How startups can build a world-class customer support operation in seven days

If you're a scrappy startup just beginning to scale, support is probably an afterthought.

Don't feel bad. We get it - everything seems more important, and it’s easy to pass off mounting support requests as a sign that the product needs to be improved, rather than a CRITICAL part of business. You might be thinking:

"If only we make this product change, it will half our support requests!"

Even if that turns out to be true... Boy, is this the wrong approach.

There are tonnes of good reasons to build out a ninja-like support team as early as possible, and in this post, we’ll explain how it can be done quickly and painlessly.

Stick with us, and we'll have your support function running like greased lightning in a week.

(Yeah, we wrote that sentence just as an excuse to listen to the song, and then share it with you).

Now, before you bookmark this page and file it into your Evernote ‘read at some point’ folder, stop and consider this question:

Is there enough headcount in your business?

For most of us trying to grow businesses from nothing, the answer is no.

There’s NEVER enough resource to get what needs to be done, done. And if one or more members of your team is already spending part of their day answering ad-hoc support requests, you’ve passed the point where you should be thinking about this. You simply should be!

In case you’re not convinced, bear in mind that (paradoxically) support can also grow a business.

Think about the last time you were clasping your phone on hold, your blood boiling, waiting to yell at a customer service representative about something their company had done wrong. Would you have been less angry if your call had have been answered instantly? Probably. Less likely to switch to a competitor the next time you get the chance? Almost definitely.

THAT'S the effect we’re talking about.

An incredible 60% of customers have voted with their feet and taken business elsewhere because of poor support, according to Microsoft. And those that have good support are considerably more likely to evangelize a business to friends and family... As well as paying more!

According to the Harvard Business Review, customers who had the best past experiences will spend 140% more than those who had the poorest past experiences.

Nowadays, a support request may be the first time a customer speaks to a - gasp - a real life human on your team. If you want them to enjoy that experience (and who DOESN'T want other people to enjoy talking to them???), it's important to get it right.

What great support means

A ‘world-class’ support function is simpler than it sounds to understand, and much harder than it sounds to get right.

Amazing support organizations rarely belong to large companies -- there are simply too many people, problems and solutions to offer a great experience every single time.

You'll know this, because you've almost certainly called your bank/utility company/insurance firm/airline in the past six months and HATED the experience, right?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best support comes from microbusinesses that will do anything to keep the customers that they have happy.

The challenge for everybody else is how to build that passion and dedication into something that can work for larger companies, and that will make every single customer feel like they’re crucial to the business.

Fundamentally, that’s what customers want -- to feel valued. Break it down a little more, and you end up with four distinct areas that a world-class support function should get right:

  • Customers want to know that their problem has been heard and is being worked on
  • Customers want periodic updates so they know they haven’t been forgotten
  • Customers want a resolution date so they don’t feel that their grievance is open-ended
  • Customers want to know that the business they are dealing with can do what it’s promised to do

The support function we’ll build today will take care of all of these points. By the end of it, they'll be blown away by their experience every single time -- and they'll be in no doubt that they’re valued by your business.

In the space of a week, these are the steps you'll take to build your world-class customer support operation:

Day one: Build an onboarding function that works
Day two: Set up a knowledge base
Day two: Set up a support community
Day three: Use live chat
Days three and four: Get organized with ticket management
Day four: Set up an autoresponder
Day four: Triage fast
Day four: Assign tickets properly
Days four and five: Never answer the same ticket twice
Day five: Always be tagging
Days five and six: Link up your processes fast
Day seven: Start improving
Day eight: Reap the rewards

We’ve combed through the best support functions from around the world to build the guide below -- but if you have any additions or suggestions, drop us a note on Twitter.

The Foundations Of Great Support

Ask most people good support to looks like, and they’ll describe a magical live chat system with instant answers, or a phone line which is answered by the ever-patient, all-knowledgeable founder of the company right away.

