For a long time, I had a deeply held belief that great customer service could only happen when there was a helpful person on the other end with all the answers.

As a business owner, I was all in on providing that kind of service to everyone who interacted with our company. Growing the customer support team to provide that level of service as the business grew was no problem. I knew it was one of the best investments we could make in the brand.

But my pride got in the way of one critical detail:

Customers didn’t always want to email us for help.

They had a goal, and in many cases, they weren’t able to achieve their goal because something about our product was in the way. Emailing us was a last resort, and a friendly reply back in an hour or two was a sub-optimal experience.

What would have been better is an instant answer — one that helped them continue pursuing their goal, and one that built trust and admiration for the brand.

A number of companies have started solving this challenge by offering live chat support. Chat is a wonderful tool, and it shifts the response time from hours to seconds. It’s an on-demand expert, there to help you accomplish your goal. After all, 73% of customers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good customer service.

But if you’ve tried providing chat support for your business, you know that instant human answers create a bunch of unexpected challenges. For most businesses, it’s not possible to be “always on” and deliver awesome service at all hours of the day. It’s either too expensive to grow the team so aggressively, or you disappoint customers by only being capable of helping a percentage of them when the team is available.

At Help Scout, we resisted building live chat software for several years because we didn’t want to set our customers up for this kind of situation. We had our own challenges trying to offer chat support, and we could never come up with a workflow that felt great for customers and also scalable for us as a business. The research is clear: You should only support channels you can do really well. The ideas of “being everywhere your customers are” and “omnichannel” don’t always work in practice.

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Instant answers to the rescue

The answer to fixing chat was right under our nose. It turns out that for a support team with under 100 people, about 54% of customer questions are considered “easy” to answer. Combine that with the fact that 71% of customers want a way to solve problems on their own , and the answer is pretty clear:

We need to put answers in front of customers, at just the right time, so they can accomplish their goals without switching contexts. That’s the holy grail. It’s the best experience you can give your customers.

That realization led us to ask the question: Is it possible to lower human support volume by 30% and have happier customers?

If so, it would make chat a viable channel, because your knowledge base content would effectively throttle inbound requests. It would also lower response time on email requests. Your support team would have more time for the tough questions, and the easy ones would take care of themselves.

There’s a lot of hype about AI and chatbots in customer service, but the true innovation is simple: Put content where your customers are likely to need it. That’s where we started with Beacon, and it’s where we will continue to invest a lot of our time and effort. For the first time, excellent chat support is achievable for just about any business.

Self-service Customer service

I’ve never liked the term “self-service.” It lacks compassion, like people are stuck figuring it out themselves. It also doesn’t account for the fact that sometimes helping yourself isn’t enough. For the 46% of questions that aren’t considered “easy” to answer, the customer might need to chat with someone to accomplish their goal.

That’s why the real magic happens when self-service is backed by people. Self-service and live support channels are the perfect complements — one falls over without the other. When you get it right, customers can get instant answers either way and have a great experience, and your business can pull it off in a sustainable way. That’s just great customer service.

And to make it happen, you shouldn’t have to hire more people. You just have to write good content that answers all of the easy questions, make it available wherever customers are trying to use your website, and back it up with human support.

We’ve architected Beacon to do just that. It’s early. We only have a few hundred companies using it. There’s still more to build, but the high-level vision is there. If you’ve struggled to implement live chat for your business in the past, we’d love for you to give Beacon a try.

At Help Scout, we’ve been ramping up live chat support — currently for about 12 hours per day and climbing — and we haven’t been overwhelmed by the volume so far. It’s surprised even us.

We’re gradually making the Beacon beta available to Help Scout customers, and it’s free through the end of the year as we keep adding new features. If you aren’t a customer and would like to give it a try, please sign up for a trial and give us a shout. We’d love to know what you think.

Nick Francis

Nick Francis

Nick is co-founder and CEO of Help Scout, where he is on a mission to make every customer service interaction a more human one. He lives and breathes product design, customer experience, and building a thoughtful, thriving company.

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