Provide Certainty

One of the best things we can do in support is provide people with certainty. It gives the people we help confidence to reach their goal and increases the likelihood they’ll be successful using our service. To do this well we must pay particular attention to our language, as it’s all too easy for uncertainty to slip in. And uncertainty is not why people turn to support.

People contact support only after something’s gone wrong. They’re stuck, they fear they broke something, or they’re stressed in our unfamiliar world of bits and buttons. Our queues are not filled with messages from self-sufficient customers who have it all figured out. If only! Instead, we help motivated-but-lost people. People who are looking for certainty.

We often introduce uncertainty when we try to be conversational. In an effort to seem approachable we soften our language as if we were talking to someone in-person. This is when we dip into our bag of “should” and “usually.” Those are dangerous words for support writing.

“Usually” risks over-simplifying the matter. The problem is that usually people don’t have to contact us at all! So by the time somebody contacts us we are already into the realm of the unusual. It can also imply a sense of carelessness or a lack of due diligence. People pick up on that. When you tell someone that your suggestion “usually” fixes things they all too often think you’re just moving them along. In their mind, you’ve done the bare minimum to understand the issue and just want their problem to no longer be your responsibility.

Pay particular attention to “usually” when offering common suggestions. Take the example of clearing a browser’s cache; there are plenty of issues that this truly does fix. But it’s so common that it can feel like a guess or deflection. Instead of making the usual suggestion, tell them the best first step to take (bonus points if you also tell them why it’s a good idea to start there).

You can usually fix this by clearing your browser’s cache. To do this…

The best first step is to clear your browser’s cache. This will help us rule out any common but pesky issues that might be at play. To do this…

Every time we write “should” we need to be similarly wary and ask ourselves why we can’t just write “will.” When writing that something “should” work I picture the other person raising an eyebrow and asking, “Well…aren’t you the expert? Don’t you know?” They’re right! This kind of uncertainty is often an indicator that we’re hedging our bets or moving too quickly. We might be pattern matching instead of diagnosing this person’s situation. Instead, where at all possible, verify that your suggestion will work and write as much.

Some situations are inevitably uncertain. We investigated all we can but we’re short of complete confidence and don’t want to make a false promise. In this case we need to counterbalance “should” with a definite next step. If clearing the browser’s cache “should” fix things, then what’s the next step when that doesn’t work? Figure that out before replying and include it in your message.

Those steps above should clear everything up. Thanks for writing in!

Those steps above should fix the issue. But, if you try what I outlined and find it’s still not working, the next step is to…

These small language changes can have a big impact on the people we help. Simply using our service has likely left them more uncertain and hesitant than they’d like. They turned to our service with hope and a goal but have found themselves lost and confused. Even the software-savvy people we help are new to our particular, sometimes quirky, configuration of pixels and screens. For both, the uncertain and the savvy, confidence is elusive. We can lend people our confidence and expertise. We can show them the definite path forward.

The Craft of Customer Support

I’ve long-wished for more blog posts about the craft of customer support, posts that came from individuals rather than company blogs. Perhaps when you spend all day writing to customers the idea of even more writing isn’t exactly appealing. Fair. But there’s something qualitatively different about individuals writing in their own space on the web. And while I wrote more in the past, that’s lagged in recent years.

I’ve also long-felt that, no matter our career, we build our experience in the margins. Our expertise is driven by the small edges we find, polish, and learn deeply. That holds true for support, and when we do the work well it can be a long-term career. The question is how we as a community explore and teach that expertise. Writing on the open web feels like the best answer, though I’m naturally biased given my work of the last 10+ years and counting.

Starting next week I’m going to combine those two outlooks and, twice a month, write about the craft of support. What exact form this takes is a bit TBD, but I’ve been thinking about two topics:

  • Support writing: Our words are our primary connection to customers and I’d like to explore how small adjustments in our writing can make all the difference.
  • Book recaps: Since reading is my primary hobby I’d like to recap my key takeaways from various customer support books, with an eye toward helping people find books worth exploring.

Sound interesting? You can subscribe via this site’s RSS feed or the newsletter below. The newsletter’s nothing special, since each post will be on the web, but if you prefer email this makes it nice and easy. No spam ever and a one-click unsubscribe.

Here’s to writing more about customer support and to finding our expertise in the margins. We can always learn from one another and improve.

The calm of rereading

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.

