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Defining customer support: why it’s key to your long-term success

Global Director of Customer Support, Intercom

Kaitlin Pettersen

@kpetterman

Main illustration: Hanna Swann

Intercom’s mission is to make internet business personal – in an era of online interactions between businesses and customers, that sense of personal connection can be hard to forge and easily lost.

That personal connection is most keenly felt when things go wrong and when customers need support. We have become synonymous with making personal and conversational interactions the bedrock of a great customer support experience. At the heart of that reputation is our belief that great support is about more than just managing and closing tickets, or rehearsing a list of “customer service skills”.

In the not too distant past, customer support was often seen as a hassle, a cost that had to be borne but which was really just a tax on success. Luckily, that adversarial view of customers is on the wane and progressive companies consider a customer-centric culture a core value.

As a result, customer support has undergone some dramatic changes in recent years. Increasingly, companies realize that putting your customers front and center is essential to customer retention, transforms customers into advocates for your business and delivers a competitive advantage.

What is customer support?

Customer support is the range of services you offer to help your customers get the most out of your product and to ensure any problems they have with your product get resolved.

Depending on the industry, these services can range from call centers (phone support) to ticket-based helpdesks and email support, from self-serve knowledge bases to increasingly personal types of customer support using tools such as Intercom.

Some companies interchangeably use terms such as customer service or even customer success, but while some insist on subtle nuanced differences between those fields, the larger principles should remain the same – making sure your customers get the best value possible from your product.

“Every customer should feel like they’re involved in a one-to-one conversation with a business”

We have always championed one aspect of customer support above all others – we intentionally avoid the concept of customer support tickets, where customers are ascribed a number when they make contact, because the people at the other end of the question are not numbers. Thinking of your customers as numbers rather than people hinders the sort of empathy that is key to successful customer support. That’s not to say that some customer questions or segments don’t require a faster first response than others, but ensuring your customer support team is empowered with tools and philosophies that allow them to connect and converse with your customers is key.

Customer support should be personal. Every customer should feel like they’re involved in a one-to-one conversation with a business, not filing a one-off support ticket that aren’t treated as part of a broader relationship. As a business, this requires responding within a reasonable period of time honestly, personally and proactively.

And now, with rapid advances in automation, we can offer tools such as Answer Bot, which can provide the right answers to 23% of your most commonly asked questions, dramatically improving the speed and efficiency of your customer support.

Why customer support is important for your business

Fundamentally, we believe that to grow a great product company you need:

And each of those factors – customer happiness, engagement, loyalty and feedback – can be influenced by support more than any other function of your business.

In an era when unhappy customers can swiftly dent your reputation and have plenty of alternatives to choose from, it’s critical that you get customer support right.

“Customer happiness, engagement, loyalty and feedback can be influenced by support more than any other function of your business”

Doing it right depends on a number of factors, but at its core it’s quite simple – if you set great expectations and aim to be 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 that will reap long-term benefits. But to achieve these benefits, you must carefully define your approach to customer support.

Defining your customer support level

Everything that happens when a customer talks to support is an aggregation of marginal decisions you’ve made. Hopefully you’ve made active conscious decisions about what kind of support you are going to offer. And those decisions are the execution of the values that you’ve arrived at earlier on in your customer service team’s evolution.

Not consciously making decisions is also a choice that will have consequences for the kind of support your customers receive, e.g. if you don’t provide support out of office hours, then you’ve designed it that you don’t support people during the weekend even if they are paying you $3,000 a month.

What works for you now could easily be buckling under pressure in six, 12 or 18 months time, and you’ll need to make some critical decisions around how you adopt automation, self-service and customer prioritization in order to scale and handle that pressure.

Key features of your support

Here are some of the key features of your support that you get to design and that you should address as early as possible.

1. Style

A fundamental question you have to ask yourself is what style of support are you going to provide. One option is what you might call the “one big answer” approach. This involves trying to answer each customer contact with a comprehensive reply that covers every possible related scenario e.g. your answer may be five or six paragraphs long, include links to your documentation, and even have an embedded video about how to use the feature in question. It’s comprehensive but there’s no sense you want to engage in any back and forth communication with the customer. The alternative is to have a conversation with your customer – whether that’s via email, through in-app communications or over the phone. You try to get to the root of the issue and if appropriate you follow up with additional questions or advice.

