Essential Ingredients for Customer Support

Customer support is a fantastic, but sometimes tricky business. It's so much more than simply the ability to talk to people and be somewhat polite. While many companies give a great deal of lip service to customer support, it is a sadly rare to find a truly great customer support experience. For most companies, it is a work in progress, and even the best can't ever say they've really arrived, there is always something that can be improved or done differently. The first step in a great customer support process is hiring the right people to do the job (incidentally true in most jobs). Your other support tools, like documentation and FAQ's, might be great, but your support values are the most crucial aspect. You have to know going into the process what you are trying to accomplish, and what values will help you accomplish it.

We at SupportBee recently started prioritizing our support process. Before now, it was primarily done by members of the developer team. That worked alright for a while, but definitely had its limitations. Early in the process we decided we needed to figure out what we were looking for and how we were going to accomplish it. In keeping with that mission, the first step was finding out what we wanted to accomplish, and how we were going to accomplish it. It isn't always easy to verbalize a goal for support, and many time it is left unspecified.

When referring to customer support in a SaaS environment, it can be even more complicated. Support isn't so simple as "Sure, let me return that for you, we're sorry you're dissatisfied." Instead it can be a range of issues from needing to spend hours hunting down a bug, and more hours or even longer fixing it, to evaluating 50 feature requests when your team only has time to implement 4-5. Not that other industries don't have complicated issues (after working a brick and mortar retailer, believe me, "I'd like to return this product" issues can turn into giant headache quickly), but the issues are just...well...different. The approach, however, doesn't necessarily have to be. But whether simple or complicated, headache or a breeze, you can't underestimate the value of knowing when you walk into a problem what you are trying to accomplish and how you are hoping to accomplish it. With that value in mind, we sat down and tried to determine exactly what our support should look like. Here are 5 ingredients we are working towards for our support here at SupportBee:

Delightful

Traditionally, good support has been any intereaction that doesn't end in a customer blowing a blood vessel or immediately cancelling and telling all his friend (just think of everytime you contacted support with your mobile carrier). But great customer support should be so much more than that. It isn't enough to just not piss the customer off, or at least not piss them off bad enough to leave. Great customer support seeks to send the cusomter away happier than when he got there.

I've used tools in the past that had mediocre customer support, and I didn't cancel simply because the hassle wasn't worth it. Sure, they did the minimum to keep me as a customer. But if anyone asked me about them, they got no stellar review from this guy, and for users like that, the second someone comes along promising an easy alternative, they'll be gone. The bare minimum is easier, and it might seem like a good day if our "customers lost" column is empty, but customers that are just satisfied don't give glowing reviews, and in spaces that are often crowded, a good review vs. a "yea, they're ok" review is often the difference between someone creating an account or browsing elsewhere. Remember, there are too many options out there to settle for being "good enough." Take the extra time, and be willing to go the extra mile. Show your customers that they are valued, show them that you are on their side, and make sure it is clear that you aren't happy until they are. Commit to solving problems and fixing pain points, and let your customers know you are committed, and you'll find that delighting customers isn't really as hard as we think.

When the goal of support is to leave the customer satisfied, you're shortchanging yourself. Not to say that isn't a noble aim, and often it will accomplish what you need to accomplish. But satisfaction has a distinct air of mediocrity. The "Those guys are ok, I guess" mentality won't convince your customers to be brand ambassadors. Make your goal to delight customers, not simply satisfy.

Relational

For some reason, companies seem to love transactional support. Viewing incoming support requests as business transactions that might as well have been generated by a machine, because sometimes that is easier than thinking of them as coming from a human, especially when you're saying no to a feature request, or informing them that you don't support a specific action they really want to take. Believe me, I've been there. But while in the short term, relationship building through your support is more time consuming, and can be a bit harder, in the long run everyone likes the personal touch. Everyone likes being treated like a human, and more than that, a person who really matters, and is important. Knowing this makes it all the more amazing when companies don't treat their customers as valued human beings. They are the most valuable part of your business, and without them, you won't have a business for long.

