Of all the data that I’ve come across in reading and researching about the topics of loyalty, retention, and customer support, perhaps none were as startling as this excerpt from a Bain & Company report on achieving customer-led growth:

When we recently surveyed 362 firms, we found that 80% believed they delivered a “superior experience” to their customers. But when we then asked customers about their own perceptions, we heard a very different story. They said that only 8% of companies were really delivering.

It’s as if companies see through a Dunning-Kruger lens when evaluating their customer service. Perhaps this is because unlike marketing—where downward plot lines keep people up at night—the warning signs of lackluster support aren’t nearly as obvious.

Often, the support strategy goes sour due to quirks, slip-ups, and failures in the behind-the-scenes processes. It’s impossible to quantify what specifics may be going on at individual companies, but below I’ll share a few recurring themes that seem to lead the customer experience awry.

The Support Team Is Low on the Totem Pole

It is often easier to give the perception of interest and excellence than it is to commit to the act. Companies—just like people—are always at risk of taking the easy route of talking about the deed rather than doing it.

This is perhaps most apparent when it comes to customer service. Creating the narrative that your company is “for the customer” is easy to do, and it’s bulletproof—have you ever heard of anyone being criticized for being too customer-centric?

But “words are wind,” as George R.R. Martin would say, and the scary truth is that many companies who talk the talk often reveal their true nature via how they treat their support team.

If those in support are viewed as an “outpost” or the department is squarely squashed at the bottom of the company totem pole, something is definitely amiss.

The problem goes beyond compensation—it’s much more about how employees feel they are being treated, valued, and empowered to actively contribute to the company’s (and their own) success.

Be sure that the following scenarios (and sentiments) are not rearing their ugly head among your support crew:

  1. Their ideas aren’t taken seriously. Not listening to support when evaluating product decisions would be like running a military campaign and not listening to your scouts. Ideally, support will have it’s own “inbox” in which the team can assess, filter, and submit notes about the product that fit with the feedback they’ve received (creating a separate Trello board is a great solution).
  2. They have no authority to make decisions. Don’t let empathy become insulting—instead of having “Your call is important to us” scripts in place, let support actually act on this claim, showing customers that their concerns are important by giving your team the authority (and guidelines) to resolve situations on their own.
  3. The entire department is viewed as a necessary expense. By now most people working in support would like to believe that companies have come to understand the ROI of great service, but that sometimes isn’t the case. Long-lasting companies that win are those with the drive to outsupport the competition, not view their support team as a block on an expense spreadsheet.

Only the Marketing Team Understands Your Personas

It is highly unlikely that your business is catering to just one customer.

In a company with varying customer profiles, there will be varying traits—expectations, tolerance levels, and information and onboarding needs, to name a few examples.

This classic piece published by the Harvard Business School makes the case that the 8% of companies we discussed above—those actually delivering a superb customer experience—were adept at incorporating their customer segments into how they design their customer experience:

Most large companies are adept at dividing customers into segments and designing value propositions for each one. But those that deliver a truly outstanding customer experience go about the design business in a unique way. In defining segments, they look not only at customers' relative probability but also at their tendency to act as advocates for the company. . .

Of course, the experiences that turn passive buyers into active promoters will vary by customer segment. What captivates one group may turn off another. In formulating segments, therefore, it's important to look beyond basic demographic and purchasing data to discern customers' attitudes and even personalities.

Your enterprise-level customers might consistently demand a more robust customer success session, so pointing them to your knowledge base or instructional videos would be a misuse of resources and wouldn’t cater to their specific needs (meanwhile, help content might be just fine for your smaller customers).

This matters when it comes to the allocation of resources and manpower as well. We’d like to believe all customers are treated equally, but the truth is some VIPs might be “more equal than others,” if only in terms of the personalized customer success and onboarding time they’ll need in order to succeed with your product.

Speed is the Supreme Metric

“Easy to measure” often creates the illusion that a metric is important to manage.

Clearly, speedy customer service will always matter. Who wants to wait around for 3 days just to get an email back from a company?

What your business should avoid, however, is speed becoming the “gamified” metric that everyone on the support team chases. Just because Steve answered 50 more tickets than everyone else yesterday doesn’t mean he did a good job with any of them.

Much more important are completion metrics like first contact resolution rates, “big picture” metrics like your Net Promoter Score, employee engagement (happier employees create happier customers), contact volume by channel, hold times and help content abandonment rates, and last but not least, “wow” moments that your support team is able to share.

It is certainly a tough balance; customers care about accuracy and efficiency a great deal. As Michael Redboard points out in this excellent article, companies often over-complicate “user delight” when it comes down to a very simple premise:

  • Step 1. Consistently deliver fast, accurate, complete service that is on-brand and natural. Solve for the customer like crazy.
  • Step 2. Profit.
  • Step 3. There is no step 3. Just focus maniacally on step 1 and you will produce "customer delight."

Speed will always be part of that process, but support teams do need to create the delicate balance of swift, no-thrills support (which many customers want) and giving the extra care and personalization that some customers need.

Service is Seen Only as a Reactionary Measure

The idea that support is often the department responsible for “putting out fires” is undeniably accurate, which is why I loved a recent article by Jess Byrne which compels support teams to start acting more like Smokey the Bear and preventing fires:

When you are spending all of your time trying to respond to angry customers, you become a firefighter, so to speak. Firefighting can be essential during a rush, or as part of a short period of change.

However, if it becomes common practice for your support team, it can have serious implications. Support teams need to move away from the notion of firefighting as the norm and start thinking of themselves as guardians of the customer experience.

Byrne mentions the Six Levels of Proactive Support, which outlines support’s equivalent climb to self-actualization, with proactive support as the ideal summit for any support team.

What all this really means is that any best-in-show support team will learn to recognize common occurrences where they can step in before there is a problem:

  1. Customers who contact with Problem X almost always follow up with Problem Y a day or so later. “Glad we could get that resolved for you! If I may ask: have you run into any troubles with [activity associated with Problem Y]? I’d be happy to quickly run through the setup with you.”
  2. Customers contact support with a “101” question on a regular basis. Not only does product need to be aware of this (they might be the source of the problem), but a proactive measure any support rep could take here would be to create some help content around the issue that could be referenced henceforth.

A highly reactive support team is definitely a “grail” of any company that cares about service, and enthusiastic feedback and coaching about when and where support can go the extra mile before there is a problem will go a long way in getting them there.

Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software.