Support Does Not Scale. Customer Service Does.

I’m a big fan of all things scaling, because thats what takes you from having to scramble for money on an hour-to-hour basis and gets you to the whole “Making money while drinking pina coladas on the beach” (or, in my case, iced tea in the shade) ideal uISV existence. Two of commenters recently left well-reasoned comments to the general effect that “Support costs a lot of your time and most users don’t need it. Don’t go overboard. Instead, help out the vast majority of your customers who don’t need support.” My comments:

Cutting a customer off: There is a certain school of thought that says you should have a maximum level of tolerance for any particular customer using support resources, and after that point you say “No more”. I actually think this is (potentially, depending on execution) a decent idea, which might suprise people in light of my recent paen to excellent customer service posts. You might also be suprised to learn that I’ve described someone doing it in the last 24 hours.

Here’s the cruel math of telephone customer service: the average cost of servicing a phone call is $12. The average profit of a small order is less. You cannot afford to absorb a support call for every small order. Class poll: who caught the fact that when the the representative offered free shipping and cookies to a minor no-profit-in-this-transaction customer it terminated a (potentially hostile) support incident in under a minute, totally obviated the need for a second call or an escalation to the supervisor, and still got the sale? And that that customer was so ecstatic to be brushed off he came back bearing hundreds of thousands of dollars? Thats the difference between support and customer service. As a support incident, that call was a waste of time/money. As an opportunity for demonstrating you’ve got an unparalleled dedication to customer service, that call is as good an opportunity as every other customer contact you make.

Saving Money/Time on Support: Your first line of defense against “wasting time” (never, ever, ever think of talking to a customer as a waste of time: see below) in support is producing a quality product. I sell to a rather non-technical market. I could be spending the rest of my life fielding calls on how to use the product — and I rather don’t want to, so I coded the project to be immediately usable by anyone who is capable of finding the Internet. The handholding starts at downloading/installation (clicking enter until you can’t anymore works and will dump you at my program’s main screen) and continues to my main screen (which doesn’t just explain what you need to do, it reads my app’s typical use case out to you, step by step). Improving your application is probably one of the best-scaling support investments you can make: if you consistently find yourself copy-pasting a canned “That feature is in the Tools Menu, 3rd from the bottom” response, you should probably go about making it more obvious. If you have a work-around for that annoying printing bug, fix the annoying printing bug.

How to Think of Support: I would generally advise against thinking that you’re wasting time doing support. Most people are rather poor actors — heck, most actors are rather poor actors. If you’re annoyed by the incident thats likely to come across to your customers. Think of it as an investment if it helps you — you’re investing in your reputation as a customer-service powerhouse. Against a reputation like that, firing off a few emails every day is cheap. (Think of it: suppose that 5% is an accurate accounting of the number of “needy” customers you have. Suppose you’re rolling in the dough at 1,000 orders a month. 5% of 1000 is 50, multiply by say 4 inquiries each is 200, averages to 7 per day. 7 emails a day is nothing — you can take care of that while brewing coffee.)

Politeness and a smile are free: You can’t always say yes to a customer request (although I’d strongly suggest defaulting to yes and requiring good reasons to say no, rather than the other way around). You can, however, have 100% of your customer-facing communications be polite and positive. For instance, compare the following two emails.

Bob,

You emailed me about this support issue 4 times this week. I’ve done what I can for you. Its obvious things aren’t working out. I’m refunding your purchase price.

Sincerely, Peevish uISV

Thats the wrong way to do things.

Dear Bob,

I have done some research regarding your support request. As it turns out, our product is regrettably not the best on the market for your needs. In our professional opinion, MicroFoos’ Foozle 2006 is a closer fit for your requirements. While it pains us to have not been able to help you, here at Pleasant ISV we are totally dedicated to customer satisfaction. Accordingly, we could not in good conscience accept your money with these issues outstanding, and have instructed our credit card processor to refund you.

Thank you for choosing Pleasant ISV and we look forward to the opportunity of serving you in the future.

