October 28, 2012

On Customer Support, and doing it right.

I've been really busy lately. I launched a hyperlocal online dating website with a friend this month, and we got picked up by the local newspaper and by CBC Radio on Thursday.

The story in the paper

The radio interview

This resulted in a surge of traffic, and an accompanying surge of support requests. Luckily for my co-founder, I've always felt like this is something I sort of have a knack for. Between that and the fact that I'm the only one who really knows how the damn thing works, it ends up that I answer all the support emails.

This isn't the first time I've done frontline support for a web product. Back in University I worked for a forum-hosting service, where all the developers fielded support requests, mostly on the basis of who was last to call "not it!". I think it was a very positive thing having developers do front-line support; I think users were often very satisfied when we solved and pushed a fix for their issue while they were still on the line.

So without further ado, I'm going to share a few tips to turn frustrated and even angry users into satisfied ones.

One issue we had a lot with the site was that our username field is case-sensitive, so that usernames will display as expected on users' profiles. This caused many problems, since it's not an expected behavior. I'll be using examples from that situation.

A crisitunity

When a user reaches out to you, you have a great opportunity to form a relationship much stronger than you can create without that direct contact. A user asking for support is a user that wants to use your product. Making it a positive experience could well result in a lot of loyalty.

Explain the issue

Unlike many other "startups," an online dating site doesn't appeal exclusively technical users. Likewise, you don't pick up very technical users from newspaper articles. So, you may have to include a little education in your response.

Avoid jargon and attempt to explain the issue in relatively simple terms. No need to make dumb analogies; just be clear.

The username field is case-sensitive, so your username is "Butch", not "butch".

Give immediate, actionable advice

Give the user something to do, if you can, so that they stay engaged.

Try logging in with your email address in place of your username.

Take responsibility

Never say "Sorry, but". It's your responsiblity to make sure your software works and is usable, and if it doesn't, it's your fault.

Sorry about that, we should have anticipated this issue.

Actually, apply this advice to life in general. Nobody likes a man with an excuse.

Become a human

This one is important. If it's really relevant, relate anecdotes about the issue. If you've had a big issue with the site, mention it. The goal isn't to excuse yourself, but rather to present yourself as a human, rather than a question-answering faceless machine. Humans are allowed to be fallable.

Promise solutions (if you can back it up)

When somebody reports a bug to you, they're performing free software testing. You need to get right on it.

We'll be updating the site tomorrow to make logging in case-insensitive and resolve this issue.

However, don't make promises you can't keep. If someone has a problem that you won't be able to fix for a while, say so.

Don't take it personally

You won't be able to help everyone, and you don't need to bend over backwards for a user that's harassing or rude. Don't give in to the temptation to tell a user off, though; if you can't say anything nice, just don't say anything at all.

Really, all this comes down to is, treat each support request as if it came from a friend. Don't be dismissive. Don't assign busy work to buy time. Do be polite, genuine, and informative. And for the love of god, always ask for their OS and browser.