Trying New Things


I presented this talk at UserConf 2012 in San Francisco. It’s all about practical ways of providing great customer care along with some new ideas to try out. I cover the basics like email and phone support then move into some new ideas like online classes and in-person support.

You can also watch my UserConf talk here.

Fair warning, this essay is pretty lengthy so make sure you’ve got some time to read through it before you jump in.


  1. Current support world
  2. Email as the cornerstone
  3. Phone support at the right time
  4. Help pages for self-service
  5. Meet them on Twitter and Facebook
  6. Chatting via live chat
  7. Online meeting space
  8. Online classes (never say webinar)
  9. Live and in-person support
  10. Trying new things

A map of the world

Our current support world is pretty depressing.

Let’s say you’re a customer and you’ve got a problem. How do you reach someone for help?

Email remains the defacto standard for interaction.  A customer runs into a problem, sends  us an email, we fix it, and then reply back to them.  Everyone’s app and company out there at the very least has a support email address.

Sometimes, you’ll find an option for phone support.  But it’s often costly to the company since you have to man those phones.  The average wait time for a customer on a support call is 122 seconds.  That’s just over 2 minutes of boring Kenny G music.  To shorten the wait time, you have to increase the number of people you’ve got answering phones, which means more money and just isn’t a feasible option for most support teams out there.

We’ve got support emails and phone calls so far in our current reality.  Rounding these two out typically are help pages.  If you’re really lucky, the company will have some sort of help section that details frequently asked questions, more complicated settings and tools, and so on.  But most of these are poorly designed and rarely updated.  Trying to find an answer is a matter of picking exactly the right words in the right combos.

Overall, a rather depressing view, right?  Our lonely customer finds themselves stuck on hold or lost in help page hell as their question goes unanswered.

The good news is that there’s a better way.

Over the years, I’ve learned a great mix of different support channels that work for the customer and our team.  I’m going to share with you the things we’ve tried at 37signals, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and some of the new things we’re trying too.  The big thing to remember in all this is one simple idea.

Make it easy on the customer. 

When a customer reaches out to support, they’re looking for help. They don’t want to go through ten different steps to just talk with you. So with every new support thing you try, put the hard part on your team and keep things easy for the customer.


With our support, email is still defacto.  It’s quick and easy, which is why it’s the standard for every support team out there.  The key here is to make it drop dead simple.  If a customer has to dig through your site to find an email address, it’s the start of a bad experience.  Put an easy to find help link right inside your app or on the front page of your site.  Make that link go over to so they know exactly how to get in touch with you.

Then make sure that any subdomain a customer enters will work to. Have /help redirect over to the support page. A customer getting a 404 page on a URL like is just frustrating for the customer.

When you reply, most support emails will be short clarifications or fixing some bug.  Short and concise, that’s the key. Write like a human. Sound like a human. Be a human to the customer on the other end of your email because they deserve that from you. I’ve even got a brief guide on how to write emails like that.

But there will be times words don’t do enough.  When I explain how to pull an iCal feed into Google Calendar, it’s a lot easier to attach a screencast to that email showing exactly how to do that.   It actually speeds up an email because I can say “That one can get tricky so here’s a short video showing exactly how to do that.” Customers love being able to see and replicate the steps.

If you find yourself making a video, make sure to put that in your help pages.  Chances are if the person from this email found it confusing, others will too.


The other part of the support view from earlier was a phone call. One of the things that an occasional customer mentions to us is that they don’t like how we don’t have a public 1-800 number for phone support.  It’s something that I hear maybe once every blue moon. For the vast majority of our customers, email works great.

And for us, it’s just not feasible to provide a call in support line yet without adding a ton of people to our team. So here’s how we handle that situation.

I try to resolve things over email. I usually tell a customer that I can fix things quicker via an email than over the phone. Especially if it’s a bug or something’s broken, I’m going to need to loop a programmer in to fix that. Customers want to know that it’s getting fixed and if you can reassure them that through an email, they’re fine. I usually joke about how it would just be a boring phone call anyway if I’m having to just search some logs or wait for a programmer to fix something.