Sadly, they're wrong. The best kind of support experience is... Not needing a support experience at all.

Excuse us if you're a people-person, but interaction with a real-life human is the worst possible outcome for a business.

It’s the most expensive way to handle a customer issue, and so the first step in offering amazing support is to try to make sure it's not needed in the first place.

After all, the wise man built his house upon the rock.

Day one: Build an onboarding function that works

Ever get that feeling when you've typed in your credit card details, hit "BUY NOW" and then realized you've made a horrible mistake? Yes?

Your users probably do as well.

Often, the majority of support requests will come from new users to a product or service, which stands to reason -- they’re in unfamiliar territory, unaware of boundaries, likely to be using the product or service intensively and have the most exposure to buyer’s remorse (in which they’ll wish they’d never chosen your product in the first place).

Now, new users are often interesting for another reason - they represent the most at-risk revenue for a business.

Without established workflows, tonnes of training investment, all their employees logging on daily and complicated connections to other software, the cost of switching to another product is far lower than it would be for a long-time user.

This is why the most successful businesses intensively onboard new customers to make sure they’re 100% happy and understand how to use the product or service that they’ve just spent time agonizing over.

If you don’t do this, it may be time to think about it, especially if a high proportion of your support requests are coming from new users.

If you’re not quite sure where to start, these are some of the most common ways to onboard a new user in a B2B SaaS app -- other verticals and company types may vary.

  • Introductory videos
  • Website walkthroughs that show users around the interface
  • Mass webinars
  • One-on-ones
  • Live-chat
  • Blog explainers/feature introductions
  • In-app wizards, which slowly introduce users to new elements
  • Context-driven email, which introduces features as users discover the app, rather than all at once
  • Tool tips, which float above common user interface items to allow a customer to learn more.

For more on better onboarding, check out The Busy Founder’s Guide to Customer Onboarding here.

Armed with an effective onboarding strategy, you should be able to head off a lot of support requests that are coming from new users, increasing their satisfaction and freeing you up to tackle other types of support.

The providers

Nickelled (onboarding + guided tours) Appcues (onboarding + guided tours) Camtasia (screencasts) Zoom (live + recorded webinars) Join.us (live + recorded webinars) YouTube (video hosting and creation)

Time to implement: 8-16 hours Technical support required? Yes

Day two: Set up a knowledge base

This one really gets my goat.

An astounding number of businesses still don’t use a knowledge base (essentially an online compendium of frequently asked questions).

Why is it so annoying? Because 91% of customers say that they would use an online knowledge base were it available.

And if an answer can be easily found in a knowledge base, customers may not need to contact support at all, so this is another quick win for small businesses.

Most modern helpdesk software, including Zendesk, Intercom, Groove and Freshdesk, include a hosted knowledge base plugin that allows you to set up a hosted page with your top questions and answers. Most of them offer this for free, although Intercom charges $49/m for their service, which you can see in action on our own help pages here.

If you’re feeling more adventurous or you need advanced features such as plugins or analytics, you might be better off building your own knowledge base. The coding skills required for this are minimal, but there are a couple of open-source solutions out there that might make things a bit faster -- check out Opus and Reneto.

To figure out the questions that need answering, start by looking for themes in your historical support requests. If you’ve had the same question more than once, it should be included as an article in your knowledge base -- often, you’ll find that you’ll just be able to tweak the answer that you’ve already sent, and paste it in.

It’s also worth reviewing a list of commonly asked support questions and making sure you’ve covered off obvious queries such as:

  • I can’t log in
  • How do I reset my password?
  • How do I confirm my account?
  • I’ve forgotten the email address I signed up with
  • How do I change my email address?
  • How can I contact you?
  • How can I change my credit card details?
  • How do I cancel my subscription?
  • How do I [insert common process here]

In all likelihood, you’ll need to start categorizing questions to make navigation easier, and you’ll also want to ensure that there’s a fast and accurate search functionality, so customers can find the answer as quickly as possible. If possible, install Google Analytics, so you have statistics on which pages are the most popular and where visitors to your helpdesk are coming from.

