If you’ve ever had to contact customer support, you know it’s a broken system for many companies. A simple action can turn into a lengthy wait only to be met with rude assistance from a rep. You’re left all alone to figure it out. But a growing number of teams are challenging this status quo. They’re bringing humanity back to the world of customer support.
Fair warning, this essay is pretty lengthy so make sure you’ve got some time to read through it before you jump in.
- Greatest Assets
- The Support World
- A Broken System
- A Changing World
- The Core
- Learning From The Crowd
- Outsupporting the Other Guy
“Every company’s greatest assets are its customers, because without customers there is no company.”
– Michael LeBoeuf
Imagine a space filled with customers. Each faces a distinct problem. The lady over there? She can’t login. The gentleman to your right? A charge from your company shows on his credit card statement but he has no clue why it’s there. Then hear that loud guy in the corner? He’s shouting at you because he can’t get something to work right.
They’re all looking at you because you’re the link to the company. You’re the person that can get them logged in, find their charge, and fix what was broken. You’re from the support team and you’re here to help.
How do you do it? How do you begin to help?
The Support World
If you looked at each of those customer rooms for major companies, you’d witness something on par with a level of Dante’s Hell.
Each room has separate teams working with different customers. Imagine some of the team sitting at the front answering phone calls. A section of the room holds the waiting area for this prized phone support. It’s blaring horrible hold music that’s occasionally silenced for the standard “Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us. The average wait time is 42 minutes. A representative will be with your shortly.”
Another group hangs posters and photos on the walls showing frequently asked questions. Some of them are great with images showing what to look for. Others show convoluted tech lingo that no one can understand. The posters are scattered around, some of the laying over each other making it difficult to find what you’re looking for.
On the far side of the room sits the group answering emails. Or rather, two people making sure the scripted automatic replies get sent out. Sure, they answer a few emails here and there but for the most part, it’s all automated with them just keeping watch.
The company’s employees in the room look bored and irritated at the customers. The customers are frustrated and resentful. No one’s happy and worse, it feels devoid of all humanity.
A Broken System
No one likes contacting support for a very simple reason – most companies put profits before customers. They might pay lip service to being customer oriented but they’re not really. I remember talking with a customer supervisor that tracked how much each customer was costing them in terms of contacting their support team. If they reached a certain threshold, they would look for ways to “transition” the customer to another app. In other words, if they spent too much money on any one customer, they’d dump them in favor of less high-maintenance customers.
Profits over customers leads companies to do stupid things like outsource their support or offer a very narrow set of ways to interact with them. Sure, sending your support calls and emails overseas gives you a chance to cut costs. But outsourcing often leads to more frustration with your customers because the company no longer owns that support. They’ve pushed that problem off on to an outside company rather than doing their own hiring and training. They’ve given reps scripts and robotic replies in place of actual thought. When your support team is truly part of your company, you take the time to hire the right people and make sure they’re trained. It’s a different mindset – one where the company has a greater sense of ownership over providing customer support.
As companies turn their attention towards the customer, you’ll hear them throw around phrases like “We’re a customer driven company.” They begin to offer products and apps that come directly from customer demands and expectations. But this causes the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.
Take for instance Southwest Airlines. The airline focuses on low fares because that’s what customers want the most. They might demand food on longer flights, more legroom, or more flights into a specific city. But fundamentally, customers want one thing from Southwest – cheap flights. If they were solely “customer driven”, they have to hike prices to have more legroom, flights, etc. In reality, we value a cheap ticket more than those things.
This leaves us with a very broken support world where a company sees one of two things happen.
A) They undervalue the customer in a quest for more profits.
B) They overvalue the customer to the point where the customer drives the company in a direction the company doesn’t need to go.
A Changing World
Thankfully, like that old Bob Dylan song says, the times are a changing.1 Companies are shifting to a greater focus on a customer but doing so in the right way. They’re following a path in the center that stays away from those two extremes.
Every company must make this change. When anyone can easily copy an app or produce a knock-off of a product, the only arena left to compete in is the world of the customer. Your app may do the same thing as mine but if I can solve the customer’s real need and support that customer better, they’ll choose mine every time. That means I need to see value first when I look at a customer rather than dollar signs.