But if you reach the third email and your customer is still confused, get on the phone with them.  After three emails, another ten isn’t going to clear it up.  You and the customer both will just get frustrated.  Jump on the phone and talk it through with them.

Help Pages

You’re definitely going to want to still have some basic help pages. They don’t need to be monolithic beasts like some out there but you’ll want to cover the most frequently asked questions your team gets.  Customers love the self-service side to it and it’ll free up your support team’s time.

Keep them as simple as possible. Customers aren’t looking for a dictionary here. Split them up into groupings that make sense for your product. We split ours up by billing questions, organizing people, different project options, etc.

And to try something new with our Basecamp help pages, we only have a limited number of help articles. Our help pages focus on big questions that need instant answers. It’s not page after page of every conceivable situation that’s possible.  If a person needs to remove someone from their account right away, we’ve got a help page there showing exactly how to do it. They don’t need to wait for an email.

Add in screenshots and videos to help get those answers across.

Again, it’s all about making it easy on the customer.  If they can find that screenshot on the help pages, then that’s one less email your team has to answer and one less customer stuck waiting for an answer.

Email, phone callbacks, and some help page options.  These are going to cover the majority of your customers. Tweaking these like we talked about is going to help out your customers.

Past the standards, let’s try some new things.

Twitter and Facebook

The first step towards way better is to step into social media. And I really don’t like that phrase but it’s the best I’ve got to work with. I feel like it’s becoming more ingrained in corporate speak with each passing day. I was watching PBS’s NewsHour the other night and they offered to be “social media friends” with me on Facebook if I would just click Like on their page. When it shows up on PBS….

Anyway, let’s sort through it.

Twitter.  If you have a Twitter handle, you need to be using it for customer support.  We hesitated on that for a bit before taking the plunge but I can say that I’m glad we opened up Twitter and made it part of our support. We watch the @37signals handle on the same hours as our official support hours.

Our team uses it because it makes for fast and short questions and answers.  The 140 character limit makes both the customer and you think about every character.  With Basecamp, we’ve even gone as far as adding a link on our help form that points people toward Twitter first over an email.

We’re also keeping an eye on our Facebook page for 37signals. It’s not one that customers are actively using for help.  But we do get a few questions every now and then so we want to make sure a customer’s question there doesn’t go unanswered.

The best part of using Twitter and Facebook is speed. Those questions tend to be short so we can get answers back to them really fast. Our email time might be 10 to 15 minutes but Twitter and Facebook can usually see replies in a minute or two.

The big thing to remember is that it’s a public forum. You’ll get some mean-spirited Tweets your way. Be careful how you handle them. There was an article earlier this month detailing what happened to Sir Patrick Stewart with his cable installation.  Long story short, he couldn’t get Time Warner Cable out to install his new cable box and spent an agonizing 36 hours trying to get them to fix it. Finally, he posted on Twitter about the experience. The support team responded to that tweet within two minutes but the damage was already done. And instead of moving the conversation back towards a more private channel, they continued with public tweets back and forth the next day. Stewart’s fans publicly roasted Time Warner over Twitter.

Twitter and Facebook are solid for those short, easy answers but if it gets complicated or can turn ugly, email them. It’s for the best all the way around.

Live Chat

Next up is live chat.  It doesn’t matter which tool you use.  What we’re after is a window that can open inside your app whenever a customer needs your help. Nothing fancy or complicated. Remember, it’s all about making it easy on your customer.

The big thing to note with live chat is that it should be as unobtrusive as possible.  We used Olark at 37signals to test it out.  Olark let us put a small plus sign icon in the lower right corner of the page.  Clicking on it would open the chat right to our support reps.  Our customers could then minimize it back down to get it out of the way.

Live chat was a big test for us.  It was the first time we had that instant back-and-forth with customers.  To test it out, we initially rolled it out to just our top plans with Basecamp.

I don’t want to sound like a late night infomercial but the results were pretty awesome.  People absolutely loved it. They loved being able to get really fast answers, similar to how people love that we’re on Twitter.  Customers like being able to say “Here’s my problem” and then get an instant answer.

