Never Let Your Support Team Drown
How well do you support your product?
In 20 years of building products, I’ve seen too many companies — especially startups and early businesses — underestimate the overwhelming nature of supporting their product or service, right up until the point that they’re drowning in support tasks.
Don’t let this happen to you.
When a support team is weak, that weakness spreads through the entire company
Support is more than answering emails. It includes, at a minimum, handling all the questions, issues, flaws, emergencies, and suggestions that we traditionally think of when we think of support. It also includes maintaining the company machine that makes sure your product or service is discovered, ordered, delivered, and paid for.
When support is a problem for a company, it’s usually because the support team is underpowered, doesn’t have enough authority, and doesn’t have a flexible escalation protocol.
Then, when those issues within a support team manifest themselves, the symptoms usually first appear in other parts of the company — sales, technology, or maybe product. This results in a common mistake: The company tries to solve the problem by addressing the symptoms, which works until the support team itself goes into full-blown crisis mode, as their lack of power, authority, and escalation causes them to buckle under the volume.
Here’s how to avoid that and fix your broken support team first.
Step 1: Review your support processes starting with triage
A lot of support time is wasted because of bad triage. Triage is a huge factor for the customer, who usually just wants to know — as quickly as possible — that your company is aware of their problem. Bad triage management also leads to bigger inefficiencies as the issue travels from the front lines of support to the source and the fix.
If you find that your company can no longer support all your customers properly, you’re going to have to change the way your support team triages and prioritizes the inbound.
Your focus should be on response time. When a customer has an issue, your response — not the solution — needs to be immediate. Then, as soon as possible, triage the issue and decide if it’s a hot fix, a quick fix, or a hold.
A hot fix is an issue that needs to be resolved right away.
If the issue is impacting a customer’s revenue or creates a total loss of your product’s value for an extended period of time, it requires an immediate fix. Keep an eye on these. Too many hotfixes at once or too frequently may require you to suspend a feature or feature set altogether.
A quick fix is something that can be done right away, but doesn’t need to be done right away.
This might go against conventional wisdom, but if a fix is less than 15 minutes, make the fix immediately. If you’re getting bogged down by too many quick fixes, that’s symptomatic of either your triage process or greater flaws in your product or service. But ultimately, it’s easier to make 10 quick fixes over the course of the week than pile them up for a day at the end of the week. Plus it’s better customer service.
Most of the time — probably more than you think — the issue is a hold.
Step 2: Increase Support’s authority to communicate holds
A hold is anything that’s not going to be fixed now, and the issue’s priority gets determined later on and outside of support.
That said, a ton more support time gets wasted when support is managing a number of issues that aren’t being fixed and haven’t been prioritized. This turns the support team’s job into trying to make a customer happy without having any useful information for them.
That job will never go away, but you can reduce it dramatically.
A surprising amount of customer service issues can be triaged by letting the customer know that their problem is being addressed or will be addressed. Most customer support issues only go pear-shaped when this communication doesn’t happen quickly.
This is the reason you see automated support emails that only tell you your request has been received. This is really easy to automate.
But that’s not where the communication should end. Truth be told, I actually think those emails can do your company a disservice, because all those emails are doing is acknowledging that the customer’s email ended up in your inbox. That buys you zero goodwill.
A second email should follow quickly.
If the issue is triaged as a hot fix or a quick fix, immediately let the customer know that the issue is being addressed. Again, automation is a great option here and is really easy to set up.
If the issue is a hold, immediately let the customer know that the company is aware of the issue, and will review it. Also apologize. Don’t hint that you’re going to fix it, don’t hint that it will show up on the roadmap someday.
I know that sounds like bad customer service, but consider your alternatives:
- Fix it now at the expense of a higher-priority support issue.
- Lie to the customer by hinting you’re going to fix something you haven’t prioritized yet.
- Keep the customer in communication darkness.
- That’s it. Those are the only alternatives.
Step 3: Spread the burden by fixing the escalation path
Now support is back on your schedule, and you can determine if and where the escalation problems are. This can usually be done by shoring up communications between support and the rest of the company. How you do this is up to you, but here are some guidelines:
- The customer should never have a permanent communication channel to anyone outside of support, because this will break support. Temporary channels are OK, but it should be clear that the temporary channel is indeed temporary, and communication with the customer should always be formally handed back off to support to close the issue.
- Support should have a permanent communication channel to every area of the company, including the CEO. That channel should be single point of contact, whether it’s a dedicated email address or Slack channel, or even a person. The expectations of the response time on that channel should be clear to support, so they can set the proper expectations for the customer.
- Automate and centralize as much of the internal communication as possible. This means if the tech team has reprioritized fixes, that information should be logged somewhere for support to access when they need it.
If there are no problems in your escalation path, and you’re still not able to support every customer properly, then you may have to dedicate more resources to communication and triage. Create scripts and workflows so you don’t need a ton of training and the role can flex from person to person.
Step 4: Give Support authority to be generous
How much does goodwill cost? You can’t answer that question until you lose it, and by then, it’s usually too late to buy it back.
Always spend more than the customer deserves to resolve an issue. Don’t do the math based on how much the customer lost. Don’t do the math based on how valuable that customer is to you. Don’t do the math based on how much of the issue was the customer’s fault.
If it seems like you’re being overgenerous, remember, it’s less than you’d spend fixing every un-prioritized issue across the company.
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