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5 tips for effective customer support during a crisis

By Amanda Cotter · May 1, 2020
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I've been working in customer support for 10 years (more if you count my retail work during my time in school), and one thing I can say for sure is that people in customer support exude empathy. Like, ooze it. It makes sense. We spend our days talking to people who are having problems. And in order to help them, we need to empathize with them.

During a crisis, people's concerns intensify. It's no longer just that they're getting an error message—it's that they're getting an error message and their entire life is crumbling around them. And even if they haven't had their entire life upended, it's likely that they're more stressed than they would've been on an average day.

It's not that you have to be more empathetic during a crisis—in fact, you're likely always operating at close to max empathy levels when speaking to customers. It's just that your empathy risks getting the best of you. People are going through more, which means you'll feel it more. It's not easy, but there are strategies that will help you and your customers.

I chatted with my coworker Tyler about how to do customer support during a crisis, and here are a few tips that rose to the top.

1. Create emotional snippets ahead of time

During a crisis, everyone's constantly reading the news and hearing about all the terrible things happening in the world. But in a customer support role, you're spending your work time hearing these stories too—and you're hearing them from people being directly affected.

If you're also having a rough time (which, during a crisis, is quite likely), it can be especially hard to craft clear and empathetic responses. That's why Tyler and I suggest having some canned responses in your back pocket. Figure out what kinds of responses you might need to offer while you're not feeling your best, and pre-write them. Or, if you're reading this tip while in crisis-mode, if you notice an hour when you have a particularly clear head, write them then.

At Zapier, we use Alfred to store and deploy these snippets, but you can use any kind of text expander. And I'm sure you're thinking "this feels inauthentic," but I promise it's not. You're an empathetic person—and you've experienced enough different emotional customer support scenarios—that I'm confident you can write a genuine snippet ahead of time. You should always edit or personalize it when you use it for real, but it gives you something to work from.

A screenshot of Alfred snippets
These are not my empathy snippets, but they are my favorite snippets.

I find I use these snippets most often for opening and closing customer interactions when I'm not feeling as peppy or awake as I'd like. For instance:

"Thanks for writing in today—I'm happy to take a look at this with you."


I hope this points you in the right direction! Please let me know if you have any other questions.

You can lean on these kinds of snippets that you crafted on a good day to maintain the right tone when you're having a bad day. And for bonus points, Tyler created a "mood" dropdown in his snippets to change things from friendly to more serious, swapping out exclamation points and full stops to more effortlessly tone-match with how a customer is feeling.

Of course, if you come across a ticket that you just don't feel comfortable answering, try to see if someone else on your team can step in for you. It's possible you'll know exactly how to fix someone's problem, but you're just not in the headspace to do so. Be sure to provide all the context, resources, and ideas you have for the solution to the teammate you're handing things over to. Remember, anxiety is not a deadline.

2. Figure out what the customer really needs

Tyler noted that when customers are stressed—which is an understatement during a crisis—the questions they have are often different from the questions they type. Or sometimes the question is buried in there somewhere, among other, more emotional comments.

In order to help your customers, you need to know what they're really asking. And you're certainly not going to write back and say, "I have no idea what you want." So how do you figure it out? Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Start by rewriting the email in your own words. That will help you parse the issue a bit more to be able to remove any emotional aspects. Strip away everything that isn't a fact. "Everything sucks and I hate this!" is not a fact, but "something is broken that didn't used to be" is.

  2. If the only fact remaining is "something's broken," but it's not clear what, use the resources at your disposal to see if you can spot any problems. Do they have an account? Is it paid? Does the website load? Spend a few minutes in the customer's shoes, as much as possible, to see if you can spot what might be causing pain.

  3. After distilling and differentiating what the customer is asking and what the problem they're experiencing is (because these can absolutely be two different, yet intertwined things), then you can craft a response that gets to the root of a solution while being empathetic to their frustrations.

If you can't find what the user might need, work with them to get to the bottom of it. In stressful times, sometimes a picture can say more than words, so invite the user to take a screenshot or video showing the problem.

3. Make sure everyone is on the same page

When there's a crisis, your organization will likely have a specific way they're handling it. And as the front line of communication with customers, it's important that your entire support team is very much in the loop on that plan. At Zapier, we've done this in a couple ways.

First, we use distributed snippets that anyone on the team can access. You can store these snippets in the Saved Replies section of your support app, or you can use a text expander tool like you did for your individual snippets. Either way, all of your teammates will have access to the language you've agreed to use, so there's less risk of sending customers mixed messages. Plus, it's a load off your shoulders in what's an otherwise emotional time.

Second, we have a dedicated Slack channel for crisis response. I work to be over-communicative in this channel, sharing context and documentation, and utilizing Slack user groups to ensure I notify all the folks who need to be especially aware. For instance, we have a small group of Customer Champions dedicated to fielding our First Responder program. Since this program launched, there have been small tweaks and changes to process, documentation, and snippet responses, all of which we share in our dedicated Support team crisis response channel.

During a crisis, things change quickly, so having an always-up-to-date place to check in on what's going on is really important. Tyler kindly gave me feedback that my consistent communication in that channel has given him more confidence in his crisis-related support answers.

4. Focus on what you can offer, not what you can't

Tyler brought up a tried and true trick for customer support: focus on what you can do, not what you can't. For example, if someone wants a feature for your product that just doesn't exist, you don't just tell them no—you tell them what features you do have that might help.

During a crisis, you'll likely get customers asking you for more than usual. They might want to use your product or service for free, which you likely can't offer. They might want to talk to someone in your organization who doesn't have the bandwidth. They might want you to please just fix everything.

It's easy to dwell on the fact that you can't give them everything they need, especially if they're struggling on a more personal level. But for both your sake and theirs, you need to focus on what you can do to help. Anything you can do is more than nothing, which means you are making a difference in some small way during a very difficult time. And you should be very proud of that.

5. Post happy things that happen

Customer support is in the unique position of getting feedback from customers very quickly—whether it's in the form of feedback or a rating through your help desk tool, or a response from a customer once you've helped them. At Zapier, we always highlight the positive reviews we get in a monthly digest on our internal blog.

Screenshot of our monthly positive feedback post

During crisis time, we've upped the ante and sent those digests twice a day. It's a motivator to see that we're really helping people get through a tough stretch. Celebrating wins like these helps highlight both individual and team successes, reminding everyone that they're valued and impactful. And during a crisis, when people may feel unsteady, positive recognition can provide a sense of safety, community, and confidence in what things they can control.

Tyler pointed out that, even if things won't ever be the same after a crisis, this high-intensity period will end. In the meantime, remember what's perhaps the toughest task of all these things: take care of yourself. Take breaks, take time off, and find things that bring you joy. And if you struggle with putting on your own oxygen mask first, as I often do, seek out a teammate to be your self-care accountability buddy to let off steam with—and remind each other to look after yourselves.

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