Overview: What Is Self Service?

The definition of self service.

Welcome to the age of DIY. Whatever business you’re in, odds are your customers are connected, savvy, and more apt to go find the answers to questions themselves than wait on hold for a service agent to help them. Customers love self-service, and businesses that embrace it love it, too. According to the Salesforce “State of the Connected Customer” report, 59% of consumers and 71% of business buyers say self-service availability impacts their loyalty.

Self-service means offering customers and employees tools and information so they can find answers to their questions and have a better experience with a product or service. For example, a bicycle manufacturer might post customer-facing frequently asked questions (FAQ), knowledge articles, and videos related to choosing, adjusting, and maintaining your bike. A good move to make, since millennials, in particular, love using FAQs to find answers on their own whenever possible. Self-service can also be employee-facing. That same bicycle company might also offer an internal, employee-only self-service portal with information on HR policies; best practices for marketing, sales, and service; and possibly IT-related training documents. 

The term “self-service” originated in retail. In 1917, a man named Clarence Saunders received a U.S. patent for a "self-serving store." Rather than compiling a list of goods for a clerk to retrieve, customers in Saunders’ store walked around the shop, collected the items they wanted to buy, and presented them to a cashier before leaving. At the time this was a brand-new concept, one which Saunders licensed to independent grocery stores with a name you might be familiar with from the movies, if not your own childhood: Piggly Wiggly.

The advent of digital self-service.

As ecommerce 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. But it’s not just expectations driving the self-service boom; customers love helping themselves. Roughly three-quarters of consumers want the ability to solve product or service issues on their own. From basic order-tracking pages to sophisticated AI-powered chatbots that can guide customers to the information they need, digital self-service is proving a cost-effective way to deliver faster customer support, cheaper. 

Where consumers go, employees are sure to follow. Used to always-available, customer-friendly self-service options in their personal lives, workers increasingly expect the same experience from their employers. Whether it’s responding to common HR queries or building libraries of IT support content, more and more organizations see the efficiency, effectiveness, and benefit to employees in building out self-service systems. 

How do you create self-service experiences for customers and employees?

There are two primary components to any self-service system: content and delivery. In the case of those first Piggly Wiggly stores we mentioned, the content was groceries and the delivery method was the stores themselves — more specifically, their shelves full of goods. For us, we’re talking about knowledge and software. You’ll stock your self-service system full of knowledge and use software to deliver it to your customers or employees.

Self-service experiences are often called “portals,” a term referring to a webpage that serves as a gateway to a specific topic or set of information. Let’s take a closer look at how self-service portals work for both customers and for employees.

What is a self-service portal?

A self-service portal is a website with resources that help users resolve service needs and find related information on their own. Self-service portals typically fall into one of two categories: customer self-service or employee self-service. It’s not at all uncommon for a single company to offer both customer and employee self-service portals, and while the content and user experience will obviously vary dramatically between the two, both may be built using the same technology.

At a high level, any self-service portal should offer content and functionality to help users address common needs efficiently and without outside help. The specifics of which common needs are addressable without outside help will, of course, vary greatly from company to company. A software company that caters to engineers might expect a high level of technical aptitude from its users, and so offer fairly complex solutions on its self-service portal. A food delivery service catering to the general public, on the other hand, would likely want to keep its self-service options simple in comparison.

Let’s take a look at some of the basic differences between employee self-service and customer self-service, before getting to some of the options for building a self-service portal using the Salesforce Platform.

What is employee self-service?

Employee self-service (ESS) is a type of self-service system built specifically for employees. ESS lets employees handle many administrative and HR-related needs on their own. Common employee self-service tasks include updating personal information, accessing employee handbooks, and logging vacation and personal days. Some employee self-service portals also allow individuals to manage their insurance plans and other benefits.

Moving routine administrative tasks to an employee self-service portal can save companies time and money, while also increasing employee satisfaction. Rather than scheduling an appointment with HR to handle a simple chore like updating personal information, employees with access to an ESS portal can quickly take care of the matter from their desktop computer or mobile device. This frees the employee up to be more productive in their work, while also letting HR staffers focus on more complex or creative work of their own.

Take a look at our in-depth guide to ESS to learn more about the features and benefits of employee self-service.

What is customer self-service?

Customer self-service portals are designed to help consumers request services, find information, and resolve issues related to a company’s products or services. Customer portal software often combines user-searchable knowledge bases with basic administrative functionality.

The knowledge base part of a customer self-service portal might contain one or more FAQs; a browseable and searchable database of topics, articles, and tutorials; and a Q&A section where users pose questions for employees and community experts to address.Sometimes Q&As are set up as part of user forums to facilitate ongoing, in-depth product discussions and knowledge exchange.

On the administrative side, customer self-service functionality can range from simple password resets to software downloads and basic technical configuration processes. Sophisticated self-service systems can leverage a sort of triage system that points basic service requests to self-serve solutions while routing more complex problems to a human service agent.

How do I create a self-service portal using Salesforce?

Salesforce offers multiple ways to deploy self-service features that integrate with your existing website or back-office system. Salesforce Essentials, the out-of-the-box solution for small business, comes with support for Help Center. When combined with Salesforce Knowledge, Essentials lets you create a help center quickly using a template and guided setup.

For larger businesses and more complex needs, Community Cloud offers a variety of options, including Customer Community. With Community Cloud, you can offer quick access to answers to important, commonly asked questions, FAQs, and customer portals, including AI-powered content recommendations personalized based on a customer’s profile information, interests, and activities. Community Cloud supports self-service administrative tasks like paying bills, filing claims, and making appointments. It seamlessly integrates with Service Cloud so your agents can quickly respond to more pressing customer issues.


Self-service can be a great way to offer faster and better service while reducing your costs. Combining user-friendly administrative tools with important information about company products and services lets you offer 24/7 digital support without the need to hire additional service agents. A self-service portal lets your users — be they customers or employees — get help on their own terms from most any digital device, and can raise the online profile of your brand in the process.

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Getting Started with Self Service

What Is Self Service?

Chapter 1
What is a Self-Service Portal?

Chapter 2
What Is Employee Self-Service (ESS)?

Chapter 3
What Is Customer Self-Service?