Opinions On Customer Support


Customer "support", as it is mostly practiced today, is incompetently or badly run, does not help customers, and should be completely reworked if it is to have any beneficial effects. However, there are isolated pockets of competence. I discuss what I would like support organizations to do for me, and how I think they can get better. Examples may be given.

This document owes some of its genesis to the Clue Train, who inspired me to think harder about what customers really need, and also to my experience working for what I personally feel is a well-run support group at BSDI.

What Is Customer Support?

Customer support is how companies try to make customers happy. Customer support is helping customers solve problems, and it's helping them solve problems with your products. It's telling them things that let them feel like they're important. It's making sure the customer is happy with you as a company.

It's generally considered a "cost", and as such, companies try to cut down on support expenses. This is stupid; support is where you make long-term friends out of chance aquaintances.

What Support Should Be Like

With that in mind, I want to discuss what support should be like. The user's experience of support should be pleasant and painless. Support should be on the user's terms. The user should be able to come to you and say "here is how I need to interact with support, please work with me" and get a positive response.

Here's the rules:

The Customer Should Be Able To Use Any Contact Method

The Customer Should Always Get A Response

The Customer Should Always Be Able To Reach A Real Person

Save The Customer The Work

A bit of explanation is perhaps in order.

When I say the customer should be able to use any contact method, I mean, you should not limit communications. As a customer with a problem, I should be able to walk into your building if it's nearby, and talk to someone. I should be able to write you a letter. I should be able to talk to someone on the phone. I should be able to find something I can use with my web browser. I should be able to send email.

That last one is important. "e-mail support" doesn't mean "we have a form you can fill out that sends email to our top-secret hidden email address". It means that there is an easy-to-find email address on your page that reaches someone directly. In an ideal world, every company will have an address 'support@example.com' which goes to the support staff. It's important that this address really work. It's important that this address be live.

The web form doesn't cut it, because browsers suck. My browser may not let me use my address book. It may be that I want to send you email later from another computer behind a firewall without web access. It may be that my browser crashes too much. I don't care what your excuse is - I want to be able to send email and get a response.

Getting a response is a similar thing. I don't care if I sent my email to the wrong person; I want that person to find out who can help, and get the message to them. Support isn't just for the support department - everyone gets to play. Everyone has to play. U. S. West, one of the phone companies in my area, is particularly egregious about this; I typically have to call several times to get any feedback at all on a trouble report. AT&T, however, holds my personal record - eight months of promising return calls and never calling back.

Real people are vital to the support experience. It's often possible to get a really good response from a machine; LucasArts has an excellent example of this. But, when the machine doesn't meet my needs, or I'm confused by it, I want to talk to someone. Now. I want a person to hear my message.

The emphasis in that isn't all on "person". Some of it is on "hear". I'm sure most of my readers will have had the experience of getting a response which clearly has little or no connection to the request made. I want the person responding to me to show some comprehension of what I'm talking about.

An example is called for. A while back, MCI spammed me. They sent email to me, and to a bunch of their other customers. (I'm sure I object to having my email address shared with ten of their other customers at random, and I'm pretty sure some of them objected too.) I couldn't get a response from them, so I cancelled my service. I did talk to someone in customer support. When I explained that MCI had sent me junk email, he informed me that I needed to talk to my wireless phone provider. I can't imagine what the fuck he thought he was talking about, but in that one act, he killed any chance of me remaining as a customer. He established that MCI's support staff did not care.

There's a lot of effort involved in a support experience. For instance, if you have enough customers that you have more than one person handling customer support, you have to have some way of keeping track of what's going on. One of the few failings in the way LucasArts does support is summed up in a single line; "Please include all previous messages in your response". Why should I have to do this? They have computers; surely they can manage some kind of tracking system. Of course, they've probably got NT servers, so it may be that storing a few dozen messages per customer is an unreasonable expectation - but if that's a problem, it's a problem they ought to solve. Customers don't want to try to skim through 95kb messages scanning for new information, and they don't want ever-growing "tails" on their messages; they'd be better served by a tracking system allowing the support staff to keep track of this for them.

That's All For Now

This is a fairly young document; I just wanted to put it up because I had some ideas and wanted to get them written down. More will come, in time. Feedback eagerly consumed; you can always reach me at some email address, most likely 'seebs@plethora.net'.