Operator!: Four Tips for Strong Customer Support

Support, support support. It may seem like we talk about support a lot in this blog, but that’s only because we do. And with good reason. A strong technical and customer support system is incredibly important for maintaining and satisfying customers, as well as attracting more business. In previous posts, we’ve discussed how proper documentation and third party forum moderation are vital to maintaining and active online support system. This week, however, we’d like to take that a step further and discuss what happens when crowdsourced FAQs and prewritten help guides just don’t cut it. What do you do when your customer has a problem that isn’t answered online, that needs to be solved immediately, or that needs that extra level of personal guidance? In this case, the way you handle your live support can be the difference between keeping a customer and losing them to someone who appears to care more.

1. Establish and care for a dedicated, knowledgeable support team.

This is number one because it is by and large the most important part of your support structure. The people who will be in charge of answering tickets, manning the phones, and providing email and/or chat support must have both the time and know-how to provide exceptional customer service. If your company can’t spare an employee for more than an hour or so fielding customer inquiries, you aren’t going to be able to provide the level of interaction that customers need to feel secure and well attended to.

At a minimum, there should always be at least one person on call during business hours to field urgent questions and solve pressing issues. Ideally, though, there would be a team of support staff that can spread out the work and keep up with a constant flow of solutions and real-time answers. As a product gains popularity, it will be harder for one person to be in charge of all solutions. Having more hands on board will keep the queue moving quickly and prevent operator burnout.

Some day it may be so simple, but not yet.

Additionally, these people must be knowledgeable about the product. A huge amount of productivity and time will be wasted if the person that is supposed to be helping a customer only has a minimal understanding of their product. Obviously, there are some situations in which a Tier 1 support operator won’t know how to solve a highly complex or advanced problem, which is alright. However, every member of the team should have the answers for most basic questions of functionality, appearance, and UI.

Do not hesitate to have at least one training session for your support staff to make sure they are confident both in their knowledge of the product and their ability to teach and assist others. This is especially important if you are hiring an outside support network (such as Deep Core Data!) who haven’t been entrenched in the development process. Providing an FAQ or reference for common errors and points of confusion is useful for bringing new team members up to speed as well. Also remember to share every product update with your support team, either in person or through detailed release notes. An operator who is three versions and a major update behind is going to have just as much trouble as one who barely knows the product at all.

2. Provide multiple options for contacting support.

These days, there are many options for person-to-person support contact, and every customer has their own preference. Relying solely on one channel of support can be frustrating for some people; perhaps you only have a contact form set up but someone needs more immediate and guided assistance. Alternately, there may only be a phone line set up, but the customer doesn’t have time to sit on the line and would prefer electronic communication over the course of a day or so. It will be to your company’s benefit to set up multiple channels for support assistance, including both real time and asynchronous communication systems. Here are the major methods of support contact. It is best to choose at least 2 or 3, making sure that you can afford the time, money, and manpower required to keep them functioning.

  • Phone Support Line: Phone service still remains the top method of real time support. Set up a reliable phone number that will route directly to the support line. Minimize automated menus and hold times as much as possible; someone who is calling is likely doing so because they need personalized or immediate help, and they won’t want to dig through menu after menu of options. Luckily, anyone can get a support line set up these days, even without a corporate landline. Companies such as RingCentral and Grasshopper provide toll free numbers that will forward to personal cell phones using VoIP technology.
  • Email Support: Whether you set up your own support inbox or go through a ticketing service such as Jira Service Desk or Support Bee, an email support system can be extremely valuable for smaller support teams. Allowing email for less urgent questions open up the phone lines for emergencies, and allows agents to work on solutions without putting customers on hold. Additionally, it is a useful followup system for a problem that was too complex to fully solve over the phone or if problems arise during off hours.
  • Ticketing Portals and Contact Forms: Similar to email, this is a form of asynchronous communication for customers who do not have time to sit through a solution, or may only have a bug to report that doesn’t need much followup. The advantage to this system is that you can keep customers on your website to fill out the form, instead of making them find your email address and then open up their mail client to send you their message. Additionally, an embedded form allows for greater control over the information you receive. You can set up specific fields for urgency, type of issue, error codes received, and screenshots. By directing customers on how to properly submit a help request, you can minimize the time it takes to understand the issue and begin working on a solution faster.
  • Live Chat: This type of support has only recently begun spreading beyond major companies with a large network of support staff. Because it requires agents to remain on their computer, usually logged in to a specific chat client, it can be daunting for smaller companies to be available at all times. However, it can be extremely helpful in terms of customer satisfaction, especially for companies in the software industry. The tech world is awash with young innovators and engineers, and many of them are used to communicating online rather than on the phone. They also like things to be fast, and even email can be too slow at times. Live chat combines their desire to communicate via text with a fast response time, which can lead to increased trust and a sense of convenience.
The top preferred methods of customer support, as of March 2015. Courtesy of ChartBlocks.com.

