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The power of Remarkable Customer Support

The power
of Remarkable
Customer
Support

Kathryn Aragon

The year was 2009. Digital and social technologies were rocking the boat, putting even established businesses on a new learning curve. But one important lesson would go unnoticed until it played out in real time.

It began with musician Dave Carroll and his fellow band members sitting on a United Airlines plane, waiting for takeoff. They heard a fellow passenger comment that guitars were being thrown around on the tarmac below, and they panicked. It wasn’t a huge leap to assume the guitars were theirs.

Carroll immediately alerted some United employees, but his concerns were ignored. He could only hope their guitars had survived unscathed — a hope that was dashed when he collected his Taylor guitar at the end of the flight and realized its neck was broken. It would take $3,500 to repair it.

Customer support was his first attempt to address the problem. Nothing.

He then turned to other channels, talking to United representatives at every point of contact with one message:

You broke it. You should fix it. You’re liable. Just admit it.

To no avail. It took a video titled “United Breaks Guitars,” published on YouTube and quickly accumulating 150,000 views, to get United’s attention. Today, that video remains one of the most important videos in Google’s history. And the reason is simple.

Dave Carroll, YouTube: United Breaks Guitars

“United Breaks Guitars” marks the moment in history when businesses saw the critical danger of ignoring customer complaints. Not only could the entire world be alerted to the failure of any size, but the backlash could also ruin them. Stock prices could tumble. Public relations nightmares could continue for years.

Businesses realized that you can be unforgettable for negative as well as positive reasons. And the viral potential of just one customer’s unhappiness makes it critical to ensure every customer touch be positive.

There’s No Such Thing as a Small Mistake

A business is built on the foundation of customer satisfaction. When customers are happy with your products and service, they become loyal fans and provide word-of-mouth advertising. When they’re unhappy, they can become a public relations nightmare, raising churn and reducing profits.

That’s why smart businesses invest fully in customer support, refining their ability to make every customer happy. Their aim? To create an experience that’s unforgettable, that exceeds expectations and reduces stress, creating customers for life.

And It’s Working

A study by American Express has found that eight in ten Americans feel businesses are meeting or exceeding their expectations for service. Seven in ten say they’ll go out of their way — and spend more — to do business with a company they know will give them better support.

These numbers have been rising steadily, probably because digital technology makes it easier for businesses to provide the right support at the right time. And consumers have enjoyed the freedom of contacting a company whenever and wherever it makes sense for them — while they’re on the job, doing chores at home, or standing in a line at the grocery store.

The trouble is, customer support isn’t always the priority it should be. At least not until a disparaging video goes viral, as it did for United. In most cases, it’s merely an afterthought, just another item on the checklist of things you do to run a business. But this mindset is a recipe for failure.

Offering remarkable customer service must be a top priority from Day One. It must provide real solutions that serve customers' needs. It must be so impressive that it’s unforgettable. As Daymond John of Shark Tank fame says:

To over-deliver in service to a customer is by far the most valuable thing to a business. Because there are only two ways to improve the operations of a business: to increase sales or decrease costs.

What You’ll Learn in This Book

This book fills a gaping hole in business training: how to do customer support right. It’s one thing to know it’s the foundation of success and that it needs to be unforgettable. It’s quite another to know how to deliver it. We aim for this book to be your guide.

We’ll cover the bases of transformative customer support. We’ll talk about the psychology of customer support and the three core elements of unforgettable customer support. We’ll also share smart tips for doing it right.

We’ll show you how to make your customers feel like a VIP and share seven deadly sins you must avoid. You’ll learn about the challenges you may face, especially as support becomes more text-based and automated, and how to avoid complaints while delivering better support. And we’ll give you a twelve-point checklist to use in every conversation, so you can be sure you’re creating a memorable experience.

Remarkable customer support can transform your business. It can raise to you to the top of your industry, giving you a huge edge against the competition. But it can only do that if you do it right.

Invest in customer support. Give it the priority it needs. Learn the secrets of truly impressive customer support — and make sure your company is doing it right.

Let’s get started, shall we?

2.

The Hidden Benefits
of Killer Customer Support

Why do we place customer support at the top of a successful business’s priority list? The answer lies in the hidden benefits of customer support. You see, lots of businesses “do” customer support. Few businesses enjoy the benefits — because most aren’t willing to disrupt business-as-usual by putting the customer first. Truly first.

The Hidden Benefits of Killer Customer Support

Customer service represents the heart of a brand in the heart of its customers.

Kate Nasser

Here’s what you can expect when you create an unforgettable experience for your customers.

Deeper Trust

Done right, each interaction with a customer creates a real, human-to-human experience. Nowhere else do you talk with your customers on such a personal level or learn about their hopes and fears. That puts you on the same level as friends.

Like a friend, you must answer questions honestly, give simple solutions, and remove the guesswork. Genuinely attempt to reduce risk, effort, cost, time, or fear. When you do this, you make your customer’s life easier and generate feelings of hope and happiness.

Of course, anyone — whether an individual or organization — who can generate those feelings earns a special place in a consumer’s heart. That warmth is trust. It’s hard-earned and easily lost. Which is why it’s so important to get customer service right. Trust leads to loyalty, which can significantly impact your business’s bottom line.

More Effective Customer Research

It’s easy to imagine we know our customers. But do we really know them? Marketers and salespeople are taught to hang out where their customers hang out, eavesdrop on their conversations, stalk them in forums. The goal, of course, is customer research — to understand what makes them tick, what they want, what they hate, and any other details that can be gathered.

Meanwhile, customer support agents talk to customers one-on-one every day. No stalking necessary. Customers eagerly tell them what they’re trying to achieve, what their fears are, and how to make them happy.

The challenge is getting this information back to the teams in marketing, sales, and research and development — because there, it’s pure gold. By tapping into this information, you can save tons of effort on customer research. Apply it to marketing to better target your ads and content. Apply it to sales to overcome objections and help people make the best choices. Apply it to product development to create products and services that meet real desires and become addictive to your customers.

Higher Profits

Consumers admit to spending more money with a company that consistently treats them right. When that need isn’t met, they’re quick to abandon intended purchases, creating an estimated $62 billion in lost sales.

What consumers don’t specify is the kind of treatment they want. It boils down to one simple concept: They want you to make their lives easier. Eighty-three percent of shoppers need help while making a purchase — but they aren’t willing to work hard for it. Half of them will only try one time to reach out to a company. If they don’t get the support they need right away, they’ll give up and buy from a competitor.

After the purchase, the situation isn’t much better. Customers still resist putting much effort into getting their issues resolved. Typically, they’ll try twice, but if they don’t get the help they need, they quit trying. The trouble is, they may quit buying from you altogether, and again, switch to a competitor.

Regaining lost sales, then, boils down to being easily accessible to your customers. That’s a low bar that anyone can meet. And with $62 billion on the line, it’s worth the effort.

Lower Churn

Think about what’s going on in the background when a customer complains.

Let’s say they’re considering buying eyeglasses online. They’ve narrowed their options to two brands, but they have questions for each of them, so they reach out to both companies through chat. The first company gives the exact answers to their questions. The second doesn’t respond until the next day, and when it does, it doesn’t fully answer the customer’s questions.

From the customer’s perspective, this poor experience doesn’t bode well. What if they have problems after the purchase? Will they get the help they need? If this first interaction is any indication, it will be a repeat of “United Breaks Guitars.” And in response, they’re most likely to go with the first company, even if it costs more or comes with fewer benefits.

Now, what if the purchase has already been made? The glasses arrive in the mail, and the frames are flimsy. Money has already been spent, so there’s more urgency to getting this problem resolved. The customer reaches out through chat to complain, but it takes a day for anyone to answer. When someone finally does respond, they suggest the customer doesn’t understand how to buy eyeglasses online.

The customer may or may not get a refund. Either way, they’ll probably buy from another company from now on. This one bad experience is enough to drive him to switch providers.

Research by New Voice Media has confirmed that ninety-one percent of consumers will take action after a negative experience with customer support. Half would never use the company again. A third would change their supplier. A growing number (forty-two percent) would take revenge by posting an online review or sharing their experience on social media.

Chris Bucholtz, NewVoiceMedia: The $62 Billion Customer Service Scared Away

Meanwhile, after a positive experience, nearly two-thirds of consumers report they’d be more loyal. Two-thirds would recommend the company to others. And forty percent would spend more money.

When it comes to getting and keeping customers, the quality of your support matters. Businesses that get it right are rewarded with long-term customer loyalty and an increased lifetime value of each and every customer.

Stronger Brand Loyalty

There’s no arguing customers have high expectations. They want immediate answers to their questions. They want to be able to reach out in a channel that won’t interfere with everything else they’re doing at the moment. They want complete answers from a knowledgeable agent. They want quality, and value, and service.

The bar may seem impossibly high — until you step back and look at the big picture. If you place everything consumers want under one umbrella, what they really want is trustworthy solutions with no effort. Which explains why remarkable customer support tends to strengthen brand loyalty.

According to Harvard Business School, you can “create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily.” It’s that easy. Simplicity wins.

Matthew Dixon, Karen Freemand and Nicholas Toman, Harvard Business Review: Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers

Add to that Hewlett-Packard’s finding that when customer service creates the feeling of effortlessness, it positively impacts loyalty. In fact, ninety-four percent of customers who experience low-effort service will buy from that same company again.

Hewlett-Packard’s low-effort customer service research scheme

The key to customer loyalty is a low-effort customer service.

Competitive Strength

Think of Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s, and Kohls. All are known for their focus on making the customer happy — and it easily sets them apart from the competition.

As the USA President and CEO of Mercedes Benz, Steve Cannon, said:

Customer experience is the new marketing.

If your customer support sets a new bar for your industry, raising the standard of customer care, you’ll get noticed. You’ll also win the dissatisfied customers who were run off by a bad experience with your competitors.

Memorable customer support is a powerful competitive advantage. You only need to leverage it. Which is what we’re going to do in the rest of this book. We’ll start by reviewing the psychology of customer support — what your customers expect and why — and then we’ll dive into the intricacies of delivering a “wow” experience.

3.

The Psychology
of Customer Service

Before we can talk about how to be unforgettable, we need to explain the underlying principles that make one experience better than another. You see, the tactics we cover in this book won’t work if they’re treated as yet another task on the corporate to-do list.

The Psychology of Customer Service

We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.

Jeff Bezos

It’s important to understand why they were developed — because a company could apply every lesson in this book, mastering them and even improving on them, but if it doesn’t address the psychological needs of its customers, it will see little or no improvement. Customers will continue to complain. Satisfaction ratings will remain low. And customers will persist in migrating to competitors.

To win at customer support, you’ve got to understand what makes people tick — their needs, wants, choices, and behaviors. And until you do, you’ll struggle to make your customers happy. Which is sad because the ultimate goal is happy, loyal customers.

The challenge is that people are complicated. You can’t focus on one-size-fits-all tactics and expect to succeed. Every customer will be driven by different emotional and behavioral experiences, making it necessary to go beyond ordinary tactics and checklists.

Your customers are used to a customer experience that prioritizes profit and efficiency over personalized service. What they crave — and what becomes unforgettable when it’s delivered — is being treated as if their concerns are the highest priority at the moment. Ultimately, they want you to be accessible, proactive, and to make them feel important.

Be Accessible

Have you ever gone to a nice restaurant, hoping for an intimate dinner, only to have your waiter hovering nearby? While the attentiveness is appropriate, it can feel crushing at times, especially if he’s doing more than keeping your water glass full, listening to every word you exchange.

There’s a fine balance you must walk in customer support: to be present and attentive but not overbearing.

Realtors understand this. Because a home purchase is such a big decision, they know they need to give their clients space to discuss the pros and cons of the property. They open the door to a prospective new home, then let clients explore at their own pace, in their own way. Good realtors are available for questions, but they don’t hover.

That’s the balance you’re looking for — and the way to achieve it is to make it clear you’re available without getting in your visitors' way as they explore your website.

Warby Parker does this beautifully with a prompt in the footer of their website:

Warby Parker website footer

Notice they give you multiple options for how to engage with them, and visitors can choose the option that’s right for them.

At Nudie Jeans Co, a help button hovers in the lower right corner of the website.

Click the chat button, and you’ll be invited to leave a message for one of the agents to respond to either in chat or by email:

Nudie Jeans Co website help button

Both brands have found the balance of being easily accessible without hovering. They’ve adopted reactive support, letting visitors initiate any interaction with the support team. In most cases, reactive support is not only acceptable, it’s preferred. But there are times when you may need to adopt a different approach, called proactive chat.

Be Proactive

A Forrester study found that reactive chat — live chat that waits on customers to reach out if and when they have a question — provides a return on investment of fifteen percent. Even more impressive, though, is its impact on the customer experience: Forty-four percent of US online consumers like having a chat invitation appear unprompted to help answer questions during an online research or purchase.

Clearly, it is possible to offer real-time customer support without annoying visitors.

That’s why some brands are adopting a proactive stance, reaching out as a helpful clerk would in a brick-and-mortar store. Known as “proactive chat,” this approach has been found to provide an impressive 105 percent return on investment, making it worth exploring, even if you’re uncomfortable with becoming the “hovering waiter” on your website.

The key, of course, is to be proactive without irritating customers. In case you’re overly worried about that, keep in mind that by saying hello and offering to answer any questions your visitors may have, you aren’t obligating them to talk to you. A simple click can close the chat box and move it out of the way:

John: Hey there! Is there any way I can help?

An example of a proactive chat invitation

In fact, most people will opt to close the pop-up until it’s needed. Proactive chat acceptance rates are relatively low, averaging just seven percent:

  • Government and nonprofit sites have the highest acceptance rate, at twenty-six percent.
  • E-commerce sites average twenty-three percent.
  • Finance hovers around four percent.
  • Healthcare runs under two percent.

It’s possible these low acceptance rates reflect a touch of irritation at proactive chat. It’s more likely they reflect different user expectations based on where they are and what they’re doing. For instance, mobile chat has a much higher acceptance rate. On average, nearly forty-four percent of chat queries were received from mobile devices.

The secret is in your approach. For example, you will likely annoy your customers if you open the chat window immediately after a visitor lands on the page. You need to give them time to explore the page before addressing them. You should also avoid sending repeated invitations to visitors who have already rejected your offer to help or using generic phrases that could make you sound like a bot. (We’ll talk more about the need for human support later.)

Chatra.io allows you to create conditions that make your invitations seem less intrusive. To avoid hovering, adjust the "Time since last proactive invitation" and "Chat history with a visitor" conditions.
Start your free trial now

Remember, customers appreciate a proactive offer to help. Here are ways to do that without becoming offensive.

Checkout Page Triggers

Set up a trigger on your checkout page or in the shopping cart. If a visitor spends too much time on one of these pages, they may have difficulties or doubts. To avoid cart abandonment, offer your assistance or give them a discount:

Jane: It seems that you are having doubts about your order. Maybe a 10% discount will persuade you? :)

Top Exit Pages

Analytics tools will tell you the pages on your site that have a high “exit” rate. These are the pages from which visitors typically leave your site, and in many cases, there’s something on those pages that confuse or confound them.

Create a trigger for those pages, then present visitors with an interesting offer. Consider a discount, a sale price, or a free gift:

Dustin: Hey! We have a special offer for you: get 25% off if you purchase 3 items or more.

Pages That Answer Questions

When visitors have questions, they look for a help section, FAQ, knowledge base, or visit the Contact Us page. Why not offer live help instead of forcing them to hunt for the answer they need?

Christine: Hi! Let me know if you have any questions, I'll be happy to help!

High-Traffic Pages

Your analytics tool will also tell you which pages get the most traffic. Visitors on these pages may not have questions, so your response rate may be lower than average, but offering proactive support tells them that you’re available if needed. Focus on the wording and the timing to make sure your offer is well-received.

For instance, if a popular product on your e-commerce site is unavailable, set up a trigger to let customers know:

Andrew: Hey there! Unfortunately this offer is no longer valid, but we have a huge sale coming soon

Now, let’s apply the concepts of accessibility and proactivity to the psychology of customer service. Should you simply be available, or should you offer proactive support?

There’s no definitive answer. It depends on your products and your customers' expectations. We recommend testing both approaches to see if one works better than the other for your business.

Make Them Feel Important

Most of us have studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow believed we have higher level needs, such as belonging and self-actualization, that can’t be met until our basic needs, such as food and shelter, are met.

Saul McLeod, SimplyPsychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

While this may, at first glance, have nothing to do with customer support, we’re reexamining Maslow’s work — with a twist.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Your visitors may be at any of the levels Maslow describes. Regardless of the questions they ask or the support they need, on a deeper level, they could be struggling with basic needs, psychological needs, or self-fulfillment needs. That’s going to impact the type of support they need, the way they want to be spoken with, and more. Which, of course, adds a new layer of complexity to your task.

