Have you ever had no idea what you were doing, so you just copied people around you? It’s how I learned a lot of things — how to ski, fill out important government forms, drink tequila. On the other hand, it’s a terrible way to learn to drive, manage your health, date other human beings — and learn customer support.
Like many people at startups, I felt like I was new at everything. So I’d let my past experiences at the receiving end of customer support inform the way I did my job. I took cues from all the interactions I’ve had with call center operators, bank tellers, airline employees, cable company employees, and insurance people — pretty much everyone’s least favorite human interactions of all time. It was like copying all the answers from the kid next to you in class, even though you know he’s getting them all wrong.
So why did I do this? With no prior experience in customer support, I felt safer copying others and sometimes found myself slipping into a weird robotic customer support mode without even realizing it.
Great companies like Zappos and Buffer, though, are doing customer support a whole new way, and they’re receiving a ton of recognition because they’re getting something right — they’re actually making people happy. They’re also showing that there’s no one way to do it. When products, companies, company culture, and people are different, the way you do support should be unique too.
Moreover, I don’t actually lack prior experience with this scary “customer support” thing. I was just looking in the wrong place. We all know how to interact with people — we’ve been doing it our whole lives. We all know how to make people happy, how to be helpful, how to show we care. We know how to apologize, how to empathize, how to listen, and how to be friendly.
So I’m going to stop doing unto others what customer support reps have done unto me. I’m going to unlearn the things that being a customer has taught me about customer support. And since resolutions have a better chance of success when broken up into manageable, incremental goals, here’s what I’m going to do:
1. Say No.
I grew up in Japan, where it’s considered extremely poor form to say “no” to any request. Instead, it’s customary to cock your head to the side, grimace sympathetically, and say in Japanese “that’s a little …” and then trail off. It’s very polite and deferential to the customer, but it’s also very confusing and leaves everyone hanging.
I recognize the cultural value of this custom, but there’s a lot to be said for straight talk. If our users ask a direct question, they should get a direct answer. Their time and energy is a limited resource, so saying “no” to a request saves them from delaying a decision, from waiting around, and from having false hope.
Here’s an example: We get a lot of feature requests at iDoneThis, and one of the most popular request is for a to-do list feature. People want to be able to assign tasks to their team members, and directly track whether and when they’re completed. This request is often a deal-breaker for team leaders who are specifically looking for a task management system.
It’s always hard to tell them that we’re not planning to take iDoneThis in direction, but it’s necessary. If iDoneThis just isn’t the right tool for them because it doesn’t perform this function, then they should know. I’ll often say that we don’t have plans to build this feature, and we’re focusing primarily on helping teams communicate what they’ve already gotten done. (That said, we are working on integrations with more task-management tools, so let me know if there are any you’d like to see!)
Yes, a response like this could mean these customers leave. But you’ve saved them time by being upfront about your product’s limitations, instead of hinting at things you won’t deliver and exhausting their good will. It’s all about being upfront and putting the customer’s happiness before the desire to do business with them.
2. Watch My Language.
I don’t mean the kind of language my mother wants me to watch, but my usage of Customer Support Jargon. You know the type, “your message is very important to us”.
Customer support jargon is tempting to use because it sounds nice and professional. It helps give the impression that we’re a real big company, with clean-shaven people sitting smartly at desks in headsets and suits — which I am so not. What’s more, customer support jargon can describe feelings that are often quite sincere. We actually do have those sentiments: your message is a big deal and we’re just swamped, we do feel terrible that you’re running into problems, and it’s really nice of you to wait while we figure out what the heck is going on.
However, Customer Support Jargon can undermine your attempts at providing good support. Once, a customer thought my response was automated because the language was vague and had zero personality. Another time, a customer told me that I was “inauthentic” and “took the approach of false platitudes”. After licking my wounds, I realized he made this assumption because my answers were couched in pleasant jargon. I’d been trying to be excessively polite because he was already upset, but it ended up infuriating him more, coming across as dancing around the issue. My mistake was that I didn’t just give him a flat yes or no answer when he was being confrontational.
So here’s why Customer Support Jargon has got to go: You’re never going to build rapport with language like that. It’s not how you talk to your friends, or work colleagues, or even casual acquaintances. It’s not how you would want them to talk to you.
It’s language that, in everyone’s experience, is used only by a stranger on auto-pilot. It’s stiff, impersonal language used at a time when you should be most personal. After all, what’s more personal than someone telling you their problems and asking you for help?
So if you wouldn’t talk to real people in your life that way, don’t talk to customers that way either.
3. Never Be Passive Aggressive
If you’ve suffered eye-rolling, dramatic sighing, sullen repetition of a phrase, or other acts of thinly-veiled sarcasm at the hands of customer support reps, then you know what I’m talking about. I’m sure everyone has stories of passive aggression from customer support reps. It’s how they let you know that they’re not happy with you but expressed in a way that doesn’t get them in trouble.
I actually wrote this post because I was inspired by a phone call I had with my bank, Chase, about a charge on my statement. The customer support rep gave me a very vague answer, attributing the charge to “the rules” but she’d be happy to refund that charge. I still wanted to understand the situation better but she just repeated that it was “the rules.” So I asked if she could escalate my issue to a manager for a more in-depth explanation. When she connected me, she sighed loudly and said to her manager, as if I weren’t there, “I’ve already answered all of this lady’s questions, done everything for her, and even given her a refund but she still insists on talking to you. I don’t know what else she wants.”
At first I was annoyed at her passive-aggression, but then I started to understand where it was coming from. She was confined by certain requirements, given very little agency, and couldn’t deviate from the script when dealing with customers. Chase wasn’t going to back her up on anything, and she wasn’t invested in the wellbeing of Chase bank either. And here I was, being more trouble than I was worth by asking questions. She found me frustrating but also a threat to her job, so she had to cover her bases by saying she’d done everything for me, while simultaneously voicing her hostility.
I realized that she and I are engaged in two wholly different kinds of customer support. It’s no secret that we get frustrating customers at startups too. Some people can test your patience and others feel comfortable hiding behind email or social media to say all kinds of nasty things.
But startup teams don’t get to be passive-aggressive. We don’t have a script to follow, or any other restrictions. We have agency, authority and sometimes even ownership. We can escalate an issue, make judgment calls, make friends, be ourselves while we engage with our customers. We don’t have a need for passive-aggressive behavior as an outlet.
What’s more, this kind of behavior is especially damaging to a startup. Chase is big enough that I can choose to deal with any other teller than deal with her, ever again. And I will absolutely go out of my way to do so. Chase is also big enough that I’m pretty sure they don’t care about me or who they’re hiring to help me at the ground level. I don’t assume this teller represents the entire financial institution.
That can’t really be said of a startup. Your customer support interactions speak for who you guys are and what you’re about. It becomes your company’s personality. And regardless of how big your startup is, whether you’re just beginning or you’ve grown to a multimillion dollar behemoth, not caring about one customer can impact your reputation, your company culture and your rapport with customers at large.
Working at a startup offers the opportunity to reimagine relationships with customers while differentiating yourself as a company. Don’t just innovate when it comes to your product. Innovate when it comes to customer happiness and forging rapport with your users.
Don’t overthink it either. “Customer support” is a fancy word for making people happy with what you’ve built and simply making friends. As with any friendship in the making, at the most basic level, just stick to the following: answer questions directly, speak like a normal person would, and don’t act like a sullen teenager.
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