Embracing a human tone in customer support

Main illustration: Kelli Anderson

Having worked in retail, car rental, a call center, and now at Intercom as a Customer Support Representative, I’ve had my fair share of customer interaction.

I’ve supported customers on the phone, over email, in person and over chat, and the ways in which we can talk to our customers are ever increasing. This is not surprising in a world where phones are smaller than calculators and glasses are now computers. What is surprising is how many similarities these different mediums share when it comes to nailing interactions with your customers and delivering next-level support.

So what is this customer service silver bullet, you ask? It’s making the customer support experience more human. Intercom is the perfect platform to do this. We don’t have tickets, or transaction times; we have a conversational support platform that allows and encourages you to get to know your users.

At first, the whole concept might seem a little funny. Talking through a computer screen or a chat bubble on a phone is never going to be human. But Intercom allows you to pull the natural aspect back into chat conversations. Like in any face-to-face transaction, most chat conversations will be short and sweet, but this doesn’t mean they have to be robotic. When appropriate we should strive to be personal and human.

Our customer support team maximizes this human, personal style every day, and we use some really simple methods to do this.

Tip 1: Learn to find the “signs of life”

We see our customers as humans and we make a point of letting them know that we’re human too. A great example, and one that always pulls on my own heart strings, is the customer who sends a ? crying emoji – devastated because a bug just broke a workflow. This instantly reminds me that they are human and allows me to empathize with the customer on a level that I know they will appreciate.

But there are more common signs of life you should be looking for, like a simple “how are you?”. If a customer asks you this over chat, don’t ignore it. Tell the truth: “I just had the nicest lunch – I’m great! How are you?”. With regular customers you might be even more casual: “I’m a little tired. My kid was up sick all night. How are you?” Instantly you give this customer something they didn’t expect from a chat transaction, but that they would have gotten if this transaction was in person. These signs of life are crucial in a face-to-face customer service interaction, so why shouldn’t they be considered as important over chat?

It humanizes not only their issue, but also the whole transaction.

More practically, recognizing these signs of life gives the customer a chance to step outside the box of frustrating back and forth chat conversations. They can say, “I had a terrible sleep too. Maybe you can help me with these message rules. I just can’t wrap my head around them.” It humanizes not only their issue, but also the whole transaction. You’ll find that this breaks down the customer’s walls and will allow you to get to the root cause of the issue much more quickly. The customer will be more forthcoming with context on the issue, or maybe even tell you that they messed up and they just want someone to help them fix their mistake.

Tip 2: Humans make mistakes. Own them.

Showing your human side in chat conversations cannot be selective. It must be genuine. This means owning both the good and the bad. You’re human and you’re going to make a mistake once in awhile. You shouldn’t clam up when this happens, but embrace why and fess up. Maybe you refer to a customer by the wrong name; perhaps you send a Spotify link instead of the URL to a help doc. Be as transparent as you can be and let the customer know the context: “So sorry, I meant to send X link. I was sending a remix to one of my teammates over Slack and completely posted the wrong link. Here is the link you were looking for (but did you like the song? ?).” Saying sorry is so much easier after you’ve broken down the formal barrier.

Tip 3: Embrace emoji and GIFs

As I’ve said, my weakness is a customer that shares a crying emoji in a conversation, but even harder to ignore is a cute kitten that looks like it is upset and needs help! I’ve seen this so many times on complex issues, like enabling DomainKeys Identified Mail or a user’s first Smart Campaign, where the customer has been trying hard to understand but just needs the extra eyes from customer support. It makes me feel their confusion first hand.

In-app feature announcements are a simple, natural way to begin using media like memes and GIFs.

Don’t overlook this. If you’re new to emoji, memes and GIFs try to introduce them slowly. It is best to start in light moments of the conversation. Another idea is to start using them in in-app messages when you’re announcing a feature that you know your customers will love, or just fixed a nasty bug. Before you know it, you will have built up a collection of GIFs that you have on hand whenever you need.

Tip 4: Don’t force it!

This human touch is not something that you can expect to nail straight away, so you may need to ease into it. Start small with some emojis and adding a “How are you?” to your conversation? Adding GIFs to say hi and goodbye is a comfortable way to ease into using media too.

This increased familiarity will help you
tailor your responses.

One of the largest blockers you might assume with this approach is that it will prevent you from closing conversations as quickly. This is completely fair, and short-term it will slow you down, but long-term you will find after a few personal conversations, that you are remembering the details of each conversation at a glance. If a customer comes back a few hours, or days, later, you just have to see their name and last comment and your whole conversation will spring back to mind. Your customers will become familiar to you beyond JavaScript console errors; you’ll start remembering the personal side of your interactions with them. And this increased familiarity will help you tailor your responses to them. Long-term this makes you faster and more personal, win-win!

Tip 5: Look beyond the conversations

This kind of candid and real back and forth with customers provides your support team with insights that your product team can’t conjure up in product roadmap sessions. A customer requesting a feature that doesn’t fit with your company ethos can be a tricky conversation to handle. The best thing to do is always to ask why this feature is so important to them. If your customer knows they can speak to you on a human level and you will listen to them, this context will come out much quicker. They will be honest with you, and then you can consider their point of view honestly, and if it still isn’t a good fit with your company, you can say no to the feature in a human fashion. And if the reason why you didn’t build a feature doesn’t hold up well in a customer support conversation, then maybe you should consider routing their feedback to your product team.

When you come across a very frustrated customer there is usually a reason they are so annoyed. A customer who feels they are being listened to will be more forthcoming with reasons why they don’t like your product in its current state. These candid conversations will allow you to learn more about the customer’s hacky workaround and exactly where your product is failing. Customers will be forthcoming with where your competitors are winning over you. If your customer support team can gather and tag this feedback while making your support more personal and better all round, you will quickly realize the power of this silver bullet.

Remember that not every customer transaction can be this personal. If you flip the chat format on its head and think of their real-life equivalent, the majority of retail transactions will typically be short, sweet, and to the point. Take this into consideration, and don’t force every transaction to be super personal. Just keep an eye out for those human signs of life – as long as you don’t ignore these, the personal aspects will crack through.

Intercom on Customer Support book