Fortunately, Maslow didn’t create his hierarchy for customer support agents. And today’s connected world has created an overarching need that simplifies rather than complicates our task. While the need for esteem and self-actualization are still important, today’s digital environment has flipped some of Maslow’s priorities. For most people, the need to be seen and understood is far more important than self-actualization — regardless of where they might otherwise land on the hierarchy.

As “One With Now” blogger Manal Ghosain says:

Today wanting approval is more prominent than ever. Online connectivity and social media turned wanting approval into an addictive habit.

Taking this idea one step further, Dr. Leon Seltzer, writing for “Psychology Today”, suggests that people crave an enduring sense of security and well-being that can only be found when we feel others know us. When we don’t feel understood, we swing to the other end of the spectrum, experiencing emptiness, depression, and even irritation.

It’s this irritation that we experience when a customer is unhappy with the help we’ve provided. You see, most people don’t feel they’re truly understood. That leaves a gaping hole in their sense of belonging. As a result, they feel disconnected and, in extreme cases, as if they don’t truly exist.

Now, let’s apply this to a customer support experience. Someone asks a question and feels that you “get” them. You’re able to answer their question and resolve their concerns — lifting whatever burden they were feeling before your chat.

According to researchers, your customer now feels both personal and social well-being:

Feeling understood makes individuals feel valued, respected and validated… and leads to important changes in affective experience and feelings of social connection.

From what we’ve seen, these feelings of being respected and validated strengthen a visitor’s feelings for your brand — all because they felt seen and understood when engaging with your company. So from a psychological perspective, one of your top priorities is to make sure your customers know you see and understand them.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to do that, either. You can make your customers feel important with small, simple techniques anyone can do. Let’s look at a few of your options.

Give them your undivided attention

In the movie “The Princess Diaries”, young Mia Thermopolis says of herself:

I’m invisible, and I’m good at it.

Learning she’s a princess with royal responsibilities and her own set of paparazzi is overwhelming, and she longs to return to the anonymity of being a “nobody.”

That’s not where your customers are coming from. If they feel invisible, it irritates, so making them feel seen is priority number one. Listen to them. Really listen. Give them your full attention and try to hear the feelings and emotions that hide behind their words.

Give them all the time they need

Have you ever made an appointment to see your doctor and, after waiting for an hour to get into the office, felt rushed — as if there’s a timer inside your doctor’s head and he doesn’t want to give you more than your due? It’s frustrating, largely because the underlying message is that his time is more valuable than yours.

Time is a valuable commodity, and when you’re generous with it, you communicate that the other person is important to you. If you put the other person on a timer, they feel rushed and dissatisfied.

That’s why, at all costs, you want to avoid placing a time limit on your customer support interactions. Give your customers the time they need to ask questions and understand their options. They’ll walk away feeling relaxed rather than stressed — and that’s going to build emotional warm-fuzzies and brand loyalty.

Let them know you’ll do what it takes to help them

How far are you willing to go to create happy customers? Sometimes, a solution isn’t easy. Sometimes, the information they need isn’t readily available.

Instead of leaving your customers hanging, go the extra mile. Even if it means extra calls or emails, be willing to keep a support ticket open until it’s been fully resolved.

Use words that communicate your customers' value

Knowing that people need to feel important, adjust your communication style to genuinely communicate value. It doesn’t take much. Listening politely or saying “thank you” when your customers give you useful information will often do the job.

The key is to communicate that you’re present and willing to help, that you do, in fact, see and appreciate your customer.

Give a small gift

Again, it doesn’t take much. By offering your customers a promo code, discount, or compensation when appropriate, you can make them feel special, as if they’re getting VIP treatment that other people don’t get.

It isn’t hard to make your customers feel important. Implement these tips right away, and you’ll see an uptick in your customer satisfaction ratings. Then brainstorm for other ways to make your customers feel valued.

Combine that effort with your efforts to be accessible and proactive in helping visitors, and you’ll lay the foundation for a positive customer experience. And the good news is, none of this needs to be complicated or expensive. It’s really just a matter of meeting your customer’s psychological need to be seen and understood.

In the next chapter, we’re going to delve deeply into that need, because it’s far more important than most businesses realize. In fact, creating a human connection is one of the core elements of unforgettable customer service.

4.

Create a Human Connection

We have just talked about the psychological need of your customers to feel seen and understood. That lays a strong foundation for everything you do to support your customers. But there’s an overarching principle that, once understood, can help you give your customers exactly what they want. This is the one rule that should guide everything you do to support your customers!

Create a Human Connection

In an era when companies see online support as a way to shield themselves from ‘costly’ interactions with their customers, it’s time to consider an entirely different approach: building human-centric customer service through great people and clever technology. So, get to know your customers. Humanize them. Humanize yourself. It’s worth it.

Kristin Smaby

Engage with customers as one human to another

This concept has never been more important than it is now. In our digitized, automated world, people do, in fact, become invisible, falling through the cracks, being ignored and forgotten.

And technology, even when it’s meant to save time, can prevent people from getting the care they need. As an example, I (Kathryn) recently needed to fix an action I’d taken on eBay. I had clicked the wrong button when requesting a refund and was sent into an endless loop of automated messages — with no human touch available. I could direct-message the seller, but I couldn’t contact anyone at eBay to go into the system and fix my mistake.

eBay lost a lot of points when I realized there was no way to undo that keystroke. I desperately wanted a human connection — but they’d set up their business to remove the “need” for customer support. Or so they thought. You hear similar complaints about phone support lines that transfer customers from one automated message to another, an endless cycle that never connects to a human agent. And soon, chatbot messages will reach this same point, creating efficiencies for the business but a gnawing dissatisfaction for customers.

As technology continues to evolve and improve, more businesses will adopt a no-touch model in one form or another. As a result, it’s going to become more and more difficult to connect to a human. Yet human connection is the deepest need we all share.

If we want to create happy customers, we can’t avoid this issue. We must be human if we want to connect with people. We must talk to them as one human to another. We must listen to them and respond as humans. We must bring all the nuances of “being human” into the very center of our systems and procedures.

The Rise of Chatbots

It may sound easy, but being human is one of the most challenging aspects of customer support. “Being human” connotes empathy, support, kindness, and understanding. Yet these are the very things customers complain are missing when they engage with brands.

Is it any wonder that businesses and consumers alike are interested in chatbot technology? The idea of self-service, where a customer can find their own answers and solve their own problems, is attractive from both perspectives. And when it works right, it’s an interesting approach.

A study by Aspect has found that fewer customers are requesting help from a live agent, a trend that’s impacting multiple industries. The reason? Consumers are tired of not getting the support they need. They prefer no support to bad support.

What are they looking for? According to this same study, they want effective solutions, delivered quickly and accurately. Nearly half (forty-five percent) of consumers don’t care whether support is provided by a person or a chatbot — if these criteria are met.

We’re inclined to believe that people aren’t drawn to chatbots, per se. They’ve simply lost hope that live agents can help. With companies that deliver unforgettable service, we believe customers would prefer getting help from a human. And Aspect’s study backs this up: seventy-one percent of consumers want to be able to connect with a live agent after initiating support with a chatbot.

As you can see, the human touch is critical to happy customers. Consumers need (and want) a human-to-human interaction that offers more support, more nuanced solutions, and a more empathetic response. Let’s look more closely at how human-to-human support typically fails, and how to overcome those shortcomings.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Customer Support

It’s a sad indictment on business, but most brands are guilty of being more focused on efficiency than on being human, prioritizing the system over the individual needs of customers. That’s led to some common hot buttons, or triggers, that can quickly turn to dissatisfaction.

According to customer service expert Adam Toporek, author of “Be Your Customer’s Hero”, there are seven triggers you need to avoid in customer support:

  1. Ignoring customers
  2. Abandoning them
  3. Hassling them
  4. Being incompetent
  5. Shuffling customers from one agent to another
  6. Making customers feel powerless
  7. Being disrespectful

Think of these as the seven deadly sins of customer support. They make your customers feel “less than,” removing the human element from every interaction and making them less inclined to talk to a live agent.

But look at them. These triggers are a top-seven list of people’s biggest fears in any relationship. At all costs, we try to avoid being ignored, abandoned, hassled, and disrespected. We try to remove ourselves from people who are incompetent, make us feel powerless, or don’t reciprocate our kindness. We may have to put up with this type of treatment in other areas of life, but we have no patience with it from the businesses we buy from.

Obviously, what’s missing is the human element. Customer support must be consistently human. If we approach every customer as a valuable human being, we’re far less likely to fall into these seven deadly sins.

How to Offer Human Support

So how do we do that? How do we balance our business needs with the human needs of our customers? Let’s look at four tips that will keep you from triggering your customers' biggest relational fears — and create warm, positive feelings instead.

Use Their Favorite Word

Dale Carnegie once said:

A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

This is, perhaps, the easiest way to be human.

Dale Carnegie, Simon & Schuster: How to Win Friends and Influence People

To answer specific questions from customers, you’ll need to look up their account information. Once they give you their name, it makes sense to greet them as Mr. or Ms. [last name] or by their first name, whichever is most appropriate.

In many cases, though, our technology tells us a contact’s name before we begin talking to them (think live chat, email, and social media). In these cases, you can open the conversation with their name:

Hi [name], I’m Sally. How can I help you?

Step Away from the Script

Scripts create consistency and efficiency. But when customers need to talk to a human, they often want a more personalized experience.

Scripts should be guidelines, not required responses. They should help an agent know how to respond to specific questions or situations but remain flexible enough to be adapted — because strict word-for-word recitals come off sounding like a bot, even when delivered by a human.

In order to respond to the unique needs of each customer, you need to be able to go off-script. You need to be allowed to respond as a person, not a corporation. As Jeff Bezos said in his 2017 annual Letter to Shareholders:

We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we have to choose it.

Personal, one-on-one conversations are the domain of small companies. As small companies grow, however, they tend to adopt many of the efficiencies of big companies, including time-saving processes and scripts. As soon as they do that, they begin to lose relevance. They lose the attraction of being purely human.

Unless, of course, you allow yourself the luxury of ignoring the script.

Listen Actively

Of course, without a script, you’ll need to have a real conversation. One of the most effective ways to communicate — especially if the person you’re talking to is concerned or worried — is to listen. Actively listen.

The U.S. Department of State, the foreign affairs agency responsible for diplomacy and foreign policy, understands the importance of being able to communicate with people who don’t have the same language or communication style. On their website, they share the Chinese symbol for “to listen” to illustrate the importance of active listening:

The most common problem in communication is not listening! A Chinese symbol for ‘To Listen’ is shown below.  It is wise beyond the art. The left side of the symbol represents an ear. The right side represents the individual — you. The eyes and undivided attention are next and finally there is the heart.

U.S. Department of State, Diplomacy in Action: Active Listening


The Chinese symbol for “to listen”

The Chinese symbol for “to listen”

The State Department has set four rules of active listening for their diplomats:

  1. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
  2. Be non-judgmental.
  3. Give your undivided attention to the speaker.
  4. Use silence effectively.

These same rules can help brands interact with customers in a way that makes them feel valued. We’d only add one more rule to ensure customers feel they’ve been understood: After a customer has shared a problem or difficult situation, respond by paraphrasing what they’ve just told you, followed by the words, “Is that right?” Let them correct you until you understand their need.

Active listening isn’t easy, but it’s the foundation of a human-to-human connection. It helps customers feel that they’re being taken seriously, and it defuses the emotions or defensiveness that may have prompted customers to reach out. In many cases, active listening turns a potentially negative interaction into a positive one that builds trust and loyalty — simply because you were able to communicate that you cared.

Find the Problem Behind the Emotions

Not too long ago, I (Kathryn) got an email from Wayfair addressed to someone named Tomy, explaining that his order had been canceled. Trouble was, the order was made with my email. I didn’t know Tomy. I hadn’t placed an order. And according to the email, the canceled order had totaled six hundred dollars:

Wayfair: e-mail message to Kathryn Aragon, September 18, 2018


The automated email alerting Kathryn to a possible theft of her identity

The automated email alerting Kathryn to a possible theft of her identity

As you might guess, I was upset that someone had tried to order a product with my user account. Worse still, I was afraid my identity had been stolen and that someone had access to my credit card information.

When I called Wayfair, my emotions were a volatile mix of worry, anger, and fear — none of which was Wayfair’s fault. They had, after all, declined the order. On the other end of the phone, Wayfair’s agents simply wanted to assure me that the order had been canceled. I already knew that. I was worried about a deeper problem: identity theft.

Fortunately, Wayfair’s customer support team understood the need to look beyond the initial problem expressed by a customer. It took time, but the agent finally understood my concern and transferred me to someone who could give me the assurances I needed.

All too often, customer support is on the front line, taking the hit when customers are unhappy about something — even when that something isn’t their fault. When a customer complains or expresses frustration, your first instinct may be to respond in kind.

Don’t get defensive. Instead, try to get to the root of the problem. You need to figure out why your customer is upset so you can address the real problem, not just the surface problem.

First of all, realize you aren’t the object of customers' frustrations. And you aren’t responsible for fixing every situation. You are responsible for defusing the situation, reassuring customers that you hear them, giving them whatever help you can, and letting them know you care.

In my call to Wayfair, I didn’t relax until I verified that the credit card information used in that order wasn’t mine. My deepest fear was identity theft, and once I was sure that hadn’t happened, I was able to end the call, feeling good about Wayfair’s handling of the situation.

That’s what you want. Over the course of the interaction with you, the customer should relax, knowing their question, worry, or frustration has been expressed and handled. Listening is your priority, but you must also learn how to let your customers express their emotions without being sucked into the vortex with them.

Stay objective. Stay calm. Do what you can to help. Then shake off whatever residual emotions remain at the end of the call.

In this chapter, we covered one of the three core elements of unforgettable customer support. Being human — establishing that you are a living, breathing human — is essential to building a great customer experience. But you also want to communicate that you care. For that, you’ll rely on the second core element, which we cover in the next chapter.

5.

Deepen the Connection
with Empathy

No one likes complaints. But it’s important to understand that for each complaint you receive, twenty-six complaints have gone unexpressed. Sadly, the majority of consumers don’t feel they’ll be heard or don’t have the time, so they don’t bother expressing their dissatisfaction. There’s a reason for that.

Deepen the Connection with Empathy

Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Damon Richards

Customer support hasn’t always focused on treating people right, and its poor reputation continues, no matter how many improvements are made. Don’t believe us? The Aspect Consumer Experience Index asked consumers whether they’d rather clean a toilet than contact customer service. One-fourth admitted that, yes, they preferred cleaning a toilet to dealing with customer service in any channel.

Our job — whether we choose to accept it or not — is to reverse those sentiments, turning negativity into warm, positive feelings about our brands. As we’ve already discussed, we do that by making people feel important and relating to them as one human to another. But we can achieve even more good will if we employ empathy when engaging with customers.

In this chapter, we’ll explore what empathy is, how to develop or enhance it (even if you’re not a naturally empathetic person), and how to express it so your customers feel they’re being heard and understood.

Understanding Empathy

Use the word empathy in any business, and this is what springs to mind: putting customers first… writing copy that focuses on the consumer rather than the brand or its products… being “you” oriented rather than “us” oriented in marketing and sales.

This interpretation, while helpful, falls short of its true meaning.

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is:

The act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to…

So far, it’s similar to our initial understanding of the word…

Merriam-Webster: Empathy

But now it shifts into high gear:

…and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, or experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

According to emotional intelligence author Daniel Goleman, empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence and is key to developing deep levels of rapport and trust.

Daniel Goleman, Greater Good Magazine: Hot to Help: When can empathy move us to action?

Rapport and trust. Aren’t these the goal in our interactions with customers? Only when you feel the pain and frustration your customers are experiencing can you fully communicate that you care — or feel motivated to find quicker, more thorough solutions.

Already, we can see the value of empathy when engaging with customers, but new research is giving us even more information about how it can be expressed. Experts have discovered three distinct types of empathy, and understanding them may make it easier to nail this essential component of unforgettable support. Let’s take a look.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is first. Sometimes called perspective-taking, it refers to our ability to identify and understand the emotions being expressed by the person we’re talking to.

When we experience cognitive empathy, we’re inclined to say things like:

“I get where you’re coming from,”

or:

“I hear a lot of anger in what you’re saying.”

Notice the ability to identify feelings without actually feeling them ourselves. This can be helpful when interacting with a customer, but only to a point. Because there’s no emotional connection — it’s purely an intellectual exercise — there’s no motivation to help. Quite the opposite. Cognitive empathy is often used by politicians to read people’s emotions and use them for their own advantage.

This is probably what’s going on when support agents are accused of not caring. Even when they go through the motions of empathy, saying and doing all the right things, they aren’t motivated to help. For that to happen, they need the second type of empathy.

