The Self-Serve Approach to Business - user onboarding and beyond

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    Home / Growth / The Self-Serve Approach to Business - user onboarding and beyond

    Have you ever had a box of furniture waiting to be assembled on your doorstep?

    How tempting is the idea of opening that box and assembling it yourself?

    I've recently started to set my furniture up myself, and I'll tell you it is much more satisfying than watching someone else do it.

    self serve business

    Where am I going with this?

    As a software business, this is exactly how your customers feel.

    If your product is something that your users can instantly start with on their own and use until they achieve the complete value without the intervention of any other person, they will feel extremely satisfied.

    This is why great companies are adopting a self-serve approach left and right: it's just simply better.

    In this article, I'll try to go over:

    • what self-service business model is,
    • how it came to be,
    • why you have to do it,
    • and a solid first step for becoming self-serve.

    HEADS UP: I'll put more emphasis on ways to become self-serve throughout this article without skipping the basics of the concept.

    What is Self-Service in Modern Business Models?

    Self-service is all around you...

    Honestly, while there might not be any robots walking around with us yet, we’re already in the age of technologically-induced DIY from Boston to Budapest! 

    2020 unquestionably marked the beginning of the next phase of our product-led era.

    Whether we’re talking the smartphone app revolution, social media, gas stations, and grocery line checkouts, to self-serve bank tellers and mini self-serve movie dispensers outside drug stores (Redbox)... self-serve infrastructure is ubiquitous in the physical AND digital world. 

    What’s happened?

    Let’s briefly look at some backstory. 

    self service software

    An Insanely-Fast ‘Self Service’ History Lesson

    As our annals of history record, the term was first coined in America just as the U.S. entered WW1.

    A gentleman-grocer named Clarence Saunders received a patent (Patent #1,242,872), recognizing his new visionary way for consumers to get groceries.

    Rather than going into a store and having the clerk or their staff get your munchies so you can purchase them before leaving, you could walk around and get what you want on your own!

    And just like that, our modern supermarket was born.

    The man worked his whole life trying to build what he saw as the Holy Grail of automated store consumption, impacting supermarket consumerism forever in terms of pricing displays, shopping cart usage, how we cruise the isles, and more. 

    Today, we’re absolutely surrounded by what he started, and it's increasing every day.

    As e-commerce and online communications became a major part of the retail experience, self-service grew into a key component of customer support. Research shows that 90% of consumers now expect a brand or organization to offer a self-service customer support portal.


    Soon we’ll be looking at another massive leap forward with 5G-powered A.I. and augmented reality tools that help people live their lives without dealing with salespeople, marketers, customer support staff, or troubleshooting technicians. 

    When we talk about consumer-facing tech, it’s the star of the show, but there’s a difference between a SaaS product being self-serve and a SaaS company being self-serve first.

    Truly great software companies are self-serve first.

    Gokul Rajaram

    That’s a popular-potent quote from Gokul Rajaram, whose article on self-serve inspired me to write this article. He defines the self-serve SaaS product as: where a customer can go through the full product experience — from signing up to first use to activating new features to managing their account to upgrading and/or cancellation — all without ever needing to interact with another person (unless, of course, the product is designed for the express purpose of interacting with other people).

    Have any of that kind of thing currently in your life?


    Social media?

    Ecommerce perhaps?

    If you’re a business owner, then, 

    Self-serve first is when the entire company is built around self-serve, when self-serve is the core foundation of the company.

    Finding examples of self-serve first companies isn’t tough; they’re in just about every direction. What’s important is defining the kind of company you are in relation to and to what degree self-serve methodologies play their role. 

    self serv

    Why should I be concerned with the Self-Serve approach?

    "Should I really, in the middle of everything else, put emphasis on becoming even more self-serve?"

    You might say.

    This is going to be awkward, but I have a question in return: do you want to spend less and make more money?

    I'll answer for myself: HELL YES!

    So yes, you should put emphasis on Self-Serve.

    It'll have 3 main benefits for your business:

    1- You will spend less:

    With a self-serve approach, your sales and customer support teams will never put customers on hold again; therefore, you'll no longer have to hire an army of representatives each month.

    2- You will worry less:

    Frankly, human interactions are concerning.

    When a representative of your brand contacts a customer, various elements vary every time, and not everything will be under your control.

    I'm not telling you to be a control freak.

    But less control over your sales and customer support funnels mean less accurate data, and that means less room for improvement.

    When you lean towards a self-serve approach, with all your funnels rolling out the exact same each time, it will be easier to figure out flaws.

    Smoothing the processes will be a lot easier.

    3- You will earn more:

    At the end of the day, the idea of increasing the amount of money that you will bring to your company will be what convinces you to adopt self-serve.

    Honestly, yeah, it'll improve UX and make your job easier,

    but as the purpose of each company is growing day over day, this aspect of the self-serve approach will strike the final blow.

    As Gokul puts it in his article, "self-serve adds rocket fuel to customer acquisition."

    First off, it will open your product to everyone that is willing to try it, whether they have the patience to wait for a salesperson to be available or not.

