Category: Margins

A twice-monthly newsletter about the craft of customer support and how expertise is found in the margins of our work. Find out more.

When customer service succeeds (and a pause)

As more of my writing energy flows toward work (82,000 words on our internal blogs this year) I find less for these posts. I have a half dozen drafts, but each resists my attempt to create better shape and quality. So rather than send half-baked ideas I’m going to pause my bi-weekly schedule of posts. Call it a summer vacation of sorts.

This week, instead of a post, I’d encourage you to read this Seth Godin post from 2015. It remains one of my absolute favorites about customer support. The core of his idea is that:

Customer service succeeds when it accomplishes what the organization sets out to accomplish.

This also means that when we do something new we have to think about how it supports our organization’s goal. Impact comes when new ideas match a company’s definition of customer support. This is as true in strategy as it is in individual support replies. No matter our role, our work is better when we connect it to what our organization sets out to accomplish.

No tactic, approach, or strategy is true for all (or even most!) teams. But that also means we can learn from organizations that take steps we would not. Instead of brushing off an inapplicable idea, learn to ask why it works for some other company. If it won’t work for your team, try to figure out why it’s successful for another.

The Best Service Is No Service

As hard as it is to remember, support teams need to reflect on why customers have to contact them at all. That’s often easier said than done as day-to-day pressures encourage a heads-down focus on the queue. The risk is that you might optimize for work that never needed to happen.

This is why I find so much worthwhile advice in Bill Price and David Jaffe’s book, The Best Service Is No Service. The authors present a vision for support that goes beyond that day-to-day, heads-down view. The book is loaded with guidelines and anecdotes, and each time I read it I take away something new.

Price and Jaffe start from the premise that people don’t begin each day hoping to contact support. This seems obvious, but it’s a reality that companies often overlook. That oversight shows up when companies focus on what a customer needs help with rather than why they need help at all. The authors put forward a clear goal: create an experience that’s so great customers don’t have to contact support.

It takes many pieces working together for that to happen and the authors outline seven key principles. For anyone leading a team, these principles will help you think about how support can partner with teams across the company. While I find some of the specifics too prescriptive, it’s nonetheless a framework that helps me examine my own assumptions and learn where our team can improve.

Early in the book they outline three categories of customer requests. These are what the authors call “dumb” contacts—those emails, chats, or phone calls that could have been avoided:

  • Customer interactions caused by the company. Think of all those issues caused by unclear processes, poor products, or long delays.
  • Customer interactions caused by support. Often these are mistakes which cause a customer to contact support again.
  • Customer interactions that are easy-to-answer. These are all those questions that take just a few seconds (or a script) to answer.

In my experience, and in many of the anecdotes they share, these three categories catch tons of issues that customers face every day. Fixing them often just takes an update to support docs, or an improved email template, or a similarly quick next step. That quick payoff is a great place to start as it helps build the trust and habits that let a team tackle more complex issues.

One of my all-time favorite examples of this kind of work comes from Dan Heath’s book Upstream. In a lot of ways it’s a less structured, spiritual successor to The Best Service Is No Service. In the first chapter of Upstream, which is also available on Medium, Heath relates how Expedia realized almost 20 million calls a year came from customers who just needed a copy of their itinerary. Wowza! They got a team together and after quick, basic improvements went from 56% of customers contacting support to just 15%. Talk about dramatic results.

A common thread in both Upstream and The Best Service Is No Service is that great service depends on more than just the support team. To make progress on those three categories I mentioned earlier requires involvement across company leadership. That’s not easy, but Price and Jaffe’s book provides a number of clear, practical suggestions. It won’t do the hard work for you, but it will give you the language and examples that help your team create a great customer experience.

When Snippets Aren’t Enough

Great customer support balances personal attention with efficiency. There are times to tailor a reply to one particular customer just as there are times to send a quick snippet and move on. What’s tough is knowing which approach to use in a given situation.

I think of it as a matter of education versus process. If I need to teach a customer, I use a highly personal reply. If I need to share a process, then a snippet works just fine.

Snippets are great for process-oriented questions that follow a common pattern. It’s easy to fire off a helpful, standard reply once a customer simply has to take certain steps. Something like how long it takes a refund to go through or what steps a customer must take to close their account are a perfect time to use simple, consistent snippets.

Educational replies, though, aren’t well served by snippets. The problem is that a customer has yet to understand some key concept and turns to support to teach them. The gap can’t be closed in the same way for each person. If I just look for a common pattern and send a preset snippet I don’t reach the customer where they are. My job in support is to figure out how the customer thinks of the situation and relate things in a way that helps them build confidence.

When teaching a customer I need to pay attention to things like terminology and the level of detail I go into so that I write in a way they’ll understand. If I overwhelm them with details or make something sound technical and complicated, I’ll lose them. The same can happen if I’m too brief in a situation where they need more detail to relate to. It’s all about connecting my reply to where they’re coming from.

