Years ago I emailed Zappos support because I made a mistake in a product review and wanted to correct it, which wasn’t possible on the website. My email was two quick sentences. The response was 5 paragraphs, most of which were unrelated to my question, and it buried the answer within a middle sentence of the third paragraph.
This approach can ruin a customer experience. A great support interaction matches the customer’s situation and mindset. Great support is tuned to a customer’s particular context and avoids relying on a simplistic routine since routines, while efficient, can often miss what’s really happening. There are three common examples I like to think about that help make this idea concrete: simple questions, rambling stories, and lists of questions.
Plenty of support interactions don’t require deep, careful investigation nor a precise tone. Some customers just have a simple question that you know the answer to. They’re in search of the missing puzzle piece and it’s your responsibility to provide as clear an answer as possible.
Yes, you may want to build rapport, prove you’re not a bot, or draw the customer’s attention to something which benefits them. That’s all fine, but it’s not what the customer asked. Leading with any of that information puts the focus on what you want, not what they need.
When confronted with a simple question I make sure the answer is the very first thing in my email. This builds trust as the customer knows their needs are my priority. Plus, it can diffuse a customer’s confusion or frustration since the first thing they read solves their problem. Once you solve their problem they’ll be a lot more inclined to listen to what else you have to share. No customer should have to read through a multi-paragraph email to find the part that answers their straightforward question.
Eventually every inbox gets a rambling email that takes you on a journey. These are those stream-of-consciousness recreations of what the customer was doing whenever they ran into trouble. For better and for worse you have all the details; your goal, no matter the story, is to zero in on what’s relevant.
Often what starts as a long story only gets longer with each reply, so focus is important. It also helps to be patient; don’t pressure yourself to engage with each plot twist. Just find where the customer is stuck and reinforce the next steps they can take. Their story is also an opening to be personable. Don’t force it, but often you can find a nugget within the stream that helps humanize your service.
One way to approach these long-winded messages is to selectively quote from the email. Maybe the full note is 2,000 words. That’s ok. Pull out the three or four sentences that get to the heart of their question and either echo that language back to the customer or quote it inline in your response. It’s a gentle way to bring order to their rambling and indicate where you’re focusing your attention.
Lists of questions
Every once in a while you get an email that’s just a long list of questions. Often they’re numbered but sometimes they just run one right after the other in a big, epic paragraph. These are tough. No one wants to write out answers to 20+ questions and I’d bet few people truly want to read such a lengthy response.
When confronted with a long list of questions the challenge is to guide the customer to what will best help them, even if that doesn’t fully address each question in their list. Think of the themes that connect all their questions and find a way to start them on a path toward confidence and self-sufficiency. Their questions likely tell you a lot about their goals and you just have to nudge them along.
This is where guides and getting started tutorials are useful. It’s best when you can help the customer enough to get started while connecting them to a resource that will carry them the rest of the way. If you can’t help them make that step you’re bound to get another list of questions next week.
The last thing you want is to slip into autopilot and churn out replies based in nothing more than habit. Sure, macros and predefined replies have their place but even those are best when they’re flexible enough to be customized to the situation. Guidelines like what I describe above help avoid the tendency to fall into routine and keep the focus on the customer.
Each of the three approaches above come from a common theme: the best support is tailored to the individual customer. No individual response is the categorical Best Response for every interaction. It’s all about how you gauge the customer’s own situation and deliver them a response that best matches what they need.