Whoo. Been a while since I've written here. You know the drill, busy and all that, but there's just too many things I'll forget unless I write them down!
Customer support is a hugely important aspect of a successful business, especially a small business. In my previous job, well I wore more hats than there are names for, but one hat that got a lot of my attention was the "be nice to the customer" hat. In my new job as, well, entrepreneur, it's once again a big part of my work.
So I wanted to write a bit about the subject: why it's so important, how you can go wrong, and what I think constitutes exceptional customer support.
Let's start at the start: why? Well, it's pretty simple: Everyone has had a bad customer support experience. You know how it works: your widget starts making a crackling sound, you start to fear (perhaps irrationally) that it's developed a fault that could be dangerous to your children, so you call up the manufacturer. From there, a machine answers you, you have to listen ultra-carefully to what it's saying to know which number you need to dial to get to the next level of options which you need to listen ultra-carefully to. You get put on hold for 15 minutes, you eventually speak to a human who advises that you've been put through to the wrong area, and will gladly put you through to the right person, but you'll need to wait on hold again, so you do, and another 23 minutes passes and you talk to the "right" person, but they can't help you.
Now think about what happens here: if you ever hear that a friend of yours needs to buy a widget, you're going to tell them "whatever you do, don't buy it from WidgoCorp. My Widget broke and those bastards made me wait on the phone for an hour before telling me that my widget was 2 days out of warranty!". You're probably a little angry at WidgoCorp, but mostly you want to make sure your friend doesn't suffer the same way; you're acting mostly out of compassion for your friend rather than malice toward WidgoCorp, but nonetheless, WidgoCorp just lost a sale.
Compare and contrast: About a year ago, I bought a Samsung LCD monitor. In general I'm thrilled with it, but about 3 months into its new life with me, it developed a fault and refused to turn on. As you can understand, I was disappointed, but it's technology: you expect and accept that these things will happen sometimes. So I called up Samsung support, and I was absolutely blown away: a human answered the phone after about 2 rings. Even more amazing, without needing to transfer me or put me on hold he told me that this was no problem, just read this number off the back of the thing and he'll ship me a replacement straight away; all I had to do was to put the broken monitor into the box and send it back to them. The guy was polite and well-spoken; I called up anxious and expecting a fight, and they were reassuring, calm and glad to have the opportunity to help me out of a jam.
Now, the execution of that return wasn't flawless: it did mean I was without a monitor for a while, but I was able to cope with that (some people mightn't, but in fairness to Samsung, those people should probably be purchasing a "next day" support contract or something), but all that aside, on the basis of that call I felt like Samsung were doing everything they reasonably could to sort out my problem so I didn't call back and bother them about it, and since then I've recommended Samsung monitors to everyone who'll listen. I know that they've made at least one sale based on my recommendation of them. I'm pretty sure I've made more recommendations since that phone-call than I would have had the monitor never developed a fault!
You might argue that past a point, you don't really need to worry about support. To be fair, I've never been involved in the management of a large scale company, but my guess is that you really need to be really quite ginormous for this to be the case, and if you're that large these days, you're likely to be on the wrong-end of anti-competition legislation before too long. But even if you're in that happy situation, good support is cheap marketing. In my previous job, I'd overheard engineers recommending my employer's technology on the basis of how attentive we'd been to their concerns. As founder of an iphone-apps startup it's even more direct: people leave good feedback on the apps store when you do good support work, and that feedback is there for everyone to see, and the "star rating" they give you has a direct impact on the number of sales you make, so that good feedback turns into dollars very directly.
So that's why you need to do it: it'll make you money, plain and simple. The next part of the story is how well-meaning support can go bad. I'm going to give a handful of examples of companies I've personally dealt with, which I do not to try to shame these companies, but to give non-contrived examples.
So, first on my list: Lenovo. I own a Thinkpad x61, and honestly I quite like it; it really is an amazing piece of engineering. It has a tool that it ships with that applies updates to the system, you know: drivers, BIOS updates, updates to the updater application. Standard stuff. So on one occasion it told me it had a critical BIOS update that it wanted to apply. Fair enough I thought, I told it to go right ahead and do it. It failed. It didn't have a rollback process. I rebooted, and of course, the system was "bricked" (a technical term meaning that it is as useful as a brick; this is probably being a bit kind as I don't think I'd want to build a house out of defunct thinkpads) I threw my hands up in the air and thought "they seriously still can't get this right?", took a deep breath and called Lenovo tech support.
I got the automated menus treatment -- disappointing but expected -- I got put on hold -- again, disappointing but expected -- then I spoke to someone about the problem. Initial indications were good: he was polite, and quickly grasped the problem, but ooh boy, not at all nice about the situation. His perspective was that I'd clearly done something wrong in applying the update, that BIOS updates should never be applied unless explicitly instructed to do so by a Lenovo support technician, and that he'd help me out, but he was really going out of his way here, doing me a real favour.
