Customer Support: What We’re Doing Wrong

Originally published on Medium.

Stop Trying To Be Zappos

How many times have you interacted with a ‘Delight Team’ recently? Maybe your own support team is externally known as the ‘Delight Team’. This seems to be the zeitgeist for customer support organizations these days. Every job interview I’ve experienced, in recent years, had at least one person explaining the support vision as “We want to be the next Zappos”, essentially meaning they want their brand name synonymous with great customer service. This is typically achieved by sending pizza or a handwritten card to a customer’s house after a lengthy or less than stellar interaction.

Seriously, please stop trying to be the next Zappos.

Look, I love “delightful” touches, but there can only (and arguably should only) be one Zappos. The delight-at-all-costs approach isn’t meant to be the standard, but instead a way for Zappos to differentiate themselves from the market. Instead, focus on the fundamentals of what customer service means at the core of your organization. After you’ve determined what customer service means and how to scale your support solutions, only then should you add your personal brand touches. It’s difficult, and requires a lot of internal cooperation and typically engineering resources, but it can be done and well worth the long-term payoff.

Don’t Make Your Customers Work So Hard

Customer Effort Score (hereafter abbreviated as CES) translates to “how easy was it to solve my issue?” CES is your most effective indicator of how likely a customer is to return to your company after a problem. Was it a relatively painless (think, or frustrating experience (so much so that you’ll pay someone $5 to cancel your account for you)? The beauty is there are several ways you can measure CES: scale of 1–10, binary yes or no, or a gradient of “Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree”. If this sounds appealing and you want a deeper dive into the subject (I hope it does as I’m going to push it quite a bit), pick up the book ‘The Effortless Experience.

When you ask customers what they want in terms of a support channel, most everyone will invariably say they want a phone number to call with no hold times and no automated machines; they want to talk to another human instantaneously. What the customer doesn’t understand is that phone lines are often times some of the worst resolution channels. Local phone support is expensive, so lines are staffed by call-center workers in another country. This often leads to unintentionally increasing the amount of effort a customer must exert to resolve their issue and a poor experience stemming from quality control issues. Conversely, hiring local burns through budget on headcount alone and at the expense of offering other resolution channels.

When I was at Lyft, we started with offering phone support to literally all of our users, drivers, passengers, or heck, people with general questions about Lyft. This was a time-consuming practice, and phone calls would even devolve into people calling to talk about their day of driving (recounting each passenger and how the ride went). That was the behavior we encouraged as a brand, but quickly turned into a burden on the Support Team. We were forced to choose between restricting access to support, by controlling the issues we accepted via phone, or hiring additional agents to devote nearly 100% of their time answering calls. We went with a hybrid approach, but eventually decided to limit phone support to emergencies only. It was not an easy transition for us or the community. It’s difficult to offer phone support then remove it almost entirely, which is why teams must be deliberate in choosing their communication channels from the very beginning.

Imagine that cost isn’t an issue for a moment and we’re only focused on the customer support experience: 24/7 phone-line with concierge-level service may seem like a great idea, but the shifting modern demographics are not in the favor of this level of service. Calling a support representative is a time-suck, and something no one looks forward to even if the actual phone experience could be considered, by most measures, “great”. Modern customers want fast and easy self-service for most of their issues, not a white-glove luxury experience.

Here’s the good news in all of this: you don’t have to pay for white-glove service to achieve customer support greatness; you only have to focus on killing the biggest issues your customers face with automated or self-service tools. The remaining issues should be handled by a lean team of support all-stars who have the ability, and mandate, to focus on quality interactions. Keep in mind that all of this is with the expectation that you’ve hired some support reps with a great sense of how to treat your customers, and a great set of policies to repair relationships.

Coming up…

Over the next several weeks, I will be exploring what it means to have great customer service, how you should be approaching customer service (with some basic case studies), and how you can apply the principles in practice.

Why am I standing on a soapbox shouting about customer support? I spent 2 years in a fast-paced, explosive-growth startup, where I helped scale the customer support team from a modest 20 agent team to almost a 400 local and international team headcount. 2 years may seem like a short period of time, but it was a stellar crash-course in everything related to support operations. Those 2 years felt like 10 years. After spending several years in retail, and way too much time dissecting other companies’ customer service, I’ve made it my mission to improve customer service interactions because well… a lot of companies are failing (miserably).

Caveat to everything is this: I’m speaking from my personal experiences, and your milage may vary. Chances are there’s a dozen counter-points to everything I’ve said here and will say, and there should be. A larger, healthy discussion about customer service tools, theories, and solutions generate more creative ideas to benefit customers in the long run, which is, after all, the goal of this. I’m probably wrong about a lot of things; maybe I’m generalizing, or I didn’t read that one book by that one guy from the Harvard Business Review. What I can offer is a very real set of experiences from my time building customer support and knowledge base organizations. Hindsight 20/20 there are a few things I wish I had done differently. I want to help you avoid the same pitfalls and issues that I encountered along the way.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around to see what comes next.


Recovering Customer Support Manager

Customer Success at Helpshift

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