For as long as Semplice has existed, I’ve personally helped with customer support. When we first started, I didn’t have much choice. In a small business, everyone does everything.
But even now that we have a great customer support team at Semplice, I still love jumping in there myself. Over the years, customer support has taught me a lot about people and about doing business. Here’s what I’ve found to be true so far.
1. You'll be forced to use your own product
Now you may think "who the hell does not use their own product?". Well, let me explain. Doing customer support requires you to actually use your own product as the consumer would in real life. But the reality is, as business owners or even as designers or engineers, we're often not using our product at all (because we're busy designing it) or we use it in limiting ways that do not reflect the way the majority of our users uses it.
Customer support forces you to use the product from the perspective of your customers, and often these perspectives can be surprising to you. You might learn that users try to do something with your product that it wasn't intended for, which gives you insights into how you can make it better or add a feature that solves a particular problem.
The best insights you can get through customer support aren't always the direct feedback such as "I want feature XYZ," but come from simply observing the way your users use your product. I'm personally not a big fan of user research or anything similar to it, because it just means you don't know who your users are. The best way to find out who they are is in your support forum.
2. You'll deal with the very worst, and the very best
Customer support always attracts the extremes two, rarely the ones on the middle. It attracts those who may dislike you the most and come with anger, and it attracts those who love your product and come with an open mind and a smile. Everyone else usually doesn't even bother to write you an email (I'm actually one of those people, I rarely or almost never contact customer support).
But if we’re honest, most of us can admit we’ve contacted customer support before and lost our cool. Especially with big corporations and their endless hold music, we quickly feel powerless and impatient.
There’s a difference between being firm and being mean. You may get a response with extreme behavior, but now you’ve distanced the person helping you. At this point they just want you off their back and certainly won’t feel like putting in any kind of special effort for you. Any good support person is going to help and stay professional no matter your tone, but getting them on the defense closes doors you didn’t know could be opened otherwise.
We’re lucky to have some of the nicest customers at Semplice, but we haven’t escaped the strongly worded email or two. At Semplice we advise our support team to never respond to an angry email with anything but kindness and patience. In almost every case we’ve turned enemies into friends simply by hearing them out and being nice. Usually, it’s just a misunderstanding we can clear up for them. But responding in an angry or passive aggressive way only heightens a situation and burns the bridge immediately.
3. Explain everything and help people to understand your decisions
As a small company, we unfortunately can’t say yes to every request or we would quickly go out of business. But we've found that the more effort we put into explaining our decisions, even if that means it's a no for the customer, the more empathetic and understanding people are. We always aim to find a solution (or meet in the middle) but if something just doesn't work, we explain exactly why it doesn't work.
This took me a while to figure out, because in the beginning I always assumed a short reply would do just as well and people could connect the dots, but I learned that this is not always the case. Be honest, explain your thinking and your reasoning so people can follow you. Most likely, they will understand.
4. The biggest problems often require the tiniest fixes
We’ll go down all kinds of rabbit trails. We’ll troubleshoot for hours. We’ll send 20 emails back and forth with the customer. Only then do we realize changing “http” to “https” – the difference of one single letter – fixes the issue.
Of course it’s not always as simple as that. But often, when we’re presented with a problem, we don’t stop to think first. We rush in or fail to ask the right questions or share information proactively upfront, overlooking the solution that’s right in front of us.
I remember I always made fun of customer support when I called my Internet Provider because they would ask me basic questions such as "Is your modem turned on?" which always made me believe they think I'm stupid. But only after I've done customer support myself I understand why these "Base Level" checklist questions are so important.
5. Sometimes it helps to hear from someone else
By that, I don’t mean pulling higher ups into a conversation to get a point across. I mean that sometimes, adding a fresh voice into an unproductive conversation can turn the whole thing around. It’s not whether that person has more authority, or that they communicate the message better, or that they’re better at their job. I mean, maybe they’ll offer a fresh perspective or more patience. But often, it’s enough that they’re a different person, making your customer feel heard and seen.
6. Everyone should do customer support
Everyone who joins the team should ideally do a couple of weeks customer support, regardless of whether you're an engineer, a designer or a project manager. Jumping straight into customer support is the best on-boarding for new team members because it throws you straight into the "lion's cage." Nothing can explain the product better or give you a better sense of how things stand than looking at what users are either struggling with, or what they love the most.
Most importantly, helping people is incredibly satisfying. I personally love helping creatives do their best work, and our Semplice customer support team does that every day. I’ve said before that one of my main goals in life is to be useful. Customer support, in that sense, means immediate gratification.