Let me try, as dispassionately as possible, to deconstruct what was wrong with his response. First of all, he assumed that he knew more than me. I hold a computer science degree, had been working as a software engineer for, well, a long time, and at the time was working for a company developing products built around programmable logic devices. I've written kernel modules and have supplied bugfixes to device drivers. I would estimate that I probably understood the situation better than ~99% of the population. It's seriously infuriating when support techs do this to me. I can understand how support techs can get to this point, but you need to guard against it, and you need to make it part of your support mantra. Nothing good can come of this kind of condescension. Either you'll hit people like me, capable of building the damn software ourselves, or you'll hit people who are terrified by what's happening, and you're going to add to their level of frustration. No-one intentionally breaks their computer, and in this day and age, it should be really, really hard to break a computer unless you're trying. If it's possible for someone to break the thing in normal use, it's an engineering problem, and your company should treat it as such and take responsibility for fixing the problem (why? Because you'll save money on fielding those support questions, for one).
Secondly, he asserted that I should not have applied a BIOS update without explicit instructions to do so from support. That's a fine policy to have, but you can't also have "critical" BIOS updates that will install themselves unless the user explicitly says not to. The default behaviour can't be "brick the machine"! This isn't just a support problem -- it's a case of engineering not talking to the guys on the front line. That's something that gets harder as your company grows, but you'll build better products and spend less on support (which is an ongoing cost) if you can facilitate that kind of communication. Given my credentials above, trust me when I tell you that it is entirely possible to engineer a system that would not fail in this situation (BIOS updates are a bit hairy, say when there's power-loss, but this was a pretty simple case), or at least trust me when I tell you it's possible not to tag these updates as "critical".
Thirdly, he acted like he was doing me a favour. That's just wrong: if you're calling support, it's because of a failure in the company's technology; it might be a bug, it might be bad design, it might be bad marketing. But as a support-guy, you need to welcome the opportunity to fix the problem, not treat the customer like they're a nuisance and you're just doing your best to be a nice guy. The customer is doing you a favour by calling you rather than, say, writing letters to the editor, tweeting about your bad product, or (like I guess I am) blogging about your abysmal support. Since the customer is doing you a favour, do your best to make them feel like you really appreciate it.
My last gripe with Lenovo was that during various dialogues with them, they tried to pass the buck: Since Lenovo acquired the Thinkpad brand from IBM, there's a stack of opportunities for them to do this. Further, since they ship the machine with 3rd party software, they can point the finger at the software vendors too. It gets even better, if you speak to their hardware support group, they'll tell you that they can't help you because BIOS updates fall under the jurisdiction of the software support group. "Can I talk to software support?" "There's no support for software." There are cases where a third-party is legitimately to blame for the problem, but it doesn't suffice to identify this, you still need to solve the problem.
Let's move on. Telcos are next on my list. I won't name a particular one, because I've had bad experiences with all the carriers in Australia (except Three; I've never had a Three phone). I won't go into as much detail here, as I think you've got the flavour of this by now, but the problems include: confusing automated menu systems, many levels deep. Long hold times. Over-specialisation of staff (meaning that you'll need to be transferred way too often). Bad ETAs.
So alright, that's some of what can go wrong. Hopefully the rest of this will be briefer -- here's my list of what makes a great support experience. It's tailored to email support, since that's most of what I do, but I think a lot of it is applicable to phone support also.
- Thank the user for getting in touch with you. Don't be disingenuous about this, and be concise. No-one calls wanting a love-in, but it's nice to know that the customer's support for your product is appreciated.
- Apologise for the problem the user is experiencing. Again, don't drag this out, but this communicates that you (the company) is accepting responsibility for the problem, and wants to help.
- Briefly explain the problem so that the user has some perspective. This serves two purposes: some people feel outraged about the problem and need some rationalisation to be able to let the dialogue progress. It also gets you some good-will, as it will give the user some appreciation for the scope of the problem you're solving here. Be careful not to make this sound like you're passing the buck, and make sure that you don't detract from your efforts to take responsibility for the problem.
- Take responsibility for the problem, and for the solution. If you can, provide a fix or workaround immediately, if you can't, commit to a date for a fix and stick to it. Provide interim measures if you can. Do everything you can to help the customer as quickly as possible.
- Be as honest as you can, because customers can tell when you're telling the truth and speaking sincerely. They'll respond in kind and again, you'll get some good will that you can trade against in future dealings with that customer.
- Be polite and respectful. It doesn't cost a cent, and it will be remembered.
- Escalate recurring problems to engineering so that their solution will be built into the next version and you won't need to worry about this issue ever again. Also get it across to marketing (or wherever) to get this stuff on the FAQ, blog, whatever. It'll save you and your customers time and frustration.
But most importantly of all, solve the problem! The thing that people will remember the most is how long it took them to get a satisfactory solution to their problem. That's all they want, so providing that is your number one priority. One last point I'll make here is that when evaluating that amount of time, time spent on hold gets magnified by about 1000 in the customer's mind, and it's really hard to earn enough good will to earn back 1000 minutes of time wasting. Call back services will make all the difference here.
So ok, here's an example of how I think your support responses should look:
Hi XXX (customer name),
Thanks for writing in. Sorry for the trouble you're having -- it's due to a bug in the email system we discovered late in the release cycle. There's a fix in version 2, a free upgrade due out in August, but in the interim, placing a hyphen before the server name should resolve the problem for you.
Please do get in touch if you hit any more problems.
Thanks for using YYY (the name of your product)!
Of course, it won't always be that simple, but getting a response like that one out to every support request you get is a good goal to have.
That's it for now!