Sincerely, Pleasant ISV

Content-wise, these emails describe the exact same set of circumstances. In terms of customer perception, these two emails are worlds apart from each other. Peevish ISV’s mail is, well, brusque and strongly leaves the impression that there was something wrong with the customer. Pleasant ISV’s mail doesn’t blame anyone (no, really, read it again — it doesn’t say or imply a single negative thing about Pleasant). It screams “we’re competent, we’re professionals, and we don’t accept anything less than the best”, and it leaves the door open rather than slamming it on your customer’s fingers.

An inspirational quote: “ We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — I have seen this one variously attributed to Aristotle and Adlai E. Stevenson. In any event, if you make excellence the routine in your customer service, people will know the difference. Promising good support/promising good customer service scales very well for your business. Think of it like the guarantee: you can’t afford for everyone to ask for their money back, but you know in advance that the overwhelming majority of people will not ask for their money back. And you know that the number of customers reassured by having the guarantee outweighs what you’ll spend on it. Support is exactly the same. Most people won’t need it, but lots of people are reassured by the fact that it is available if they do need it. Your customers have been trained for years to distrust software, despite the fact that most customers will not have any problems: software is impersonal, software gets in the way of them doing what they need to do, software breaks, and when software breaks they spend 10 hours in tech-support heck talking to people who hate them and don’t have any answers.

What if you could reassure customers? What if you had a deserved reputation for *not* blowing up in people’s faces, and for being a joy to work with? So beat the drum and beat it loudly:

If you have any problems, or just want to ask a question, talk to us. We have an actual human here. Even better — not just an actual human, you’ll get all your support emails answered directly from the head engineer/company president! (Try that with your other software vendors some time!) We care about your concerns and will work to make them right. Take a look at what Mary Sue of Normal, IL and Bob Smith of San Fransisco had to say about us: “Wow, I had expected to get a canned reply but they got back to me within 15 minutes and kept working until my problem was solved.” and “Pleasant uISV is the best in the industry, bar none. Once I bought one of their products and it wasn’t working out for me. They gave me my money back without me even asking and referred me to a competitor! It was more important that I be happy than that they make a buck. I’ll never stop using Pleasant and I recommend them to everyone I do business with.”

Or, you could say something like

Support incidents: Every customer has a maximum of four support incidents, after which they must pay a non-negotiable charge of $24.95 per incident. We do not answer requests about generic computer configuration problems, setting up web pages, etc etc.

Which of these two companies would you rather do business with? Which sounds like a risky investment? Which sounds warm and inviting?

No Responses to “Support Does Not Scale. Customer Service Does.”

  1. Stephane Grenier August 3, 2006 at 7:37 pm #

    Hi Patrick,

    Excellent article. I enjoyed it so much I’ll be posting a link to it on my “Weekly 7″ next week.

    Very good differentiation between support and customer service. Customer service always wins out at the end of the day, hands down. There’s nothing quite as formidable as creating an army of people evangelizing your product and company!

  2. Ryan Smyth August 10, 2006 at 2:55 pm #

    1 word Patrick…

    AMEN!

    Well put. I’m passing this post on to others!

    Peace, Love, and Eternal Grooviness,

    Ryan Smyth

  3. Nico Westerdale August 10, 2006 at 5:03 pm #

    We use the mantra:

    “Help every person with their problem”, with the emphesis on the ‘their’ part. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, and if our software is appropriate to that then say it. If not then don’t.

  4. GJ August 11, 2006 at 6:20 am #

    Excellent! Impressive!

    Thank You :)

    Regards,
    GJ

  5. Martin Thorborg August 12, 2006 at 9:51 pm #

    Hi Patrick

    You are so right. If your perception of support is that it just costs money, you are wrong. Customer support is one of the best ways to differentiate from your competitors and should be a direct source to more sales.

    Best regards
    SPAMfighter

    Martin Thorborg

  6. john August 13, 2006 at 10:26 pm #

    great article – it gets at the heart of what’s really important. like most people i experience horrific customer experience from my mobile carrier – hours on the phone or being shuffled around. recently, i had a very different experience with my international calling service (www.globedialer.com) not only did they respond to me promptly – but they provided me with real answers and information unlike the “scripts” that the carriers instruct their their cs departments to read. i will be a very loyal customer – that’s for sure!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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