In the B2B context, customers choose to pay for two reasons: the product is valuable for their business, and it is easy to use.
All the technology fades into the background, and the user is left accomplishing valuable stuff. When resources are extremely limited (like in a startup), your product alone won't satisfy both. Early adopters will push the edge of what the product can do, and self-professed 'non-techies' will need additional hand-holding to make the product valuable for them. There will also be rough edges; features that need to be re-written but there isn't the time to do so.
When prospective customers run into these issues, they end up in your support inbox. Support can be the strongest line of communication to your customers. It is also the best way to display commitment to your customer's needs, establish trust, and build a serious following. Looking for traction? Your support emails are a great start.
Here are 3 critical elements to making your customer support great, whether you are a fledgling startup or a large, well-established corporation. Following these will help you build a legion of devoted customers ready to fight off any attacker (or competitor) that comes your way.
1. Great Support is a Conversation
As Adam always preaches, understanding the underlying request is as important as answering the immediate question. A customer may be asking for a specific feature - one you don't provide and don't plan to, either. An easy option would be to simply say "no, we don't do that" and wipe your hands of the conversation. Instead, understand why your customer considers this feature so important - is a boss putting this on the evaluation "checklist"? Did someone mention this as the "it" feature?
Getting to the root of the question creates an actual conversation.
In a support request, the customer might be expecting a simple 'yes/no' and then move on. In a conversation, you might dive into an explanation of why you've decided not to pursue a certain feature or paradigm. Making the prospective customer aware of the reasons you haven't pursued something (perhaps some technical limitations that hadn't occurred to them) turns "checklist checkers" into converted customers.
A conversation also indicates to the customer you are listening, and you care about their input. This creates trust, which over the long-term repels competitors.
Great support is a Conversation, not a "to do". Listening builds valuable trust with customers. http://hlp.sc/NSwztZ
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2. Great Support is Complete
Giving great support means following through on the customer issues. You can't give a great experience to some customers, and a crappy experience to others, and hope it balances out. A great support person at a small company should also be a customer issues assassin. We've gone so far as to fix issues for customers while they're on the phone.
Users asking the same questions again and again? Guess what, its not them, its you. Tweak the layout, add a helpful link, or work to re-design the workflow. If it's constantly causing your customers confusion, it's introducing friction for their use. Support folks should have the power to sand the rough edges where possible. Today, I'm looking at our frequently asked support questions, and identifying if they can be eliminated entirely through a product update, or if help resources need to be produced that focus on that problem. We also cycle every member of the team through support. Sometimes, fresh eyes on a problem can reveal opportunities for fixes not considered before.
Don't simply act as an interface between your customers and the carefully written documentation. Fix the issue for the customer completely (where possible, and where it is valuable for both parties to do so) and your customers will thank you by telling more potential customers. Rock.
Side-note: yep, complete support means you might have to dabble in some code. Have no interest in writing/reading code? Get much better than I am at getting other folks to do your bidding.
Great support is Complete. @jeffvincent from @wistia shows how being a customer issues assassin can create raving fans. http://hlp.sc/NSwztZ
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3. Great Support is Available (even when you're not)
In the early days, we did a very high percentage of our support by phone. This was strategically important - it put us closest to our users and helped us understand their issues. We still provide support for customers by phone every day, but we have learned to lean on resources (instructional videos, documentation) and email where possible.
Investing in high-quality resources is a no-brainer for us — with a small team, resources scale our message in ways we can't in-person. Customers can access them anytime, anywhere, over and over again. Want to be walked through something multiple times? Just queue up the video and rewind as needed ( not to mention we can then identify that as a "rough edge" in the product, based on the analytics ;) ).
Text-based communication, like email and instant messaging (we use Olark), has clear benefits. It is a better experience for the customer to receive a link to an edited, image-supported documentation page than it is to be chit-chatted and asked "what do you see now?" endlessly over the phone. Struggling with an embed code that has been hopelessly mangled by a CMS? Talking HTML over the phone, especially if the customer then has to relay the message to a developer, is a recipe for confusion. We have placed Olark in two key places: our Pricing Page and in trial accounts, where quick responses to questions can mean more potential customers choosing us. It also gives us feedback on exactly what is on the users mind in the moment - very powerful stuff. Based on the type of questions you answer frequently, decide what is best for your customers and your company.
Great #CustServ is all about timing, being available when people need help. See how @Wistia does it in this post- http://hlp.sc/NSwztZ
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While there is more that goes into support on a daily basis (including a discussion of what tools we use, which could be an article in itself) these principles have helped us grow a business with awesome (and happy) customers.