Sometimes this means relatively simple things like mirroring a customer’s language for a common term. It can also involve providing a metaphor or way of relating the new information about our product to something they already know and feel confident about. Or it can be as hands-on as writing out a sample message they need to send someone like their ISP who has to fix the issue.

Those steps add an important level of personal attention into a reply. Efficiency has a role to play, too, and snippets can be a real boost. But if you go through a queue matching pattern after pattern you quickly lose sight of the people on the other end of your responses. Much of the time they need help that’s more than just a process to follow, and that’s best accomplished with individualized care.

Slow Follow Up

Live chats start fast but often require follow up emails to resolve. That follow up doesn’t have to be so fast. It can happen tomorrow.

This is easy to overlook. Chats ping-ping-ping and create this latent pressure to follow up rightnow. Many issues aren’t time-sensitive, though, and good follow up can take time. You shifted to email to create that time, so it’s best to avoid adopting a false sense of urgency.

It helps to create space for follow up emails by blocking out time in each day’s schedule. This helps you stay in the flow during chat shifts. It also creates a simple decision point: Do you have time blocked out later in today’s calendar for follow up? If so, you may be able to follow up later today. If not, tell the customer that they’ll hear from you tomorrow.

When you set aside space for follow ups you give yourself room to breathe. Live chat shifts will no longer, one follow up email after another, steadily eat into the surrounding hours. Instead you’ll have time to focus and make sure you see the entirety of a customer’s journey.

Some customers inevitably won’t like this. And you shouldn’t delay just for the sake of moving slow. But when a slower pace is required it helps to give the customer some homework. There’s likely more than one task they were working on, especially if your product involves building something. Gather pointers and suggested next steps for them to work on while you and the team figure out how to resolve their earlier issue.

The next time you have a live chat that needs to shift to email, pause. Don’t instinctively commit to fast follow up. Instead, ask yourself if it’s required or whether a slower pace is best.

Control the Conversation

It’s difficult to feel in control of a live chat. It feels like more of a face-to-face conversation than email, with each message exchange feeling instant. This immediacy creates a close connection to a customer that can make it harder to keep a conversation productive. Bow to this immediacy and you lose control and, with it, the ability to create a great customer experience. You’re now just along for the ride and hoping it ends up somewhere positive. What you need is to control the conversation and remain that confident expert guiding things to a resolution.

In my experience, chat goes sideways if the pace hits an extreme. Once things move fast they can end up off track. While it’s vital that support (not the customer) control the pace, that’s hardest when a chat moves fast and in short bursts. There are a few steps that help.

First, remember that you don’t have to engage with everything. In quick exchanges a customer’s raw frustration can come through. This often includes colorful language directed at you, the product, or the company. It’s best to just let this stress pass. You don’t want to admonish the customer for their tone. That only escalates things. Instead, stay in control (of both the conversation and your emotions) and remain focused on the task at hand, which is the only part of a message you need to engage with.

It’s also important to be deliberate in your phrasing. Short, fast messages can be sloppy. Clear, direct writing helps you keep control of the conversation; lose that clarity and all bets are off. A common mistake is to pose a question that’s intended as a statement or direction. As one example:

This is going to take me some time to dig into. Do you mind if I follow up with you later by email?

I asked that once knowing it would take over 30 minutes to sort out and had a customer respond, “No thanks, I’ll wait.” Not great! Instead, be decisive when it’s called for and if there’s a direction for how things need to go, just say so.

One way to do this is to create a shift in context. Once a live chat is off the rails it’s unlikely to go back to a productive conversation. This is when email comes into play. But for a shift to email to work you have to be firm; make it a decision rather than a hopeful question. It can help to be self-deprecating as that gives the customer a sense that they’re being escalated. Next time you’re lost, feeling stressed, and juggling a customer who simply cannot understand why it’s taking you this long, try something like this:

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s wrong here. It’s a bit of an odd case. Let me check with the rest of the team and figure out what I’m missing. I’ll follow up with you by email later today.

That buys you time and gives the customer a sense that they’ve been escalated to the pros. Your pride may take a hit, but try to shrug that off and move on. Plus, it’s easier to learn or figure something out when you don’t have an impatient customer pinging you for an update every 2 minutes. The chat was no longer productive, but at least you controlled what the next step was and are now on a path that lets you best help the customer.

Emotion is often what accelerates chat. Confusion, anger, and uncertainty can all cause messages to fly back and forth. The customer wants an answer now. You need a few minutes to compose yourself or figure out the root of the problem. The most important thing is to not leave yourself to the whim of a customer’s feelings and emotions. Understand that you can, and should, control the conversation.

