The characteristics of modern customer support

Main illustration: Adam Avery

Customer support has undergone some dramatic changes over the past ten years. We’ve moved from call centers, to ticket-based helpdesks, to increasingly personal types of customer support.

Instead of a drain on resources, customer support is now seen as a clear differentiator and competitive advantage. Better customer support beats the products competing against yours.

We call this “modern customer support”, and its characteristics are actually pretty straightforward. If you’re prompt, if you’re answering questions with the right product knowledge and if you’re doing it with a tone that backs up your brand, then you’re providing good customer support.

For a SaaS company today, this type of modern customer support can be delivered by focusing on three things:

  1. Hire great people that are really excited about your product
  2. Give them tons of product knowledge
  3. Teach them how you talk to customers

Whether you describe your team as customer support, customer service or customer success, start with these three simple things and it’s hard to go wrong.

Modern customer support is expensive. But it’s an investment.

Einstein described compound interest as the eighth wonder of the world. “Those who understand it, earn it. Those who don’t, pay it.” While modern customer support isn’t a revenue generating tool, it is something that pays off for your brand in the long run.

For example, the safest way to invest in the stock market is to put away the same amount of money over a regular period of time. If you don’t adjust your behavior, and keep your investments really diversified, you’ll eventually build a fortune. The same goes for customer support teams. If you want a great support team you need to keep investing in it, and keep adding to the team at the right rate so that the work is getting done properly.

A mistake a lot of companies make is that they don’t continue to invest in support, and the customer experience suffers as a result. But as Henry Ford famously said, “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.” The same is true for support. If you need another agent and don’t hire them you’ll pay the full cost of hiring them – in the form of business lost due to poor support – but still won’t have an additional team mate. So always plan your hiring in proportion with the growth of your customer base.

The importance of consistency

A key ingredient of modern customer support is consistency. Every customer support experience should be an absolute reflection of the way the CEO talks, the way your product talks, or the way your marketing team talks. A customer should never feel like they’re getting a different experience in your onboarding, and then a different experience with customer support. It should all be seamless.

Yet the mindset of a sales team in one place, customer support in another, and the product team way over somewhere else has been hardwired into company DNA for decades. Thankfully there has been a tide shift in recent years (for most decent SaaS companies and startups anyway). They’ve realised customer experience isn’t just an adjunct piece of the organisation that can be tacked on at the end. It has to be made a priority from the very start, and from the senior leadership down. The likes of Tony Hsieh from Zappos have made it abundantly clear – taking ridiculously good care of customers pays off in the end.

Make it a priority from the start

Zappos’ culture of customer support didn’t happen by accident. It started with customer support having a seat at the top table of the organisation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Intercom’s founders made a customer support person their fourth hire. By spending so much time designing and building, they knew they weren’t doing a great job answering Intercom’s very earliest customers. If they didn’t give those customers a great experience, they weren’t going to tell other people about it and build that cycle of organic growth.

By having dedicated customer support early, it’s also easier for them to stay connected to the product and to know everything about it. Bringing in customer support retrospectively automatically creates a sort of division.

That said, it’s always possible to build a bridge between your support and product teams.

It just takes strong product and support leadership to make it clear that it’s really important. For example, Paul, our VP of Product is an incredible champion of our customer support team. He always reminds the Product team how much they depend on the information that comes from our customers. Customer support supplies and filters the raw data, and the product team synthesizes it and then puts it to good use building great product.

What this means for your business

The benefits of modern customer support are two-fold: it reduces churn and provides word of mouth-driven growth for your business.

The first one is obvious. If you give your customers a crap customer experience, or if you refuse to invest in customer support and let it degrade over time, you’ll see a slow migration of users to a competitor who looks after them better. Good customer support is one of the best ways of avoiding churn for any company.

customer support churn

But good customer support also generates word of mouth, which helps kickstart and maintain an organic growth engine. If you’ve got great customer support, and a really consistent voice across your whole company, your customers are going to become your evangelists. Like the Einstein quote we mentioned earlier, this pays off in the long run.

When there’s too many conflicting ideas about what your product actually is, when customer support is at odds with your product, you’ll struggle to get word of mouth that impacts your product.

Bottom line, when you provide an awesome customer support experience like that outlined above, your customers are going to stick around, you’ll get free marketing from word of mouth, and your product is going to get even better.

Intercom on Customer Support book