What is Customer Support
Customer Support is any activity that directly engages with leads or existing customers. Interactions can happen before the purchase; think about customer questions about the product and/or the brand. They can happen during the purchase process, e.g. queries about shipping or payment options. And last but not least – probably the most common case – you will interact with customers after they’ve made the purchase. This can either be classical troubleshooting (where is my shipment etc.) or full-scale customer onboarding programs.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE A WELL-FUNCTIONING CUSTOMER SUPPORT TEAM
First of all, customers will certainly have questions as you grow your operations and offerings. Answering them promptly and helping customers with their queries is a necessary component to achieve high customer satisfaction.
Second, taking care well of your existing customers is the best tool you have for customer retention. A positive encounter with a company’s customer support (i.e. a resolved issue) is far more powerful to build long-term relationships than sending out an email newsletter or offering bonus points.
Thirdly, especially for the pre-purchase and purchase-related inquiries, customer support will also increase your sales as it removes roadblocks and friction in the purchase process.
Last but not least, customer support is probably the most powerful tool you have to get real-time feedback about your products, service, and operations. Utilizing everything you learn in customer support to improve your offerings will set your company up for success. It will help your organization to become customer-centric.
Customer Support Strategy
Your company’s strategy determines the strategy that your customer support team follows. Imagine you are an online reseller of goods with small margins, and you aim at large quantities. Your customer support team, in this case, might look very different from one where you offer a bespoke product in a high-price segment.
Here are some dimensions to consider.
NECESSARY EVIL OR CORE PART OF YOUR ORGANIZATION
First, let’s have a rather philosophical question: What do you want your customer support to be. Is it something you have to offer to resolve customer requests that would lead to bad reviews if unresolved?
Or do you see customer care as a core part of your customer-centric organization? Even though organizations who deeply care about their client’s needs usually fare better, you still decide what you want your customer support to be. There’s no right or wrong here, but make sure it is in line with your company’s strategy as a whole.
TROUBLESHOOTING VS. CUSTOMER SUCCESS MANAGEMENT
If your product is self-explanatory, not customized and priced rather low, a customer support organization that focuses on troubleshooting such as missing shipments or technical questions might be enough.
If, on the other hand, your product or service is a high-ticket offering, highly individualized and needs explanation to make good use of, you might want to consider your customer support team more in the way of a customer success team, where new clients are proactively onboarded. This form of customer support is often seen with SaaS companies where new clients need guidance to make the best use of the software they just purchased.
Obviously, every form between these two poles is an option, depending on your product or service.
SELF-SERVICE VS. TRANSACTIONAL SUPPORT
Studies show that customers do prefer self-service offerings for rather technical issues over transactional customer support. If you can identify recurring support cases that customers could resolve themselves, such as looking up shipment information with a tracking number, a self-service area with a login might be a good idea.
On the other hand, customers request interacting with real support agents once the subject matters are more complex.
SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENTS AND TIMEZONES
Depending on which markets you are present in, you want to make sure that your customer support team can cover all relevant time zones. This is relevant for two reasons.
First, you want to be sure you meet certain response times that your customers might be expecting from you or that you have communicated.
Secondly, timely processing of cancellations or changes in order information is crucial to avoid that products leave your warehouses that shouldn’t.
Above mentioned response times and other communicated performance metrics, so-called service level agreements will also determine the technology stack and workforce you need to achieve them.
There is a variety of different channels that are suited for different customer needs. Pre-purchase enquiries about the brand or a product often come in through a brand’s presence on social media platforms or where else they market their products. Questions about shipping and payment might best be answered via a knowledge base.
Self-service or email support might be the right choice for shipment enquiries, where
Technical Support or a customer success approach again requires a different set of channels to deliver your customer support.
The message here is that it is necessary to choose the channels based on your product, customers, and other strategic decisions.
Now that we have discussed the strategic decisions let’s look at how to build a customer support team.