L.E. Sissman((Poet (slash advertising executive) and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship as quoted in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.))

Even in normal times, reading is my primary hobby. In the midst of a pandemic, with none of the usual work travel that a typical year involves, that’s even more the case. My time for reading has easily doubled and, as importantly, is no longer interrupted by timezone changes and long flights.

One of the most calming ways to spend that time has been to reread favorite novels. These are those enjoyable stories that I find easy to reside within. They don’t have to be profound works of Literature, just books that I connect with.

Rereading brings something familiar back into the day. You catch an echo of previous readings and past versions of yourself. As the poet quoted above notes, rereading provides a piece of understood continuity in a world that can be anything but.

James Hilton’s Lost Horizon is near the top of this list for me. Pretty much anything by Hermann Hesse is, too, though The Glass Bead Game remains a particular favorite. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series held up unexpectedly well despite (or maybe because of?) a 20-something year gap from my last reading.((Try to ignore the cover art on the current edition, which feels very non-canonical; such is the problem of locking the first edition you read in your mind as The Right Edition.))

If you’ve not read a favorite novel in years, pick it up again. Give your brain a break from the world and any desire to be productive, just let it fall back into a familiar story and pattern at a time when we lack those things.

2019 in books

Building off of 2018’s more organized list of books, I logged each book I read over the course of 2019. It was a more reading-filled year in which I finished 72 books. A big part of that came from making more time for reading in my vacations; the early morning hours are just the perfect time for a cup of coffee and a book.

Most of that reading happened over a digital format. The new(er) Kindle Oasis from Amazon is a near-perfect device, at least for my habits, and its adjustable warm light is one of those instantaneous difference makers I can’t imagine going without. While I still prefer hard copy books the convenience, portability, and single-purpose nature of the Kindle win out for day-to-day reading.

My favorites on the nonfiction side were Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. They’re very different reads as one is more philosophical and the other more popular science. Status Anxiety considers why, both historically and ideologically, we feel such a need to gain and compete for status (and all the anxiety that comes along with that). The Goodness Paradox is a fascinating look how humans exhibit extremely peaceful day-to-day relations alongside vicious forms of planned violence. The discussion of bonobo and chimpanzee behavior and habitat was one I found particularly worthwhile.

On the fiction side, my standout favorites were three Classics-related books: The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Miller’s books are retellings of myths from Ancient Greece. She really masters the storyline in a way that makes them accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the history. Wilson’s book is a new translation of the Homeric poem. While it’s all written in iambic pentameter she relies on a voice that makes Odysseus’ journey engaging and easy to follow.

There’s a lot from 2019’s reading that has stuck with me and, I hope, will continue to filter into my thinking. A 2020 personal goal is to get more of my reading notes into a public, online format. Over the course of a typical nonfiction book I’ll take a few thousand words of notes, but they sit in raw, local text files. There’s some sort of editorial process those need to go through, though, to be intelligible outside of my own brain.

My 2020 reading list is up and running. And as I figure out how to best share reading notes I’ll link to them from that page.


Along the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail.

We just got back from a week in Kauai, which is turning into an annual tradition for us. It’s such a relaxing place to be and with much of the island geared toward tourism it certainly makes vacations easy to plan.

The focus for this trip was getting open water certified for SCUBA diving, which I can now say I am. We went through the folks at Fathom Five, who I’d highly recommend if you’re looking to dive in Kauai. This was by far the most enjoyable training and certification I’ve ever done!

Other than the SCUBA course we didn’t get up to too much. A big part of each day was spent reading, more on that in a bit, and the main other activity was an afternoon hike along the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail (pictured above). It’s an easy 4-mile roundtrip hike with just perfect scenery. Plus there’s a small farm at the end with giant land tortoises.

I also took an afternoon and put together a small WordPress plugin for keeping track of links and bookmarks. I’ve long-used Pinboard for this and used to share links directly here, too. But both solutions felt imperfect. The plugin is just a custom post type with a meta field that pipes into a separate feed. So far, so good.

On the reading front I worked my way through five books. I first wrapped up two that I’d had in-progress from before vacation: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu and The Overstory by Richard Powers. The Overstory is one of the more thoughtful pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. I then read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia which is excellent, though difficult to describe. I wrapped up the week by tapping into my inner hermit and read two books on solitude: Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France and Solitude: A Return to the Self by Anthony Storr.

