If it is done well, customer support can be a massive competitive advantage for your business.
While I can’t claim to be an expert on customer support, I feel well positioned to share some practical tips of what worked for us at Teach Starter.
To give some context, Teach Starter is an online subscription based business that provides downloadable resources to primary/elementary school teachers. Much of what I learned relates to that environment. I have tried to write these lessons in such a way as to have broader application to any business.
For a little over four years, I personally responded to over 10,000 phone calls, chat messages and emails.
What began as an afterthought when our business began, quickly became an obsession.
I learned a tremendous amount about what works and what doesn’t. I learned that in order to scale and support hundreds of thousands of members, efficient and effective customer support had to be a focus.
Let’s get going!
1. Employ Empathy
If you’ve ever worked in customer support, you will have experienced the highs and lows of the feedback roller coaster. One minute you’re high fiving that NPS score of 10, and the next minute you’re ready to throw in the towel after a scathing email from an unhappy customer.
You very quickly learn to remove knee-jerk emotion and employ empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.
While there’s no order to this list, there’s a reason this comes in at number one.
It’s crucial to maintaining your sanity, while also answering your customers in a caring and understanding way.
Try to see things from your customer’s point of view. Imagine they’re writing that scathing email after the worst day of their life. Would you have done the same?
It’s your job to be the shining light on their dismal day.
Step into their shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. Be the bigger person and chose kindness. Because guess what? Kindness reflects very well on you. Kindness is helpful, and that’s what customer support is all about.
2. Think Proactive over Reactive
So, what’s the difference between proactive and reactive support?
Reactive support is monotonous, repetitive and one-dimensional.
Proactive support is dynamic, efficient and multi-dimensional.
Reactive support means replying to the same problem every day, without looking for a deeper solution.
Proactive support means finding the root cause of the problem and trying to solve it in a better way.
It’s the difference between doing a repetitive task and doing a repetitive task while looking for shortcuts.
It means going beyond the immediacy of your day-to-day workflow and looking for ways to improve your efficiency and the level of service you provide.
Developing a proactive mentality allows you to scale efficiently. As support queries mount, you’re constantly on the lookout for ways to decrease your workload.
Think of yourself like a funnel. How can you decrease the input (support queries) and maximise the output (happy customers)?
Working proactively is working smarter.
3. Diplomacy Wins
Diplomacy is the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way.
If you can help people in a sensitive and tactful way, you will win.
Sometimes customers can be angry and aggressive. Sometimes they can be dismissive towards you. It’s at these times you need to use diplomacy.
We’ve all heard the old saying, ‘the customer is always right’.
I soon found out that this is definitely not the case. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they can be downright offensive.
But… whatever you do, never tell them they’re wrong.
There is almost no benefit to telling a customer they’re wrong.
Despite how tempting it may be to ‘prove them wrong’ or validate that you were right all along, it rarely ends well. Even if you argue your point, and your customer eventually succumbs to your rationale, they will have had their ego bruised.
Who wants to buy from a company that makes you feel that way?
Use diplomacy. Be sensitive. Be tactful. Use active listening to echo their concerns. Help them see through the cloud of emotion so that a no-lose solution can be found.
On the flip-side, if you are wrong and have made a mistake, admit it wholeheartedly and without reservation.
There are caveats to this lesson, however.
If your company believes in something strongly enough to lose customers over it, then, by all means, take a stand. The customers you lose obviously aren’t aligned with your values, and the ones who are will become advocates for your brand.
4. Use Customer Support Tools
If you are currently using an email client (Gmail, Outlook, etc.) to manage your customer support, stop right now.
In the past we used Zendesk. We now use (and love) Intercom.
I can’t praise either of these tools highly enough. They will ensure that your team has visibility, order, and process when it comes to support. No customer will slip through the cracks.
Zendesk is a brilliant ticket-based system that has expanded to include other services like live chat.
Intercom is more of a customer engagement platform that combines multi channel support (web, app, Facebook) in the form of ‘conversations’, with marketing automation and a help desk. We couldn’t live without it.
They both provide analytics to dig deeper into your customer support experience to find out where improvements can be made.
5. Minimise Degrees of Separation
As a business owner, it can be tempting to offload or outsource customer support. This is ok, as long as you have a process in place to feed this support up the chain to management (and ideally, yourself).
As a founder in the early days, it was incredibly important for me to reply to all support requests. It helped to shape our product and the services we offered. It was why we took so long to hire a designated customer support person. I felt connected to our customers.
At Teach Starter, we borrow from graph theory and think of this connection as degrees of separation from our customers.
If I am responding directly to a customer, I am one degree of separation away from their needs.
If Kelly responds to a customer and reports back to me, Kelly is one degree of separation away from their needs and I am now two degrees of separation away.
Some businesses operate without any form of reporting around customer support. This can create a severe disconnect between customers and the wider business. It can stop preventable issues from being solved while also preventing ideas and feedback from being considered.
