Intercom’s mission is to make internet business personal. In an era of online interactions, that sense of personal connection can be hard to forge when it comes to customer support.
A personal connection is most keenly felt when things go wrong and when customers need support. Personal and contextual support interactions have become synonymous with a great customer support experience, and, at Intercom, we understand that building these kinds of connections involves 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 service and customer support software has undergone 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?
At a high level, the role of customer support is to ensure customers end their experience with your brand happier than when they started. The range of services you offer should help your customers get the most out of your product and resolve their problems. This includes things like answering customer questions, providing assistance with onboarding, troubleshooting, and upgrading customers to a new product or service.
Depending on the industry, these services can range from call centers (phone support) to ticket-based help desks 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”
Consistently reaching this goal means paying close attention to what customers want and need, and being willing to learn and adapt. An example of this within Intercom is our evolving philosophy around ticketing systems. We have always believed in the power of conversational support, delivered via a Messenger, as the foundation of excellent customer support.
We believed that ticketing systems existed to handle complex queries, and because solutions like our Messenger, Resolution Bot, and Inbox provide that support personally and efficiently, we didn’t think we needed it. But, as time went on, we came to understand that there was something missing. While our Messenger and Inbox handle complex queries, we needed a way to represent customer requests as they progressed along a journey. That’s what tickets do – they provide a way for businesses and their customers to track the “behind the scenes” work that needs to be done to action a customer’s request, and offer updates to the customer.
Following discussions with customers, our teams, and customer service experts, we realized how important a ticketing system is. It helps us gather the info we need to handle a customer’s request asynchronously, keep track of all those requests internally, and give our customers a way to follow up while they are waiting.
Whether you’re after faster responses or better ways to keep customers in the loop, ensuring your customer support team is empowered with customer support software 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, and support tickets need to be treated as part of a broader relationship. As a business, this requires responding honestly, personally, and proactively within a reasonable period of time. And now, with rapid advances in automation and AI, we can leverage tools such as Resolution Bot and our new AI chatbot, Fin, which can provide trustworthy answers to your most commonly asked questions, dramatically improving the speed and efficiency of your customer support.
The importance of customer support to your business
Fundamentally, we believe that to grow a great product company you need:
- Happy customers
- Highly engaged customers
- Customers who stick around
- Customers who continuously provide feedback to improve the product
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 service 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 – set great expectations and aim to be prompt, answer questions with the right product knowledge, and do it all with a tone that backs up your brand. This all equates to 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. Here are some examples:
- During your regular hours of operation, a customer waits six hours for a response to a question.
- Decision you did or didn’t make: You decided speed of response was not a priority.
- Based in Indonesia, they submit a question and hear nothing for 16 hours.
- Decision you did or didn’t make: You chose not to provide support in that time zone.
- Incorrect information is provided, which fails to fix the problem.
- Decision you did or didn’t make: You chose not to invest adequately in your help content so out-of-date advice is still being provided to customers.
- Despite spending $2,000 a month, no-one reaches out to a customer when they tell a support rep they are about to quit.
- Decision you did or didn’t make: You decided not to have an escalation policy in place for when VIP customers are about to quit.
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 so 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 about 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.
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 messaging, 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.
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.
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 the speed of response. How might you utilize expectation setting and/or automation 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, like coverage and language support, can sometimes be 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. However, the power of automated support can help you to multiply the efficiency and effectiveness of the team you already have. Whatever you decide, ensure you are tracking your average response times and time to first response to see if you are hitting your goals.
Are you going to provide support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Or do you think Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm 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?
What languages to support and when to start supporting them can be a tricky decision. The addressable market for organizations today has significantly increased thanks to the internet. We can now reasonably serve consumers around the world rather than being limited to those in our country or region.
English is the lingua franca of the global software business, but if your company is serving 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 for support will be if you do.
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 things?
- 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 that have developed organically and are ingrained in your support team’s culture. As the team expands, simple, sensible processes make 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.
Examples of great customer support
Customer support is in our DNA, and we’re always excited to see our customers get creative with theirs and put many of our features on the frontline of their service. Let’s take a look at some of our favorite examples:
Fathom is a platform for financial reporting, insights, and forecasting. It had two main priorities for its customer support capabilities:
“Some of our customers need instant responses while they’re working on a report or a forecast, while others would prefer to send us an email that they can return to later.” – Adam Wilson, Global Head of Customer Support at Fathom
To provide this double-whammy of customer support needs, Fathom connected Intercom to Jira to simplify escalations and product feedback. It also used Guru for internal product knowledge, which interacts smoothly with Intercom workflows and gives the team speedy access to all the information they need to address problems instantly.
Curex is an integrated, online telemedicine clinic for people who suffer from food allergies, and environmental allergies. Customers can consult with doctors online, over the phone, and via SMS.
Curex discovered that its customers preferred to use text messaging as their means of communication. So, it implemented our two-way SMS feature to chat directly with them from the Intercom Inbox. This means the team has all correspondence in one place while its customers can get the help they need in a way that’s convenient for them. This resulted in higher engagement and completion rates and significant time savings for the team.
Find out how you can supercharge your support and your customer experience offering in 2023 in our latest guide.