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Customers be like: I can do it myself

I love travel, including the planning part—choosing where to go; playing with arrival and departure cities to find the best deal; figuring out the train systems and scoring an amazing Airbnb. It makes me feel intrepid and savvy. I design an experience in my head and then I get to have it. I know there are full-service travel agencies that do it all for you, but I can’t imagine using them. That wouldn’t be my trip. It would be living someone else’s experience. I would feel infantilized, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. A lot of people—Millennials especially—like getting their hands dirty and doing things themselves.

According to Forbes, 67 percent of Millennials say they’d rather start their own businesses than work for someone else; 77 percent would rather educate their own kids than put them in the school system. That’s not about the prevalence of guns and school shootings—entirely—but about being able to teach kids what they think is important and being able to live a mobile lifestyle, even as a parent. More and more, people want to manage their own investments and retirement accounts, fix up their own houses and cars, do their own house hunting, and build their own computers.

As one marketing writer put it in Inc. magazine, consumers are seeking more control and independence, and that includes how they interact with companies: “They want to co-create something with your brand.” Meaning, it’s nice to engage your customers, but many want to take what you offer and make something new or personal with it. The question, then, is: How can you enable them to do so? It begins with transparency.

[Read also: Lead with trust: advice from Shopify’s Marcie Murray]

Open the gate

Industries used to be opaque and mysterious, and customer service handled the gatekeeping. Today these same industries are being disrupted by a new breed of companies that are transparent about how they operate. For example, finding a reasonable flight used to be a mystery that only the priesthood of travel agents could understand—now there are myriad blogs and self-service options. Planning for retirement required wrestling with incomprehensible financial terms and rules—now there are apps that let you save money and choose your portfolio simply. Getting legal help meant visiting someone for hundreds of dollars per hour who knew the magic words to protect you from a world of trouble—now you can use one of a number of websites that tell you how to fill out a contract or government form. Real estate agents had a list only they could access telling them what houses were for sale, but today you can search for your house on your own. The customer service of yore created a level of dependency and demanded trust in institutions and authorities that simply doesn’t exist today.

The customer service of yore created a level of dependency and demanded trust in institutions and authorities that simply doesn’t exist today.

That’s because knowledge is power. Whoever has the knowledge has the power. And

Think about auto mechanics. There are the ones who will tell you your flux capacitor needs replacing and it can’t be done without also removing and replacing the quadanium steel outer hull and that’s going to cost ya’. They know full well you don’t know what they’re talking about and they like to keep it that way. Then there are DIY repair shops where people go in, mechanics tell them what’s wrong with their cars, lend them the tools and give them the instructions to fix it. It probably takes longer. It definitely results in mistakes. And it might not even be cheaper. But it allows the mechanics to share the knowledge they have, and gives customers an opportunity to feel a tangible connection to the machine that gets them around. These customers are not passive owners; they’ve contributed to making the thing work.

Today, good customer service continues to play a vital role in cultivating trust between customers and businesses—but when the services rendered have been stripped of mystery, so, too, must the service experience when a customer does need assistance. This means providing an easy avenue to help, including a robust DIY option that gives customers a sense of engagement, control, and customization. There are a few good ways to go about this.

1. Show your process. One way is to create marketing and help content that lets customers see how the proverbial sausage is made.

For example, some companies, like Le Tote, create a video that explains exactly how their service works so customers know what you offer before they commit.

You can also create a blog that serves as both helpful guide and lead generation tool. A recruiting agency, for example, could create content around what makes a good resume, how applicant tracking systems work, and what top interview questions employees should prepare for. In your content you can explain things like:

  • How do you source your materials?
  • What are the “secret” rules your company or industry lives by?
  • What are the best seasons to shop for your product or service?
  • What changes are happening in the social or regulatory environment that will affect how you operate in the future?

Retailer Everlane, adopted a model of “radical transparency” and discloses the true cost of their apparel, and their markups. They also make public information about the factories they use.

2. Make it easy. Another way is simply to make sure you have an interface that’s easy to use. If you’re a utility provider, are you clear about how billing happens and do you give people the chance to add or remove services that affect their monthly bills? If not, you can be sure your customer service team will be fielding a wealth of contacts.

If you’re a SaaS company, have you tested your product sufficiently with different audiences to make sure all the functions are intuitive and easy to use?

In other words, have you identified and removed the roadblocks that exist for customers to take care of changes to their own accounts, or are you making them run through customer service?

In other words, have you identified and removed the roadblocks that exist for customers to take care of changes to their own accounts, or are you making them run through customer service?

3. Ask for input. In good self-service and DIY, asking consumers what they need, what's missing, and how to improve the content is imperative. (Surveys! Focus groups!) When you come out from behind the curtain, you also stand to gain consumer trust. So, if you're not already tapping your customer service team for insight into customer hurdles that could be built into your product or service, or to learn which account issues consumers routinely ask for help with, it's high time you do.

[Read also: Trust your agents to make customers happy]

Sure, there will always be consumers that like the full-service treatment. I wish I could have someone else do my taxes from start to finish, for example. And it’s important to offer those options as well. But they tend to be a lot more work and investment for the company than investing in some DIY options in your product, service, or customer service experience. We’ve reached the point where the companies that put the control into the hands of the people they serve, will be the ones to succeed.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.

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