How to lose a customer, forever

Typically ease of use is something we think about when it comes to signing up for and beginning to use a service. I increasingly believe it’s the ease of use in leaving a service that has an equal impact on customer loyalty. The worse the experience of leaving is, the more your former customers will tell their friends not to even start.

Ultimately the cancellation experience should surpass, or at the very least meet, the signup experience in ease of use. Invert that relationship at your own risk because the harder it is to leave, the easier it is to decide to leave forever.

To illustrate this, let me recount my experience renting a small private office a few blocks from home. I toured the space on a weekday afternoon in February and decided to rent it on a month-to-month basis. 45 minutes after emailing the office manager I had everything signed and paid for.

On March 7th I was incorrectly billed an extra $15. On April 8th I was billed an extra $30. And again on May 8th I was billed an extra $30. On May 18th I got a refund for $45. But the remaining $30 was never refunded, despite multiple emails and in-person reminders.

Earlier this month I decided to switch back to working from home full-time. I emailed the office manager in the early afternoon on August 3rd, a Saturday. It will be 59 days later, on September 30th, that I will no longer be paying for an office I’ve not used since July.

There’s an asymmetry to the timeline of these transactions. I paid them thousands of dollars. They can’t be bothered to refund me $30. Signing up to pay them took an afternoon. Closing the account will take longer than it took to buy our apartment. And getting a refund is simply a lost cause (as is any inclination I have to ever use their services again).

There are parallels here to some of the more notorious customer experience complaints. I’m thinking of those companies with retention specialists, those that require you to pick up the phone to cancel a service you paid for online, that sort of thing.

We all know these companies. And when we do use them it’s more often due to the sheer lack of alternatives than it is out of loyalty. If you’re in a market where there are alternatives then you better pay attention to the ease with which customers can leave your service. If it’s an order of magnitude easier to signup than it is to leave then it’s only a matter of time before your customers have left for good.

Hypernatural Monitoring

Hypernatural Monitoring: A Social Rehearsal Account of Smartphone Addiction is a research paper from two researchers at McGill University in Montreal. The authors outline how our social tendencies combine with smartphone technology to lead to excessive status monitoring.

The full paper is worth reading and is written in pretty clear language. What I find worthwhile is how, rather than place the blame solely on technology, the authors dig into how conditioned behavior and devices interrelate. The core of the authors’ argument boils down to this:

We suggest, rather, that it is the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people and seeking to learn from others that induce and sustain addictive relationships with smartphones…We add that comparing ourselves to others and against cultural norms also enables us to derive meaning, motivation, purpose, and a sense of identity. With socially connected smartphones, this evolutionary process simply runs on overdrive.


Hamarikyu Gardens.

We spent 10 days on vacation last month in Tokyo and rather than try to sprint around Japan we decided to settle down in the center of the city and just relax for all 10 days. Turned out that was a great decision as we loved the slow pace staying in one place allowed for.

The highlight was really the sheer abundance of green spaces within the city. For such a densely packed metropolis it was refreshing to be able to also wander through so many gardens and parks. We also spent a good bit of time in various art museums. The very approachable Nezu was great, and includes an incredible garden down the hillside in back.

And as usual I brought half a suitcase of books with me. The list for this trip was Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, William Irvine’s On Desire, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and Justin Vaïsse’s biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Constant Adjustment

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new.

Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude.


View from La Pedrera.

Last month we took a break from the dreary, January weather in Portland and spent 9 days in Barcelona. While it was my second trip to the city, the first one was for work and I had a cold for much of the week. The weather turned out to be exactly what we’d hoped for: 50+ and mostly sunny.

One of the nice parts about visiting in mid-January is that it’s way off-season. A lot of places were empty and even crowded places were manageable. We had no problem just deciding day-of what we wanted to do most days.

One of the highlights was going hot air ballooning north of the city in Vic. It was a lot colder than we anticipated but the views and experience were fantastic. You can see the Pyrenees peaking out from just under the cloud line.

We also spent time in La Sagrada Família. The light was as amazing as I remember and we were fortunate that for much of the first hour there weren’t more than a few dozen people around.

Toward the end of the week we took the train out to the abbey at Montserrat. The abbey itself is interesting but what really makes the experience are the rock formations around. The path down to the hillside cave was deserted and we had the space to ourselves.

We took it at a pretty relaxed pace over the 9 days so we left ourselves with plenty to do on a return trip. Already looking forward to it!