Customer support used to be easy. Not that the questions and problems were simple to solve, but at least you could be sure every customer who needed help would walk into your store—as that was the only place they'd expect support.
Then came the postal service, telegram, phone, email, live chat, social media, and before long there were more ways a customer could get in touch than you could count. You can't afford to just ignore them, either. Even if you don't officially offer social support, customers will still Tweet their problems and expect you to reply.
So what does customer support mean in the 21st century, and how can you effectively manage it all?
Customer support isn't a magical spell, a special bag of tricks only the gifted few can wield. Whether you're a 18th century blacksmith or a 21st century codesmith, customer support is still just answering your customers’ questions and solving their problems. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It sounds all new and modern, but customer support had been around as long as there have been companies and customers. Even modern things like store loyalty cards have been around since 1793.
What's new is how customer support is done. In the 1700's, the only way a customer could get support would be to walk into your store. By the early 1900's, customers could call a company to get support—and by the 1960's, companies started building call centers to handle the loads of calls. Then came email and live chat customer support in the 1990's, social media support in the 2000's, and in-app support in the 2010’s.
Today, it's hard to keep up with the dozens of ways customers could get in touch with you. There's bound to be more options in the future, not less. At the same time, customer support is crucially important for your business—perhaps more than ever before.
It's the personal interactions with your brand that people remember most, making those first impressions even more crucial. Mess up that first support conversation, and you may never get another chance with that customer—and you may end up with a terrible Yelp or App Store review that scares away future customers.
"Answer Questions, solve problems, and make people happy."
No, really. That's all there is to customer support.
Step back in time to a General Store in Victorian England. A customer purchases a bucket, discovers it leaks, then travels back into town to tell the store owner their problem. A smart store owner will either repair or replace the bucket.
Problem solved. The customer's problem was fixed, and the store owner earned a bit of goodwill. Next time the customer needs something (perhaps a rope to tie on the bucket), odds are they'll go back to the helpful store.
Whether you're selling apps or apples, buckets or bridges, customer support is essentially the same. Sooner or later, people are guaranteed to have problems with your product—that's just how things go. They'll also need to be taught out how to use the product and get the most out of it.
Either way, they'll ask for help. That's your chance to answer their questions, solve their problems, and make them happy.
It's tough. People are usually grumpy when things go wrong, and they don't like being told there's no solution (as you won't be able to fix every problem). But you'll do your best, you'll earn the trust and appreciation of those you can help—and most people will understand if you try hard to help and fail, anyhow.
You'll need to know everything you can about your products and customers, to be able to solve people's problems. You'll have to be willing to say yes to their requests, learn how to say no when you can't do something, and find ways to help customers help themselves so you're not answering questions all day. And you'll need to be patient enough to not blow up at the hundredth person to ask the same question in a row.
You'll get it. It'll become second nature after a while.
So that's it, answering questions. But where do you answer them? Your customers won't wait to walk into your store and ask questions about a leaky bucket today. They'll Tweet, email, call, and generally make sure you hear about their problems any way they want.
You've got to be ready.
Here's the places you should focus your customer service efforts most:
Common wisdom says that stores are dead, traditional retail is dying, and you're best to sell online. Yet Apple proved them wrong, turning their Apple Stores into some of the highest value retail space in the world. Sure, they sold must-have gadgets, but so did their website and countless other retailers.
What made Apple Stores stand apart was their customer service. When your iPod broke, you'd go to an Apple Store, talk to someone at the Genius Bar, and usually walk away with a fixed or replaced device. You'd be happy, and far more likely to buy an Apple product again.
Retail can be an annoying experience, filled with long lines and grumpy staff. Or, it can be an amazing experience, one that attracts people to see your well laid out store and get help from your friendly staff. It's customer service done well that makes the difference.
Email is one of the best customer support tools. Nearly everyone on the internet has an email address, and it only takes a minute to add a contact form to your website.
Then, you can reply to customers emails anytime you want. A customer in Spain can email from their phone at noon, and you can reply at noon in San Francisco from your desk, or on a flight to Tokyo from your tray table. It may not be as real-time as a phone call or chat, and it definitely isn't as personal as an in-person support session, but it's the one support channel that likely applies to every business.
But it can still be overwhelming. Your support inbox will quickly start overflowing, and sharing a Gmail account for support doesn't work that well. That's why you'll need a great customer support app to help manage the flow—and speed up your replies with prewritten messages.
Twitter may not be the most popular social network, but it is most popular for one thing: support. Almost every company has a Twitter account, and it's so easy to @mention them to ask for help or complain about a problem. And since Tweets are public, companies are often far quicker to respond and fix the problem, before you complain about it to your followers.
Facebook Pages are equally good places to express frustration in public, as are private messages in apps like Messenger, LINE, and WhatsApp. Then there's live chat, with tantalizing real-time support.
Customers want it all, and it's harder than ever to not do support on social networks. So treat it like a shorter email, and help fix people's problems. The good news is, if you do it well, they just might turn around and Tweet about how great your support is.
We may use our phones for apps more than calls, but phone support is still important. It's often the only way to get support from larger companies—and in smaller companies, it's a way to stand out from everyone else's email-powered support.
Phone support takes the same skills as in-person support: a calm voice, and a willingness to listen and explain. And sometimes, that's the only way to fix the thorniest problems.
Will you need to snap videos in Snapchat to support your customers in the future, or will you be using Oculus Rift to remotely show people how to fix something? Who knows. One thing seems certain: there will always be new ways to communicate, and every new communications tool can be used for support.
The good news is, the same skills work everywhere. If you're great at solving problems and answering questions in email, you'll figure it out when you need to do that in the next new app. You'll still answer questions, solve problems, and make people happy. It's still customer support.
With all those messages coming in, you'll need to find ways to cut down the stress and get support messages answered faster. But support automation is known for being terrible, the stuff of auto-replies to emails and "Thank you for your patience" recordings.
It doesn't have to be. Teams around the world use pre-written replies, keyboard shortcuts, and app integration tools like Zapier to reply to messages quicker, share more helpful information in less time, and make sure no Tweet gets left behind. You can automate your support, and have more time to actually spend time with customers and fix the most urgent problems.
All it takes is breaking down your most common support tickets, figuring out recurring themes, and finding ways to solve those problems quicker—perhaps with documentation or a pre-written email. Then, look at the tickets you're overlooking and taking longer to reply to, and see what can speed them up—perhaps a Zapier integration that posts them to your team chat.
It'll take a bit of time to setup, but will save you far more over time.
Customer support matters—enough that you should likely have your whole team do support, at least sometimes. Before we dive further into the tips, tricks, and apps to do support better, in the next chapter we'll look at how Zapier and many other companies do full-team support, and why you should give that a try.
Written by Zapier marketer Matthew Guay.
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