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Is chat really self-sufficient?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya)

Just a few years ago, the ability to instantly chat to your service provider through their website or portal was a very rare, often non-existent, luxury. Whereas, today, chat is everywhere. 

Log in to your online banking and up pops a chat window, tracking a delivery and “hi there, how can I help you today?”, visit your company portal and, you’ve guessed it, a chat box appears. In fact, over a third of organizations now rate ‘chat’ as one of their most important customer communication channels. 

These same business leaders (72 percent) insist that their users want to self-solve when accessing their services and they’re predicting this desire for independence to significantly grow over the next two years. So, are companies aiming to support their customers’ want for self-service with chat facilities? The sheer number of chat boxes suggests it is one of their tactics. 

The problem is, does chat actually allow our users to self-solve? Or have we got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the self-sufficiency ability of chat?

The true meaning of self-service 

Before we dive into the intricacies of whether chat facilitates user independence or not, let’s discover what the true meaning of self-service actually is: “able to supply one’s own needs without external existence”, according to

So, in the world of service delivery, this translates to customers having the ability to troubleshoot their own problems without needing to reach out to the service desk for assistance. 

And how do we empower them to do this? By having comprehensive services for them to access, such as an online banking app where users can see their balance, make payments, and manage direct debits. A thorough knowledge base that customers can use to find solutions. And forms where users can request things like a password reset, update their personal information, or request software access.

Help for the helpdesk 

It’s pretty clear from the above how this independence benefits our users, but how does it help the helpdesk? 

Imagine you’re in your local supermarket observing the operations. There are six checkouts, each manned by a member of staff who’s scanning through shopping and taking payment (six staff to six customers). To the right, there are six self-checkout stations where customers are independently scanning and paying for their own shopping and just one member of staff is lurking to help with any problems (one staff to six customers).

This example clearly shows the power of self-service for the service provider. They’re enabled to be more efficient as less staff are needed to serve the same number of customers, so those with their time freed up can be working on other tasks: training, stacking shelves, supporting customers on the shop floor, or doing administrative tasks.

And the same is true for the helpdesk of your bank, delivery service, or the organization you work for.

So, what about chat? 

The essence of self-service is the ability to independently access services or troubleshoot problems. So, what about chat? Does this form part of the self-sufficiency jigsaw? I’m afraid not.

Typically, behind a chat box is a service desk operator answering our questions. When we really think about it, this is no different from a telephone call, an email, or even a face-to-face conversation. Chat is just a different way to communicate. 

But this doesn’t mean that chat functionality doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s a fantastic tool if we’re looking to improve customer experience rather than self-sufficiency. Because let’s face it, customer love the instant answers that chat supplies them with – it’s their own personal answering service at the click of the button! 

Chat is, however, not something that should be embarked on lightly, especially if you are short on resources as it asks more of your already stretched operators to be on hand to provide that instant answer. If you have the resource and customer experience is an objective for your team, then chat is the answer.

Using chat wisely 

So, chat alone is simply not a tool for self-sufficiency. And if we’re using this as a tactic to deliver the independence our customers are looking for, then we’ve definitely got the wrong end of the stick.

However, there is a way that we can use chat more wisely and ensure that it supplements our self-service efforts. What does this look like? A chatbot powered by automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

Instead of supporting our users with an operator behind the chat window, we can use the capabilities of AI and automation to set algorithms to help with common problems and FAQs. For example, a customer has opted to use chat to ask why their printer is showing a specific error code. The chatbot can use the information provided to automatically search the knowledge base for a solution to the problem and point the user in the right direction. 

Now, the algorithm may not always be able to help the user and so an operator can take over, but in this situation, it’s likely any kind of self-service would have been unsuitable.

By powering our chat facilities with a chatbot, we’re still able to provide our users with that instant chat experience. We’re encouraging them to self-solve by showing them the answer in the knowledge base. And we’re still freeing up our helpdesk for more critical and complex inquiries.

Relishing from the revelation

Chat is clearly a popular tool within our user base and its popularity only seems to be growing. We’ve recognized this by implementing chat capabilities in our service delivery – that’s why they pop up on every website, portal, or app you can imagine!

But alongside the growth of chat is the growth of self-service demand and we must understand that a simple chat box isn’t providing our users with independence, nor helping our helpdesk. Instead, we can achieve self-service success by supplementing chat with AI and automation – it’s a win, win solution.

Hannah Price, Service Management Consultant and Knowledge Management Expert, TOPdesk UK (opens in new tab)

Hannah Price is a service management consultant at TOPdesk UK.