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Customer Support Principles

These are unedited notes and strong opinions on customer support. This page is a work in progress.

Introduction

Great customer support is about respect. It is being sincere, friendly, knowledgeable, and present. It’s less about treating support as a cost, more about truly caring for the people who use your products. Furthermore, when your support team has the skills and space they need to do what they do best—help customers—they will be your biggest competitive advantage.

Hire people you want to work with.

This is a given for any role on any team. However, it’s especially important for support teams to hire people who are a good fit with the existing team and culture. Every support team has to be able to handle the emotional labor that comes with the job. Enjoying each other’s company—and being able to lean on one another for support—is a prerequisite to being able to do that well.

From my view, the most reliable and resilient support teams are tight groups of people who spend a lot of time together. They go out of their way to onboard new teammates in person, and they train together frequently. Sometimes they even retreat on their own terms, away from the rest of the company. They’re always thinking about better ways to work together and with customers.

Want to be heard? Take yourself seriously.

One way to encourage your company to support your support people is to revise your job descriptions and job titles to be reflective of what it is you actually do. A common compliant I hear from support teams is that no matter their approach, they can’t get a seat at the “adult table”—the imaginary table where big decisions are made. They feel that the company doesn’t take the support team seriously. But why would they? When the support team calls themselves Happiness Magicians, Amazement Officers, Feels Herders, or Superheroes—is it any wonder why the company looks down on customer support?

This is the part where the people who have created these titles get their haunches up. They attempt to unconvincingly justify their creative job titles. But here’s the thing: These titles do not filter for people who check their ego at the door. In most cases, they are not an accurate representation of typical day-to-day support work. And, they’re the first thing to go when someone from your team is seeking new employment.

Over the past few months, I’ve helped a dozen support professionals rewrite their résumés to exclude previous job titles. These are people who have made a career out of helping customers. They are writers, thinkers, problem solvers, specialists. They are technical in all sorts of ways. Yet not a single person felt confident sending their application with "Happiness Hero" on their résumé.

The language we use to describe our work matters more than we think. It’s about our perception of self. It’s about how other people see the work we have done and the roles we have had over the years. How does our job make us feel? What does a title say about our identity? Pick a title that is aligned with the work you do.

Note: Playful titles are appropriate for playful roles. If you work at a toy store or provide support for customers who buy unusual or quirky products, by all means, go for unusual and quirky titles.

Don’t rely on style guides or canned replies.

As a training resource, style guides that define voice, word usage, and writing practices are helpful for learning how the team communicates with customers: mind the pronouns, do not use the word unfortunately, easy on the exclamation points.

They’re also great sources of inspiration new teammates can draw from as they work on their writing skills. However, when you rely on these resources, when you copy and paste from them, you never learn how to write in a way that comes naturally. You never learn how to treat your writing as conversation.

Using canned replies as a crutch holds you back from learning how to adjust your tone based on the tone of a customer’s email. This is one of the most difficult, yet most important skills for a support professional to master.

Furthermore, feeling confident expressing your personality through writing with customers is essential to settling in to a support role. Building intuition and learning how to get your tone just right takes time. So use style guides and canned replies as guides, not directives.

Don’t use documentation as deflection.

Nobody wants “self-help first” idealism crammed down their throats. It’s one thing to have a wide range of help content available to customers to read on their own time. It is another thing to use documentation as a means of discouraging customers to ask a question when they need help.

So have a knowledge base. Fill it with writing that is clear, accurate, and factual. By all means, help customers help themselves. But make it effortless for customers to get in touch from your documentation site. Don’t send customers down a rabbit hole searching for a way to contact your support team.

Also, who cares if customers could have answered their question by reading the docs? Just do what you are good at: make yourself available and have a conversation with your customers—who knows what you might learn.

Note: You will not solve queue volume or capacity problems by throwing more documentation at customers.

Note: For new support teams, focus on honing skills and building relationships with customers before going all-in with documentation. Having a stocked help site does not equal an “excellent” customer experience. It’s more important to get to know your customers—writing docs comes later. Be present, hop on calls, run product demos, be proactive to get out in front of problems, etc. Remember that good documentation is always in flux: it is living, breathing, writing that requires maintenance. Write and edit documentation as you go.

Note: There are scenarios where having no documentation about a product or feature is tremendously helpful. Launch a feature, let your customers use it, and see what kind of questions or insights they come back with. This information will inform the direction of your docs.

Measure what matters.

Support team leadership has a tendency to measure metrics that don’t matter. This is an attempt at convincing higher ups that the support team does in fact, do something. They grasp for ways to “report upwards” to prove what the team intuitively knows to be true—that they are doing a damn good job. However, most of what a support team is responsible for does not measure out well.

It is not easy to measure what matters: the humanity of customer experiences. The human side comes from having thoughtful people on the team who have rare, intuitive people skills. How do you “measure” warm, friendly, knowledgeable email replies? How do you measure empathy or tone of voice? How do you measure someone’s ability to listen and learn from customers? You don’t measure this stuff, you just pay attention and take action when you know you need to.

Constantly monitoring the support team while tying their efforts to arbitrary KPIs and made up goals makes the experience of taking care of customers more transactional, less human. This a quick way to hamstring team morale.

The accumulation of more data, more information, does not automatically mean that you will be able to make better decisions for your team or your customers.

Note: I realize that a lot of this sounds wishy washy, but that's the point. The nature of what support teams do is wishy washy. Embrace it. The people on your team have made a career out of being able to deal with uncertainty, with ambiguity, with vague and puzzling situations. Give them the tools and resources they require, then get out of their way.

Note: CSAT and NPS scores have their place. But remember that in many cases, satisfaction ratings are an emotional snapshot of how someone felt right then and there when submitting a rating. These measurements are not always representative of how customers feel—and what they think—of your team, product, or company.

Note: I am not saying that data is not helpful for understanding support volume, busy times of years, workforce management, etc. Measuring metrics such as handle time, time to resolved, resolved per day, the percentage of paying customers who contact support, and so on are useful for self and team assessment.

Response times matter.

Don’t keep customers waiting. Reply to customer requests as quickly as possible, and aim to resolve problems with without a lot back-and-forth. One of the best ways to lower response times is to hire a distributed team that spans time zones and helps customers 24/7.

If hiring is off the table, work toward a response time goal. For example, with email support, aim for a maximum response time of 24 hours. That means you send a personalized reply to every email you receive in no more than 24 hours. You can drive that number down as you get a grip on support volume over long periods of time, and as you get a better understanding of how long it actually takes to handle a request from start to finish.

What is a “good” response time? Wrong question. Avoid the temptation to compare your support team to other support teams and what they are doing. This is like trying to follow a diet that was designed for a professional athlete—you are not that person. What worked for them will probably not work for you.

So a “good” response time is one that is sustainable for your team. It is a number that you can hit consistently without a lot of stress. It is based on values—how fast do you want to get back to customers? And it is based on what your existing team can handle based on their skills, schedules, and the complexity of support requests that you receive from customers.

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