As your operations grow, you will usually encounter a growing number of customer requests. At first, the program manager, project managers or you as a founder can manage them on the side. But as the requests become more frequent, this becomes less and less feasible. Your customer experience deteriorates as response and resolve times get longer and longer. That’s the point where you should consider hiring your first customer support rep.
SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES
Great customer support begins with great people. There will be a direct conversation between your customer support rep and the customer for most transactional support channels. Therefore, make sure you choose people with the right personal skills and capabilities.
- Drive to help & service orientation: Your customer support reps’ job is to solve problems your customers have. A natural drive to be helpful and supportive is the fundamental ingredient for a great customer service rep.
- Problem-solving: Depending on how you position your customer service, the issues your team is facing can range from a simple lookup of shipping information to a complex problem-solving case.
- Empathy: Oftentimes, when your customers reach out to your customer support, they might not be their happiest selves because something went wrong with their order or your product. Your customer service reps should be able to put themselves in your customers’ shoes.
- Patience & Listening-Skills: Your customer support ideally consists of people that are patient listeners. Especially for phone support, hearing a customer out and also allow to load-off frustration can be the most important thing on the way to a good resolution. Also, there’s nothing more frustrating than explaining your case to a customer support rep who is not listening and jumps to the easiest solution for a problem you don’t even have.
- Continuous Improvement mindset: Your customer support rep has daily exposure to all defects and process flaws in your product/service and operations. To get the best out of customer support, your reps should distill and detect patterns in the support requests and feed them back into program and operations management.
Additionally, the customer support rep needs to fit in your organization perfectly. That’s more important than for any other position you hire. The customer support team often is the only inter-personal contact point between your brand and the customer – make sure it reflects who you want to be as a company.
CUSTOMER SUPPORT ORGANIZATION
When you are in the situation to build a customer service team, congratulations! It means your sales or interest in your product/service are high enough to produce many customer questions. At the point you’re now, you probably realize that you can’t do the support on the side anymore.
There are a few considerations when building your customer support organization:
Size of the team: The number of customer service agents you need is a direct function of the number of tickets, the channels you use, the SLA you have with your clients and the complexity of requests and resolutions. When making the step to build a customer support team, use the past information about tickets and workloads and your roadmap (more sales usually translate to more tickets) to determine a hiring roadmap.
Location of the team: If you need to cover the whole world because you sell worldwide, it might make sense to distribute your customer support team around the globe. If you have some core markets, make sure your team can cover these markets’ business hours.
Hiring for a rep or a manager: If you want to load off the customer support topic to someone who can take care of it properly and don’t expect huge growth in the near future, hiring a customer support rep that is managed directly by the leadership team can be the right choice.
If you expect your customer service to grow soon, you might want to hire a more senior person who can build a customer support organization for you.
Place in your organization: Where you allocate a certain organizational unit in your organization will be a sign of how much you value that unit overall – and will determine the attention and resources the unit gets. If you want to make customer support a priority, make the customer support department or support rep a part of your leadership team or at least have a solid line reporting into leadership.
The tools in customer support can be structured into three main categories: Self-service offerings, direct support channels and Customer Support Software.
The best way to resolve an issue quickly is when customers do it themselves. For this reason, having the right self-service tools in place is a great idea.
FAQ: The good old frequently asked questions are still an evergreen when it comes to self-service. Especially for more or less static, non-transactional inquiries like shipping cost and cancellation rules or product-related questions, this tool can eliminate many tickets before they are being created.
Knowledge Bases: Knowledge bases are often used for products or services with high complexity that need a lot of information. SaaS companies use knowledge bases to explain relevant functionalities and settings of their software. Imagine you had to call Microsoft whenever you have a question about an Excel function. Customer forums are a close relative to knowledge basis, where experienced users help inexperienced users solve their problems.