Affective Empathy

Affective empathy, or emotional empathy, has to do with the sensations and feelings that arise in response to other people’s emotions. This occurs somewhat naturally when we reflect the emotions of someone we’re talking to. They express fear, so we mirror (and feel) fear in response. They express anger, and we get angry with them.

Greater Good Magazine: Empathy Defined: What Is Empathy?

When you physically feel what others are feeling, as if their emotions were contagious, you’re experiencing affective empathy. This gets closer to Merriam-Webster’s second definition of empathy, but it’s still not a perfect solution to the problems associated with cognitive empathy.

Here’s what we mean by that: affective empathy can make you a strong advocate for your customers. You’ll care about their problems and feel motivated to help. But after spending forty hours a week absorbing the emotions of your customers, you can easily become overwhelmed. You may have a hard time managing your own emotions, and you may experience emotional and psychological burnout.

Clearly, there needs to be a balance, and according to psychologist Paul Ekman, there is.

Compassionate Empathy

Ekman has defined a third type of empathy, compassionate empathy, that involves a cultivated detachment. With this type of empathy, not only can you cognitively understand a customer’s feelings and feel with them, but you’re also motivated to help.

This type of empathy depends on the awareness that we’re all connected. It begins with the ability to identify the emotions a customer brings to the conversation, feeling enough of their pain to grasp its importance — but not so much that you’re drawn into the full experience of it — and then compassionately find the best solution.

This strikes the right balance between seeing and identifying emotions and becoming overwhelmed by them. It creates a bit of space between your customers and you but still lets you feel with them.

The biggest challenge here is being able to maintain it. After all, you’re only human yourself. Responding to every customer with one hundred percent empathy and attention, one hundred percent of the time, will be exhausting. You’ll have bad days. Your mind will wander. You may be faced with emotions or problems you have no previous experience with — which means you’ll fall back into cognitive empathy.

Additionally, every customer is different. They all come with different motivations, having different needs and expressing different emotions. One person may need a quick answer rather than an intricate solution. Another may want you to take your time, walking them through the solution and explaining what’s happening at every stage of the process. Even expressing compassionate empathy, you need to be able to quickly assess people’s needs and provide the right level of support.

The Right Approach for Customer Support

Neither cognitive or affective empathy provides the right approach to customer support. They’re two extremes on the scale, one being purely intellectual, the other being almost purely emotional.

The right approach lies somewhere in the middle, and compassionate empathy seems to nail it. It gives you enough emotional connection to feel motivated to help, but not so much as to be overwhelming. It provides enough cognitive detachment to understand the emotions and issues at play but not so much as to make you seem cold and uncaring.

True human-to-human support strikes this balance. It’s able to assess the situation calmly, feel the urgency of the customer’s needs, and express compassion while offering the best solution available.

If that sounds a bit woo-woo, you’re right. Compassionate empathy describes the ideal customer support interaction. But it’s a lofty ideal. And it may be too idealistic to assume every customer support agent can master it — especially people who aren’t naturally empathetic or are having a bad day. That said, empathy can be learned. It can also be refined to the point that it’s almost automatic, so it won’t be overwhelming or exhausting. Let’s look at a few techniques for developing or enhancing compassionate empathy.

Developing Empathy

Believe it or not, empathy isn’t something we’re born with. Any of us. We all fall short of the ideal. Fortunately, though, empathy can be developed and improved with simple exercises and the intention to improve.

Here are five simple exercises recommended to develop and strengthen this essential skill.

Pay Attention

To create the empathetic connection, you must be able to identify and feel the emotions your customer is feeling. Empathy depends on mirror neurons helping us observe a customer’s emotions, interpret the tone of their voice, and read the subtle clues that express their deepest feelings.

When engaging with a customer, always be alert for micro-messages that could help you understand the other person’s inner state.

Granted, this is easiest when you’re talking with someone face to face because you can see the slight movements of their face and eyes. On the phone, you may not be able to see the customer’s facial expressions, but you will be able to hear the tone of voice. In email, live chat, and social media, you’ll have neither, which means you’ve got to pay attention to their word choices, the emotions behind their words, and how long it takes for them to respond.

If you’re the least bit distracted, you won’t notice these indicators, so it’s important to minimize distractions. Close any apps or browser windows that might send you alerts or messages. Put away your phone.

Get Out of Your Own Head

Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of “Words Can Change Your Brain”, have found that excessive self-talk — the chatter that goes on non-stop in our heads — can be as distracting as messages on your phone, making it hard to be fully present with customers. After all, how can you listen to your customers' problems when your own internal voice is focused on other issues?

The unexpected solution is simply to relax.

Take a minute to stretch and yawn. Try to loosen your facial muscles and breathe slowly in and out for a moment. Then focus on a positive thought or memory.

That’s it. Believe it or not, that can be all it takes to clear the mind of distracting thoughts and petty irritations, putting you in a more positive, empathetic mindset.

Fake It Till You Make It

Other times, you’re working with a customer who rubs you the wrong way. You know you need to be empathetic, but you struggle simply to be professional.

Sadly, empathy isn’t something you can fake. It is, though, something you can work up to. David Swink, Chief Creative Officer of Strategic Interactions, believes you can act empathetically even when you feel antagonistic to a person — and has trained hostage negotiators to do just that.

Hostage negotiators must establish rapport with hostage takers in order to influence them. To do that, they must act empathetically, even if they despise the person. Swink reports that, after going through the motions of empathy to build a relationship with hostage takers, negotiators begin to feel real empathy. Simply acting empathetically generates true empathy.

In customer support, even when a customer is irritating or difficult to work with, they’ll likely never reach the extreme of a hostage taker. And even if all you can muster is cognitive empathy, that’s enough to begin generating compassionate empathy, which will improve your ability to make your customers happy.

Embrace Differences

You need to be able to empathize with every customer, no matter who they are, how they talk, or what their style of communication is. Even when a customer isn’t being hostile, you may find it difficult to express empathy for them.

You can, as we just mentioned, go through the motions of empathy until you begin to feel it. But you may also need to identify areas where you have hidden biases.

You see, it’s possible to hear an accent and automatically think the person you’re talking to is less educated, less intelligent, or less capable. A customer may not know the answer to one question you ask, and you may jump to the conclusion that they’re inexperienced or slow.

Prejudices — even subtle ones — show up when you least expect them. And they can dramatically impact your ability to help people who reach out for customer support. So it’s important to proactively explore your biases and learn more about people who are different from you. These exercises should help:

  • The Coffee Shop Challenge. The next time you go to a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Make it your goal (without being creepy) to learn something interesting about them. Listen for the way different people think and rationalize their decisions.
  • The Help-Me Challenge. The next time you’re at a store and can’t make up your mind between two brands, ask a random stranger for advice. Encourage them to explain why they’d make their choice. Again, your goal is to talk to people unlike yourself and appreciate the different perspectives they offer.
  • The Diversity Challenge. Read fiction or watch shows that revolve around people who are different than you. When you see the characters struggling, root for their success.

All of these exercises will help you get to know people who are different from you — including the unique ways they perceive and respond to the world around them. This gives you insight into how your customers are thinking and feeling when you’re answering questions or helping them solve problems. In short, you’ll find it easier to empathize even with people who are radically different from you.

Take Up Acting

When acting, you have to “become” the character you’re playing. That takes more than an intellectual understanding of the character. It takes affective empathy. To succeed, you’ve got to express emotions you may not be feeling. You’ve got to show the inner workings of your character through small mannerisms and facial expressions.

There’s no better way to practice empathy for your customers — and learn how to be empathetic even when you don’t feel like it — than “becoming” a different person. So sign up now for an acting class. Join a community theater. Or join an improv group. And have some fun while you’re at it.

Expressing Empathy in Customer Support

Once you’ve refined your empathy skills, it’s time to focus on expressing empathy in a way that your customers can understand.

It starts with distinguishing between what the customer says and what they mean. To do this, you’ll need to pay attention to your customer’s micro-messaging, small clues to their deeper feelings, which are sometimes in conflict with what they say they feel. In many cases, the customer can’t (or won’t) be able to express their thoughts or feelings clearly, so you need to be able to read between the lines.

For example, if they express impatience because your blog’s social sharing buttons don’t include a print option, you’ll need to look past the petty complaint and realize what they really want is to have a downloadable PDF of your blog content. What first came off as a complaint is now a sideways compliment. Not only is it easier on your ego, but this knowledge also helps you refine your business to deliver happiness.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Your customers have different needs and different expectations. One person may want to download PDFs of your blog, while another may be irritated that you offer them. Don’t worry about making everyone perfectly happy. Focus instead on serving the majority — especially those who are your target audience and best customers.

That said, let’s review some micro-messages you may need to interpret for the vastly different customers you’ll be dealing with.

Need to be Understood

Many times, when a customer complains, what they’re really communicating is that they want you to understand them better.

You can listen to their complaint, empathize with their situation or need, and still disagree with them. You see, empathy doesn’t require agreement. It just requires understanding. In fact, you may completely disagree with a customer and give them the support they need without ever letting them know you disagree.

Of course, there may be occasions when you need to let customers know they’re wrong. When that happens, start by expressing compassion. Let them know you hear and understand them. Then, make whatever correction needs to be made, being careful to be very professional in your tone.

Your goal here is to solve the problem without demeaning your customer’s feelings and without misrepresenting your company.

Need to be Taken Seriously

Your customers want to be taken seriously. Never demeaned. Never made to feel stupid. This is similar to their need to be understood, but it goes much deeper — especially if they’ve been trying to communicate a problem and have felt as if their concerns are consistently ignored or dismissed.

When you sense a customer needs to be taken seriously, begin by letting them know you hear and understand. Use reflective listening to make it clear that you’ve heard what they’ve said and that you do take them seriously. You can do this by saying something like:

“I’m sorry to hear [summary of their complaint].”

“You’re right, it’s not easy to [summary of what they’ve been trying to do].”

“I can understand how frustrating it is to [summary of their complaint].”

“I can understand how upsetting it is when [summary of the situation].”

Simply by repeating your customer’s own words in a sympathetic way can fill their need to be taken seriously. Be careful in doing this, though. You must maintain a professional, compassionate tone, or your customer might feel that you’re mimicking or making fun of them.

Need for Apologies

Sometimes, the customer feels wronged. Your company has failed them, a mistake was made (even if it wasn’t intentional), harm was done on some level. And their deepest need at that moment is a sincere apology.

Fortunately, the word sorry is powerful when used sincerely. It can right a multitude of wrongs, expressing empathy for the customer’s situation and sorrow that they aren’t satisfied.

That’s why you should never hesitate to give an apology when needed. It isn’t about placing blame, so it should never be withheld out of pride or dislike for the person on the other side of the conversation.

Be aware, though, there are different types of apologies. Fake apologies go something like:

“I’m sorry you’re upset.”

That feels suspiciously like a brush-off. A sincere apology sounds more like:

“I’m so sorry you’ve had such a bad experience. How can I help?”

Don’t let it sound like part of your script. It needs to sound like you’re genuinely concerned, like you empathize with the customer and are invested enough to try to help.

Psychological scientists Roy Lewiski, Beth Polin, and Robert Lount Jr., have found that apologies can include up to six distinct elements:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Association for Psychological Science: Effective Apologies Include Six Elements

Of course, not all elements need to be present in every apology. The most powerful element, and the one that best communicates sincerity is an acknowledgement of responsibility. That said, the bigger the mistake, the more of these elements should be included in the apology.

When making an apology, be aware of your tone of voice. We’ll talk more about the nuances of tone in another chapter, but this is such an important topic, it’s worth mentioning here. When apologizing, to be perceived as sincere, you must get the words and the tone right. If either is off, your apology will be less effective.

Then once you’ve made the apology, you can offer to make reparations or fix the issue. This has the potential to create satisfaction despite the problems that have occurred. You may offer to fix things for them, offer a new solution, or give some sort of compensation, such as a discount or small gift.

Is this necessary? Yes, if you want to reduce anger and the negative word-of-mouth that often follows. The 2017 Customer Rage Survey conducted by the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University found that only twenty-three percent of customers were happy when offered an apology alone, but when customers were offered relief that has a measurable cost with the apology, satisfaction jumped to seventy-three percent.

Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business, Center for Services Leadership: Customer Rage

Memorable customer support begins and ends with compassionate empathy. To achieve it, you must develop the ability to hear what’s going on, understand the depth of the pain it’s causing, and proactively support your customers. When you’ve found this frame of mind, it’s easier to treat each customer as a human.

The goal is, first, being human, and second, being empathetic. It’s all about respecting the people we engage with. When you begin to develop empathy, you’re able to tap into the deeper needs your customers bring to the conversation. You can hear their unspoken desires. You can understand their real needs. And you can deliver the solutions that will make your customers happy.

Of course, to complete this process, you need to master the third core element of unforgettable customer support: clear, compassionate communication. In the next chapter, we’ll talk in-depth about how to do that.

6.

Communicate Clearly
& Compassionately

Agents aren’t usually hired for their writing skills. We get that. Yet today, when support is provided largely through emails and live chat, writing skills are far more important than most people realize.

Communicate Clearly & Compassionately

People don’t want to communicate with an organization or a computer. They want to talk to a real, live, responsive, responsible person who will listen and help them get satisfaction.

Theo Michelson

Now, before we go any further, understand that we aren’t asking agents to get a degree in writing. We aren’t even expecting messages to be one hundred percent grammatically correct. But we are raising the bar on written communications. To offer remarkable service, your messages must be written both clearly and compassionately.

In case you have any doubts, look at this example, which showed up in our Facebook stream as we were writing this chapter. It makes our point perfectly:

Tech suppurt response e-mail. A marketing consultant’s example of what not to do

A marketing consultant’s example of what not to do

The man who shared this email is not your ordinary consumer. He’s a professional copywriter and marketing consultant — as are most of his connections in social media. His post is meant as a cautionary tale, a lesson in what not to do. Even more important, notice his reaction after receiving this message:

I’m cancelling my… account

Do all people have such a strong reaction to a message that’s badly written? In most cases, yes. And we believe their reaction stems from two expectations they bring to every interaction with a company.

The first is knowledgeability. In a study on the “State of Customer Experience”, researchers found that consumers' number-two expectation of companies is a knowledgeable agent. A similar study by Northridge Group reported that the number-one complaint against customer service agents is that they aren’t knowledgeable enough. Clearly, consumers want to be sure the answers they’re given are accurate. That hope is dashed when an agent sends them a message that’s incoherent.

The second expectation is a quick solution. Messages that are poorly written take more time than necessary to decipher. And if it can’t be unraveled, the customer has to re-engage with the agent to clarify the meaning — which means they’re putting even more time into an interaction they already don’t trust.

Bottom line, once customers decide the agent they’re working isn’t knowledgeable, they lose trust in anything else the agent may say. That’s why customers will leave a company after getting a message that’s hard to understand. It’s not that they expect professional writing; they’re looking for a company they can trust.

We like the way Andre Schwager and Chris Meyer express this in an article they published in the “Harvard Business Review”:

Consumers have a greater number of choices today than ever before, more complex choices, solutions to problems — not fragmented, burdensome ones — will win the allegiance of the time-pressed consumer.

Andre Schwager and Chris Meyer, Harvard Business Review: Understanding Customer Experience

Bad writing is burdensome. It wastes the reader’s time and forces them to puzzle out the meaning — when a well-written message would have taken only seconds.

Successful customer support depends on you to give them quick, effective solutions. That’s why we consider clear, compassionate communication the third element of unforgettable customer service. Fortunately, it’s much easier than you think to ensure your messages are understandable.

Tips for Communicating More Clearly

If you remember, consumers want effective, workable solutions, and they don’t want to work hard for them. To give your customers what they want, you need to make sure your messages say what you mean and are easy to understand. Here are some tips for making your side of the conversation a hundred percent clearer.

Get to the Point

When emailing or messaging friends, we’re in the habit of leading with social niceties. With customers, this approach can be distracting — especially when all they want is a quick answer.

Not to diminish the social graces; speed is a much higher priority for people reaching out to customer support. The Aspect Consumer Experience Index found that people value accuracy, effectiveness, and speed more than anything else, and the inability to meet these three criteria is the top source of consumer frustration.

Don’t be afraid to get right to the point. You may start your conversation with a greeting, but you should keep it short.

In chat, you can say something like:

“Are you finding what you need? Let me know if you need help,”

or you can simply introduce yourself and answer the question your customer has asked.

Your goal is to be quick and efficient. This communicates that you’re there for your customers, eager to answer their questions. As a bonus, you’ll also come off as more professional and knowledgeable.

Don’t Leave Gaps

Remember, customers want accurate information they can trust. They want to feel confident that they’re getting accurate, complete information — not a scripted answer or a quick band-aid that covers up their problem rather than solving it. Ultimately, they want to feel you understand the question, have a real answer, and can customize it to their situation.

So how do you do that?

First, know your stuff. You need adequate training to be able to talk intelligently about your product, its features, and the problems that might arise. You also need to be fluent in whatever language you’re using to support your customers.