Let’s see how that plays out.
The support team’s primary job is to fix things. If everything goes right, a customer never has to contact the support team. I use a ton of apps that I’ve never had to reach out for help on. That’s a good thing. If every single customer sent you an email, you’d be swamped. But for those that need it, the support team must be there. And not just in a half-hearted, scripted, robotic kind of way. Don’t get me wrong. I love robots. I just don’t want them answering my emails.
“Scripted answers and people who have no idea what they’re talking about should be a thing of the past. With all of the tools and technologies available to us today, we should be able to offer users a much better experience when they need help. ”
— Chase Livingston, Ubuntu One
I’ve talked about different ways you can do support so here I want to cover the core.2 Great customer support comes down to three things – it’s got to be clear, concise, and fast.
Support teams bring clarity to confusing situations.
Support teams bring concise replies to complex problems.
Support teams bring fast answers to waiting customers.
To get these right, you have to actually care about your customers. You have to see that value before profit margins. Nail these core items and customers will have a much better experience with your company.
Learning from the Crowd
Now that we know what to aim for with our support team, what should we be looking for with customers who want to help us? There’s wisdom in the crowd. To find it, we have to go beneath just the surface layer.
“‘I want to be able to sign in via Facebook” might really mean “your registration process sucks”. Normally that feedback is fleeting and hard to follow-up on, but the forum means that we can email everyone who voted for an idea and get clarification. It turns customer feedback from an endless, impossible wish list into a list of pain points…which we may solve in a different way than they suggested, but we will solve.”
— Evan Hamilton, UserVoice
Support teams talk to more customers than anyone else in the company. Need to know what customers are loving? Ask the support team. What about the area that’s most problematic? Ask the support team. Wondering what direction your customers want you to go in? Ask the…. wait a minute.
You company should be customer inspired not customer driven.
Take for instance the feature request Evan got with the Facebook login. Is that what they’re really after or is your registration steps the real problem?
Let’s be clear – you can definitely learn from the crowd. And that’s what your customers are there for. To learn from. To be inspired by. To help.
Keeping track of the common requests and problems that pop up from customers will let you know what you need to be focused on. That way, you can improve pain points and make your product better. But you’ll do it in a way that doesn’t give the reigns over to the customer entirely.
Outsupporting the other guy
“Great support isn’t just rainbows and unicorns, it’s part of a successful business model. It moves support from a cost over to the marketing side of the balance sheet. It’s an investment, in lifetime value/loyalty and word of mouth referrals. ”
— Nick Francis, Help Scout
At the end of the day, everything you do as a company is marketing with customer support included. Say you’re looking at two identical products. Same cost, same functions, same in every way. If I email a team with questions and one gives me a robotic reply while the other personalizes it, I’m going to go with the latter every time. If I know of a friend that loves the support a team gives, I’m going to check that company out first.
You’ve got to be better at customer support than the other teams behind products competing against yours. You’ve got to outsupport the other guy.3 It’s not an option anymore. Companies have to make the shift from seeing support as a cost to seeing support as marketing. It’s the first step in finding that middle round between the extremes from earlier.
The world tends to feed on the idea of disruption. The new overtaking the old. The incumbents being beaten.
With the world of support being in such a broken state, it’s a great time to really do support right. Our current reliance on massive call centers or outsourcing just doesn’t work. Already, there’s some great teams and companies out there working to disrupt the status quo with how customer support is offered.
It’s easy to be bad at support.
Companies excel at that all the time.
Why not be the one that gets it right?
Go back to that room from earlier. If you walk in doing support the right way, you’ll be a breath of fresh air in that room full of frustrated people. Walk on in and bring a little humanity back to the world of customer support.
1. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin“, Wikipedia ↩
2. You can read about the practical tools and support channels from my essay here. ↩
3. Intercom wrote a great post on outsupporting your competition. ↩
4. I highly recommend following Chase, Evan, and Nick to see what they’re doing when it comes to supporting their customers.
I love the core being clear, concise, and fast. That’s exactly what makes a great experience when I have to write into customer support for the apps I use.
Chase Clemons says
Simple idea, right? I looked at all the interactions I had with support and these three kept coming up over and over.