Self Service Portals and the Modern Service Desk

There are two main hurdles to be overcome when rolling out a Self Service portal for your service desk.

The portal must be accessible and simple to use.
The portal must provide a real benefit to the client and the service desk.

First of all the portal must be simple attractive and easily available for clients to log in to.

It should be an easy to enter URL, ideally linked from a corporate intranet site so customers can find it when they need it. Where possible it should use some form of automatic authentication so the client does not need to remember their login ID and password to gain access.

Once a client is logged in to the site it should be very straight forward to navigate. Any site that requires training to be provided to the client before they can use it is not going to appeal to the majority and will not be universally accepted. Remember that in an ideal situation most clients will rarely access the site and will not remember the details of how to raise a request if it is not obvious.

Now that you have the client logged in and the site is straight forward and easy to navigate, you have to provide some real value in terms of the capabilities offered. What can the client do when they get there? What kinds of services are available through the site? If the client can only perform a small subset of the tasks they might need to do and they have to resort to phoning the service desk for everything else, they are quickly going to side step the Self Service portal and head straight for the phone. You need to provide a good service catalogue so the client can see what services they can sign up for and what they are already subscribed to. The client needs to be able to raise a request for support or for additional services quickly and easily and they need to be lead, step by step, through providing the information necessary to fulfill that request.

If a client logs a request through the Self Service portal you need to gather as much relevant information as possible from them during the request process so that the request can be fulfilled without necessitating a call back for more information. This should be done using a question and answer session in the form of a wizard style interaction gently leading the client through the process and asking only relevant questions in a logical order. Presenting the client with a large form with a dozen or so fields to be filled in before they can continue will overwhelm most non technical staff and will lead to bad or incomplete information and dissatisfaction with the experience resulting in clients resorting to the phone instead of using the Self Service portal. The aim is to get clients comfortable with the process and to the point where they would rather use the Self Service portal than the telephone because they like the experience. Many portals are only used because it takes too long to get to a real person and not because the portal offers any real benefits. This does nothing to improve the clients’ perception of the service desk.

Offering a full list of services available and a good knowledge base for Self Help will go a long way to making the client want to use the Self Service portal in preference to calling for a live person. The services should be described to the client in a way that they can understand. Any costs involved that are the responsibility of the client should be detailed so the client knows what they are signing up for.

Well produced knowledge material is structured and presented in a uniform way. The articles should be written in language that all clients can understand and they should provide good quality information and procedural steps that can be easily followed. Knowledge should be readily searchable to ensure that clients can find an article with a wide variety of search criteria. When documenting fixes for error messages the articles should always include any error codes in the key words for the search as well as common descriptive terms that clients might use.

The subject of a Knowledge article is not restricted to solving a technical problem. An article describing how to sign up for a service and what that service provides can help a client decide what to sign up for.

Part of the development of any system is defining what data to track and for what purpose. With a Self Service portal you will need to gather as much information as you can from the client to allow you to fulfill the request but a lot of this information is not required for reporting or even searching functions. It does not need a custom field in the database for every question asked in every wizard. Most of the information gathered will be used in a purely informational context to allow the service desk resources to complete their tasks and should be embedded in a text field. Using a wizard to gather information can do this in a structured way so it is still possible to extract data if necessary but it allows the system to gather highly customized data sets for each different request without creating an enormous number of extra database fields most of which are rarely used at all. As your questions are presented to the client the answers should make use of drop downs, radio buttons and check boxes to present choices wherever possible. These help the client choose the correct answer and ensure quality of data for your support staff to work from. They can also be used to trigger workflow components where freeform text is not suitable due to the wide range of interpretation that can result.

Once a client has entered a request for support or service it is import to confirm the request by email so that the client has a high level of confidence that their request was received and is being processed. The request should then be processed and sent to a group for action in a timely manner, if action is needed. Requests entered through the Self Service portal should be given the same priority as those of the same nature called in to the support desk. It is not necessary to send an email to the client beyond the first confirmation of the request unless there is more information required from them or there is information directly relevant to the client about the request itself, such as an estimated time of completion if this cannot be included in the initial email or if something happens that changes it. In general, clients do not need to know and do not care which analyst or group is currently working on their issue. They are only concerned that their request is being worked on and that it will be resolved in a timely manner. If they need to find out more about the status of a request they should be able to log back in to the Self Service portal to see the current status of all their requests at any time. Adding some graphical representation of the stage of a request and some colour to indicate its progression makes this much more appealing to clients, however don’t overdo this. There is a fine line between too little information and too much. Screens should be kept simple and concise showing enough information to establish the state of a request without overwhelming the client with so much information it is difficult to extract the key points. Subtle use of colour, in the right places, can greatly aid in making the screens more understandable and drawing the clients eyes to the key data.

Corporate branding of the Self Service portal is often overlooked. When a client logs in to the portal they are subconsciously forming an impression of the efficiency and technical ability of the support organization based on their experience with the portal itself. Having a portal that has obviously been set up and configured specifically for your organization instead of a generic supplier branded site helps to instill confidence in the client and ensure that they believe that the service desk is working efficiently on their specific problems and has the necessary skill set and professionalism to solve their issues quickly and efficiently. Do not underestimate the power of corporate branding even to your own employees.

There is much to plan and think about when deciding to roll out a Self Service portal and there is much that can go wrong if it is not well executed. It is much more difficult to get clients to come back once they have had a bad experience than it is to get them to try it for the first time so it is extremely important to get it right from the start. However, if you do get it right, a Self Service portal can not only reduce the immediate load on your support staff but it can also greatly improve the customer satisfaction rating for the whole service operation. Taking time to build a good portal before rolling it out to clients can really pay off in the end. There is no substitute for thorough testing and having multiple representatives from different areas of the operation involved to ensure that every ones’ needs are covered.

Cedar Technology has been helping customers improve their IT Support with software and services for 20 years. Visit the Cedar Technology web site to find out more and join our mailing list to receive more informative articles like this one.