Second, you need to be able to apply that knowledge to whatever problem your customers bring up, and find work-arounds where needed. You can only do that if you know your stuff… and know it well.

Finally, you need to be able to express those solutions in writing — simply and without leaving any gaps or confusing your customer.

Look again at the Facebook post we shared in the introduction to this chapter. The gaps in that support email weren’t informational. They were linguistic in nature. The answer was gibberish, probably because the company had hired overseas help to manage customer support. Answers were either copied and pasted or run through a translation app. Either way, they don’t measure up to the minimum standards of remarkable customer support.

In most cases, you’ll be focused on avoiding informational gaps — leaving out basic information that you assume people already know. The trouble is, “assumed knowledge” is usually reserved for industry insiders. So before hitting the Send button when answering questions, review your answer to see if you accidentally left out any basic information that might be helpful. Then, fill in the gaps.

Keep It Simple

While you do want to come off as knowing your stuff, you don’t want to use a lot of industry terms, jargon, big words, or slang.

Big words and jargon don’t impress anyone. Your knowledge should be like a Wiki site: there if you need it, invisible if you don’t. If you can talk naturally about your topic, breaking down complex information into easy-to-digest, bite-sized pieces of information, it’s clear you know the topic inside and out. There’s no need to show off.

Slang and texting terms are also a no-no. While you want to be human and relatable, you shouldn’t use slang or emojis to achieve that goal. Terms that are unfamiliar to your customer can quickly become burdensome, forcing them to think too hard or outright confusing them. So avoid terms that may not be easily understood by everyone. BTW (by the way) and TTYL (talk to you later) are examples of texting terms you should avoid.

Make It Easy to See Options and Respond

Sometimes you’ll need to provide long, complex answers. In chat, it can be easier to provide the information one sentence at a time. But in email support, you need to focus on presentation. Otherwise, you could inadvertently bury important information.

Here are three tips for making it easy for your customers to get the point in email support messages.

  1. Use shorter paragraphs and sentences. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, especially if the information is important. As a one-liner, it’s sure to be seen.
  2. Whenever you’re listing items, use bullets. If you try to list a series of items within a paragraph, separated only by commas, they won’t stand out.
  3. If you’re listing options and asking your customer to choose, treat the options like a fast-food menu. Number each of them, so your customer can easily tell you their choice. (“I like number two,” for instance.)

In all your communications, your goal is to keep things as simple and understandable as possible. It may require you to break some of the rules you learned in a composition class, but when it comes to supporting your customers, clarity wins the day.

Never Make Assumptions

Your customers likely come from all over the world, from all socioeconomic levels, and have a wide range of communication styles. Count on it: there will be countless cases where judgment or confusion slip into the conversation.

Perhaps a customer’s question doesn’t make sense, or you need information from them and can’t get them to understand what you need. Alternatively, the customer could say something that triggers an unconscious prejudice in you. At all costs, you must avoid making assumptions or judgements that could affect the quality of your support.

When confusion enters the mix, don’t let yourself get impatient. When you or your customer is confused or one of you doesn’t understand a question, slow down. Ask for more information. Find another way to express yourself.

If you find yourself guessing the meaning of your customer’s request, don’t make assumptions. Make sure you understand what your customer needs before continuing the conversation.

If you feel yourself making assumptions about a customer’s intelligence, background knowledge, or communication style, monitor yourself carefully to avoid making a rude comment or adopting an offensive tone.

You’ve probably experienced a rude or impatient support agent at least once. We all have. I, Kathryn, once called customer support to diagnose a problem with a printer. The agent began the call by asking for the information she needed to help me, including the type of printer and my computer set-up.

Understand, I’m more technically adept than average, but even so, there were a few questions about my hardware that I couldn’t answer off the top of my head. Immediately, I could hear the shift in the agent’s tone towards me. For the rest of the call, she spoke as if I wouldn’t be able to find the on/off button on my computer. I even addressed her assumption, and she ignored me, continuing the demeaning attitude throughout our entire call.

This type of prejudice is toxic to a customer’s experience. The only assumption you should make is that your customer is intelligent but busy. And when in doubt, assume you’re wrong, and not your customer.

Use Screenshots and Video Captures

Sometimes, words alone make a simple procedure sound confusing or overly technical. A picture or video, on the other hand, can make things crystal clear. For these cases, it helps to have a library of quick screenshots or video captures that answer the most common challenges your customers face.

The key is to keep things simple. In many cases, your video capture may not even need words. It simply needs to walk the customer through the process.

For instance, here at Chatra, we know that many of our customers will struggle to put the widget code for our software on their website. We provide written instructions, but to make sure they’re understandable, we include this screenshot as well:

Chatra widget code screenshot

Proofread!

Before sending any message, review it to be sure it makes sense, is grammatically correct, and has no glaring typos. No one expects perfection, but your communications need to be clear.

This is especially important if you’re copy-pasting answers. Without reviewing them, you could miss notes that were meant for you (the agent) and not for your customers.

The last thing you want to send is something that looks like this:

Hi Justin,

Thank you for contacting us about XXXfragranceXXX. At this time, this fragrance is not available. We understand your disappointment in discovering that your favorite scent will no longer be a prat of our product line.

Justin, many products are seasonal and only sold during specific times of the year. Other products and fragrances are retired for various reasons. We continually evaluate current and future trends, as well as customer responses and reaction. Customer feedback regarding our products and services is always welcomed and appreciated.

We would be happy to forward your request for this scent to return. Additionally, we would be happy to provide an alternative that you may enjoy as well.

Since you loved XXX, I would recommend XXX CHOOSE ALTERNATIVE FRAGRANCE XXX. You’re sure to love it! I have inserted a link below for you to take a look on our website.

XXXinsert link here and connectionXXX

We appreciate you shopping with us, Justin!

Thanks,
Megan

Whether you use pre-written snippets of information to support your customers or write unique responses to every customer, take time to proofread your responses before sending them.

Tips for More Empathetic Communications

Communication is both technical and relational. We’ve just reviewed tips for getting your words right on a technical level. Now let’s look at two ways to make sure your words are equally compassionate.

Deliver Trust

Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, in their book “Words Can Change Your Brain”, create a compelling case for adapting your communication strategies to build trust and resolve conflict. In fact, they’ve discovered that their twelve-step approach to compassionate communication can actually rewire your brain to become more empathetic. Sounds perfect for customer support.

Their process starts before you connect with a customer — putting yourself in a frame of mind that lets you achieve an “inner state of intense awareness and calm:”

  1. Relax.
  2. Stay present.
  3. Cultivate inner silence.
  4. Increase positivity.
  5. Reflect on your deepest values.
  6. Access a pleasant memory.

Once you’ve completed these steps, you’re able to engage effectively, according to the authors. Then, you’re ready for the next step:

  1. Observe nonverbal clues.

By nonverbal clues, they mean micro-messages, which tell you what the other person is thinking and feeling. These clues give you the background information you need to have an effective conversation. And once you’ve taken them in, you’re ready to start the conversation:

  1. Express appreciation.
  2. Speak warmly.
  3. Speak slowly.
  4. Speak briefly.
  5. Listen deeply.

The idea is to remain fully present during a conversation, so you’re able to create the cognitive and emotional connection required for empathy. By relaxing and staying positive, you’re able to avoid behaviors that could make your customer angry. You may also be able to defuse volatile situations more quickly. By observing the micro-messages available to you, whether you’re communicating over the phone or in written formats, you’re in a better position to make your customer feel important.

Of course, the most important of the twelve rules are the last five. They directly impact your customers and are designed to improve comprehension, empathy, and trust. But notice how simple they all are. The truth is, clear communication is simple. It’s all about remembering the basics.

Break the Blaming Habit

In customer support, you hear complaints and problems all day long, and in most cases, customers are looking for someone to blame. Don’t get defensive. Understand that your customers may feel like they’re in over their heads. They may also need to remove blame from themselves. But blaming doesn’t solve anyone’s problems, so don’t join them in the blame game.

Take a deep breath and take a mental step back. Remind yourself it isn’t your fault — and may not be anyone’s fault. Sometimes, things simply go wrong.

Focus on understanding what the problem is, what your customers need, and how you can give them a helpful solution. No blaming is necessary. Don’t try to make it someone else’s problem. Accept responsibility where you should. Apologize where it’s needed. And work towards a win-win situation.

Joel Spolsky, a software developer in New York City, tells the story of his experience with a locksmith who, try as he might, couldn’t make a copy of Joel’s apartment key that worked. Joel knew the risk and went back home to test the new key. Not once, but twice, the key didn’t work. On this third visit to the locksmith, Joel says he had squiggly lines coming out of his head. He was fuming. But the locksmith looked at the key and calmly said:

“It’s my fault.”

That was it. Joel’s rage dissipated, and all was well. “It’s my fault,” is just one phrase you need to have ready at all times. Others include:

“I can’t accept your money.”

“I’m sorry. Tell me what happened so I know what we need to do to fix it.”

Or simply:

“How can I make it better?”

Clear communication is the foundation of remarkable customer support. But it involves more than getting your word choice right or nailing your grammar and spelling. Effective communication relies on the technical and emotional aspects of the conversation. Both.

Of course, there are some nuances, many of which come easier if you’ve got naturally high emotional intelligence. Things like realizing it isn’t always productive to give a response; simply listening may be enough. Or understanding that different personalities want to be helped in different ways; some want more emotional engagement while others want things handled in a strictly matter-of-fact way.

One final nuance merits special attention: tone of voice. We’ll give it a closer look in the next chapter.

7.

Nailing the Nuances
of Tone

The key to customer support — and the reason we’ve focused so intently on empathy and communication strategies — is essentially to understand and be understood. Empathy helps you understand the feelings behind a customer’s words. Clear, compassionate communication techniques help you create a positive environment for an effective conversation.

Nailing the Nuances of Tone

People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

But there’s more to clear communication than your feelings and words. Your tone of voice — whether spoken or written — can impact the success of every conversation you have with your customers.

You see, when we speak with someone, we listen to the words, sure. But without realizing it, we also listen to the tone of voice. Does it sound relaxed or stressed? Does it communicate trust, or frustration and anger? Even when we aren’t aware of it, we’re constantly assessing these elements as we interpret the words.

Remember the micro-messages we talked about in the last two chapters? Just as a person’s facial expressions and movements can help you understand what they’re feeling, their tone of voice can express unspoken thoughts behind their words.

To explain how this works, we’ll need to look at two studies done in the 1960s by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The first was conducted with Morton Wiener and entitled, “Decoding of inconsistent communications.”

In this study, to understand how attitudes and emotions are communicated, Mehrabian explored how the spoken word and facial expressions impacted a person’s ability to discern liking. He had test subjects listen to a recording of female voices repeating the word maybe in tones of voice that communicated liking, neutrality, or disliking. The subjects were then shown photographs of female faces with the same three emotions. Subjects were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voice, the photos, and both in combination. Interestingly, the photos got more accurate responses by a ratio of 3:2.

That confirmed that facial expressions communicate more strongly than words. But Mehrabian wanted to go even further. In a second study conducted with Susan R. Ferris and entitled, “Inference of attitudes to nonverbal communication in two channels,” Mehrabian compared tones of voice with the spoken word.

British Library, Business and management: Albert Mehrabian

This time, he tested three groups of words that conveyed either positive connotations, neutrality, or negative connotations. There were three words in each group, and each word was spoken in a different tone of voice to the test subjects. While listening to the words, subjects were asked to focus on either the tone of voice, or the word, or both. They would then interpret the emotion behind those words. Based on their answers, it became clear that tone of voice communicates more emotion than the actual words we use.

In 1967, Mehrabian combined the results of these two studies to create a formula describing the importance of nonverbal clues in conversations:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

Today, we call this the 7-38-55% rule, and this is what it means:

  • First, facial micro-messages communicate more clearly than words or tone of voice. In fact, they’re responsible for fifty-five percent of the meaning we derive from a face-to-face conversation.
  • The second-most important communicator is tone of voice, expressing thirty-eight percent of a message’s true meaning.
  • Words express just seven percent of the message.

Now, how does this apply to customer support? This study revealed that most of communication occurs through visual and auditory channels. The words we use to communicate only share a small percentage of our true meanings. Clearly, we’re operating with a severe disadvantage in phone- or text-based support.

When we speak with a customer over the phone, we can access the second-most important communication element, tone of voice. But when we only support customer with text messages in live chat, email, or social media, we musts work doubly hard to express the right tone of voice, accurately interpret the tone of our customers' messages, and clearly communicate our own tone of voice.

It’s a challenge, sure, but not insurmountable. Which is why we’ve devoted this chapter to the nuances of your tone of voice — so you can communicate more fully with your customers, regardless of the channel you’re using.

Speaking: How to Capture the Right Tone of Voice

To understand the nuances of tone, you must pay attention not only to the words being shared but how they’re delivered. Bonnie Laurie, a communication coach and public speaker at ImprovForBusiness, teaches four ways to adapt your tone for effective communication in a spoken conversation.

Use the Right Kind of Tone

Just as Mehrabian discovered in his studies, your voice can convey a negative, neutral, and positive tone. You can control the tone by raising or lowering the pitch of your voice.

A neutral tone can communicate professionalism and support. But it won’t necessarily convey friendliness. If you want to sound happy and positive, try speaking in a slightly higher pitch.

But avoid speaking too loudly or sharply. That will usually be received as too aggressive. And avoid speaking too softy because that can communicate uncertainty or lack of knowledge.

Use the Right Amount of Tone

The ideal tone will vary slightly, putting more emphasis on some words and less on others. Why? Because without modulating your tone, you can sound disengaged and bored, as if you’re reading a script rather than talking human-to-human.

Try to adopt a neutral tone, then raise your pitch here and there to give important words or phrases more impact. Too much tone, and you can sound aggressive. Too little, and you can sound bored. Ideally, you’ll have enough tone changes in your voice to sound interested.

Set the Right Pace

Speaking slowly impacts empathy, communication, and trust, so take your time when speaking. Pause between sentences or ideas.

Add Meaning Through Changes in Your Tone

Typically, our voice rises or falls at the end of a sentence. Raising your voice indicates a question. If you want to make a statement, let your voice drop at the end of the statement. This helps you sound more knowledgeable, which can help your customers trust that you’re giving them the best support possible.

The Challenge of Text-Based Support

Mehrabian’s 7-38-55% rule verifies that words don’t tell us everything we need to know, but it doesn’t explain why. To understand why we struggle to communicate clearly with words alone, we need to look at studies in neurobiology.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Dr. Sophie Scott, a speech neurobiologist at University College London, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take snapshots of the brain while people were engaging in a conversation. What she discovered was that the brain separates speech into words and “melody,” the changes in intonation that reveal mood, gender, and other unspoken messages. Words are sent to the left temporal lobe of the brain for processing. The melody is sent to the right side of the brain, the area where music is processed.

Essentially, words are processed for their literal meaning, while the tone is processed for the finer shades of meaning. Since words and their delivery both need to be understood, the brain can save time by devoting different parts of the brain to each.

Here’s why that’s so important. Eighty percent of words in the English language have more than one meaning. The brain must find the most accurate meaning as quickly as possible, so our conversations don’t come to a screeching halt as we puzzle out their meanings. By assigning different parts of the brain to different parts of the puzzle, we can arrive at a workable solution far more quickly than if only one part of the brain were involved.

Stressing Different Words

Inflection is another piece of the puzzle. Consider this sentence: Mary gave the book to John. Depending on which word is stressed, the meaning will completely change.

If the speaker stresses “Mary,” we understand that the important message is who gave the book to John. If “John” is stressed, we understand that the emphasis is on the recipient. Mary gave a book to someone, and that someone is John. Alternatively, if the word, “book,” is stressed, we understand that Mary could have given anything to John, but in this case, she gave him the book.

Different Cultures, Different Melody

Like music, speech follows a sequence of tones and harmonies, something Daniela Sammler, a neuropsychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, calls “musical grammar.” But she cautions, there are commonalities to this musical grammar that can cross cultural boundaries; there are also culturally learned differences that can make it hard to communicate clearly across cultures.

Max Planck Institute: The Music In Our Speech

That’s a challenge we face in all customer support channels. Unless we recognize the rhythms being employed by the speaker, we might miss some of their meaning. We can easily misunderstand a critical tone in the cadence of their message simply because they come from a different culture.

Of course, that’s just one more challenge to the already-difficult task of interpreting tone in text-based support. To fully unravel tone in text communications, let’s look at how we process text.

“Hearing” the Written Word

Despite the differences we’ve observed between spoken and text-based communications, the brain doesn’t see a big difference. When we read, our brains react as if we’re hearing the words aloud, producing an inner voice that allows us to “hear” the words as if they’re being spoken aloud — even if we’ve never heard the person speak before or, as in a novel, the character is fictional.

