How to be Great at Customer Support

26 June 2014 by Mathias Meyer

Portland I

When we set out to build Travis CI into a product and a business, I had one thing on my agenda that I wanted us to be good at, and that's customer support.

Offering an infrastructure product, we knew upfront that customers are going to have problems setting up their projects, and we knew that there'd be the occasional hard problem to solve.

Customer support turned into our number one priority to get right, and here's how we approached it.

Below are the simple hacks we've learned and applied over the last two years to make sure customers have a good experience when they interact with us. You can apply any and all of these steps instantly to improve your own customer support.

Remember Your Last Bad Support Experience

The simplest thing to help you how to do great customer support is your last bad experience with another company.

We've all had them, responses with blunt links to knowledge bases, canned responses seemingly matching keywords, and a customer support representative who's driven more by the number of calls he's making per hour than by the amount of happiness he's brought a company's customers.

If I'd ask you to sit down and jot down your last five bad experiences with a product and their customer support, the last tweets you fired off into the ether about a bad experience, you'll have a useful list in no time.

All you need to do now is figure out what annoyed you about these responses and incidents and figure out how you'd do it differently, how you would've wanted to be treated.

Great customer support people go out of their way to help a customer, they're the frontline of delivering happiness directly to people beyond simply selling them a good product.

First, Admit You're the Problem

When a customer is frustrated, you can read it in their emails asking for help. Some customers prefer to be snarky, others can say things that aren't very nice. People will say negative things about your product. We may not like it, and we may get easily offended when they do, but that shouldn't impact a positive response.

When your customer is having troubles, you need to think about their pain. When they're frustrated, it's because of your product and your decisions. Always assume that the problem is on your end when a customer is having troubles.

Adopting this approach makes you think twice about your response. It removes a barrier, it frees you from responding with a snarky email or tweet and helps you focus on the problem.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

The most important value of interacting with customers, heck, with people, is empathy. Understand that your product is getting in their way rather than solve a problem, and really think about the issue.

It's okay to take a step back, look at all the details you have available and consider the view of the customer.

Empathy means taking the time to understand other people's emotions, their train of thought.

Empathy is the core value of customer support. It's the one thing that makes you great at customer support.

Just coincidentally, empathy also makes you a great customer to work with.

We're all humans, we're all driven by our own goals, and customer support is your one means to align them.

And Honesty Too

If your product can't do something your customer wants, or you can't give them a solution right now, be honest about it.

There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know", as long as you're willing to take more time to investigate a possible solution.

If you can't find one, it's okay to admit that. We're all humans, and not every problem can be solved. Not every problem should be solved, at least not by your product.

Offer Solutions rather than Excuses

Customers aren't interested in hearing excuses, they're interested in one thing and one thing only, a solution to their problem.

If you can't offer one, that's okay, but a great customer support person goes out of their way to find one, even if it means using another product.

Giving a customer a solution, even if it doesn't involve your product, will make them happier than giving them none, than giving them excuses.

Learn How to Talk to People

You won't turn into a great customer support person overnight, but you can give your brain gentle nudges on how to talk to people better.

For me, reading a few books has helped a lot in shaping my languages. Two in particular have been invaluable, and I'd recommend them to anyone. They're useful not just for customer support interactions, but for all kinds of people interactions.

"How To Win Friends and Influence People" is a timeless classic, and it taught me a lot about empathy and how to approach people in general and disgruntled customers in particular. It's the one book you should read no matter what you do. It shaped my interactions a lot.

"Drop the Pink Elephant" is the perfect companion. It teaches you about saying what you really mean rather than focus on things that remove clarity from a conversation. It's shaped customer interactions and the way we write our public postmortems.

Customer support is your number one differentiator as a company. It takes a lot of work and effort, but it's your best way to make your customers happy, to have meaningful interactions with them.

It pays in the long term to make sure you're doing it right. Great customer support experiences can't be measured in money or in any meaningful way, but it'll help you get loyal customers. Knowing that you're willing to help no matter the problem gives every customer the incentive to come back for more.

But most importantly, great customer support makes your customers feel like they're treated as humans.

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