Solving Problems Outside Your Domain

Mo McKibbin | April 5, 2016

When you own a brick-and-mortar store and the street it’s on is under construction, closing up shop is not an option. It’s up to you to keep customers shopping with you, even when it’s less convenient for them to do so.

Same goes for your online business. Forces outside your control—email clients not playing nicely, your customer’s IT department delaying a company-wide upgrade from Internet Explorer 8—are going to conspire and make doing business with you harder than it should be.

Too often, we sweep those issues under the rug. It’s tempting to consider the problem solved if we get the customer to switch to a different browser or turn off an extension. You might just want to say, “Sorry, we can’t help you if you insist on using that crummy third-party tool that’s getting in the way.”

But if you don’t want to lose business, you can’t throw your hands up and blame those external forces—you won’t win any positive word-of-mouth about your support by treating the symptom rather than the cause.

Sometimes, you’ve gotta fix problems you didn’t create.

Clear out your cached responses

It’s time to stop telling people to clear their cache or try a different browser as a first line of defense. Yes, sometimes a problem is a browser or caching issue, but it's not the customer's job to reproduce and create a bug report to prove themselves. Dig in and get your hands dirty, ask clarifying questions if you need to, and see if you can identify the issue the customer is talking about first.

When you tell a customer to clear their cookies and cache or try an alternate browser before properly investigating their issue, they may not expend the energy to follow up if the problem persists. Not only have you provided a subpar customer experience, you’ve missed the opportunity to find and squash a problem that likely affects other people. You also just brushed off a troubleshooting dialogue with a customer invested in helping you find a fix.

This doesn’t just go for SaaS companies. If you have an ecommerce or eservice site and a customer has trouble placing an order due to a bug during checkout, that’s a lost sale. It’s one thing when you know for certain clearing the cache will solve an issue, but suggesting customers clear their cache as the catch-all can prevent serious problems from getting fixed. If clearing the cache does not fix the issue, the customer may not follow up or complete the purchase.

Outfoxing the fox

Last summer, Help Scout started receiving a few reports about a cursor disappearing in the text editor, making it difficult for some of our customers to reply to their customers. Since we pull customers’ browser information into conversations using a custom app for third-party sources (and automatically with questions sent through Beacon), we noticed a trend: these reports were coming from customers using Firefox. A certain keyboard combination was causing Firefox to lose recognition of the cursor’s focus in the editor, stopping replies in their tracks. The bug wasn’t specific to our editor, but it was still affecting (and annoying) our customers.

We tagged the conversations, let our customers know the issue was specific to Firefox, and explained that as a temporary bandage, they could use another browser.

We added some key event handlers to detect when a user maneuvered the keys in a particular way, and we manually instructed the browser to do what it should be doing on its own through our editor. We ran the workflow on all the tagged conversations notifying that the issue was fixed, and all our happy customers could return to Firefox. Maximum happiness for everyone involved.

Working with third party poopers

The plethora of third-party tools and browser extensions can make any customer support rep silently scream at seemingly irreproducible, near-impossible-to-pinpoint bugs. That struggle is real. But it isn’t enough to tell your customer to disable their extensions to “see if that works.”

GoNoodle, whose product prompts short periods of physical activity throughout the school day, regularly screen-shares with customers (primarily teachers) to get to the bottom of problems. Those problems are often out-of-bounds—unrelated to GoNoodle’s product and stemming from a third-party tool, such as the external display teachers use in their classrooms.

Smart Boards (a widely used line of interactive whiteboards), for example, run on their own internal software that doesn’t always play nicely with GoNoodle. To crack this nut, GoNoodle’s special ops developer tested all Smart Board software at different release levels to find which ones work for their customers. Even though GoNoodle doesn’t bill itself as “software compatible with Smart Boards,” they keep a Smart Board in their office to run tests when they suspect that’s what’s causing customer-reported issues.

It’s a losing battle trying to allocate resources to adapt your site or software to accommodate every third-party tool out there, but that doesn’t mean your support needs to shrug these situations off as “too bad, so sad.”

Sometimes you just can’t win

There is a line between when you can and when you can’t help someone, and it’s often drawn when another contact would lead to faster and more comprehensive help for your customer.

Customers will sometimes write to Basecamp support, for example, complaining they can’t access their website, when what’s really happening is the customer’s web admin set up a Basecamp account and invited them to it, and they’re confused about where to go for help.

Once the support rep figures out what’s going on, they point the customer in the right direction, explaining that Basecamp is the program their web admin is using to collaborate with them on their website. They offer the email address for the account owner and instructions for how to post the same question in Basecamp.

It’s not your job to know and research every tool your customer touches, nor is it scalable, but in those cases it’s best to help in good faith every way you can and lead customers to better help at a deeper level.

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is

Regardless of what’s going on outside your company’s door, you have a responsibility to help your customer, even when the issue is with a tool you don’t support.

It may mean working with third-party tools; it may mean stopping to teach less savvy users about how saving to a PDF works. You can at least answer their immediate questions, then direct them to resources to help them learn.

Your customer doesn’t care whose fault the problem is. They just want it fixed.


About the author: Mo McKibbin is a product marketer at Help Scout. She enjoys surprising and delighting customers with feature updates, and spending time with her cats.