When I contact any support team, if the response I get back includes a ticket number, I cringe. Not that it is always the case, but when I see a case number or ticket number, I feel like a receipt. One of the things we try to avoid at SupportBee is using ticket numbers in our conversations with customers. It just feels impersonal. Not always the case, and I realize that every setup is a little different. Sometimes ticket numbers are very necessary and useful, but if they can be avoided, we prefer to avoid them. It's the very reason we have the option (and use it ourselves) to include the agent name in every reply instead of the company name. It makes the interaction more personal. Use the customer's name, and don't be afraid to get friendly and personal with the customer.

We want to build relationships because we want our customers to be more than transactions. Relationships build loyalty, and relationships with loyalty will lead to a positive brand and reputation from your customers. As a personal addendum to this part: there's a balance to being relational with people, because the temptation, especially in today's "let's all be cool and casual" startup environment, is to leave professionalism at the door. Being personal and being professional are not mutually exclusive. You can balance both of them, and end up with a really great result in personal relationships with customers without being that kid that doesn't know how to act around adults. Don't be that guy.

Simple

When I'm talking to support personnel, or (in our case) hearing requests from support personnel, sometimes I think to myself "Why are you doing that?" or "Is that step really necessary?" For example, I've been in brick and mortar stores listening to someone in Customer Service go on about the 55 steps they needed to take and things to check and people to call to see if they could return this $10 item, and thought to myself... surely this could be simpler. Whether in trying to track metrics, or trying to accomplish certain types of troubleshooting, or even just setting up a support process, it is well worth your time to go through your system and doublecheck for ways to simplify. Once you've done that, go back through it.

The time you spend simplifying the process will be more than made up for in the time your support agents won't spend jumping through hoops, not to mention the time your customers won't spend waiting for them to figure out how to get through the obstacle course of your support steps. Some steps can't be avoided, and sometimes a process will have complex elements, especially when it comes to tracking metrics or accountability. But one of the reasons a specific set of goals and guidelines for support is important is to maintain simplicity. Approach each aspect of your process and ask yourself if it is really necessary. Does it help to accomplish one of your goals? Is there a tool that you could be using to make it easier or more efficient? (Integrations are awesome) Can a step be automated? (Zapier anyone?) Are your agents distracted from the main goals of delighting and building relationships because they are too busy checking this box, CCing that person, or climbing some process-inflicted mountain of checks and balances? (This goes back to picking the right people, which we'll talk about later. In a nutshell, if you need 50 check for agent accountability, you might want to spend more time picking the right people.)

Don't misunderstand me, those things aren't always bad, and every support process is unique and requires slightly different approaches. The point is to look for ways to simplify. Your ways won't look like our ways. But both of us should be looking. Your customers and agents will thank you.

Empathetic

When I read empathy, I groan inside. Mainly because it doesn't come easy for me. My natural response is more along the lines of "Suck it up!" So I understand how difficult this can be sometimes. I'm sure I'm not alone in having support conversation and thinking that maybe the person on the other end needed to chill, or was being over-dramatic, or just wanting to roll my eyes and ask if this was really as big a deal as they said it was. We've all been there. Because this part is hard. It's really difficult to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and try to understand a question or issue from their perspective. We all tend to view things from our own perspective, because we think of it as the correct, reasonable one. So any perspective other than mine must be unreasonable, whiny, or just nuts. This is the easy attitude to take, but in support you don't have the option. Just as we've all been on the giving end of a support conversation that was difficult to empathize with, we've also been on the receiving end, when we had an issue, and weren't getting any understanding or empathy. I imagine there have been times that I contacted a company about questions that seemed really dumb. Or I made a big deal about something that later, or to the person I was talking to, seemed really minor and petty. But to me, In the moment, for whatever reason, it was a big deal.

Empathy requires that we remember that not everyone has our perspective, but that doesn't make them wrong or us right, or vice versa. It's just different. Maybe they have different goals and priorities that make this an important issue, or maybe their use is different from mine, and the problem they are facing is a big one from that angle. Empathy lets me stay friendly and relational with people, even when it isn't easy. It lets me keep the delightful aspect to support even when I don't understand why a particular issue is a problem for them, because I recognize and remember that I'm not them, and they aren't me, and I've been in their position before. When I look at a problem and think it is easy, or a feature and think it is simple, they might look at it and see how complicated it is. There are so many variables that can decide where and how a person approaches an issue. When I take my car in for repair, I assume that the issue is hard, and one I could not fix myself. My mechanic invariably says, "Yea, we can take care of that for you. It's a pretty simple fix." For him it is simple. For me it would be a headache. Is he just smarter than me? Well...probably. But more than that, we just have different perspectives, or in this case different skill-sets.