Customer Accounts: If you have any form of an online shop, consider using customer accounts: A customer account is a password-protected area where your customers can manage their orders, subscriptions, and personal information. This can help to eliminate some of the address change and cancellation requests. Make sure that you’re customer account’s functionalities have their counterpart on the fulfillment side of things – when your customer cancels an order, but that information doesn’t reach your fulfillment, then you’re likely producing more unhappy customers.
Depending on the service level you want to offer, the urgency and the complexity of your customers’ requests, you can use different channels for customers to reach you.
Phone support: If your customers’ requests are rather complex, (time-) critical or dealing with sensitive information, phone support can be a great choice. Phone support is one of the richest media you have for your support. It allows for bi-directional communication, direct clarification of questions and added information by a person’s tonality. Also, there are markets like the US where phone support is much more common than in other places, and your customers might expect you to have it. Whether you use an outsourced call center or do the phone support in-house is determined by the strategic importance of that customer support to your value proposition. Today’s VOIP technology enables you to route calls worldwide and gives each customer phone numbers local for them.
Live chat support: Usually located on your website, life chat combines immediate assistance and bi-directional communication with advantages in efficiency, as chat is at least somewhat asynchronous. Often combined with bots to pre-qualify requests, it can be a great tool. Make sure to allow for some human touch in the conversation. Otherwise, your customers might expect they’re talking to a bot all along.
Social Media: Social Media Channels like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook all offer messaging functionality that can be a convenient touchpoint for your customers. Also, there’s a growing number of text-based support options out there. Conversational support solutions like the one from Intercom using text, chat and messengers are on the rise and worth looking into.
Email support: Email support is still a staple in the customer support tools. Easy to maintain, easy to use for clients and allowing for rich information, email has everything you need to collect information and interact with your clients.
Support forms: Support forms allow you to structure the information your customers need to submit when sending a request. Qualifying requests like that allows for efficient routing and tagging in the backend and leads to more comprehensive tickets. There is, however, a high risk of frustrating your customers with case descriptions they don’t understand or submission requirements (attachments etc.) that are hard to fulfill. To avoid that, offer an alternative channel like email.
As you are building a customer support team, give them the right tools to do a great job. The central tool you need is customer support software, for example Gorgias. Look for features like automated ticket creation and tagging, integration with the platforms you sell on, rich information in the tickets, the possibility to communicate internally within a ticket and the possibility to pre-build and automate, both actions like closing or tagging and responses to customers. (Check out our blog post about reviewing your tech stack here!)
When setting up your support processes, all of the above will determine what these processes look like. Make sure to pay attention to what processes are value-added processes and non-value-added processes.
Value-added processes are activities that your clients are willing to pay for, such as your support team helping them find a customized payment solution. Try to actively manage them as part of your offering and value proposition.
Non-value-added processes are activities that your customer would not pay you for, e.g. your customer support team dealing with a product defect (because the product shouldn’t be defective in the first place). Try to eliminate the sources and design the resolution as efficiently as possible.
It makes sense to agree at a common standard on how to handle support tickets. If every rep follows their own logic of tagging and changing status, handovers and reporting become impossible.
You might want to standardize the frequency or the update speed of your customer interactions in so-called service level agreements (SLA). You might want to have rules in place after how many hours of waiting you send out an email informing the customer that you’re still working on it.
STANDARD OPERATION PROCEDURES AND WORKFLOWS FOR RESOLUTION
Defining the standard path to resolve your most common ticket types will create a great basis for future process improvement and help you onboard new support reps. It will also allow for more structured policy changes, e.g. when you change your return and refund policy.
Also, you might want to include guidelines and limitations of judgement calls you want your teams to make. E.g., document the amount up to which your team is free to issue refunds or send out replacements.
You might be convinced that you create customer delight with your support, but you don’t know unless you actually ask your customers. Measuring satisfaction with your support by asking your customers after their request has been marked closed will tell you a lot about the real performance and satisfaction. Try to keep this feedback collection as simple as possible. Tools like the net promoter score (NPS) are a good choice here.
Please let me know your experience with building a customer support team.