How to do awesome customer support

Your customer support team are often closer to your customers than anyone else. Use that to your advantage.

When you run a business-to-customer company, you’ll very quickly find yourself receiving customer support requests. The exact nature of the requests depends on your business, of course — people may need help setting up software, they may not understand how to use a particular feature, they may have found a problem or bug in your website, or they may be asking where their parcel is.

What is universal, however, is that there’s an oddly unintuitive dark art related to doing good customer support.

This article could serve as a checklist, to ensure that your support requests are dealt with in the best possible way.

What is customer support?

To take a quick step back for a moment, it’s worth keeping in mind what the purpose of customer support is. The best way to determine that, is to think about why companies do support at all.

It doesn’t really matter what type of organisation you are, the key purpose of support is to take a confused, disgruntled, or unhappy customer, and inform, re-gruntle, or happi-fy them. The key to making this happen is all about empathy, and being able to grok what a customer needs, and how you can fulfill this need.

The other thing to keep in mind is that customer support is a fantastic opportunity for standing out from the competition. Even if a customer has a bad experience with your product or service, you can completely save the situation with incredible customer support. There is even some evidence that companies who deal really well with their screw-ups are more memorable, and receive more word-of-mouth benefits, than a company that never makes any mistakes.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should make mistakes on purpose, of course. The simple truth is that if you are like most businesses, you’ll occasionally do something wrong. It’s how you deal with the resulting fall-out and tidy-up that will be remembered, so make it count.

How to approach a support ticket

Customers: This is the kind of expression we’re going for…

For the purpose of this exercise, assume that a support ticket comes in via an e-mail based ticketing system. A customer is reporting some sort of a problem they are experiencing with the product. As the eager customer support person, you throw yourself at the task… But how do you ensure that?

The Trigger: why did the customer email us?

There will always almost be a pretty clear ‘trigger’, which is the event that makes a customer e-mail you.

One interesting thing I’ve found in my own business ventures, is that sometimes, customers with old grievances will surface, and try one more time to resolve an issue they have given up on. Be aware that the ‘trigger’ that caused them to e-mail you may not always be the same thing as what they are e-mailing about. Why this is important will become apparent, but suffice to say that it may influence what the customer sees as a suitable solution.

The Ideal Solution: What does the customer want?

In my experience, a customer will usually e-mail you with a question or a concern, with an obvious ideal solution in mind. If their complaint is that “My widget doesn’t work”, they want their widget to work. If the question is “Why does my widget not work on my car”, they are looking for an explanation of some sort.

The upshot of this is that you have to read the support request very carefully: The two questions above might look very similar indeed, but the response they require are vastly different. This is particularly important if you use some sort of macros (i.e. canned responses) for customer inquiries: Send the wrong canned response, and it appears to the customer that you don’t really care about them.

Think about it: If you walk into a grocer, and ask what the price for grapefruit is, and they say “Grapes cost £1.99 per kilo”, would you do business with them?

Before you start writing up your response, spool up your empathy-drive, and think about this: What could you do to make the customer 100% happy? At this point, you’re not deciding whether what you are doing is realistic, or even possible: You are just trying to come up with the absolute ideal solution for the customer; the solution you would implement if resources and the laws of physics didn’t apply.

Why? Because when you know what the ideal solution is, you know what you are aiming for. If you apply the aforementioned resource limitations and laws of the universe, you know how you can make the customer as happy as possible.

The Information Gap: Who knows what?

The next thing to consider is whether there is an ‘information gap’. Do you, as the customer support person, know something that the customer might not know? Could what you know influence their question or concern somehow?

Similarly, you’ll often receive an incomplete support request. You don’t have to be in customer support for very long before you get a “Your website is shit, and nothing works” support request. Now, there is an enormous information gap here: It is unlikely that your website is, indeed, shit. It is also unlikely that literally nothing works. So, the information gap is finding out what the customer is trying to do, and at which point their mission failed.

Identifying whether you have all the information you need to be able to sufficiently solve the ticket is crucial — but sadly often overlooked. It is probably better to not make assumptions, but to follow up with the customer, and find out all the information you need to create a full reply.

Writing up your reply

Okay, you now know why the customer contacted you, what their ideal solution would be, and you have all the information you need in order to give a full response.

At this point, you need to consider the ‘trigger event’ — if this is a new customer, it is probably just that they’ve found a problem and want a solution. If it’s a customer who may have been struggling with something for a while, pay extra attention: They are willing to give you one more chance. Don’t waste it.

Next, think about how you can fill in the information gap. The customer’s request may very well be based on a lack of data, a lack of knowledge, or a lack of skill. The ‘solution’ to their problem may simply be a piece of information, or an explanation for why something works in a particular way. Perhaps there is a workaround you are aware of, for example, that will enable the customer to do what they need to do, whilst a more permanent solution is in progress — that’s perfectly acceptable.