3. Let customers know when you’ll reply to them, and then stick to it.

This one seems like a given, but can be surprisingly easy to overlook. If there are a large number of tickets, or one that ends up being more complex than anticipated, new and easier ones can easily fall to the wayside. It’s important to develop an effective system for notifying customers that their complaints have been received, that they are being worked on, and that they can expect an answer within a certain time frame. It may help to add an automated message to all tickets submitted that lets the customer know that they will hear at least some sort of response within 24-48 hours (or whatever time frame is feasible for you). This at least gives them the feeling that they aren’t going to be lost in a sea of tickets.

Be wary, however. If you say that you will contact customers by a certain date, you better be able to do it. Set aside some time every day for your support staff to review new tickets, prioritize them, and clear through the ones that are urgent, easy to solve, or need to be sent to a different department. Make sure that whenever these tickets get reviewed, a message is sent to the customer, and never go too long without giving an update. If a problem is going to take more time than anticipated, that’s OK, but make sure your operators update the customer every step of the way. It is much better to tell someone that the solution is going to take a little while than to leave them wondering for fear of seeming too slow. If more than a very small percentage of your customers are contacting you asking for updates, then you probably need to be better at communicating with them. As soon as a customer has to take charge of their service experience, you start to lose their trust in you. Bottom Line: Don’t leave your customers hanging.

4. Keep your help tickets organized.

This one is easy in theory, but can be the hardest part to maintain in practice. With multiple agents, different forms of text and voice support, varying levels of urgency, and any number of topics and complexities, help tickets can quickly become overwhelming. Regardless, it is vital to keep the system organized and constantly moving, lest oversights and lost tickets build up to dangerous levels.

The first step to organizing tickets is to find a system that will funnel all sources of ticket input. A platform that can integrate email with online contact forms will help you maintain consistent records. It’s also important to find a system that will allow your agents to enter, update, and share tickets manually, so that they can create tickets from phone calls and online chats. No matter how many forms of input are available, they must all be able to end up in a central location.

Once you have your platform, devise a comprehensive ticket management structure and make sure your support team fully understands it.  Ask the following questions:

  • Should we sort by urgency? How many levels of urgency should we have?
  • Should we have a general support queue, or should we separate by topic?
  • Will all agents answer all types of questions, or will they have specialties?
  • How long can a ticket sit in a queue before taking action?
  • What categories of ticket are we going to establish?
  • What is the protocol for closing a ticket?
  • How do we escalate a ticket or change departments?
  • Who will have access to the ticketing system?
  • What should responses to customers look like? What medium should be used?

The answers to these questions will help establish a basis for answering tickets in a timely, consistent manner. Review your system periodically (but not so often you seem unreliable) and make any necessary improvements to keep things running as smoothly as possible. Constantly be on the look out for a large volume of tickets left in the queue, issues that weren’t able to be solved, bug reports, complaints regarding service, and inconsistent ticket responses. All of these point to a breakdown in the system that will need to be reviewed and revised.

An example of ways to prioritize and organize help tickets. Courtesy of Jira Service Desk.

Using these tips can help you establish a better support system for your customers, building trust and satisfaction. Being able to talk to someone professional and knowledgeable can do wonders for shaky confidence in a product, and will lead to a positive impression going forward. Remember: Support your customers now, and they’ll be there for you later.

Let’s Discuss

  • What was your best professional support experience? Your worst?
  • What is the most important part of a customer or tech support experience for you?
  • How do you prefer to interact with a support team? Email? Phone? Chat?
  • How long are you willing to wait for a solution to an issue?
2017-01-29T18:06:26-04:00August 13th, 2015|Business Practices, Technical and Customer Support|

About the Author:

Rhiannon is the head of marketing and documentation services at Deep Core Data. A writer and editor for over 10 years, she is also a professional singer and not quite professional gamer. Her favorite blog posts are about tips and tricks to improving software, writing, and general business.

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