How can you solve your customers’ problems, if you can’t empathise with their pain?
6. Never Treat Customer Support as an Optional Add-On
Too many businesses treat customer support as an optional extra, an ‘add-on’.
It needs to be a core part of your company’s overall DNA.
Embed customer support in your business. Give everyone in your team the chance to interact with your customers. You’ll be surprised by how your team reacts when they understand your customers’ needs.
At Teach Starter, all of our teams are encouraged and prompted to reply to comments on the website. If you publish a resource, you’re responsible for replying to comments. This helps to distribute the support load among the team, while also giving the staff member with the most insight into the question, a direct opportunity to answer.
7. Think of Customer Support as a Marketing Opportunity
This doesn’t mean up-selling. In fact, it doesn’t mean selling at all.
It means presenting the best, most helpful and most valuable version of your business as you possibly can. When someone contacts you, it’s a golden opportunity to build a relationship.
If you’re wanting that person to buy from you, what kind of impression do you want to leave? The impression of a business that couldn’t care less about your needs, or of one that would do anything to help you succeed?
I know who I’m buying from.
It’s all about providing as much value as possible.
Be timely. Be accurate. Be helpful. Be kind.
Give, give, give… and expect nothing in return.
Provide support like this and you’ll be surprised by the results.
8. Give Your Customers a Reason to Celebrate Your Service
Here’s a test for you…
Reply to a customer’s email within 5 minutes. Take a look at the response you receive.
Do this often enough and you’ll begin to see a pattern…
“Wow! That was quick.”
“Thank you so much for sorting this out so quickly!”
“I was not expecting that. Usually, I have to wait days for help!”
People are genuinely surprised to receive help quickly.
This was a lightbulb moment for us. It might seem obvious that faster replies = happier customers. However, what clicked for us was the fact that clearly, not many businesses are doing it.
It’s even easier for a smaller business without many customers, because you have even more time to reply faster than the big guys.
This is such an easy win.
If you want people to talk about you, you have to be exceptional. A lot of companies are exceptionally bad at customer support, and what do you always hear about them?
Being exceptionally great at customer support is rare.
So how can you stand out? Speed is an easy one. For you, it might be something else. A handwritten note. An incredibly thoughtful reply. A funny joke.
Do something that 99% of people aren’t doing, and you have a chance of being remembered for it.
9. Identify Inefficiencies
What is stopping you from replying faster? More accurately? Find these inefficiencies and work to improve them. Small changes can have an exponential benefit.
Here are three practical ways to immediately improve your responsiveness:
- Create templates for all replies. Unless the question is incredibly obscure and unique, it should have a template. If a question comes up at least twice, you’ve saved time.
- Build a self-service help desk. Give your customers a reason not to contact you. If your business can’t provide follow-the-sun support, then you’re going to need something for those customers who contact you from the other side of the globe. Some customers might even prefer to find their own answers, instead of asking a question and waiting for a reply.
- Solve recurring problems. Do you have customers constantly asking the same question? This usually points to an underlying issue with your product that can be resolved. Once fixed, that’s one less support query you have to deal with.
With more time up your sleeve, you’ll have more time to look for efficiency gains, and the exponential cycle of better service continues.
10. Look Beyond the First Question
After a few tickets, you’ll soon realise that what your customers ask, and what they actually want solved, can be two separate things. Also, the answer to what they ask might provoke a follow-up question. It’s your job to anticipate that follow-up question and provide the answer to it before your customer knows they need it.
This comes with experience. You will begin to look beneath the surface question and start to analyse the problem. You will look at the action you’re asking the customer to take and identify any potential future hurdles before they appear.
This can have a two-fold impact on your support process:
- Saves time. It can help to decrease the number of follow up questions, thus reducing the time it takes to help customers.
- Customers will be happier. It’s like you can read their minds!
Here’s a simple example:
A member wants to know how to reset their password. This is simple enough, so you provide them with a link to the password reset page and your job is done!
Not quite. What if the email gets caught in their spam folder or junk mail? They’ll write back with increasing frustration saying the email hasn’t shown up.
If you looked beyond the first question and anticipated the follow-up, you would have included information about how to find the email if it doesn’t show up in your inbox. You might have even included a link to a help desk article that provided even more helpful information.
To go a step further, you could even include this helpful information on your website as soon as they submit their email address to receive the reset email.
This is all about being proactive and treating customer support as more than just reactive answers. It’s being passionate about doing the best you can to serve your customers.
I hope that you have gained some takeaway tips and wisdom from reading this list.
I really feel that there’s so much room for improvement in the customer support space, primarily due to the lack of priority placed upon it within businesses.
It is such a brilliant part of the marketing mix. You literally have people asking for your help. Answer them, and you have a chance to create a customer. Make their day, and you have a chance to create an ambassador.
I would love to hear any tips or lessons learned that you would like to share.