    And second, when you approach new markets, such as offering your product in different languages or opening up the way for adjacent users, you won't have to do a company-wide transformation to handle the new traffic, just your funnels.

    Just imagine a McDonald's branch that denied the self-service model and hired waiters that took and delivered orders. Pretty sure they would come up short at the end of the day.

    How to get started with the Self-Serve Approach

    The big winners today (and tomorrow) will combine strategic data-backed self-serve with delightful customer service when needed, genuine acquisition tactics, and churn management. 

    But the self-serve approach will always start with the User Onboarding.

    As I've mentioned before, Gokul's article inspired me to explain the importance of user onboarding in terms of creating a self-serve product,

    so I've reached out to him and asked whether he would like to add to the subject:

    “Seamless onboarding a customer is a critical part of building a stellar self serve product.”

    Gokul Rajaram on the importance of User Onboarding in creating a self-serve product.

    The majority of the self-serve experience will consist of this period in the user journey.

    user onboarding self serve

    Modern users demand the ability to onboard themselves, and it really doesn’t matter which aggregator or analyst you listen to: they’re all pointing in the same direction.

    Automate the best User Onboarding Possible

    First off, ditch the sales demos...

    But not all of them. There can and will always be enterprises that will require quotations or customers that'll need some more details.

    However, the big majority of users should be onboarded through self-serve funnels.

    You'll need user onboarding automation with various elements for each segment of your users and analytics for your user onboarding to optimize the processes.

    All this preferably without coding; let's not get the developers involved :)

    And that's where UserGuiding can make your life easier:

    Create Self-Serve Funnels in Minutes with UserGuiding

    User onboarding software exists to serve a single purpose;

    Give you the onboarding material you need right now.

    UserGuiding is a no-code user onboarding tool that helps you improve your UX by providing features such as:

    Interactive Product Walkthroughs and User Guides:

    As guides are often more static, well-done interactive walkthroughs and guides let your users learn by getting their hands dirty, reducing time-to-value

    self serve product tour
    A Guide I've created with UserGuiding, for LinkedIn

    User Onboarding Checklists:

    Just ditch the usual linear progression in your user onboarding. You can use checklists to let your users advance at their own pace, in whatever direction they want.

    self serve checklist
    A Checklist I've created for this blog, with UserGuiding

    In-app Messages (Tooltips and Hotspots):

    Graphically-inlayed or embedded hints in the UX are also more common than they used to be and often extremely effective with little-to-no friction. With UserGuiding, you can introduce tooltips in guides or solo.

    self serve tooltips
    An In-App Message I've created for this blog, with UserGuiding

    Help Center Widgets:

    These have grown in popularity, and users are FAR more accustomed to turning to them, especially with more complex SaaS products.

    With UserGuiding, you can easily gather your guides and articles in a Self-Help Center.

    A Self-Help Center I've created for LinkedIn

    The Best Part? It requires no coding 

    You can create complete user onboarding experiences with UserGuiding, without any coding.

    self serve no code tool

    [hubspot type=cta portal=8289649 id=d5da6418-5aab-4e97-9313-01da59b857bc]

    Reaching Towards the Ideal - Feet Firmly In Place 

    As time passes and your degrees of self-serve grow, the boundaries between newer brands and interested users are broken down. 

    Increasing knowledge share reduces both the emotional and the informational complexity of buying your product. A strong brand reputation reduces purchase risk and alleviates buyer fear, eliminating the need to be reassured by a salesperson that your company is the real thing. Whereas deep comprehension of your brand gained through experience, eliminates the need to be informed by a salesperson about what your product can do, how to buy it, and how to use it."

    Joel York on Chaotic Flow

    When was the last time you needed to contact your email provider’s support staff?

    How about Amazon’s?

    Every day endless amounts of money are spent on Google advertising, and almost no one, ever, contacts any kind of support agent at Google.

    Sure, these are titan-level examples, but just keep an eye out in your own life for the next week and see just how much you’re able to get done without ever having to bother yourself with any customer service. 

    You're probably extremely comfortable with these brands because they’re transparent, self-serve first to a great degree (from your perspective at least), and their knowledge base is likely either extremely simple or far-reaching and accessible.

    Sitting somewhere between self serve and high touch are various approaches to a medium or low touch GTM. In these, typically a mix of marketing and product bring the customer into the funnel. Customers then might request more info, start a trial, use a free version, or add their contact info for a piece of gated content. Sales reaches out to leads from there.

    Blake Thorn on Medium

    Wrapping Up

    Self-service models in business have existed for a long-time with success, bringing tons of revenue and growth chances.

    To stay vigilant in the competition and achieve your best possible growth, you have to start implementing self-serve into your business; and actually become self-serve first.

    Good luck!

    BONUS: Check our Self-Serve First Ebook!

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is the importance of self-service?

    The importance of self-service is that it answers the needs of the customers. 3/4 users would rather self-educate about a product rather than learn by a salesperson. In this regard, being self-serve is what will help you distinguish yourself from your customers.

    How does self-service work in SaaS?

    Self-service in SaaS goes through excellent user onboarding. You need to guide your users through the product and make them feel at home.

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