Worthwhile Documentation

Detailed support docs are not enough. If they were, our queues would be emptier. A good doc builds a customer’s confidence and helps them find clear, approachable answers. They won’t find that, though, if we don’t make documentation seem worthwhile.

Any customer who contacts support is motivated to solve their problem, but that doesn’t mean a simple link will be enough to draw their attention. A support doc still has to sound compelling. And yet too often our replies tack on a link to documentation as an afterthought.

To make a doc sound worthwhile, focus on the words right before a link. I know I’ve sent many a reply like, “You can read more about this here…” with a link. That sounds superficial and ignores important context and direction. My job is to give the customer a look at what’s inside the doc and how it can help them—but a minimal reply like that does neither.

It helps to think about what the doc contains that I couldn’t just copy and paste into an email response. Here’s an example that makes it sound more worthwhile:

There’s a lot more you can do with this feature and our support doc covers all the details. That link takes you through everything and includes screenshots to help you find each step and get it set up exactly how you want.

That reply is longer, but it puts more energy behind the link. The customer gets a thorough nudge and greater confidence this is information they need to know. They can see documentation as more than just a dry manual and have a hint that it will help them be more effective. Manuals are off-putting while a good support doc helps someone learn and build confidence.

It’s extra special if you can include tidbits into some docs. If a feature’s key to the product, document a couple (brief) case studies or next-level steps. With those included you can add something like,

And check out the bottom of the page for tips from some of our largest customers about how they use this feature. There’s good advice in there that can help you avoid common mistakes.

This takes a support doc from simple help material to something more like educational marketing. It shows a customer not just how to configure a feature but how to thrive. That may save you another email from the customer later on once they’ve mastered the basics.

There’s, of course, much more that can be done with documentation. To overhaul a set of support docs can be a mountain of work that takes weeks or months while improving our own replies is work we can start today. There’s no development time required nor any software to integrate. It’s something each team member can tinker with and learn. Customers are willing to spend more time with docs once they know it’ll be worth their while.

Not Everyone Contacts You

Only some customers ask for help. Many love the product, find it intuitive, and go about their merry way while others are so lost they give up and never bother to get in touch. No matter how busy the ticket queue gets, it doesn’t represent all customers.

This makes any support-driven definition of customer sentiment only one (important!) piece of a larger puzzle. Without a reference point it’s difficult to make meaningful.

If you lead a team, you want them to understand their work in context. The most important thing from support’s perspective may be minor in the overall customer experience. Alternately, what can feel like a flood in the queue may indicate a deep fault line that needs repair. The key is to provide balance, and there are three steps you can take.

Track the percentage of customers who contact support

The size of a queue or a given week’s volume isn’t inherently useful. A backed up queue could be the sign of a growing business. Hundreds of complaints could be a tiny portion of customers. It helps to compare support interactions with the wider customer base. This provides a reference point for understanding the nuance of support load.

To start, track the percentage of new customers who contact support 1, 7, 14, 21, and 28 days after signing up. A multi-stage timeline indicates how often new customers have immediate questions and how those build over time.

As one example, maybe 10% of customers contact support but 90% of those contacts come within the first 24 hours of signing up. That’s a good indicator you need better onboarding and new user help. Alternately, perhaps only 3% of customers contact support but the company has a real issue with churn. That suggests a need to connect with more customers and, at the very least, figure out what’s lacking about the product.

As a nice side effect, this can act as a planning framework. Not only will you understand the current balance of customers who need help, but you’ll be better able to plan for future changes in the business. This kind of data shows roughly how many new customers lead to how many new support interactions, which helps you anticipate hiring needs and more.

Invite the product team to highlight all that new features can do

Support teams can focus on bugs and lose sight of what’s improved. After all, the queue is not usually full of customers who just want to say they liked a change. Over time this focus on all that’s broken can drain morale.

It helps to give product leadership a space to showcase the positives, especially when that comes prior to launch. A town hall or demo session creates a balanced relationship and focuses the team’s energy on progress rather than problems. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions ahead of time, which prepares the team to support things post-launch. Shortly after any launch you want to remember what’s improved, and without a reference point back to the product’s wider progress it’s easy to get stuck thinking nothing ever changes.

Celebrate what customers accomplish

Some customers who need help nonetheless make stellar use of a product. Often that success comes after they contact support, which makes it hard to see the connection between their support interactions and later accomplishments. But it’s that connection which reaffirms the value of each interaction; any one email may be the key that helps a customer reach their goal.

When possible, highlight these customers for the support team and wider company and focus on what each achieved through the product. What’s valuable is less about how they used certain features and more about the overall aims they accomplished. These are a good reminder of why the support team’s help matters and the type of impact it has on people. Even when a queue is full, good things arise through solving those problems.

