Self-service is for high volume, simple to do tasks. For less frequent, complex tasks, face-to-face is often the best option. 

The worst thing you could possibly do is make everything self-service. "Let’s put everything online" has a lovely ring to it. You hear it in government a lot. We publish everything because we’re transparent and we want to serve citizens. It’s a noble idea but unfortunately it usually ends up with an unmanageable, unfindable, unusable online presence.

Self-service doesn’t work for everything. There are services that are much more effectively delivered over the phone or in face-to-face situations. Not only that, delivering services this way costs less and leads to greater customer satisfaction. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true.

Self-service design is really hard and expensive to do right. It takes lots of testing and observing in order to optimize. Online, customers are ruthless. If you don’t deliver simplicity on their terms in seconds, they leave. If they have to do business with you then they’ll send you an email, make a call or walk into your office.

Some services are very complex. I talked to a manager of a council / municipality who told me that services connected with planning permission were very hard to deliver online. No matter how many times they rewrote the instructions they kept getting applications full of errors and misunderstandings. So, they ended up requesting that people phone them for a 30-minute initial discussion. Much better applications were received, saving everyone lots of time and money in the longer term.

When deciding on whether to choose self-service or not there are two types of costs that need to be calculated: fixed costs and variable costs. Self-service has high fixed costs and low variable costs. Face-to-face service has low fixed costs and high variable costs.

Creating a website or app is cheap. Hire a student. Creating and managing a website or app that is really simple and fast to use is hard and expensive. Simplicity doesn’t come cheap. It takes lots of effort to create and maintain a simple self-service environment.

However, once you have created that simple self-service environment then the cost per task completion (variable cost) tends to be relatively low. Whether a room booking system has to deal with 100 or 300 bookings per hour doesn’t change the costs very much. In general, the more task completions (transactions) the better the business case is for self-service. As self-service scales, the cost per task completion declines.

It’s the opposite with face-to-face service. The variable cost is high and constant because we’re dealing with two humans interacting. If it takes 10 minutes to deal with customer A, then it will take roughly 10 minutes to deal with customer B. In general, the higher the demand from customers the worse the business case for face-to-face becomes. However, for low demand, highly complex tasks, face-to-face often does better because the fixed cost is not so high when compared to self-service. From a fixed cost point of view the physical infrastructure that staff work with (offices, phones, etc.) are often already accounted for and/or can be spread over a number of functions and activities.