Customers today expect—and demand—the availability of self-service options, round the clock.  Airline passengers are now accustomed to printing their own boarding passes at home; the latest Royal Caribbean cruise ship has kiosk “concierges” on every desk to help you find your way back to your room; the smartphone revolution gives you access to vetted information from the Mayo Clinic while you’re waiting for your “real” doctor to arrive… and, of course, there’s the Web.  To be customer-friendly, self-service needs to follow the rules of great service design.  Here are the principles of successful customer self-service.

Build your self-service options to provide anticipatory customer service.

Great hospitality companies like The Ritz-Carlton strives to anticipate even the unexpressed wishes of their customers. This goal—what I term “anticipatory customer service,” where a desire is anticipated and then fulfilled, seamlessly, with no effort on the part of the customer, is also what you’re looking for with self-service.   Happily, self-service is likely to be anticipatory by its nature, due to its ability to accept unique, customized input from the customers themselves, and smart self-service design can further enhance this.

The most brilliantly implemented self-service helps suggest choices and behaviors in an intelligent manner. Exhibit “A” here of course is Siri, the new go-to guide on your iPhone: Yesterday I confided to Siri: “My teeth are bothering me. Siri responded: “I found a number of dentists… 23 are fairly close to you.” And think of Gmail warning you that you’re sending out an email that lacks an attachment—not to mention Gmail’s “mail goggles” preventing you from drunk-emailing that you may regret later. There’s also letting you know which items customers like you ultimately ended up buying, based on what you thought you were interested in, and IBM’s technology in dressing rooms that suggests complementary ties based on the sportswear you’re trying on.

Don’t reinvent the wheel … and don’t relocate that search bar.

Usability is a science that needs to be respected. Reinventing the wheel (or, more to the point, reinventing a location for the search bar on your homepage) is self-defeating behavior.  A wheel should be round, and the search bar should be smack dab at the top of a web page, where your customers expect it.  Question:   Why do customers despise IVRs (telephone interactive voice response)? Because so many companies ignore or try end-runs around the rules of usability for such systems. For example, most people can’t retain in memory more than thirty seconds of information at a time, so an IVR with more than thirty seconds of options or information is just going to confuse customers. There are similar hard-and-fast rules about how many menu items a customer can remember, yet some companies mangle their application of this rule by loading up each option with sub options: ‘‘For Office A, Office B, or Office C, press 1.’’ That one single sub option actually demands that the customer remember four things: three departments and the menu number.

Build escape routes into your self-service. Self-service is fun for customers—until it isn’t.  Build in escape routes for customers that take them directly to humans who can help when they’re stuck.  To wit:

• If you ask ‘‘Did this answer your question?’’ at the end of your FAQs, spend some time considering what should happen if the customer’s response is ‘‘No, it didn’t answer my question.’’ In my opinion, it should be a response of ‘‘I’m so sorry, we obviously have room for improvement; click here and a live human being will assist you.’’ Or ‘‘If you would like a phone call from a human, please enter your number here. When we call, our humans will have a complete record of your query/issue and its failed resolution, and we will make it right.’’

• “Please do not reply…”—really? Automated confirmation letters need to come from, or at least prominently feature, a reply-to address. When huge companies send confirmations that end with ‘‘Please do not reply,’’ it’s a kiss-off. When smaller companies do this, they just look ridiculous. Either way, it can lead customers to desperation. The asymmetry defies our human desire for reciprocity: The company is sending you a letter, but prohibiting you from writing back!

Self-service should be a choice for your customers—not a requirement. In most businesses, you serve your customers best by offering your customers a choice of channels. A choice means they choose, and you respect their decisions. Customers shouldn’t be calling your contact center on the phone only to be told, ‘‘You really should go to the website for that.’’ (Incredibly, this happens all the time.) There’s a reason they called you on the phone, so talk to them!