inaccurate guidance provided by forum contributors.

User guides & documentation

Most software and IT services come with user documentation that explains how to install, configure and use the system. Software and services delivered electronically typically provide these resources in digital forms that can be included in your self-service portal. This documentation often has a lot of valuable information that can answer many common questions but frequently users don’t know where to find user guide content, so they instead ask your IT support team. Making this information available through a self-service portal gives your IT staff the ability to manage the content and refresh it as changes are made to the system and augment it with information about customizations specific to your company’s installations. When the user needs to access the information, they know where to find it.

Task Automation using self-service portal

Resetting Passwords

Users have a lot of passwords that they must remember and manage. Resetting forgotten passwords is one of the most common support tasks for modern IT systems and one of the most important features that your self-service portal should include. Password resets often include 2-factor authentication and/or verification through other known trusted contact methods (such as a registered email account).

Requesting access, accounts, permissions

The functionality of most modern IT services is managed through user access controls. Administrators establish role-based permissions and workflows that determine what functions a user can perform and what data they have access to. Individual user accounts are then provisioned against these generic roles to ensure consistent experiences, ease of administration and control of company data. Requesting access to resources, making changes to accounts and changing permissions are common tasks that most users can perform on their own using self-service support portals. Business rules are used to manage approvals and provisioning can be completed using automated workflows – reducing the need for manual review and enabling the user access to the desired resources almost immediately.

Ordering IT devices and services

IT procurement used to be a lengthy process involving capital expenditures and acquisition of physical devices and software from external suppliers. With most modern IT software being delivered electronically or via cloud services, end-user requests for new devices and services can often be processed quickly (sometimes immediately). Placing orders for IT services and checking the status of new provisioning requests are ideal features for a self-service portal as the workflows involved in approving and delivering digital services are highly automated. Use of a self-service portal to orchestrate the procurement process can not only save cost but also enable rapid provisioning to end-users – getting them back to work and productive more quickly.

Managing assets and licenses

One of the biggest areas of waste and inefficiency in modern IT is over-provisioning of resources to end users. Many users request more resources than they really need – whether that be storage, software licenses or user accounts on business systems; each of these costs your company resources to maintain and support. A good way to avoid unnecessary IT costs is to provide transparency to end users about the resources they have allocated to them, what they are consuming and what those resources are costing the company. Armed with this information and the ability to act upon it, most users will voluntarily release resources that they don’t need, enabling them to be reclaimed and/or repurposed.

Self-service upgrades

Capabilities for managing assets, licenses and provisioned services should also include the ability for users to see what versions of each resource they are using and upgrade to newer approved versions. Self-service upgrade capabilities not only provide users access to the latest features and performance enhancements, but also lower your company’s cost of support and reduce the risk of security vulnerabilities that come with outdated devices and software.

Diagnostic tools

Are there diagnostic tools and utilities that your IT support team use that help them resolve basic issues for end users or provide system information that is essential for more in-depth troubleshooting? With basic diagnostic information and simple instructions, many support issues can be resolved by the end user without the need to open a ticket and seek out help from an agent. Some diagnostic tools may need to be refined for use by end-users (user friendly messaging, removing system codes, etc.), but often the tools your support agents use today can be modified for use in your self-service portal.

Multi-modal support options

Self-service is a great thing and with the right information and capabilities, many of your issues should be able to be resolve by end users without engaging an agent for support – but sometimes a person still needs to be involved to get the user up and running so they can go on with their workday. When that happens, your self-service portal should provide easy access to your support staff through multiple modes of engagement. Users have different preferences and your self-service portal should support them.

Chat – An interactive text base dialogue between the user and a support agent that is often embedded into websites, support portals or applications. Chat based support provides person-to-person interaction without requiring the undivided attention of either the user or the support agent. This support approach is great for multi-tasking and situations where a lot of back and forth interaction is required.

Email – For support requests that require a lot of text-based information such as error messages or detailed instructions to reproduce an issue, email is sometimes the simplest choice. The challenge with email is that the user can’t expect an immediate response from the agent. That is fine for low criticality issues, but urgent requests may be better suited for a different support modality.

Web Form – Web-based forms are similar to email with the difference being that the user can open a support issue directly from the support portal, without having to open up an email program. One of the key benefits this provides is the ability to capture information from the support portal (such as search terms or knowledge articles recently browsed) and include this information with the message that the user submits. This can provide valuable insight into self-service steps already taken to avoid having the agent suggest repeat activities.

Phone – Some users still prefer to talk to a live human being over the phone – particularly when self-service options have not resolved the issue and they are getting frustrated with the support process. Phone based support is also the best option for business critical and time sensitive support as it initiates a direct interaction with an agent that is providing focused attention on a single issue.

Schedule appointment – Self-service portals can serve as a first point of engagement for your helpdesk, field support and other “in person” support functions. You can enable users to schedule appointments, reserve a place in the queue and view expected wait times so they can avoid unproductive time standing in line waiting for support.

Balancing between self-service and agent assisted support

It is tempting for companies to pursue self-service as a replacement for agent assisted support. Some organizations have eliminated their support agent roles entirely thinking they are saving costs. What they fail to take into consideration when doing something like this is the value of their employees’ time and the opportunity cost of having their business users do their own IT support. The value of having an IT support staff is scalability, developing knowledge to help resolve issues more quickly, and leveraging low cost resources to help resolve issues for higher paid employees. In most cases, your business users are more expensive per hour than your IT support staff. The ideal strategy is to focus on “how do we resolve issues as quickly as possible, so the user can get back to work?” If self-service is more efficient and quicker, that is the better option. If having an agent assist in support resolves the issue faster, that option is a better choice.

Chat Bots, AI and Automation in your self-service portal

It is tempting for companies to pursue self-service as a replacement for agent assisted support. Some organizations have eliminated their support agent roles entirely thinking they are saving costs. What they fail to take into consideration when doing something like this is the value of their employees’ time and the opportunity cost of having their business users do their own IT support. The value of having an IT support staff is scalability, developing knowledge to help resolve issues more quickly, and leveraging low cost resources to help resolve issues for higher paid employees. In most cases, your business users are more expensive per hour than your IT support staff. The ideal strategy is to focus on “how do we resolve issues as quickly as possible, so the user can get back to work?” If self-service is more efficient and quicker, that is the better option. If having an agent assist in support resolves the issue faster, that option is a better choice.

The biggest barrier to adoption of chat bots and AI today is providing natural language interfaces that sound like a human being. While AI can be effectively programmed to listen to the right words and provide technically accurate responses, only more sophisticated offerings are successful in handling dialects and native languages sufficiently to yield a human-like experience.

Creating a good self-service portal experience

Each company’s self-service portal needs will be unique based on the nature of their business and the needs of their users. As you consider implementing self-service support capabilities for your organization, here are some characteristics of a good portal experience to consider.

A self-service portal is an essential component of your overall IT support strategy. It provides end-users easy access to information and tools to quickly solve common and easily resolved issues without the delay and cost of engaging a support agent. A well structured and presented self-service portal will not only save your company in operational support costs, but will also lead to a better service experience for end-users.

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