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Intentions matter: How to uncover the why behind customer questions

Main illustration: Simone Noronha

When it comes to customer support, great product knowledge and technical skills go to waste if we’re answering the wrong question.

Customers reach out to you when they hit a roadblock in using your product and getting their job done. So getting your customers answers not just quickly, but correctly, is key.

Here at Intercom our Customer Support team deals with a wide variety of issues, and we have to be comfortable putting on different hats and answering questions related to all areas of our products. Sometimes the biggest challenge comes from the fact that the customer’s initial question isn’t always crystal clear, and we often don’t have the full picture right away. During my time as a Customer Support Representative, I’ve picked up a few tricks that help when tackling this issue that can help any team providing support through messaging.

Get to the root cause of intentions

If a customer has made the effort to contact your Customer Support team, it’s already a sign they need your help. It can be tempting to want to answer a question right away, but if it’s not the right answer it can annoy the customer, cost them time, and set a negative tone for the rest of the conversation. Of course that’s not what you or your customer wants. A much better option is making a real effort to understand your customers’ intentions before making any assumptions.

First, ask some follow up questions, trying to rephrase their initial message. I like to include a suggestion on what they might be referring to. That way you can quickly get more context and clear out initial confusion.

Even though your Customer Support team is deeply familiar with your product and ways to describe it, your customers don’t (and often won’t) operate with the same product specific vocabulary and may describe things in a totally different way. Rephrasing their initial question allows you to build up your knowledge of how customers might describe your products features while also avoiding making assumptions that could lead to you jumping into an incorrect answer.

Another good option when things are less than clear is asking for screenshots. Screenshots can save your life when the customer seems confused and you don’t know where to start.

Customer: Hi, what does the “Users List” tick box do in the people attributes screen?

Support rep: Hi, do you mean what’s noted in the screenshot below, or the tick boxes on the left?

Do be careful about what data is being shown in your screenshots so that you’re not sharing any sensitive customer data or information.

There’s no such thing as a “one size fits” all solution

Always ask for additional insights and context into your customer’s specific case. You can start with explaining some default behavior and then try to get more context.

“Let me explain how it works first… (explaining the default behavior). I guess your intention here would be to have users do A and then move to B? Let me know if I understand you correctly ?”

This gets the user to clarify whether you’re on the right track and share some more details about the problem they’re trying to solve in the first place, which is crucial for you to able to suggest the best tools to make this happen. With this information, the answer often becomes obvious.

Never assume anything

When solving technical issues, always ask for specific examples and details about the case. Try to ask the questions in a way that will help you investigate the problem step by step.

Once you get more insights into this specific information, based on experience you can apply your judgement and get to the bottom of the problem. Breaking the issue down into smaller bits and taking step-by-step approach helps to build a bridge between the initial roadblock and the solution. Remember what we mentioned about the reason your customer contacted you? They’ve already hit the wall, now they need your help to get this sorted.

Share your solutions – and the reasoning behind them

Once you get to the bottom of your customer’s use case and the “why” behind their question, feel free to share your company’s perspective! Some of the questions you’re addressing might initially look like something that’s not yet supported, but rephrasing them and addressing the root problem can show your customer a different way to get the job done. For example:

Customer: Can I hide the messenger outside of office hours?”

Support rep: “While we’ve decided to not include an option of hiding the Messenger in your product, there are some other solutions in place to help you with setting expectations about expected response time.”

Sometimes it’s best to say no to your customers, especially if you’ve managed to uncover their true intentions and found another way of addressing this in your product. Don’t apologize or be sorry for something that was a conscious product decision – especially if that’s something your product team has put thought into and addressed in some different way. Even if it’s not something the customer’s expecting to get or you’ve decided to put in place a different solution than most of the competitors, try to explain your reasoning. In many cases, you might turn the conversation around and surprise your customer by offering them a better practice.

It’s impossible to avoid issues if you’re a software company. People will always have questions and with a solid and well aligned Support team, that doesn’t have to be a problem. When customers do decide to contact you, it’s your chance to turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one by showing empathy and answering their questions both quickly and correctly. So take those extra few seconds to make sure you truly know what question was asked of you in the first place, and why. The result is customers who can get the best out of your product and are confident they can always get help if they run into obstacles along the way.