Marcela Perrone-Bertolotti, Jan Kujala, et al., JNeurosci: How Silent Is Silent Reading? Intracerebral Evidence for Top-Down Activation of Temporal Voice Areas during Reading

Christopher I. Petkov and Pascal Belin, Current Biology, ScienceDirect: Silent Reading: Does the Brain “Hear” Both Speech and Voices?

We even add inflection to the words, allowing us to hear whatever melody or intonation we imagine the words to carry.

Christian Jarrett, Research Digest, The British Psychological Society: You hear a voice in your head when you’re reading, right?

This may be one of the biggest reasons text-based customer support is so challenging. If we and our customers are each hearing an imagined tone when we read one another’s message, simply based on our culture or background, we could easily misunderstand the tone of what’s being said.

If the other person uses a word we interpret as negative, we’ll read it with a negative voice. If they describe something in a way that we interpret to be demeaning or rude, whether they meant to communicate that or not, it will be taken that way.

That’s probably why emojis have become so popular — even in business communications. They help us inject emotion or facial expressions into written messages to help clarify the meaning. With the right emoji, sarcasm and jokes create a laugh rather than offense or confusion.

Mastering Tone in Written Messages

The challenges surrounding text-based support are real, and considering the human neurology, it’s easy to understand why. The question now is whether it’s possible to master tone of voice in typed messages without resorting to emojis.

Fortunately, the answer is yes. So let’s look at some practical tips for keeping an upbeat, positive tone in written support messages — and making sure your customers understand every word of it.

Fill in the Melodic Gaps

Imagine if your boss emailed you, saying:

“I need you to stop by my office before you leave for the day.”

What would go through your mind? Unless you’ve got a longstanding, healthy relationship with your boss, you’d probably start wondering whether you’ll still have a job at the end of the day. That’s because an email conveys only half the message — the words. With no inflection and no tone of voice, you don’t have enough information to accurately decipher the message. If these same words were spoken over the phone, you’d hear a warm or cool tone of voice that would help you understand whether the meeting will be a friendly chat or a reprimand.

When we do customer support through live chat, email, or social media, we struggle with the same thing. Limited to words alone, we can easily misunderstand our customers — and they can just as easily misunderstand us.

It’s important to be clear about what your customer needs from you. So start there. If there’s anything in your customer’s message that’s unclear, ask.

Then, before you reply, review your own message to be sure it’s easy to understand. Look for the “other half of the message” that’s not conveyed with your words, the part of the message that would ordinarily be communicated by your tone of voice. If you’re using words or phrases that could be interpreted in multiple ways, double check that they make sense.

Then add a few words or some formatting to fill in the gap and clarify your meaning. Be aware, you don’t need to add a lot of extra words. Most customers want a quick, simple answer. You only need to make sure you aren’t confusing your customers — and sometimes it only takes one clarifying sentence to ensure you don’t.

Be Positive and Encouraging

You can follow your script to the letter and still come off as uncaring if your tone of voice communicates you don’t care about your customer’s situation. In text-based support, that means steering clear of negative words.

Researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman have found that seeing the word, no, flash onto a screen for less than a second releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that interrupt the normal functioning of the brain. Seeing this one little word impairs logic, reason, language processing, and communication. That’s a lot of damage from such a small word!

Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Waldman, Psychology Today: The Most Dangerous Word in the World

Negativity, as it turns out, is toxic to your well-being. Every time you vocalize negative feelings and thoughts, stress chemicals are released in your own brain and the brain of your listener, creating anxiety and irritability that undermines cooperation and trust.

Now, realistically, you won’t be able to avoid using the word no in customer support. But fortunately, you can overcome the stress reaction of negative words by using positive words as well. Just keep in mind, positive words don’t have as powerful an effect on the brain as negative words do. You must use three times the positive words as negative to end the conversation with a neutral tone.

Interestingly, this gives text-based support an advantage over telephone support. You only need to focus on clear communication that uses positive words, and your tone automatically improves. The key is to foster a positive mindset.

Let’s say a customer complains about their internet coming and going. Your goal is to reframe their problem in a positive light, and to do that, you’ll use reflective listening and empathy. (As a bonus, these techniques will defuse high emotions while you’re at it.)

Typically, when we talk about reflective listening, we simply repeat back what someone has said, using their own words. In customer support, that would look like this:

“So it sounds like your internet is coming and going. Let me see if I can diagnose that.”

There’s nothing wrong with that response. It shows you’re listening. But it can also reinforce your customer’s frustration because you’re focusing with them on the negative situation.

Now look at the difference when you reframe their situation in a positive light:

“I understand completely. You want steady internet that you don’t have to think about. Let me see if I can diagnose why that’s not happening.”

Rather than restating the problem, you’re restating the desired outcome. You’re still communicating that you’ve heard the customer, but you’re taking it one step further. Not only do you make it clear that you understand the problem, you demonstrate that you understand what they want.

See the difference?

Once you’ve reframed the conversation, your challenge is to maintain positive energy, a task that could be harder than you imagine. You see, our natural speech patterns are littered with negative phrases and contradictions. These phrases are so engrained in the way we communicate that weeding them out could take some effort.

Buffer’s Chief Happiness Officer Carolyn Kopprasch talks about a “happiness hack” of removing two negative words from her vocabulary: actually and but.

She writes:

It almost doesn’t matter how good the news is; if it comes after “actually,” I feel like I was somehow wrong about something.

She uses the example:

Actually, you can do this under “Settings.”
Sure thing, you can do this under “Settings!” :)

Notice the second version is more casual, with an exclamation point and a smiling emoticon, but you feel the difference before you get to the end of the sentence. “Sure thing” is positive, whereas “Actually” makes it sound as if the customer should have figured it out on their own.

A similar shift occurs when the word but is removed. Here’s the example Kopprasch shares:

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

Again, casualness aside, the response without but comes off as friendlier and more empathetic. Including “but” makes the first sentence sound as if you don’t care.

These are two examples of hidden negatives in our natural speech. As you can see, they don’t improve the message, and removing them entirely can help it. The challenge is finding other examples that keep our tone from being as positive as it should be.

Be Casual but Professional

Remember the old Mac commercials that pitted a slim, t-shirt-wearing Mac against a stuffy, suit-wearing PC? In every ad, Mac came off as the winner simply because he was real. There was no posturing or impressing. Just being himself, Mac came off as the one you could trust.

Researchers at Software Advice have found that customers have a similar bias when dealing with email support. In most cases, a casual tone builds trust — to a limit.

For example, in a question-and-answer situation or a discussion, sixty-six percent of respondents said they preferred a casual tone in email support. If a request was being denied, however, seventy-eight percent of those surveyed felt a casual tone would sound flippant and could negatively affect their satisfaction.

How casual can you go? According to Software Advice’s study, there’s a definite limit. For thirty-five percent of those surveyed, emoticons and slang were too informal. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too professional. Sixty-seven percent said they didn’t have any problems with a formal greeting and sign-off, courtesy titles, or not using contractions.

Here are three tips for walking the fine line between casual and formal interactions:

  1. In general, talk like a real person. Lean towards a casual rather than a formal conversation.
  2. If a request is made that you must deny, take on a more formal tone. Don’t try to be cute or casual here. It will likely offend.
  3. Use emoticons, exclamation points, and slang only if your company or industry is known for its informality, and only if your customer uses them. But don’t overdo it. Try to keep your conversion professional, even when using emoticons.

Use Mirroring to Personalize Support

Different customers have different expectations. Some are in a hurry. Others want to talk about every detail of their problem. Some expect you to speak formally. Others prefer a casual, friendly tone.

Here’s where mirroring matters. If your customer is using a casual tone of voice or typing with emoticons, you’re safe to respond in the same style. If a customer writes casually, they probably prefer you to respond in a casual tone.

Mirroring is the technique of reflecting the speech, behavior, and mannerisms of the person you’re talking to. On a subconscious level, this communicates that you’re in sync, that you understand one another.

APA Dictionary of Psychology: Mirroring

Mirroring can quickly build rapport and even help you empathize with your customers, as long as you don’t overdo it. If customers become aware of what you’re doing, it can feel rude, as if you’re making fun of them — or worse, that you’re trying to manipulate them.

When supporting your customers, the goal is to create a connection, a sense that you understand them. By adopting similar word choices and communication styles, you can help them feel at ease. That will help you quickly set a tone that they’re comfortable with.

So let your customers be your guide — up to a point.

A Quick Way to Find the Right Tone

We’ve looked at how you can manage tone in spoken and written support. By now, you may be thinking that tone, like introversion or extroversion, is something you’re just born with.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. Anyone can improve their tone of voice. Here are some simple exercises to do just that.

Step Away from the Script

So much of customer support is scripted, it’s easy to sound like you’re reading from a textbook rather than having a real conversation. There’s no faster way to tell your customer you don’t care about their problems.

To improve your tone, you’ve got to engage with the conversation. You may have to go off script a bit. And while that may seem scary and unpredictable, it will definitely help your customer satisfaction scores.

Be yourself. Be human. Be empathetic and respectful. Your tone will automatically adjust for the better.

Watch the Experts

If you want to improve any skill, you need to see it done right. Take time to listen to people who are recognized for their empathy. You may have friends who are gifted at talking with and influencing people. Public figures such as political leaders, talk show hosts, and teachers can often trace their success to their mastery of tone. These are the people you should be watching.

Set aside time to watch how these people interact with others. Pay attention to their tones of voice and their word choices. Look at how they handle negative comments or reframe conversations. Then, try using some of their best techniques in your support conversations.

Shift your Focus

Rather than focusing on your support stats, put your focus on creating an experience for your customers. Sometimes, when we’re too focused on the destination, we forget to enjoy the journey. If you engage with your customers, being fully present for them, you’ll enjoy the process. And those emotions come out in your tone. No effort required.

That’s it for the basics of unforgettable customer support. It all boils down to three core elements:

  1. A human-to-human interaction
  2. Empathy
  3. Your message, clearly communicated in a compassionate tone

Once you’ve mastered all three areas, your customers will experience the difference. Guaranteed. You’ll see more loyalty, fewer complaints, and better customer support ratings.

Of course, there are no such things as one hundred percent satisfaction, so in the next chapter, we’ll explore ways to reduce (and hopefully prevent) complaints.

8.

How to Prevent Complaints

Quality customer support equals more sales. Period. Because eight in ten consumers will defect to another company after experiencing one instance of poor customer service.

How to Prevent Complaints

Don’t try to tell the customer what he wants. If you want to be smart, be smart in the shower. Then get out, go to work and serve the customer!

Gene Buckley

Of course, we don’t expect a statistic like that to surprise you. We’ve seen and experienced this migration of customers too often to deny it. The real challenge is responding to it.

How do you measure your own customer support? How can you know in advance that you’re getting it right? How do you create a barometer for your own company’s success?

The place to start is complaints. Make it your goal to reduce the number of complaints received, and you’ll experience less customer churn with higher satisfaction ratings. In this chapter we’ll share three steps for doing just that.

Give Them What They Want

“Perception is reality.” Simple as it may be, this phrase is repeated like a mantra in business schools. Why? Because it’s too easy for businesses to forget that our intentions, our opinions, and our objectives don’t matter. All that matters is the perception that customers walk away with.

Ultimately, the only way we can convince our customers that we care about them is to give them what they want. So the question remains: What do they want? When it comes to customer support, they want quicker solutions, fewer reasons to need support, and remarkable solutions when they do reach out for support. Here are some tips for making sure your customers get all three.

Offer Self-Service Solutions

Technology and AI have radically changed our expectations about how and where we get support. Not only are consumers comfortable with the idea of finding their own solutions, but six out of ten consumers also prefer self-service as their first attempt to resolve a problem.

In most cases, the choice is driven by a need to save time or money. Interacting with a person can take more time than we have; done-for-you services can be too expensive. So before reaching out to a support agent or hiring an expert, your customers will likely look for answers among the resources on your website.

Ideally, of course, you’ve already provided some self-service options for them: FAQs or a knowledge base, a mobile app, or training videos on YouTube. That way, they can continue turning to you (not your competitors) when they need help.

But there’s an interesting dichotomy in the way these resources are seen. Too often, brands treat them as extensions of or additions to our customer service channels. Customers take a different view. For them, these resources are part of the product they’ve purchased. Customers don’t consider an interaction as “customer service” until they have to engage with a live person.

Now, keep in mind, most complaints arise when customers' expectations of the product haven’t been met. If they see a knowledge base as part of the product, and if it provides solutions to the problems they might have with your product, you’ll create the happier customer with nothing more than written instructions in your knowledge base.

That being the case, your first step in preventing complaints is to improve your self-service solutions. By giving customers a simple way to help themselves, you’ll reduce the strain on your customer support team and provide customers the speedy solutions they’re looking for.

By the way, this isn’t an option. As one VP of service reports:

Today’s customers are unbelievably impatient. As soon as we ask how we can help them, they jump down our throats. They’re frustrated because of the amount of time they’ve had to invest on their own, frustrated by the amount of conflicting information they find on the internet, and frustrated by the thought of having to deal with a service rep. They’re not calling us because they want to; they’re calling us because they have no other choice.

Matthew Dixon, Lara Ponomareff, Scott Turner, and Rick DeLisi, Harvard Business Review: Kick-Ass Customer Service

Provide Faster One-on-One Service

Self-service options are just the beginning, though. Forty-five percent of customers won’t be able to find the help they need in self-service channels. And if they’re struggling with complicated issues, they typically want more personalized help. They typically want to reach out by phone for payment disputes or complaints, for example. For other types of issues, they tend to prefer non-voice channels such as online chat, email, or social media.

Once a customer has decided to reach out for live support, speed matters. But “speed” doesn’t only refer to the time they spend waiting in a queue. Customers want to get support quickly, yes, but they also want a resolution to their problem in their first interaction.

While these may appear to be two separate needs, from a customer perspective they’re two sides to the same coin. They want a fast, hassle-free solution. Which means that to reduce complaints, we need to address speed from both sides.

Shorter Wait Times

Offering multiple support channels can help customers get the right help at the right time. But it creates challenges too.

First, research has shown that more options often create indecision in consumers. Afraid they’ll make the wrong choice, they choose nothing at all. When it comes to customer support, visitors may worry about which channel is best for their particular need. This can lead to confusion, irritation, and even “channel switching” — reaching out through multiple channels at once.

For instance, The Northridge Group found that customers will switch channels if their issue isn’t resolved within an hour. Millennials, whose expectations are higher, often switch channels if they don’t get support within a few minutes.

You can improve your customers' experience by giving some guidance in advance. If specific channels are best for getting help with specific types of problems, let your customers know. Perhaps social media is best for simple questions while chat is best for how-to situations. Perhaps live chat is best during work hours, but email is best in off-hours. Let your customers know in advance, and they’ll feel more confident that their choice will save them time on the front end.

First-Interaction Solutions

Once customers have connected with an agent, regardless of the channel, they expect a solution to be reached in that same conversation. The problem is, they’ve likely already explored your self-service options — which means they’re coming to your agents with more challenging issues. To give them the support they need, your agents must be well trained and knowledgeable.

Your agents need to be well-trained to answer even the most difficult queries. For ongoing training, set up small-group call listening sessions where agents can evaluate their performance, share tips, and coach one another.

Your agents also need to have accurate, up-to-date information. When major marketing campaigns or business changes are in the works, don’t forget to tell your support team. The more information your support team has, the more helpful they can be.

Then listen to your customers. Do your best to identify the deep need they’re calling about and to deliver a quick win, even if it could take longer to provide the full solution.

Make a Personal Connection

When customers reach out for support, they’re looking for a “wow” factor, something that makes the experience unforgettable. This isn’t something they could describe in detail. They only know when they receive it.

The American Express Global Customer Service Barometer revealed that nearly half of consumers simply want personalized service. But what does that mean exactly? In most cases, it’s about meeting a variety of expectations — including timely, personalized assistance; accurate answers; and an outlet for their comments and suggestions.

Yet we believe it goes deeper than that. To create a “wow” experience, you must connect on a personal level. That involves the three elements we’re focusing on in this book: a human-to-human interaction, experiencing true empathy, and clear communication that involves being heard and receiving effective answers.

Nail these three elements, and you’ll see fewer complaints. But you won’t see fewer support tickets. For that, you need to take a preventive approach to customer support.

Think Preventively

We tend to focus on efficient, effective customer support as the ideal. But there’s another level of support that’s even more valuable, and that’s to solve problems before your customers are aware of them. For that, you need to identify the problems with your product or service that cause complaints and make product improvements to resolve them.

This elevates customer service to another level. Instead of being a service designed to keep your customers happy, customer support becomes a branch of your research and development team. With this mindset, you prevent a complaint by removing the trigger for it. Here’s how.

Identify Recurring Issues

When you find yourself responding to the same issue or answering the same question over and over, you’re likely dealing with a deeper problem within your product or the messaging around it.