2. Voice and tone

Closely related to the style of support you plan to offer is the manner in which you plan to speak to customers. You need to think about your company voice (e.g. formal and reserved or relaxed and chatty?) as well as the tone for different scenarios (e.g. responding to a customer who’s been overcharged compared to speaking to a customer on Twitter). Some of the questions you might want to ask yourself include:

  • How formal do you want your customer communications to be?
  • Are you going to adopt a conversational tone?
  • Should you utilize modern communication trends such as emojis and gifs?

While it’s important to have these guidelines in place you don’t want to be too prescriptive either. The last thing you want is to create a team of robotic customer support agents running through a script of predetermined messages, never helping or sympathizing, just programmatically following instructions.

3. Quality

It may seem quite subjective but you also make choices about the quality of your support. Some businesses need to rely on customer delight or speedy responses more than others but who you hire is crucial to the quality of the support you can offer.

Well structured and resourced user onboarding, even if lightweight, can help to train your support staff to quickly and effectively address your customer’s needs. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to train someone to be resilient, empathetic, able to effectively manage situations, and to thrive under pressure over long periods of time while continuing to be positive and optimistic.

Your earliest hires and their influence on the support team’s value system and workflows will impact the quality of your support experience for a long time to come. Choose wisely and ensure they have the systems, strategies and leadership in place to be successful.

4. Speed

In an ideal world all customers would have a real-time conversation with a friendly and knowledgeable support rep every time they had an issue (often with live chat support). But reality bites and we all know that’s not realistic. So ask yourself just how important is speed of response? And how might you utilize expectation setting and/or automated tools to offer some alternative solutions to your customers while they wait for your team?

“Speed, in common with coverage and language support, is largely a money problem”

You need to look at it from the point of view of your customers – how critical is speed of first response versus time to actually resolve the issue? You may also need to consider what competitors or challengers in your space might be providing.

Speed, in common with coverage and language support, is largely a money problem. Hire more staff and you’ll be able to answer your customers’ questions quicker, in more languages and at all hours of the day and night. Whatever you decide, ensure you are tracking your average response times and time to first response to see if you are hitting your goals.

5. Coverage

Are you going to provide support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Or do you think Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5pm will suffice? Just remember, even the most business-focused enterprise software products get usage out of office hours. What holidays are you going to observe? And will you provide skeleton cover during holiday periods or none at all?

6. Language

What languages to support and when to start supporting them can be a tricky decision.

Whatever your views on it, the fact of the matter is that English is the lingua franca of the global software business. If you are in the B2B space you can probably go a long way only supporting customers in English; as of 2018, Intercom had more than 30,000 paying customers in over 90 countries and only provides English language support.

If your customers are global consumers you will probably need to think about supporting them in their native language at a much earlier stage. Another important consideration is your international marketing. There are many services you can use to translate your website into different languages, but you have to ask what the implications on support will be if you do.

7. Process

If you don’t have robust processes in place things will break as you scale and your quality of customer support will suffer as a result.

You will need to make sure team members feel empowered to make the decisions that are needed. At the very least you want to make sure you have processes in place around:

  • Emergencies: how do you define an emergency and who gets notified? How are they informed and when?
  • Escalation: needs to be defined not just for emergencies e.g. for product bugs, when do you need to pull in a product engineer?
  • Communication: how do members of the team find out about stuff?
  • Refunds: under what circumstances will you issue them and who processes them?
  • Security: e.g. if someone asks to reset their password how do you verify their identity?

While your processes will need to change and evolve as you grow, it’s much easier to put them in place early than try and graft processes onto work practices which have developed organically and are ingrained in your support team’s culture. As the team expands process makes it easier for everyone to do a great job. No one is left wondering what they need to do – it’s clear what is required in a number of defined situations.


There’s simply too much to lose by not delivering the best customer support you possibly can, and that begins by defining how you want to deliver it. To find out more, check out our book, Intercom on Customer Support

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