A reminder

At any point, some portion of customers will need help as a result of poor design, engineering bugs, or marketing confusion. The ability to resolve those questions with grace is both the job description and job security of a great support team.

It’s all too easy for a team to overly focus on those problems and lose sight of accomplishments. It helps to add perspective, showcase the positives, and find the success stories. These strategies restore balance to the daily work of support which makes the work sustainable. That balance is a reminder that there’s more to how customers use the product than just what comes into the queue.

Stormy Feature Rollouts

Ever change a design or launch a new feature that your customers just hated? It’s not fun! It pushes you back on your heels and makes you rush to justify the decision. Customer after customer complains about the same thing and in response you churn out rote explanations of how they can adapt and why the new way is better.

The problem is that those formulaic replies prevent your team from learning more about where customers struggle. It’s better to restrain your desire to explain the new feature or change in design and instead keep a curious mindset. Use that curiosity to ask about how the customer used to work and what they now find difficult. Lean on cues they mentioned in their message (or rant!). As one brief example:

I realize the editor’s new line spacing is frustrating for poets like yourself. Could you tell me more about how you used the old editor? I’d love to better understand your writing process as it may help our team reconsider how this works.

Your phrasing needs to give the customer an opening to talk about their positive experiences in times past. Not everyone will take that opening, of course, but it helps to make them feel heard right away. Echo their language back to them. Show that you’re listening and curious. And then ask open-ended, inquisitive questions that get them to share more about how they used the product in the past.

The goal is to not get bogged down in their frustration with the new design. You can always detail what their options are once you better understand how they expect things to work. You want to encourage a conversation about why this change made things difficult. You want to learn not just what the customer dislikes about the new version but what they loved about the old version. This will help you relay customer feedback back to your product team because the best products are those people love to use, not those they don’t hate.

As with so many things, this is easier said than done. And, yes, some customers are just going to vent. That’s okay. That’s where those formulaic responses can lend a hand, especially if you are swamped under a growing backlog. It’s still worth the effort to find those handful of customers who give you an opening. When you find them, it’s worth investing in some individualized conversations to understand your customers’ point of view.

As you talk with more customers, you build a model of how this particular change impacted them. That understanding is crucial for your product team. Knowing that many customers are unhappy isn’t actionable. Knowing that many customers are struggling to adapt because this new design complicates a common workflow is actionable, insightful gold. That’s fertile ground for the next design iteration.

Match the Situation

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.

Simple 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.

Rambling stories

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.

Wrapping up

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.

A Case for Text Interviews

Companies often rely on hiring processes that don’t evaluate the skills a job requires. This disconnect is particularly damaging for customer support because phone interviews and panel presentations are a poor way to evaluate candidates whose expertise lies in the written word.

You can best evaluate candidates when the hiring environment matches the job; you need success in the interview and the role to require the same skills. This is why phone interviews for customer support roles are so confounding. Team members spend dozens of hours every week writing yet you form a first impression based on how they can present themselves through voice. That’s the mismatch that text-based interviews solve.

Among other things, text-based interviews teach you three things about a candidate.

  • Can they write high-quality responses quickly? Customer support requires writing clear answers in short amounts of time. While speed and clarity often feel in tension with one another, success happens when you balance each and achieve both. If a candidate keeps the interview flowing and still conveys depth it’s likely their customer interactions will be prompt and thorough. That’s the kind of team member you want to find.
  • Can they communicate ideas well under stress? Interviews are stressful, even when they push candidates on topics they know inside and out. But stress can often throw us off track and cause us to forget important, routine information. If a candidate can withstand the stress of an interview and still relate clear ideas it bodes well for how they’ll handle a frustrated or stressful customer. You want team members who can handle those customers with ease.
  • Can their writing convey a voice? Text-based conversations, especially when distributed, are a huge part of how teams form and bond. All those Slack chats may feel like an all-day meeting but they’re also important to how many teams share ideas, help one another, and build relationships. If a candidate’s answers carry personality then it’s likely they can more effectively integrate with and, as importantly, add to your team.

Each one of those is relevant to how someone performs the core responsibilities of a job in support. There’s more to it than just those traits, of course. But if you form a first impression based on those factors you are much closer to making a fair, informed hiring decision about how someone will perform in the job.

And, not to be overlooked, text interviews help you find candidates you could otherwise (subconsciously) bias yourself against and lose. In a text interview it doesn’t matter if a candidate’s not the most confident speaker, if they have an accent, or if they need 30 seconds to compose their thoughts. Any (or all!) of those things can be true and you, just like your customers on the other end of an email, won’t even notice.

Great customer support requires clear writing. How well your team writes is what defines the relationship between your company and its customers. Next time you hire a team member try a text-based interview. If you put candidates in a position most similar to the work itself then you can better evaluate how they’ll really do in the role.