Empathize with your customers experiences, don't treat them as ridiculous, or silly, or petty. Sometimes you'll get a request taht is all those things, but more often than not you just need to take a second and try to see it from the customers perspective. Maybe their reaction to a problem is due to some deadline, or panic, or a boss breathing down their neck, or maybe they just aren't good with a particular kind of problem or issue. The good news for them? That is what you are there to help with. The good new for you? A little empathy in support goes a really long way to accomplishing the other goals I mentioned here. No one wants to contact support and be made to feel stupid. We all want someone who understands, and we want the feeling of relief that comes with finding someone who treats our issue with the same sense of urgency and concern that we feel. When I contact any support team, hearing "We get it, and you're right, this is a problem and we're going to fix it" is a great start to the process.

The more you work at empathy, the better you'll get at it, and the easier it will come to you. And let me repeat, I get it. It can be hard sometimes. Some people make it even harder. But I promise you, the results are well worth the effort.

Effective

Customer support requests often involve reporting bugs, but many of them also involve feature requests, assistance in using or understanding features, and requests for guidance of various kinds. You can be as relational as you want, have the simplest, most straightforward process, and delight the heck out of everyone that contacts you, but at the end of the day, if your customers leave with their issues unresolved, you have failed at the most basic goal of any support team. Your customer support process should be doing everything mentioned above as steps in the process of helping customers from the "I'm lost" or "This isn't working" stage to the "It works!" and "Wow, I'm glad I understand that feature now!" stage. Turning Joe Customer into Jo Super User is a sure sign that you're doing something right. This has multiple benefits in saving time, resources, and headaches for both you and your users. Effective support can mean the difference between 5 support sessions with a customer and 2 sessions. Not to say that you might not love talking to someone about the same topic 5 times in a day or week, but at some point you might start to wonder if there is a breakdown in communication somewhere. Occasionally it might just be a case of complex subject matter, but more often than not, it's a case of misunderstanding on your part, their part, or both.

If you've been doing customer support for any period of time, you've had the experience of beating your head on the desk wondering why this person isn't getting what you're explaining, only to discover after hours of frustration that you completely misunderstood their question, or an aspect of their question. The result of that interaction? Either you feel stupid, or more likely (because no one likes to admit that they just misunderstood) you pull the whole "Why couldn't this idiot just say that in the first place?" thinking, and as soon as you start thinking of your customers as idiots you're going to lose that delightful, relational aspect. Or at least hurt it. I don't know about you, but I don't normally invest a lot of time delighting and developing relationships with people I think are idiots. Granted, you might have one or two among your user base, that's statistics, but...let's at least try to think of everyone as in the not stupid category. Constantly evaluate your support for effectiveness. It might seem really obvious, and most of us probably have support processes that at least squeak by on this one. But when someone walks away thinking "Yea, I guess I kind of get it" or has to come back every few days to be reminded of a solution you gave them...that's a far cry from someone really understanding.

If you find your support to be struggling with effectiveness, revisit your process. Can you simplify it? Can a process be automated? Is this feature just a bit too complicated in its design, or does it really doe what our customers want? Again, effective support might look slightly different depending on the specific subject, but it's something all support teams should be measuring constantly. Your agents will thank you when they spend less time repeating themselves and more time creating super users, and those users will thank you when they can use your product to a fuller, more useful degree. Heck, it will probably help build a relationship with them. And delight them. Because you empathized with them, simplified it all and made it super effective. It all fits together so nicely.


None of this is to say that we've figured it out, or that this is the final word on SupportBee's support process. It will change, we'll keep evaluating it, and keep updating it. There are very few processes in a company that can be over-thought, and couldn't stand from being revisited every so often. These aren't even super original ideas; I'm sure others have similar lists. But when it comes to supporting people who are in turn supporting others, these are the goals we have in mind. Do we accomplish them all perfectly? Unfortunately not. Closer sometimes than others, but it's a work in progress. The key is that we are looking. We're trying to find ways to improve the support process, and make it an easier, more pleasant, straightforward process for our users. Which is an extra challenge when you are supporting support teams, so...we'll keep working at it.

Jonathon Lumpkin

Jonathon Lumpkin