The Secret to Self-Service Success

Last week at a Customer Advisory Board meeting, I saw a presenter who stood out as a sales training star. He worked at a world-class software provider on the verge of going public. He had spent years honing his craft as a top sales training consultant. He and his team had transformed his company’s sales effectiveness in just a few years. 

Everyone was rapt during his presentation. Later, the discussion turned towards analytics and how hard it can be to optimize sales enablement by tying training data to sales effectiveness. He mentioned that he was experiencing that particular pain right now, because his manager had just sent him a list of data-related questions he wasn’t able to answer easily. Why wasn’t this enviably competent professional able to answer his manager’s simple ad hoc reporting questions? I looked over later to see him frantically Slacking with his team. 

I could have imagined it, but did I even see him sweating a little?

He might have been more at ease if he’d had access to self-service business intelligence. But what exactly does that mean, and how do you make sure your self-service BI project won’t fail to deliver?

Let me show you how.

Self-Service BI doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. If you have a self-service initiative,  there are some easy ways to ensure success. 

But before you start to think about what “self-service” means to you and what is required. Then test rigorously before you make a decision.

Change the way you think.

Gartner defines Self-Service BI as “end users designing and deploying their own reports and analyses within an approved and supported architecture and tools portfolio.” 

But I’d argue that it’s even simpler than that. Self-service BI means that anyone in the organization can get the answers they need instantly, without help from a third party.

In real life, people don’t want more reports. What they really want is answers. It’s just that in the past, they could only access data by combing through business intelligence reporting. So avoid getting stuck in the reporting paradigm when thinking about Self-Service BI.

Set your goals

Regardless of how you define self-service, know your goals before you start thinking about solutions.

Why are you looking to enable self-service? It could be as simple as an effort to reduce the reporting backlog.

Are you trying to provide universal data access to support a transparency initiative in your company?

Or maybe you want to drive engagement among your workforce. Live leaderboards, anyone?

Now that you have some goals, how can you ensure that your initiative will hit the mark? There are quite a few things to consider, since self-service doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. 

Define Requirements

Boris Evelson of Forrester Research provides an enviable list of the top 10 components of a successful strategy

But there’s more you should consider when looking at self-service.

Number of end users

You’ll now be supporting a larger number of users, so concurrency and the ease with which you can support them are important considerations. 

What kind of support will the solution require? 

Are there particular times during the business cycle or during the day when usage will be much higher? 

What is your plan for adoption and growth? Will you be able to scale the solution for the future?

How will the licensing fees work to accommodate growth in number of users?


Be realistic about the skill level of your users. Don’t let extensive training requirements stand in the way of getting the adoption you want. 

What is your user’s skill level today, and what level of training would be acceptable to get them used to your new solution? 

Is this a solution on which users could train one another? 

Is there training material available online for free? 

Or could your users self-train within the solution itself?


Self-service isn’t free, and it isn’t the panacea we sometimes expect it to be. Remember how excited we were when we could finally book our own travel online without an agent? But how effective is it to have 100+ sales reps spending an afternoon every month booking travel and changing flight times when they could be selling? 

Keep in mind who you’re asking to self serve and whether it actually makes financial sense given the time they’ll spend. It could be that you don’t really want as much self-service as you think, especially if that means you’re asking highly paid employees to spend their golden hours sifting through data.

And what about your BI Analytics team? Your enterprise reporting strategy is still important to the organization. So you’ll want to ensure that your new self-service solution frees up your BI team for more strategic work, rather than bogging them down in implementation tasks.


Of course you only want people to access the data they should see. You’ll want to define exactly how this should work right up front. 

Do you need the security to tie in to LDAP or some other system? 

How will you maintain it as you add new users? 

Will users have to download copies of the data in order to run an analysis? 

How can you be sure everyone is working from the same set of data, and that the data is the most up-to-date copy?

Ad hoc

Is it important that your users be able to ask ad hoc reporting questions whenever they want? If not, it might be enough to increase access to existing reports across your organization.

How much ad hoc access do you want to provide? Is the ability to drill down anywhere or create reports from a template sufficient? Or do you want to give direct access to detail level data to everyone? These are very different scenarios, and each requires its own approach.

Test, Test, Test

How can you be sure you have it right? According to TDWI, you need to “populate the BI tools selection team with a cross-section of users from multiple areas and listen carefully to their feedback.”

Test extensively. 

If you have access to a free trial, don’t just take your end users’ word for it that they like it. Observe them learning to use it, and measure how often they go back to it after their initial experience. 

Broaden the pool. 

Remember that in addition to your end users, your BI and IT teams will need to understand exactly what’s involved to implement and maintain the solution. If you need five more headcount to support it, can you really call it “self service”?

Insights rule. 

What insights are your users able to reach on their own during the trial period? In the end, that’s the most telling metric of all.


After all that effort, you have to be sure people will use the new solution. Otherwise they could end up resorting to making their own reports offline in Excel or even fall back on asking your team for reports because they haven’t adopted the new solution. 

Once you’ve made the decision, you should actively focus on  helping with adoption.

Incorporate it. 

Is there some way you can tie the solution into existing workflows and applications they are already using?

Introduce it. 

If your users will be external to your organization—customers, partners, vendors—how will they be introduced to the solution? What about new user onboarding?

Make it fun. 

In her TED talk, Jane McGonigal defines a game as something that involves “voluntary participation”. We exert effort to succeed primarily because the game is fun. If your people wouldn’t want to spend their discretionary effort on your self-service BI solution, guess what? 

They won't use it.

So before you jump into a self-service BI initiative, get all the stakeholders to agree on what you mean by “self-service”. Then choose the scenarios you want to enable, and test ruthlessly with your least sophisticated end users. Your efforts will pay off in a successful project that offloads busywork from your BI team, and gives your business users the ability to get insights on their own.