Maybe you need to add a step to your user’s manual. Maybe you need to add another question to your FAQs. Or maybe your customers have uncovered a glitch in your product that needs fixing. Your customer support team is key to identifying the issue and “debugging” it, figuring out where the problem originates and how it might be fixed.

Once you’ve identified a recurring issue and its cause, you need to be able to report the issue to the team or team member with authority to fix it. That’s why it’s best not to outsource customer support. Only when your support team works with your development and communications teams can you get a workflow started that will resolve complaint-triggering issues.

Create Self-Service Support or Product Improvements

Sometimes a frequently occurring issue isn’t something that can be fixed quickly — if at all. In that case, it should be added to your knowledge base. Write a short article explaining the issue and how it can be addressed. Include a video or screenshots to illustrate your solution. Then, knowing your customers will likely run into this problem, make your solution easy to find.

Systematize Success

Success is rarely accidental (no matter how many overnight success stories you hear!). If you want to reduce complaints, you must plan for the opposite. Create a system that proactively delivers delight.

This is a two-step process. First, plan how you can deliver delight, then adopt a minimum viable communications process.

Provide Remarkable Solutions

Before you can deliver delight, you need to know what a delightful experience looks like. What does it mean to delight your customers? What types of service or support would help you stand head and shoulders above your competition?

Joel Spolsky, a founder of software company Fog Creek, tells how Lands' End turned him from an ordinary customer into a raving fan. Spolsky was preparing for a trade show and needed some shirts embroidered with the same logo he had previously used on knapsacks. Since Lands' End had done the knapsacks, it was a no-brainer to call on them for the shirts.

But when the shirts arrived, they looked terrible. The knapsacks and shirts were different colors, and the thread color used on the knapsacks was too dark to show up on the shirts. Here’s how Spolsky tells the story:

I called up Lands’ End. As usual, a human answered the phone even before it started ringing. I’m pretty sure that they have a system where the next agent in the queue is told to standby, so customers don’t even have to wait for one ringy-dingy before they’re talking to a human.

I explained that I screwed up.

They said, “Don’t worry. You can return those for a full credit, and we’ll redo the shirts with a different color thread.”

I said, “The trade show is in two days.”

They said they would Fedex me a new box of shirts and I’d have it tomorrow. I could return the old shirts at my convenience.

They paid for shipping both ways. I wasn’t out a cent. Even though they had no possible use for a bunch of Fog Creek logo shirts with an illegible logo, they ate the cost.

And now I tell this story to everyone who needs swag. In fact, I tell this story every time we’re talking about telephone menu systems. Or customer service. By providing remarkable customer service, they’ve gotten me to remark about it.

When customers have a problem, and you fix it, they’re actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place.

You don’t have to set a high bar to delight your customers, as it turns out. Employing empathy and speaking to them as one human to another is often all it takes. But as you can see, the response is remarkable.

To find your own remarkable responses, listen to your customers. When they respond to your support with shock and awe, you know you’ve exceeded their expectations. Make a note of those instances, then see if you can find ways to repeat them.

Adopt a Minimum Viable Communications Process

Even when they’re delighted with your service, customers want to spend as little time as possible getting support. That’s why we recommend a “minimum viable” communication process.

Depending on your type of business, you may have customers reaching out with similar questions or complaints. For instance, in e-commerce, a frequent question might be, “Why haven’t I received my order yet?” In online training, you’ll get asked, “What’s my login?” And in SaaS, “How do I get started?”

To create a minimum viable answer, you need to pare down the question to its essentials. In most cases, you can answer these questions with a simple framework we call Now-Next-When:

  1. Now? Start your response by referencing the problem your customer is having.
  2. Next? Give your customer a simple next step.
  3. When? Finally, give them a timeline for when their problem will be resolved.

As an example, let’s say you want to answer the question, “Why haven’t I received my order yet?” Using the Now-Next-When framework, you’d replay:

Hi Customer,

We just got your email and were surprised to learn you haven’t received your order yet.

We followed up with our supplier, and it looks like your order hasn’t been shipped yet. We’ve just put a rush on a replacement and will have it shipped overnight at our expense.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but you should receive your product by the end of the day tomorrow.

Agent Name

To answer the question, “What’s my login?” you’d reply:

Hi Customer,

We got your email just a few hours ago. I’m sorry you’re having trouble getting into your training.

If you can’t remember your login, you can reset it by going to [password reset page].

It should only take a few minutes and then you’ll be in.

Notice how short and to-the-point these messages are. Yet they both follow the same format. The Now-Next-When framework gives you a simple structure that can apply to almost any problem — and it ensures you answer your customer’s deepest concerns:

  1. Have you heard me?
  2. What can be done to solve my problem?
  3. How long will it take?

Of course, if you make a promise to your customers, you must deliver as promised — or yes, you’ll see complaints — so stay on top of these emails. If you promised a next-day solution, follow up the next day to be sure the solution worked. If you learn there may be a delay, send another email letting your customer know what happened and what the new timeframe is.

Reducing complaints is about treating people as humans, letting them know you care about their happiness. Your ultimate goal is to “wow” them, but sometimes, you only need to be attentive to create a good experience.

So focus on the simple things. Give your customers what they want: fast, hassle-free support. Do your best to be proactive, removing the need for them to contact you at all. That may mean you need to build or update your knowledge base. It may mean you need to improve your product. But don’t resist. Invest whatever resources are needed to create a better customer experience.

Finally, create systems that help you repeat successful interactions. Use customer support conversations to identify the things that set you apart from your competition, then double down on those areas to create your “wow” experience.

9.

Tips for Better
Customer Support

In this chapter, we’ll look at five situations that require special treatment. Invariably, you’ll need to explain difficult concepts. We’ll show you how to do that so your customers never get confused. You’re often faced with busy seasons that overwhelm your support team. We’ll share tips for making sure your customers get the care they need.

Tips for Better Customer Support

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.

Steve Jobs

You also need to deliver good news and bad, say no to customers and interact with foreign customers. Each of these situations requires white-glove treatment, but each can be done in a way that leaves customers happy. Keep reading to get our best advice.

The “Explain Like I’m Five” Technique

One of your biggest challenges as a support agent is translating complex or technical instructions to people in a way that’s easy to understand and easy to apply. One of the best ways to do that is to use a technique called “Explain Like I’m Five” (ELI5).

ELI5 is about reducing complicated instructions to their barest elements, making them so simple that even a five-year-old could understand them. The point is to give customers the answers they need without making them think too hard. After all, even neurosurgeons and rocket scientists want quick and easy answers when they’re off the clock.

There’s just one caveat. You must simplify your instructions without changing your tone. Don’t sound demeaning. You need to maintain a respectful, adult-appropriate voice.

Here how: Before sending any instructions that could be confusing or difficult to understand, read them as if you’re five years old. If you’re giving instructions, make sure you explain step-by-step what to do without leaving any gaps. If you’re explaining a difficult concept, reduce the topic to its bare minimum, so it’s easy to understand.

At Chatra, some of our customers use the Chatra widget on a Shopify store. Shopify is targeted to e-commerce merchants who don’t likely have experience with code or the back-end of a website. So when they want to tweak the appearance of the Chatra widget in their store, they need us to give them complex coding instructions in the simplest terms possible.

In this example, a customer wants the Chatra widget to appear below another widget in this store:

A customer wants to tweak appearance of the Chatra widget

To answer her question, we don’t need to use a lot of jargon or coding terms. We simply need to explain why the issue exists and how she can fix it. On a side note, we also use the Now-Next-When framework when answering this query:

Chatra's answer a customer's question without use a lot of jargon or coding terms

It may help to approach the ELI5 technique as you would an elevator speech. When a new acquaintance asks you what you do, you don’t tell them every detail about your job. You give them the highlights to keep your answer simple.

You can do the same thing in chat. For example, when we have visitors who land on the Chatra website by mistake and don’t know what a live chat widget is, we explain like this:

Julia: Chatra is a tool for websites that allows you to chat with your customers. It works like this: you add a widget code to your website that makes the chat window (like the one you are using right now) appear. Your visitor use it to send you questions, and you or your agents reply from a dashboard at app.chatra.io or apps

How to Handle Busy Seasons

Holidays, product launches, and seasonal sales can lead to a tsunami of support calls. To be ready, you need a game plan. Here are some tips for maintaining stellar support during your busiest seasons.

Know What to Expect

Before you start making plans or setting schedules, review your numbers so you know how to plan. Your marketing department can give you their forecasts, based on the campaigns they’re developing. You should also look at the volume of support tickets you had in previous busy seasons.

In addition to total volume, you need to know what the volume was in each support channel. Identify the channels that are most likely to be used, so you know how to set your schedule.

Set Your Schedule

You need a minimum-viable schedule for holidays and off-days, which means you need to know what’s possible and who’s available. Check with Human Resources and/or local employment laws to know what you can ask of your employees. Then brainstorm for ways to make the rush season rewarding and fun for everyone involved.

It helps to let team members volunteer for extra hours, especially during holiday seasons. Those who don’t celebrate the holiday or don’t have family events may be willing to shoulder most of the burden — especially if they earn bonus pay or time off.

Here are some simple ways to reward team members who take on extra hours or volunteer for the holiday schedule:

  • Overtime pay. The obvious reward is to pay employees time and a half for their extra hours.
  • Overtime hours. Of course, you can also reward workers with extra days off. Give them bonus comp days for working extra hours.
  • Work-from-home options. Allow them to work from home rather than driving into the office.
  • Worker raffle. For each extra shift or block of hours a team member works, let them enter their name in a drawing for a prize everyone wants (a special trip or a new Kindle, for example).
  • Holiday snack bar or catering. If your workers will be missing festivities with their families, bring some festivity into the office. Provide special snacks or meals for workers who take on extra shifts.

These rewards may help you fill out your schedule, but sometimes, you need to cover extra shifts. Here are some ideas for making sure no one feels burdened or overwhelmed.

  • Half-days. Instead of asking team members to miss entire days with their family and friends, schedule half-days instead.
  • Worker rotation. Fairly divide extra hours among your employees, making sure no one has more holiday hours or overtime than the others.
  • Channel coverage. You may choose to focus more on making sure your channels are covered than on when and where people are working. Some people enjoy engaging through particular channels (such as social media) and wouldn’t mind putting in extra hours to cover them. Similarly, you can temporarily shut down lesser-used channels to be sure you have enough staff covering your busiest channels.
  • Bring in seasonal workers. Just as retail shops hire special workers just for the holiday season, you can beef up your support team to make sure all tickets get handled quickly. You may bring in new seasonal workers, outsource to a remote team, or schedule “support power hour” where all employees, regardless of their role, jump in and clear out the queue as quickly as possible.

Tell Customers What to Expect

Once you know the hours you’ll be providing support and the channels you’ll use, it’s time to let your customers know. Don’t wait until the last minute.

Alert customers through every channel where they might see it. Post extended (or limited) hours on your website and social media channels. Send several emails announcing the change and reminding people of it.

Be clear about what’s going on. Use the Now-Next-When framework to let them know what’s going on, how to contact you, and how long it should take them to connect or hear back from you.

Create Special Self-Help and Automation Options

If you know the type of questions you’re most likely to get, prepare a special FAQ for your busy season. Put the link in any communications you send out prior to your busy season.

Then, for customers who want to talk to an agent, save time by using triggers and automation to quickly route their tickets to the right person for processing.

You may also want to review your autoresponders and automated content. Either turn off your generic campaigns for the season or create special ones that are more relevant.

Create a Back-Up Plan

Even the best-laid plans can go awry. Before your busy season begins, create a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Try to anticipate different problems and come up with a way to respond. Make sure your agents know what to do and who to call if the work load gets too big or if there’s a failure in the system.

Delivering Good News and Bad News

Sometimes you have to deliver good news and bad, which raises the age-old question, “Which do you want to hear first?”

Researchers Angela M. Legg and Kate Sweeny decided to test which was the ideal order. What they discovered is that news givers and news receivers have different preferences. News givers prefer to start with the good news — but news receivers like to get bad news first.

Interestingly, there were also consequences to the order of delivery. When bad news was delivered first, the recipient was likely to feel better about the news they just received. When bad news was delivered last, the recipient was more likely to act on the news.

So should you give good news first or bad news? Based on Legg’s and Sweeny’s research, the “right” order is the one that creates the outcome you want. As customer service agents, we usually want to make our customers happy, so leading with bad news makes sense.

The key is to deliver bad news empathetically. Here are some tips for doing that.

Give Advance Notice

When you make a promise that you can’t deliver, it’s important to let your customers know. Maybe a vendor went dark, and orders aren’t delivered. Maybe a project is running behind. When that happens, don’t wait for angry customers to contact you. Let your customers know there’s a problem, how it impacts them, and what you’re doing to take care of it.

Adopt the Right Tone

When delivering bad news, take on a slightly more formal tone than you would in ordinary situations. If you try to be cute, clever, or funny, you’ll come off as flippant and uncaring. A more formal tone of voice communicates that you understand the impact bad news may have on your customer.

Tell the Truth

Be prepared to put the news into context, sharing details, possible alternatives, and outcomes. Understand that more information can empower your customer, so give them the information they need as compassionately as possible.

Frame It from the Customer’s Perspective

Make the conversation all about your customer. Talk in terms of how the situation impacts them and the solutions that are available to them. Try to avoid shifting the focus to you or your company.

Don’t Belittle the Situation

Understand that bad news is never welcome. Don’t suggest “it could be worse” or you know how they feel. Let your customers express their disappointment, frustration, and anger without trying to minimize their feelings.

Take Responsibility

If the bad news is your company’s fault, you may need to acknowledge it and apologize. If it was your customer’s fault, avoid making them feel bad. Let them know it’s a common mistake or that you understand. Then quickly move on to provide useful support. If it’s appropriate, offer compensation. Then suggest a plan of action for moving beyond the situation.

Follow Through

If the situation can’t be resolved immediately, stay in touch with your customer with status reports and updates until the situation is resolved to their satisfaction.

How to Say No to Customers

When it comes to bad news, nothing is worse than a no. But there will be times when you need to say no to your customers. And there will be times when it’s actually the best thing you could do for them.

When the customer wants something that you can’t deliver, you can gently break the news to them using the Now-Next-When framework.

The Framework

  • Now? Understand What’s Going On. Start by clarifying what’s going on now. Let your customer know you understand the problem and why you don’t have a solution or need to say no.
  • Next? Explain Next Steps. Give the customer a few options for next steps, such as alternative solutions or what to do now.
  • When? Give a Timeframe. Let the customer know when their issue will be resolved, when to expect a follow-up from you or some other time frame that’s relevant.

For instance, your email may look something like this:

Dear [Customer],

I’m afraid our Super Plush slippers aren’t available in hot pink in your size. [ Now? ]

We have some other options in your size and color, if you’re willing to give them a shot. You can find them here [provide link]. [ Next? ]

To make up for the inconvenience, please accept this coupon for 20% off your order.

Just use the code: PinkMe!

It’s good for the next 3 days, so you have plenty of time to review your options. [ When? ]

Tips for Saying No

As we discussed in the previous section, there are ways to deliver bad news in a compassionate way. When telling your customer no or informing them that you can’t help them, keep these tips in mind.

  • Be Honest. Don’t sugar-coat the situation. Be honest about what’s going on and what the customer can expect.
  • Be Positive. Try to frame the situation as positively as possible — without belittling the situation.
  • Listen. Your customer may need to talk more about why you’re telling them no or what their options are. Listen patiently. Answer their questions and address their concerns.
  • Offer Alternatives. When a yes isn’t possible, ‘you’ can still create a positive scenario by offering your customer some workable alternatives. Your goal is to help them figure out what they can do.

When It’s Okay Not to Help Your Customers

Believe it or not, it’s possible to be too helpful. In your effort to offer simple solutions, you find yourself performing tasks for customers that they should learn how to do themselves.

This is especially prone to happen if you run a SaaS or technology company. Your tools may be difficult to learn, or you offer a done-for-you setup to new customers. But as time goes on, rather than learning the system, customers continue to ask customer support to do simple tasks for them.

In these situations, saying yes may seem like the simplest solution. In reality, it creates unnecessary dependence and prevents customers from learning how to use your resources. Your goal should be to train your customers to use the tool themselves, so they can become more self-sufficient. Saying no, then, is tough love.

Here’s how to do it as gently as possible.

Don’t Immediately Offer a “Fix”

Rather than immediately offering a quick fix for customers, try to understand what the problem is and why it’s happening.

Ask:

“Can you tell me a little more about what you’re trying to do? What have you already tried to fix the problem?”

At this point, you’re trying to gauge whether your customer understands the tool and how to use it. You want to know what the customer is trying to do, then teach them how to do it themselves. Caveat: If the customer needs an urgent fix, a done-for-you approach is appropriate. Save the teaching moment for later.