If something has happened that the customer is unhappy with, don’t bother with excuses. Customers don’t care: They don’t want to know whose fault something was, especially if it happened to be their own fault. Customers want:

  • A reason: Why did this thing happen?
  • An apology: Did you do something wrong? Then apologise, and outline the steps you’ve taken to ensure this particular issue can’t happen again.
  • A solution: What are you doing to solve the customer’s query?
  • An invitation: Does this solve your issue? If not, what can we do?

A support reply doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be a full response.

For example: “Dear Tim, We failed to send out your parcel because we ran out of stock. We’re really sorry about this, and have fixed the system so customers can no longer place orders when a product is out of stock. In your case, I have refunded your shipping cost, and your parcel will be with you on Thursday. I am always here to help, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions. Best, Me.”

Add a couple of paragraphs to the above, and you have a perfectly acceptable customer support reply: It shows that we understand what the issue is, it explains what happened (note that it doesn’t blame the shipping warehouse for failing to mark the item as out-of-stock. It may be true, but it is irrelevant to the customer — they don’t care, remember?) and it explains a permanent solution, which implies that this issue was an one-off (people are much more likely to endure one-off glitches than systemic problems). Finally, it offers some compensation (a refund of the shipping cost), and aligns the customer with what the solution is: The parcel arriving on Thursday. In the closing statement, it keeps the conversation open, which is always much better than ‘closing’ a support ticket.

Now, this may not be the ideal solution for every customer (they might have needed it by Wednesday, for example), but the vast majority of customers are unlikely to have a problem with the above: It is straightforward, easy to understand, takes responsibility, and offers a solution to the problem.

If the customer does not accept the proposed solution, they can always hit ‘reply’ and demand a solution that is more in line with what they were expecting. However, since you already considered why the customer contacted you and their ideal solution, it’s likely that this wouldn’t be an issue.

One last thing…

Before you send your reply, it’s worth rattling through a quick checklist, to ensure that you have a complete response.

How many questions did the customer ask? How many did you answer? If there is not a 1:1 correlation between those two numbers, there’s a problem.

Check the flow of your reply. A top tip if you’re not naturally ‘a writer’, is to read it out loud. Yes, it feels silly, but if you find yourself stumbling over what you’ve been writing, it probably means there is a better way of saying it. Use shorter sentences. Use simpler words. Use more paragraphs.

Check spelling and grammar. You’re a spokesman for you’re company. They’res no excuse for not getting the basic’s of spelling, gramar, and apostrophe rules right. The Oatmeal might be able to help.

Test all the links. If you linked to something, the link has to work. No exceptions.

Check that your tone matches that of your customer. If the initial request is formal, you may want to be slightly more formal in your writing, and if the original request was a bit more relaxed, it’s probably appropriate to the same in your reply. Although, if the initial request is very sweary and angry, you may not wish to reply in the same tone…

Walk a mile in their shoes. Finally, before you hit send, spend a second thinking about how you would react if you received this reply, as a customer. Would it improve the way you see the company? Would it make you more or likely to use them again? If, on the whole, you’re unconvinced… Start over.

Institutional Learning: The 5 whys

Finally, as a support representative, you’re likely to be the first point of contact for a lot of queries. Some of them are very simple to solve (“Your tracking number is 1234AB”), others are tricky (“I am not able to reproduce this particular bug on the website, and will need to talk to our team of developers to figure out what might be going on”) and others are impossible (“Sorry, we are unable create a Commodore 64 compatible version of our PDF manual”).

The one thing you do have in your favour, though, is that as the main point of contact for a lot of customers, you’ll be able to solve a lot of really big problems, or at least inform the rest of the organisation about what is going on in the wider world.

Especially in small companies, you’ll often find yourself being the ‘consumer champion’ — you’re almost like an ombudsman between the customers and the company on the whole: It is probably going to fall for you to pick a few fights with the company, to ensure that the customer experience is as good as it can be. Don’t shy away from that task: The better the customer experience, the better the product, and the easier the customer support job becomes.

Ideally, as a customer support person, if you get the same question several times, it probably means that there’s something you can take charge of, and fix. If parcels are always arriving too late, you can investigate why this might be — perhaps you are setting unrealistic expectations, for example.

One of the best methods I’ve found for getting to the bottom of these types of issues, is to ask why 5 times.

Haje is a pitch coach based in Silicon Valley, working with a founders all over the world to create the right starting point for productive conversations with investors — from a compelling narrative to a perfect pitch. You can find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Haje Jan Kamps

Haje Jan Kamps

4.5K Followers

Writer, startup pitch coach, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.