What Makes Great Customer Support? Part 1

Posted by Amy Wallace Amy Wallace on .

Amy Wallace is the Customer Happiness Worker Bee at Updatey. This post is one in a series about the joys and challenges of building customer happiness at a startup. You can take a look at the other posts here. These are her thoughts and experiences as she considers how to provide the best customer support.

Whether you call it Customer Support or Customer Happiness, when you're building your startup you should make sure to give a great deal of thought to how to give your customers the best experience possible.

Customer Happiness can imply more than the usual 'support', and while it might sound cheesy to you, it's a great way to get away from the usually negative connotations that have built up around customer support experiences. Whatever words you use for it, you should strive to question regularly whether you're doing a great job supporting your customers.

I'm always learning new and better ways to help customers so the following is far from an exhaustive list but, as a customer myself, here is part 1 of what I keep in mind when replying to customers.

Tone

The tone that you build as part of your support emails and tweets might well change over time, from deciding whether or not you want to include smiley faces to specific word choices. What shouldn't change over time, however, is listening to your customer's tone and matching yours to that initial message.

Even if you've decided that you'll be relaxed in your emails to customers - which is great - you should be careful not to be too relaxed in a reply to a customer who's encountered an issue while using your app. If they've been charged unexpectedly or they've seen multiple bugs, it would be unwise to pepper your message with smiley faces and sound inappropriately nonchalant.

This might simply be your chosen style, all with the aim of adding a warm tone to your emails, but in cases where there's a problem for a customer, a very relaxed tone can come across as mocking or uninterested, as though you're someone who's not taking the problem seriously.

You definitely don't want this to happen, especially if you're consciously focused on providing a great customer support experience. If, for some reason, your tone doesn't come across well to a customer, even though you're dedicated to conveying how genuinely invested you are in a customer's happiness - and that can sting a little - consider it as a chance to learn from experience.

Again, it's about learning to match the tone, and while you won't necessarily get it right 100% of the time, you'll learn from each different interaction.

Sometimes you'll find that another customer in exactly the same situation will write in with a very relaxed tone and smiley faces. Then you'll be able to be more relaxed in your reply by adding your usual smiley faces. Remember though that apologizing for the problem first is essential, as well as showing your appreciation for an understanding reaction on the customer's part. Then it's just a case of trying to read the customer's email and respond as delightfully as they have. 

There's no hard and fast rule about the tone you should take in your emails but remember that if you're a startup and you're trying to focus on great customer support, you should definitely move away from the cold and 'professional' tone that might remind customers of hours spent on hold, or back and forths of cold emails. Remember to stay authentic and sincere so that customers don't feel manipulated or as though they're being spoken to by a machine.

Using an app like TextExpander is a great way to make sure you can provide a quicker response to someone but if you're using it, make sure that the snippets you use are written in a natural language and fit the tone of the rest of your email.

TextExpander is especially good if you find yourself sending out specific instructions regularly (also a great clue about what you could change in the product itself!), but they shouldn't be for entire emails. Your snippets should be just that, snippets, rather than a whole email's worth of text.

Apologizing

Apologizing is a very important and necessary part of a great support experience and, when done right, it can help strengthen your relationship with your customers. 

Apologizing is not the same as pointing the finger or assigning blame. When you apologize to a customer for a bug in your website or app, you aren't blaming a specific person on the development or support team. Rather, you're taking responsibility for the mistake and showing the customer that you're sorry for the trouble they've been facing.

Sometimes that means admitting that a design feature you thought would help make things clearer has made things worse rather than better. When customers write in saying they're confused, then apologizing for not making things clearer is a great way to show you care for your customers' experience while also taking responsibility for the mistake or confusion in the first place.

There is an art to apologizing though, and this is where you have to find a delicate balance and be conscious of what you're writing. Emotion can be difficult to convey in a short email or tweet reply and, unfortunately, most of us have been on the receiving end of an automated, or seemingly automated, apology from a company at some time in our lives.

Most of us have received a 'we apologize for the inconvenience' call or email from a company we've been dealing with for one reason or another and for most of us, they do nothing to soothe our frustrations. That's not to say that those words aren't used correctly within their context, but they've been used so frequently in situations where the words seem to have no bearing on a company's actions that they've become meaningless and empty

When apologizing then, make sure that you're using warmer every day words, more casual than 'inconvenience', and target the specific issue at hand. Also ensure that your words and tone come across as sincere as a whole. You want your customer to understand that you really do care about them and really are sorry for the hassle they've been through, you just have to make sure they know it.

Mistakes happen - none of us are perfect - and apologizing is not only the polite thing to do but the best way to acknowledge the mistake and show that you value your customers.

It might be a case of experimenting and trying out new phrases and words in different situations, but being aware of the delicate tone of apologies will help you pick up on cues from customers and continually work on creating the best support you can.

Understanding

Building an understanding of a customer through their interactions with you is an important way to provide great customer support. Not only does empathy for your customers mean you can better help customers facing a difficult situation, but you'll be able to provide a better response beyond a simple solution to a problem.

You can gain a lot of information if you take an extra second or two to read a customer's email really carefully, rather than just searching for a 'fixable' issue to which you can respond. Understanding their suggestion or their technical issue will help you provide a better, and more comprehensive, answer. It will also allow you to tailor your response to that customer using their own language to show that you have taken the time to make them a priority for the time that you're replying to them.

It's also possible to anticipate another question that might arise as a follow-up, and add some more information about that in your first reply. Of course, you don't want to make your reply long and cumbersome to read - the customer will certainly want a way to fix the issue they're having or want to hear that you're fixing the bug they've encountered - but having a little bit of extra information will show your customer that you've thought through their suggestion or issue at hand fully.

You can also try to see from their message what technical knowledge they might have so that you can tailor your response to them. For example, if you need a customer to clear their cache, adding a few quick instructions about how to do so is a great way to provide a wonderful support experience. And if your customer has mentioned something specific in their first email like, for example, that they're a developer, then explaining how to clear a cache might be unnecessary.

There's no foolproof way of telling everything you need to know about a customer of course, but putting a little extra thought into each email - backed by any information you've learnt about the customer from their email or tweet - can go a long way towards helping you provide better support. It's always something to think about and improve on, anyway!

For tips on tone and email phrases, take a look at these great articles by Helpscout and by Carolyn Kopprasch, the Chief Happiness Offier at Buffer. The Customer Support Handbook is also great if you want examples of good phrasing, as is the free ebook by Chase Clemons of 37Signals.

I'd love to hear what you think makes great customer support, both from the customer and the startup side. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below or send me an email. I'm also on Twitter. :)

Photo credit: Sarah Joy