For the practical part of it, we had two shifts – a morning shift before lunch from 9am to 1pm and then an afternoon shift after lunch from 1pm to 5pm.  There were three people on each shift.  You’d still answer emails but that would be in-between answering chats.

Using Olark, it plugs right into any chat app so I hooked it up to iChat and was ready to go. It’s  no different than chatting with anyone else.  They also made it really easy to “hide” yourself if you had three active chats with customers going on.  That way you weren’t bombarded with chats all at once.

As always, sound human when you’re chatting with someone. When I had Comcast, every chat ended with the same line:

“Thanks for contacting Comcast and giving us an opportunity to serve you today. We appreciate your business! For future assistance, please contact us through Live Chat / Email 24/7. Have a nice evening.”

I know it was probably a person on the other end of the chat but that just leaves the wrong impression. You wouldn’t have a real person say something that scripted in real life. Don’t make a chat sound fake by tacking it on.

Online Meeting Space

Sometimes, a customer just needs to see you do something and explain along the way.  For that, online meeting tools work great.

It’s the same feeling as a phone call but sometimes you just need to see it. They need to see your screen as you walk them through something that might be a little tricky or more complicated.  I had a customer once who couldn’t figure out how to get their iCal feed into Google Calendar despite watching the video. By sharing my screen with them, we were able to talk it through and both of us walked away happy.

You can use any kind of meeting app you’d like but I love the simplicity of  Nothing to download or setup.

You could even use that to set up a virtual “office hours” time or such.  I found out about from a college professor that was a customer. He was using it for his virtual office hours for students that couldn’t make it to campus during his office hours.

The best part of this is that it helps to get to know customers better and for them to see that you’re a real human on the other end. In the online world, it’s easy to just look at customers as just another number or ID.  And it’s so easy for customers who had bad experiences with other support teams to see anyone that works support as some sort of sub-human thing that only causes frustration.  You seeing them and them seeing you is a huge win.

Plus, it’s a welcome change from just emails or such all day.

Online Classes

If you’re not doing them, start.  Fair warning, there’s a lot of crap tools out there to host them.  We use GoToWebinar like I mentioned and definitely have a love/hate relationship with it.  You’ll need to find the right tool for this just like with live chat or online meetings.

And a big thing to point out – don’t ever, ever, ever use the word webinar.  It’s horrible.  Call them classes, sessions, whatever.  Just never webinar.  That entire word just sounds weird. It only shows up in corporate speak and would never appear in a normal conversation.  Have you ever heard someone say they just got out of a fantastic webinar about a product they use? NO. People don’t talk like that and our support teams shouldn’t either.

Once you find the right tool, having online classes makes a world of difference to your customers.  We focus on two classes – one centers around becoming a Basecamp pro and one is a live Q&A.  The Pro class walks you through setting up a new project, some tips and tricks, and shows how we use Basecamp at 37signals every day.  There’s a short Q&A at the end for people who run into questions as we go. The Q&A is exactly that – we field questions for 30 minutes about anything related to Basecamp.

With questions, we found that large classes with lots of questions get tricky real quick. It’s tough to keep a track of all the questions, figure out which ones you’ve answered, and which ones you need to follow-up on after the class. What we do is have people in the class tweet questions using the hashtag #Basecamp.

First, this gets the word out that others are using Basecamp so it’s good on the publicity front. People like knowing that others are using or looking at the product they’re considering. The other big advantage is that we can search Twitter for that #Basecamp hashtag and easily find the questions as well as who asked them. Then, we copy/paste that question over to a to-do list inside of a Basecamp project.  When I start answering questions, I can show the question on the screen, show the answer for it, and then check it off like it was another to-do. This also gives us a list of questions from previous classes so we can see any common questions or confusion.

If we run out of time with the class, then we can go back and answer those questions directly via Twitter. Again, super easy on the customer. Plus they get to see some our Twitter feeds and I’ve even had some people send questions at me directly on Twitter so they feel like they have a direct support rep or such.