Ask:

“May I schedule a call with someone to teach you how this functionality works?”

Encourage Self-Support

Customers don’t always take time to learn about the resources available for free on your website. When they ask for information that’s already provided in your FAQs or knowledge base, rather than supporting them one-on-one, give them the link to your published instructions.

Respond:

“We’ve answered that in depth in our [blog/knowledge base/FAQ]. Here’s the link to those instructions.”

Your goal here is to help customers learn the resources you have available, where to find them, and how useful they can be.

TIP: To help your customers find the precise information they need, point out the part of the instructions that is most relevant to their situation. This will help them understand you aren’t brushing them off, just sending them to the best resource you have.

Listen for the Problem

Customers don’t always know what they need. Before the invention of the car, people would have asked for faster horses. In the same way, customers sometimes believe they need an agent to hold their hand as they use the product.

Rather than listening for what you can do for them, listen for the problem they’re having. Make a note of recurring problems, so you understand where customers get confused or lose confidence. As mentioned in Chapter 6, these areas give you insight into the improvements your product needs and the self-support content that needs to be developed. It also helps you understand what your customers really need (not just what they think they need).

Don’t fall into the trap of believing superior support always says yes. To truly support your customers, you may need to say no. Then offer additional training to teach them how to solve problems and use your product on their own.

Supporting Foreign Customers

Most businesses secretly want to dominate the world — but expanding into other countries brings its own challenges. For one, you’ll start getting support tickets from people who don’t speak your language.

There are two hurdles you must overcome when responding to these tickets. The first has to do with the language itself. The second has more to do with cultural differences. We’ll start with tips for managing other languages, then look at how to handle cross-cultural support.

Overcoming Language Barriers

If you’ve ever received a communication from someone who doesn’t speak your language, you know how laughable it can be. But when it comes from a support agent — whose job is providing useful answers — it’s not laughable; it’s almost offensive. (Remember the illegible email our marketing friend received, which we talked about in Chapter 4?)

To avoid committing similar support faux pas, it’s important that you have a process for accurately translating the queries of your customers — and your responses. Here are some ways you can do that.

Hire a Multilingual Support Agent

The best way to support foreign customers is to have an in-house support agent who speaks their language. While they may be hard to find, there are people who speak three, four, and even five languages. You need just one.

You may also tap into native speakers who work in other departments. If you have native speakers in your IT or engineering team, for example, consider running translations past them before sending them out. But you’ll save time if you can add a linguist to your support team.

Use Google Translate

When you need to converse in a different language, Google Translate can be your best friend. Copy and paste your customer’s comments into the tool to understand what their issue is. Then type out your response and translate it to the appropriate language:

Google Translate can help you handle simple foreign-language queries

Google Translate can help you handle simple foreign-language queries

Be aware, your translated response won’t be HIPAA or GDPR compliant. If you work in an industry with compliance requirements, this may not be the best option for you. But for offering basic support, it can be a lifesaver.

You should also be aware that email providers often send foreign-language emails to the spam folder automatically. Check your filters often to be sure your foreign customers aren’t falling through the cracks.

If you ever need to upgrade from Google Translate, there are some paid tools that can help. Zapier’s translator tool, for example, can be set up to translate non-English emails in advance, so your foreign support tickets don’t get labeled as spam. Other tools provide human-corrected machine translations, which can take your foreign-language support to another level.

Keep It Simple

When speaking to people in your own language and region, you’ll use colloquialisms and idioms without being aware of it. These phrases may add color and personality to your everyday conversations, but they’ll only confuse people who speak a foreign language. Even worse, if you try to plug them into Google Translate, the results will be unintelligible.

When supporting foreign customers, you need to simplify your language. Use a basic noun-verb-noun sentence structure. Remove imagery, allusions, acronyms, and colloquialisms. The goal is clear communication, not style.

Make It Visual

Images can help you communicate in any language. If you’re worried about translating a complex idea into simple language, consider taking a screenshot or recording a quick video.

Now, let’s dig into the cultural nuances you’ll deal with while supporting foreign customers.

Overcoming Cultural Differences

The difficulties of learning a foreign language, or even translating from one language to another, have less to do with vocabulary and more to do with melody. You see, each language has its own unique rhythm. In his book, “Beyond Culture,” Edward T. Hall explains that people learn the specific rhythms that are expressed through the language and body movements of their culture when they’re babies.

Edward T. Hall, Anchor Books: Beyond Culture

Once learned, these unconscious patterns of behavior become a lens through which we interact with the world. They become so engrained, we’re completely unaware that other cultures have patterns of interaction that are radically different. That’s why people tend to interpret their own communication style as the one way everyone should communicate.

Understand High- and Low-Context

These patterns, according to Hall, can be classified as high-context and low-context, each existing at opposite ends of a spectrum. In high-context cultures, most of the information being communicated in a conversation is shared through subtext; very little is shared directly. On the other hand, in low-context cultures, communication is very direct and explicit.

While no culture exists at the extremes of the spectrum, most cultures tend one way or the other. The American culture, for example, which prizes individualism, tends to be low-context. China, with its complex, traditional culture, is on the high-context end of the scale.

People within a culture will usually communicate easily with other people within that culture, but they find it difficult to understand someone from a different place in the spectrum — because each uses a different framework for sharing information and communicating.


From “Beyond Culture”: The different structures by which high-context and low-context cultures communicate

From “Beyond Culture”: The different structures by which high-context and low-context cultures communicate

In this illustration, you can see the full spectrum. A culture that’s extremely high-context (HC) relies solely on context to give meaning to their messages. They don’t share information directly. They present the context and expect the listener to connect the dots. This communication style relies on non-verbal communication and body language. People from HC cultures respect formalities and social hierarchies. They also place a higher priority on relationships and groups than on individual needs.

On the other extreme, a low-context (LC) culture relies solely on information to share meaning. Context is disregarded as unimportant. They speak very directly and assertively. They speak more casually, often assuming friendship with their listener even if they’ve never met before. They also place a higher priority on the individual than on relationships or groups.

To provide support for each of these cultures, you need to understand high- and low-context cultures as a type of language. Not only do you need to speak their linguistic language, but you also need to speak their cultural language.

For instance, if the customer comes from a high-context culture, their email will take on a more formal style, like this:

Dear Sir,

I hope you are doing well. I’ve been a long-time customer and have been very happy with your products. Please, may I return my latest order? I was accidentally sent an Xtra Large instead of a Small.

Thank you in advance for your help.

Best Regards,
Customer

To reply, you should use a similar high-context style:

Dear Customer,

I’m so sorry your order was incorrect. I’d be happy to give you a refund or an exchange, whichever you prefer.

Please let me know your preference, and I’ll process your order right away.

Have a lovely day.

Support Person

If a customer comes from a low-context culture, their email will have a completely different style:

Hi!

Bad news: I got my order today, and it was the wrong size. I ordered a Small, and you sent me an Xtra Large. :(

How do I exchange it for the right size?

Thanks for your help!

Customer

Just as you did with the high-context email, you want to reply in a similar style:

Hey Customer,

Sure thing! We want you to be able to rock your new outfit at the holidays.

We’ll get a size Small in the mail today, and you can send us back the Xtra Large at your convenience. The packing label has a return address sticker on it. Just put that on the package, and we’ll take care of everything else.

Let us know if we can help with anything else!

Support Person

Ask for Confirmation

When people communicate from a different language and cultural context, it can make it hard to understand what they’re saying. Their sentence structures and word choices may not make sense. And if, on top of that, they won’t explicitly describe their problem, you may need to use some reflective listening techniques to ensure you understand their need.

Rephrase what you think the customer is saying and ask for confirmation. Or provide a list of several issues you think they may be having, and have them select the one that’s most appropriate.

Hi Customer,

Let me make sure I understand correctly. You’d like to exchange an item in your order because you received the wrong size? Is that correct?

Exchanges are simple. I simply need you to verify the order number, and I can put the correct size in the mail today.

To return the Xtra Large product, just place the return address sticker (included in your original order) on the return package, and drop it in the mail.

Provide Self-Service Support in Multiple Languages

The Internet may have boosted globalization, but it hasn’t changed people’s preference for their own language. Nearly three-fourths of consumers prefer to buy products in their native language. Half prefer that some content from a vendor’s site appear in their own language.

This being the case, offering international support means much more than just answering the questions of your foreign customers. It also includes self-service support and content in multiple languages.

Luckily, technology makes this possible. You simply need to identify the languages spoken by most of your customers. You can do this by tagging customer support tickets with the language or country of origin. You may also use Google Analytics to identify the top geo-locations of your website visitors.

The actual translations of your website can be taken care of by a localization software. The software puts a drop-down menu at the top of your site that allows visitors to select their preferred language. It then machine-translates your pages so visitors can read your content in their own language.

Translation software is just one automation that can save you time. In the next chapter, we’ll cover other time-savers that make your life easier.

10.

Making Your Work Easier

Feeling overloaded by everything involved in creating an unforgettable experience? You’re not alone. It can be exhausting to field questions from concerned customers all day every day, remain upbeat and positive, and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all.

Making Your Work Easier

The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become, and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.

John Russell

Fortunately, there are ways to make the job easier. Some we’ve already alluded to. All of them can save you time and effort, so your energy can be used for supporting your customers instead of taking care of mundane, repetitive tasks.

Automate Wherever Possible

Most support requests are routine, requiring one of a few answers or instructions. Think password resets and simple how-tos. Applying the eighty/twenty rule to customer service, we can easily assume eighty percent of an agent’s time is spent answering simple questions that could be handled through some form of automation or self-service.

If you’re worried that automations will sour an otherwise positive experience, don’t be. From a consumer perspective, it can improve response times by ninety-nine percent — from thirty-eight hours to five minutes. But it’s also good for business. When smart automation is integrated into a frontline support strategy, it can reduce costs by thirty percent and per-query cost from $15 to $200 (for human agents) to just one dollar per query (for virtual agents).

It can also help your human agents prioritize their time. Instead of fielding routine queries that could be handled by automation, their time can now be spent supporting the smaller percentage of calls that require one-on-one attention.

In case you’re wondering, automation doesn’t necessarily create a non-human, robot-style of interaction. Done right, it can be as intelligent and personalized as any human interaction. The key is to design your automation campaigns to provide the type of support your customers want and need.

So how does it work?

The tools are the same as those used in digital marketing: triggered emails, segmentation and tagging, tracking, intelligent follow-up, and integration with automation tools such as Zapier. As in marketing, automation isn’t designed to replace human interaction, merely to supplement it. Its purpose is to improve the quality of your support, boost its efficiency, and scale your efforts — so more people can be helped in less time. And for the cases when automated answers aren’t enough, it can help funnel customers to the best person to solve their problem.

Best of all, automation can help you stay on top of customer outreach by initiating encounters during important stages of the customer relationship. For instance, when they’re considering a purchase, when they’ve been inactive for thirty days, when an error or downtime has occurred, and after a customer has complained — automation can identify the need for a response, trigger a touchpoint, and prompt a human-to-human conversation.

The bot initiates the encounter with, say, an email. If a response is received, a human agent takes over to provide personalized support. You simply need to identify the triggers that could use a human touch and set up an automated campaign that gives your customer the chance to talk with a live agent in these important moments.

Create a Library of Saved Replies

Another way to automate your efforts is to create a personal collection of saved replies. Saved replies are answers to the most frequently asked questions an agent receives. But they aren’t part of a pre-written script; they’re the best, most effective answer the agent has developed. Instead of rewriting a version of it every time a question is asked, the agent simply copy-pastes their saved reply.

This is similar to a knowledge base, but it’s owned and managed by each agent. And it’s incredibly useful, saving time and creating a more consistent customer experience.

So how do you create your own library of saved replies? Simple. Identify your most frequently asked questions that you don’t send to the knowledge base. Review the answers you’ve provided and find the one that served the customer best. Save it to a document (organized by topic) or create a shortcut that allows you to input your answer in just a few keystrokes.

Which responses are worthy of being saved? Start with any response you’ve sent at least three times in one week. Then look for responses to questions that are hard to answer. If you’ve crafted the perfect response (ELI5, perhaps), it’s worth saving.

Build a Knowledge Base

We’ve discussed the benefits of knowledge bases throughout this book, but we’d like to look at it now from a different perspective. More than just self-service, a thorough, up-to-date knowledge base is one of the best (and smartest) automations you can create.

The key, of course, is to design it to provide a win-win for you and your customers. Which means it needs to be easy to find, then have a clear organizational structure within it.

To make your knowledge base easy to find, place links in prominent places throughout your website — for instance, in your primary navigation bar, your site’s footer, and sidebars:

Chatra's website 'Help & Docs' button

Make it easy to find your knowledge base

We’ve seen some sites that don’t provide a link anywhere on their site, especially when they’ve designed their home page as a sales page. We understand what they’re trying to do. Conversion optimization best practice tells you to remove any link that isn’t a buy button. But best practice, in this case, isn’t good support. Your customers need to be able to find your knowledge base when they need it, and prospects need to know in advance you’re prepared to support them after they buy.

The way we see it, everyone wins when you provide clear links to your support documents. But that’s only your first task. You must also make your knowledge base easy to use once people click through.

The key here is organization. You need to create different categories of information, each containing a series of related articles. Your articles may open on individual pages (like a blog) or be available on one page (like an FAQ), and each title should clearly explain the solution provided in its article. The goal, remember, is to help customers find the information they need quickly and easily.

Take Chatra’s knowledge base as an example. It’s divided into tabs, each with a stack of articles related to a core topic. After selecting the most appropriate tab, customers can easily find the information they need in the navigation bar in the left sidebar:

Chatra’s knowledge base

Make sure your knowledge base is designed to be easily navigated

This type of knowledge base is easy for your customers to use and easy for you to maintain. Whenever you identify a problem that comes up frequently, simply write up your best answer, including a video or screenshots, and upload it to the appropriate category.

Your biggest challenge will be to teach your customers to use it. Studies have found that while seventy-five percent of consumers say they prefer to use online support, only thirty-seven percent try to use self-service options. Many consumers still distrust online information, it seems — probably feeling it hasn’t been updated or doesn’t contain the information they need.

To overcome this statistic and to help your customers understand that your knowledge base offers the same benefit as a live agent, make it an integral part of your support. In automated replies, give clients the link to the knowledge base post that has the answer they need. In live conversations, include links to appropriate knowledge base articles, along with a comment or tip that makes it relevant to their situation.

Follow a Checklist for Every Customer Interaction

The final automation we’d like to cover isn’t about AI or apps or even self-service. It’s creating consistency your customers can count on.

Consistently remarkable customer support doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a systematic approach. To help, we’ve provided a checklist that can help you ensure every interaction is a good one.

1. Use your customer’s name

Using your customer’s name makes them feel valued and appreciated. Ideally, use it at the beginning and end of your conversation, but don’t hesitate to use it whenever it feels natural.

2. Introduce yourself by name

By sharing your name, you instantly set the tone for you a friendly, human-to-human conversation. While it won’t instantly melt away frustration or anger, the fact that you’re a person with a name can make your customers feel they’re getting personal care.

3. Thank your customer for reaching out

Your customer has taken time out of their day to reach out for answers. Let them know you appreciate them and are ready to help.

4. Listen to their query

Let your customers explain why they’re calling. Listen without interrupting, so you can understand not only what’s being said on the surface, but underlying issues that may exist. (Listen for micro-messages that communicate more than mere words.)

5. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand

Make sure you understand the problem or question, so you can give a useful solution as quickly as possible.

6. ELI5 (explain like I’m five) the solution

Provide the information your clients need, but keep it simple and uncomplicated.

7. Review: Is it positive?

Before sending your message, review it for any negative comments. Make sure it’s framed in a positive light.

8. Review: Is it concise?

Simplify your message, removing any unnecessary words or sentences. Make sure every part of the message is relevant and helpful.

9. Review: Is it clear?

Fill in any gaps and fix any phrases that could be confusing or unclear.

10. Proofread!

Look for misspellings and mistakes. Fix typos, missing words, or bad grammar. If you’ve pasted in any saved replies, make sure you’ve filled in all variables.

11. Make sure your customer understands

Your goal is a satisfied customer. Make sure they understand your response and are happy with the results.

12. Ask your customer if they need anything else

Before signing off, ask your customer if they need anything else. If not, say goodbye.

11.

Raising the Bar
on Customer Support

To raise ordinary customer support to the level of extraordinary, you need to improve in two areas: first, raising the bar for your customers, and second, raising the bar on business results. Impossible task? We don’t think so. In fact, we believe it’s the natural conclusion to everything we’ve covered in this book — tying it together while bringing it all into focus. Let’s get started.

Raising the Bar on Customer Support

The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best but LEGENDARY.

Sam Walton

Raising the Bar for Your Customers

Your customers want to be heard. They want to know you care. They want to feel that you’re doing everything in your power to make them happy. In other words, they want a personal experience with your brand. They don’t want generic, algorithm-driven treatment. They want to feel important.

