Self-Serve, the Not So Obvious Cheat Code for Growth

Percival Everitt had an idea.

Walking through a London railway station in 1883 he decided to purchase a postcard, the newest craze in Europe at the time. But it was late in the evening, which meant an early morning visit to the corner store. He started to think that there had to be a better way. 

Everitt got to work. He dreamed up a machine that allowed a customer to purchase a postcard by entering coins into a slot. The first version was made of cast-iron, towering over six feet tall and weighed hundreds of pounds. It wasn't the most elegant but it worked. His machines sold a postcard for a penny and provided unmatched convenience to commuters. 

It was a hit. Everitt had just invented the modern vending machine.

Rail passengers loved them. European authorities had recently agreed to standardization of postcard size which made them particularly well-suited to coin operated machines, but nearly everything else was fraught with challenges.

"An original feature developed by Everitt was that when machines were out of stock, they automatically closed the coin slot so no customers could lose their money...He also tried to thwart attempts to use slugs, by making the weighing scale in his machines more exact. He also placed machines in high traffic areas, such as near railroad stops, so that rail employees could help police the machines"

The company ended up being a big success. By 1901, the company had placed at least one machine in nearly all of Britain’s more than 7,000 railway stations.

Everitt stumbled on a powerful idea: that things like convenience, control and availability were important factors in a buying decision. But it also proved out a fundamental principle – there is tremendous market power in offering a self-serve option to customers. 

So what is self-serve?

At Versett we have observed a subtle but powerful shift that impacts almost every industry in the world, including yours. Businesses are now increasingly required to give their customers a "self-serve" option. This has been further compounded by the pandemic in recent months. The ones that do this better will leapfrog the ones that don’t.  

And yet we see examples of companies failing at this all of the time:

  • Why do I need to call my internet provider to select a new speed package?
  • Why can’t I buy a book online at my local bookstore instead of Amazon?
  • Why does my gym not also give me workouts to do at home or when I am on the road?
  • Why can’t I figure out if the BBQ I want is available at the Home Depot near my house?

These scenarios all have one thing in common. In each example the company has opted to not allow the customer to complete an action outside of their prescribed methods. In many cases this is at odds with what a large and growing segment of their customers would prefer. They are not letting people self-serve.

Self-Serve means that customers can research, compare and transact with you on their terms. It's about giving customers the ability to interact with you and your products how they want. Now of course people should be able to choose to talk with a person if they need help selecting or need support. But it shouldn’t be the only option.

Let’s point to another example. One of the biggest shifts in self-serve in decades was e-commerce, which gave customers the ability to shop from you online , on-demand. But e-commerce's best trick is not that it gives you instant access to a broader selection of products, it's that it allows you to research and evaluate between options better.  Let's say you wanted to purchase a TV at Best Buy. You would probably end up walking down the street to another retailer to compare other options. The internet flattens this. You can sort and compare everything on your iPad sitting on your couch. 

That's a very powerful ability and it's a secret of self-serve. Most firms are not taking advantage of it.

If what is popping into your head right now is "Yeah, but I want to be able to control the experience" or "That will never work, my sales team is what makes the difference" then it's more likely you have a positioning problem. It's not that your customers are not looking for self-serve, it's that your company doesn't have the capability to do it.  If your firm has to avoid self-serve to be successful then you will eventually be beat by a firm that is better positioned and doesn't have to. Self-serve capabilities are like a cheat code. Do it right and it's an instant capability. 

Let me show you this in practice. give you another example. One of our clients recently rolled out the ability to purchase products online. They also enabled the capability to live-chat at any point on the site. What was surprising to management was that over half of all sales in the first six months were purchased through the chat function, with the other half through e-commerce directly. Customers could choose to either shop in a store, buy directly online or chat with someone to figure out what to buy. Self-serve gives the customer the ability to choose how and where they want to buy. Choice increases marginal conversion and reduces churn.

I once heard that strategy is a company's answer to the question: What can we do that's really hard? Enabling true self-serve capabilities is naturally challenging because many of the elements that enable it to work are disconnected. Inventory, pricing, marketing, offline-online hand-offs. It often requires rethinking the complete customer journey and making changes to those experiences along the way. The entire experience matters. Just because a customer could technically fumble their way through your terrible website and somehow connect the dots and make a purchase themselves, doesn't make it 'self-serve'. Just look at our recent Insurance Trends report to see how many new entrants are solving self-serve problems in this market. 

But there is tremendous potential value in doing this right.  Self-serve generates economic leverage, provides a better customer experience and protects against startups and new entrants to markets that are approaching this from the bottom up. 

Key Takeaways

  • Self-Serve means that customers can research, compare and transact with you on their terms.
  • Companies that create self-serve centred businesses will outperform those who don’t
  • Evaluate each area of your business to determine opportunities to better allow customers to self-serve
  • Ask your customers where they experienced problems purchasing from you. Hint: it almost always involves payment, product selection or availability.
  • Start small – look for opportunities to address areas where self-serve can be implemented. It could be an FAQ or support section or as simple as adding chat to e-commerce.