We run each class once a week with an  online schedule so that all of our customers know when the next one is. We mention them in the email you receive when you sign up for Basecamp. That way, people new to Basecamp get some free training just as they’re starting to use their new account.

We’ve had just over 10,000 people sign up for them.  Class size averages around 75 for the Pro and 15 for the Q&A, which is about the right size for both.  The Pro class is more of the lesson type where we show off Basecamp.  Larger groups is fine there.  For the Q&A’s, I love having the closer setting with a smaller group.  We’re able to have more fun while making sure every question gets answered. It’s basically the difference in those lecture type classes you had in college versus the small, more free form classes.

Overall, customers love the classes. For the support team, that means fewer emails and such. It’s a win all the way around.

Read more about how to set up your first online class.

Basecamp Delivered

This last one is something we tried last month in Austin, Texas. It was our first shot at in-person support.

When were at a photoshoot with some of our customers so we could post them on our website. Right before she left, one lady had a question about her account. Kristin worked with her for a bit and helped her out.  Our customer loved the live, personal interaction and we thought it would be an interesting idea.

So I wanted to take and apply that to more customers. We had a Pitch Day at 37signals so I pitched the idea of working with customers in person on how to get the most out of their Basecamp.

We call it Basecamp Delivered.

Basically, we rented out a space in Austin at a local hotel and got to meet with customers all day. We started at 9am that morning and went to about 3pm that afternoon.  We had two teams and worked with 24 different teams there in Austin that used Basecamp. Each customer got their own 30 minute spot and could ask us anything. Best practices, new tools, different ideas – we covered it all. We worked with them on their account so we could show them exactly how something would work. That way, they could use it right away and even explain it to others in the office when they got back.

We even held a customer party at a local bar afterwards. Lots of customers got to chat and mingle. They learned about each other, how different people used Basecamp, and some designers and startups even got some more work out of it.

With this being the first one, I learned a lot. The only other big event I planned before was my wedding and honestly, I left most of that up to my wife who’s more talented in that area. Lucky for me, Merissa and Emily are fantastic planners and helped out a ton.

But like I said, we learned a lot and I don’t want you to learn those lessons like we had to if you decide to give something like this a shot. So just real briefly…

With the next one, we’re going to actually charge a ticket price. We made this one free, which meant a customer didn’t have anything to lose per say if they didn’t show. We had a couple of no shows and those spots could’ve been filled with lots of people who were on the wait list.  If you charge a ticket price, customers have more incentive to show up.  The goal isn’t to make money but to encourage commitment to showing up.

Have lots of lead time when you announce an event like this. On the next one, we’re going to tease it a bit more in advance. For Basecamp Delivered in Austin, I just sent out an email to the local account owners to see if they’d be interested. I got emails for days about people checking their email to late to get a shot at a session. Have a set time and date that tickets will go live for a customer event like this.

Be simple but over communicate everything. For instance, I sent out an email a few days beforehand with a quick note that customers could valet park at the hotel and we’d cover the cost. Several of our customers missed that, which wasn’t the end of the world but ended up with some people walking for distant public parking spots. I should have made more references to little things like that to make sure that everyone knows about even small details like where to park.

But overall, the customers absolutely loved it. We kept hearing over and over how they wished more people would do these sessions with other apps and products they use. For us, we’ll definitely be doing more of them in the future.

Some final thoughts.

I’ll just leave you with the same thing that I said in the beginning.

You’ve got to try new things when it comes to supporting your customers.

One of the thing I love most about our team at 37signals is that we’re always trying new things. We’ve personally tried all the things I’ve talked about today.  I’ve been able to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what customers loved.  I’ve seen which things make it easier on our customers and I’ve seen us try things that made it harder. We learn a lot with each new thing we try.

Now, just because something works for us doesn’t mean it’ll automatically work with your team. That’s why I really want to stress this – keep trying new things.  It’s only when you experiment, tweak, change, and try that you’ll see what works.

Try new things with how you support your customers. That’s how you find out what works best to keep your customers happy.