According to Accenture, ninety-one percent of consumers are more likely to shop with brands that recognize and remember them. And nearly half of consumers admit to having purchased an item from a competing business because the first website they visited was poorly curated.

Consumers have always wanted to feel important, but today, they have no patience with companies that fall short of their expectations. You must create a personal experience for every customer.

Creating a Personal Experience

If you’ve undergone any business training at all, you’ve been told to create a persona for each of your customer segments. Different segments describe the different types of customers you may have, each with different reasons for buying from you. In many cases, businesses will name each of their personas and develop a long list of their likes, needs, and wants.

While this sounds helpful, especially for marketing and sales teams, it’s dangerous to apply this kind of information to customer support.

You see, no one wants to be lumped into a group. People don’t like being seen as a number. Every customer wants to be treated like your highest priority at the moment. They want to feel that your business is customized to them (alone) rather than a group of people they happen to belong to.

This is where personalization can make a difference. Personalized support means every touch is customized to the customer’s preferences and history with your company. There are several ways you can do this.

Offer Multiple Ways to Connect

Different people have different preferences about the technology they use, when, and how. Even more importantly, they want to be able to control their own brand journeys — tailoring their experience without the brand-defining it for them.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to offer multiple customer service channels, then allow visitors to reach out in whatever way they’re most comfortable: live chat, email, phone, or social media.

Know Your Product

You can’t offer support on a product you don’t know. When customers come to you with uncommon questions — say, how to choose the best product for their unique need, or how to perform an unusual task — they expect you to know the product inside and out. You need to know every feature, how to use it, what the common problems are, and how to solve them.

Copying and pasting answers from the knowledge base won’t cut it. You must be able to hold an intelligent conversation about your products. Your answers must be accurate. And you must be able to field even the most random questions.

Know Your Customers

Your customers have a history with your company, and they expect you to know that so they don’t have to repeat it at the beginning of every query. You need to be able to create a continuous conversation, where one interaction builds on the previous one — instead of existing in a vacuum.

You can only do this if you have a good CRM (customer relationship management) software. As you engage with a customer, you need to have their details on the screen. Use your customers' history to make appropriate recommendations and provide more relevant support.

It’s your goal to understand who they are and why they’ve chosen your products, then build on that relationship.

Always Be Listening

You can’t help someone if you don’t understand their problem, and the only way to do that is to listen. So remove distractions. Be present. And listen closely, not just to the words being said, but the emotions and meaning behind the words.

Try to gather the full story behind your customer’s problem. Listen actively. Encourage them to talk. Be sure to ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand.

Be Generous

Your customers can sense when they’re perceived as a burden. They know when an agent is bored or irritated with them. They also know when you’re genuinely interested in helping them. It shows in your tone of voice and your willingness to help.

Generosity isn’t always associated with personalization, but it’s almost impossible to be authentically generous without personalizing the experience. You see, being generous is about more than giving discounts or free gifts. Generosity can be shown through the time you spend with your customers, the quality of the answers you provide, and the relevance and appropriateness of any compensation you offer.

Your goal is to be as generous as you can afford to be, to give freely of your time and resources until your customer is happy with the outcome.

Be Human

While technology and automation save time and money for businesses, it can build distrust with consumers who still (and will probably always) prefer the human touch. They want to speak with someone who can understand their issue and work with them to find a workable solution.

On the back end of live chat software, it seems obvious that a human conversation is taking place, but customers may not understand that. The solution? Show your face. It helps customers feel more connected, makes them feel they’re having the next best thing to a face-to-face chat — even if they’re writing their responses in chat, email, or social media.

Chatra's agents names and faces

Let customers see the faces and names of the agents who will take their calls.

An interesting factoid: The need to see a face is so important, artificial intelligence (AI) interfaces are beginning to give their interfaces a human face.

Be Fully Present

Templates are helpful while you’re learning how to provide the best support, but once you’ve mastered the basics and know your products, they can keep you from sounding human or empathetic.

The solution? Avoid overly scripted responses. Be present — and be human — helping your customers as a living, breathing representative of your company. If you use templates, customize them to suit the situation. And remember to update your saved replies when something changes in your product or service.

By offering personalized answers, you’ll make your customers feel they’re getting real solutions that are tailored to their specific needs.

Reply to Everything

When your customers reach out for help, they should get an immediate confirmation that their request has been received. On the phone, a recorded message or background music confirms that they’re in the queue. In the email, an automated response can tell them their message has been received and give an expected timeframe for a human response. If your chat is offline or if no one is manning your social media, leave an away message. Tell people when you’ll be back and what to do in the meantime. Perhaps another channel is open, or maybe they need to check back in office hours.

Even when you aren’t available right away, clear communications can reduce stress and help customers feel they’re still being taken care of.

Then, once you’ve initiated a human conversation, be accessible and present until it ends. Reply to every message your customer sends. Answer every question.

Respect People’s Time

Understand that your job is to talk to customers; your customers' job is something else. And in many cases, talking to customer support takes them away from that other job.

Respect that. Offer the best help you can as quickly and efficiently as possible. Don’t keep your customers endlessly on hold. Don’t take too long providing a solution. And don’t transfer them endlessly to get a simple answer.

Bottom line, to create a more personal experience, be real. Be human. Treat your customers as you’d want to be treated. Make them feel valued. Work hard to provide real answers. And leave them feeling happier than you found them.

Words You Can Rely On

Here are some phrases that can help you provide more human, personalized support. Use them generously. Your customers will appreciate them.

“I’m happy to help”

Your job is to spread happiness. So bring some enthusiasm to your job. Then express it by generously giving your time and energy to your customers. A friendly “I’m happy to help” lowers your customer’s stress and helps them trust that their issue is about to be taken care of.

“I’ll send you an update by [specific time or day]”

If you make a promise, make sure you also give it a deadline. This tells your customers that you aren’t blowing them off, that you’ll continue supporting them until their issue is resolved.

One more tip: The more specific you can be, the better. Explain exactly what you’re going to do and the precise time you’ll have it done.

“Would you like me to [unexpected support]?”

This is a simple way to show generosity to your customers: Don’t wait for them to ask for something. Offer. Especially if your offer goes above and beyond their expectations.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

In some cases, your customer has a nagging question they’d like answered or a lower priority problem that needs solving. If you don’t ask, they’ll leave the conversation with it still unresolved — which means they’ll feel slightly dissatisfied.

So ask. Make sure there aren’t other issues your customer would like to address. Make sure they’re one hundred percent happy when the ticket is closed.

Words to Avoid

Similarly, there are phrases and words that don’t generate empathy or build rapport with your customers. Avoid these at all costs.

“I don’t know”

“I don’t know,” is a quick way to offend your customers. After all, your job is to provide answers. So when your customers ask something that you don’t immediately know, say, “Let me check.” Then do the research and get back to them as soon as possible.

“No, you understood it wrong” or “You caused the problem

Never blame the customer for their problems. And don’t make them feel inferior. Instead, adopt a helpful tone and say something like, “I’m afraid there was a misunderstanding. Let me clarify….”

“Don’t panic”

Never put a label on your customer’s response to their issue or something you’ve said. By insinuating that they’re overreacting, you’re taking a judgmental stance that isn’t appropriate. Remember, your job is to create happy customers, not make them feel bad.

“It’s not our fault”

Don’t get defensive. Understand that your customer’s feelings aren’t personal. Listen, apologize where necessary, and focus on fixing your customer’s situation.

“I can’t help you. Let me transfer you…”

Try to avoid transferring your customers — ever. Do your best to find answers for them and reduce their time seeking support.

Raising the Bar for Your Business

Raising the bar for your customers is just half of the job of customer support. The other half is to raise the bar for your business. How do you do that? By improving customer relations and boosting customer lifetime value through upsell and cross-sell offers.

Upselling and Cross Selling

Upsells and cross-sells can improve customer satisfaction by giving them the features and functionality they want. That said, they don’t often think about upgrading until the need is triggered.

When a customer contacts you with a problem that could be easily fixed (or doesn’t exist) in another product, you’re in a good position to make an upsell or cross-sell offer. There’s no need to push a sale — just comment that the problem they’re experiencing is already solved in that product.

But offers don’t always have to be part of the solution. Once you’ve successfully resolved a customer’s problem, you’ve earned their trust. You only need to make an offer to see if there’s an interest.

Consider saying something like:

“I notice that you’ve been using [product name] for several years. Did you know we’ve created a premium version that gives you a lot more [list the relevant benefits]? Would you be interested in trying it out? I can give you a free trial to see if you like it.”

Emphasize the Value of your Product (Before and After the Sale)

Both before and after a sale, customers will try to evaluate whether your product delivers more value than it costs.

To calm these doubts and fears, your level of support needs to hit all of the issues we’ve talked about in this section. By making people feel important, listening to them, empathizing with them, and offering your best possible solutions, you can easily reframe the conversation.

Instead of leaving them wondering if you’re the best solution, you can leave them reassured that no other option is worth considering.

Save for a Positive Moment

An upsell offer can feel like an unsavory sales tactic if it’s not done right. But it can feel like a natural part of the conversation if it’s presented in the right way and at the right time.

In most cases, an upsell offer should be saved for the end of your support conversation. The customer should feel as if you’ve given them a good solution, you’ve saved them time, or you’ve completely erased a worry. In other words, they should feel as if you’ve given them immense value — and they’ll get even more value if they accept your offer.

This can work in any channel: live, phone, email, chat, or social media. For example:

When I, Kathryn, sold our previous home, we had to close long-distance and needed a notary to help finalize the paperwork. Trying to keep the closing on schedule, we drove to the bank on a Saturday morning and met Louis, who said he could help us.  We sat in his cubicle, signing all the papers while he notarized them. And then we saw it: a clerical error that required the papers to be amended.

There was no quick fix. We’d need to wait for new papers to be sent to us and come back to get his notary services again. Louis could have grown impatient or made us feel bad for not having proofread the papers before arriving at the bank. But instead, he offered to have the new papers waiting for us if we’d email them to him on our way back to the bank.

When we arrived, as promised, he had our papers waiting for us. After notarizing them and making a copy for us, we honestly felt like Louis had saved the day. So we didn’t blink when he recommended a new credit card to help us with some upcoming bills we had mentioned to him.

Now, in most instances, we’d turn down a new credit card without thinking about it. But Louis had already earned our trust. He’d also asked enough questions to be able to position the card as a good solution for us, and the offer felt like a natural extension of the support he’d been giving us all morning.

This was exactly the right moment to offer us an upsell. We had our documents signed, we knew our paperwork was correct, and our house closing concerns were resolved.

If there’s any secret to how or when you offer an upsell, this is it: Wait for a positive moment. After solving your customer’s problem, when they’re feeling relieved and happy, you’ll find them much more receptive to any offer you might make.

The opposite is also true: Never offer an upsell when your customer is angry or upset. Always wait for a positive moment.

Make It a Clear Win

Now that you know when you should and shouldn’t make an offer, let’s talk about how to transition from support to sales without drawing attention to the shift.

It can feel uncomfortable to make this transition as if neon signs are alerting your customer that a sales pitch is coming. But remember, you aren’t trying to convince them to spend more money. You’re offering real solutions that can make a tangible difference in their life.

An upsell or cross-sell offer doesn't feel out of place if it's a natural extension of the support you've just given. And it won't offend if it delivers a clear win.

Louis did this perfectly when he transitioned from notarizing our papers to making a credit card offer. He said:

After looking at your account, it looks like you’re eligible for…

Then he told us how he had used the credit card to solve a similar problem and ask if we’d like to learn more.

You could just as easily say something like:

You know, based on what you’re saying, I think you’d benefit from…

Then explain how the product can help your customer. Maybe it will save them time, save them money, or solve a problem they’re worried about. If they say no, there’s no need to push; close the conversation as you normally would. If they say yes, you’ve not only benefited them but your company as well.

The key, though, is to focus on the benefits. As business trainer Jeffrey Gitomer says:

Tell me how I win. When I win, you win.

Customer support is at its best when it delivers a win-win. It starts with serving your customers, but in the end, it serves your brand, building profits and giving you long-term, loyal customers.

We’ve talked about the importance of raising the bar, but in reality, you can become unforgettable by simply attending to the basics: Be present. Be genuine. And care about your customers.

12.

Glossary

Affective empathy (aka emotional empathy): the sensations and feelings that arise in response to other people’s emotions and lead us to reflect the emotions of someone we’re talking to.

Agent: an individual working on a customer support team; a representative of a company who accepts and responds to customer calls, emails, chat, and social media queries.

Bots/AI: computer programs that perform automatic, repetitive tasks or that mimic the actions of a person. Often used in customer service to initiate a conversation, to provide a quick response confirming that a customer agent has received their query, or to triage a call and direct it to the appropriate agent or channel.

Channels: unique ways of communicating, such as email or social media or live chat.

Cognitive empathy: a type of empathy that relates to a person’s ability to identify and understand the emotions being expressed by the person we’re talking to.

Compassionate empathy: a type of empathy that goes beyond the cognitive understanding of what another person is going through. Not only can you identify and feel another person’s emotions, you’re also motivated to help.

Conversation: an exchange of ideas between two people. In customer support, the entire exchange between a customer and an agent.

Cross-selling: adding value and loyalty among existing customers by offering them a product or service that’s related to one they’ve already purchased or that will improve their satisfaction and/or results.

Customer effort score (CES): a measurement of how easy it’s been for a customer to use the product or service. It’s generally measured by asking customers, on a five-point scale from “Very Difficult” to “Very Easy,” how much effort was required to use it.

Customer experience (CX): the overall perception a customer develops about your brand based on their interactions with your employees, website, and products. To remain positive, the customer’s experience should meet or exceed their expectations.

Customer loyalty: the likelihood a customer will continue buying from a business, as determined by their satisfaction with previous purchases and the benefits of continuing to do business with them.

Customer satisfaction (CSAT): a measure of the degree of satisfaction a company is providing as determined by the number of repeat customers.

Customer service: the help and support a company provides their prospects and customers.

Customer survey: a poll identifying a customer’s level of satisfaction with products they’ve purchased and uncovering their need and expectation for new products.

Downtime: any period of time when a system (i.e., servers, websites, computers, or phones) are not working, which prevents customers from being able to use your service or product.

Empathy: the ability to experience another person’s feelings, thoughts, and experience without having it explicitly explained; understanding and being sensitive to those feelings when communicating with the other person.

Feature: a prominent characteristic of a product or service.

Feedback: a customer’s evaluation of their experience after submitting a query.

First contact resolution (FCR): the percentage of queries that are resolved in the first interaction with a customer. This is often used as a way to measure customer satisfaction. It’s determined either by having the agent indicate that the problem was successfully resolved in the initial contact or by sending customers a survey.

Help desk: a call center provided by a company to provide technical support for customers using their products.

Key performance indicator (KPI): a measurable value that indicates a company is achieving key business objectives and operating successfully.

Knowledge base: a collection of information — usually housed on a help site or in FAQs — providing answers to common questions, instructions for completing basic tasks, and help with troubleshooting problems.

Live chat: a chat application that can set up on a website to allow real-time conversations with customers. Often used as an alternative to phone or email support.

Micro-messages: small, nonverbal clues to a person’s deeper feelings, which are sometimes in conflict with what they say they feel. In many cases, people can’t (or won’t) express their thoughts or feelings clearly, so you need to be able to read their body language and the expressions behind their movements, expressions, and eyes.

Mirroring: the technique of reflecting the speech, behavior, and mannerisms of the person you’re talking to.

Onboarding: the process of orienting new employees and new customers to a business’s way of doing things. For employees, it includes specialized training to perform their job. For customers, it involves familiarizing them with products, services, and benefits.

Operating hours/business hours: the hours a business is open to the public and available to customers. Usually described by the days of the week when the business is available, the time when it opens each day, and the time when it closes each day.

Personalization: creating custom solutions based on specific needs or desires of the customer.

Proactive (being proactive): anticipating needs and responding before they become a problem.

Queue: the waiting line of customers who have reached out for support.

Reflective listening: a communication strategy that involves summarizing the other person’s message and saying it back to them to verify it was understood correctly.

Review: a critical evaluation of a person’s or an organization’s performance to determine areas of improvement.

Saved replies/canned responses: frequently used responses to customer queries, saved by a support agent to be used each time that question is asked.

Script: a previously written response used by support agents to answer frequently asked questions, usually written by the marketing, sales, or executive team to ensure every agent responds in the same way.

Social media: communications made on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Tone of voice: the way a person speaks to someone, often described as warm, cold, friendly, casual, or formal.

Upselling: a selling technique of offering a customer a more expensive product, an upgrade to their current purchase, or add-ons that will add value to the purchase. Often used with cross-selling.

Widget: a small software application designed to perform a specific function, such as providing information about the weather or sports, taking notes, or proofreading written materials.