Customer Support Doesn't Have to Suck

September 7, 2011 holman

We all have this feeling that fielding support requests is a monotonous job we ought to dread.

We shouldn’t. It doesn’t have to suck.

I was at a dinner in Boulder for the 2011 Rocky Mountain Ruby conference, and Hoyt (@jonmagic) asked a simple question about software support to a table-mate:

When was the last time you did something particularly nice for a customer?

I don’t think Hoyt intended this to be a particularly interesting or deep question, but I think it’s much more important that it looks on the surface.

Support can substantially impact people

If you’re in a position of supporting a product — answering emails, fixing bugs, responding to people over Twitter — you are in a position to improve lives. It sounds overly dramatic, but consider a support request:

The second aspect is most important. Support requests are almost always tied to emotion, even if the asker doesn’t herself believe it. A lot of the time, addressing someone’s concerns is as much about protecting against future frustrations rather than improving today’s complacency. Fixing someone’s bug may only lead to a three-second “oh good, they fixed that” response, but that short-lived relief is relief. Do that enough times, and you turn customers into happy customers. Do it consistently and frequently, and your happy customers turn into devoted customers.

Going over the top

Hoyt’s question was more about what happens if you go “over the top”. Are you just going to give your customer a paste of steps they can take to fix their problem? Can you spend some time and give them an executable script? Can you manually go into the database to do it yourself so they don’t have to lift a finger?

Do they have a completely, irrationally-involved support request you usually blow off? Can you fully address it at least one time this month?

Can you read between the lines and recognize someone’s actual desires before they do? If they’re asking for x, give them 5x. Go over the top. Lose money on it. Waste time on it. Don’t do it for the marketing exposure: do it because you can make someone happy. If they tweet or blog about it, great, but if that’s the primary reason you’re doing it, they’ll know. Do it for the right reasons.

We’re limited by time. We’re limited by money. “Over the top” support responses may only be feasible in your company every few weeks. Or months. Or even more. But there will be times where it is possible. When that happens, consider whether you can help. In most cases, the other party won’t even notice the lengths you’ve went to. That’s okay. Over time, people will notice.

All too often we forget that many companies aren’t built primarily to make money: they’re built to solve problems. Money is the intended side-effect of that. Connect with customers emotionally and you’ll start seeing happier humans.