Obviously, your knowledge base should be a living, breathing resource -- we’ll talk later about how to ensure that your inbound support tickets are fed back into your knowledge base to reduce overall ticket volume.

The providers

Groove Intercom Zendesk

Time to implement: 6-8 hours Technical support required? No

Day two: Set up a support community

While a support community won’t be appropriate or possible for all small businesses, leveraging your most passionate customers to help each other can be a huge win.

It relieves your support team of some of the burden, as well as providing additional social proof for your company, providing a direct, informal line to customers and adding value to the participants who are interacting with each other.

As with all communities, it’s likely that some leadership and moderation will be involved, so it’s important to consider this at the outset. If you don’t have the time to jump into the conversation every now and then to answer questions or give guidance, a support community may not be right for you.

Increasingly, small businesses are bringing customers on to dedicated community software such as Slack to share advice and tips, as well as directly messaging company teams. If dealing with support requests on Slack isn’t your cup of tea, you can also choose the traditional route of setting up a support forum using forum software such as Discourse, vBulletin or even Zendesk’s own forum-based plugin.

The providers:

Zendesk vBulletin Discourse

Time to implement: < 1 hour Technical support required? No

Day three: Use live chat (if you can)

Live chat has been gaining in popularity for several years now among both enterprise businesses and startups, with 58% of customers saying they’ve used live chat at some point.

Many e-commerce businesses, utility companies and SaaS firms now use some form of live chat - and for good reason. According to eDigital’s Customer Service Survey, live chat provides by far the highest satisfaction rates of any support channel, at a whopping 73% satisfaction (compared to 61% for email-based support and 44% for phone-based support).

There are plenty of reasons, then, to consider live chat as a support option for your business. But there are also some caveats to be aware of.

Somewhat obviously, you need to be able to respond in real-time to customers via live chat - for small startups, this isn’t always possible and can be very distracting. Consider who in your team will be on hand to answer tickets - most live chat software will allow you to have a round-robin style schedule live, but it may not be appropriate for everybody to have a front-line role in dealing with customers.

At a certain scale, live chat becomes untenable - a support agent can only handle a finite number of requests, and a peak period on live chat can see them working multiple cases. Throw in something like a new feature launch or an outage that affects multiple users, and a live chat system will quickly become unusable, so if you have thousands of users, live chat might not be the best option for them or for your staff.

Live chat is also most effective in dealing with queries that have relatively simple solutions that can be resolved quickly. If your typical support requests require time to understand or process, live chat’s probably not the right solution as you’ll be setting a customer’s expectations that they’ll get an immediate resolution and that isn’t going to happen!

Overall, treat live chat as an investment, and watch carefully to see if it’s paying off in terms of customer satisfaction. Many businesses operate successful support structures without live chat.

The providers:

Olark Drift Intercom Zopim Tawkto

Time to implement: < 2 hours Technical support required? Yes

Days three and four: Get organized with ticket management

Tickets provide structure and accountability for a support operation - if you’re a small business and your support requests are sitting in your email inbox, it’s time to evolve.

Fortunately, setting up a ticket management system is ridiculously easy and ridiculously, because it’s a technically-easy challenge to solve so there are a tonne of SaaS companies out there doing it at a low price point.

The danger here lies in selecting the cheapest solution for that reason alone. You’ll have noticed above that some of the most common helpdesk solutions offer integrated solutions, including live chat and knowledge bases as well as ticket management. In general, these will often turn out to be a better deal than buying the separate services individually.

When evaluating helpdesk solutions, consider these integrations, as well as a couple of other things:

  • Additional cost per agent - many solutions become very expensive if your business suddenly scales or you need to hire additional support capacity during busy periods
  • Email parsing - your helpdesk solution needs to be able to accept emails to a generic support@ email address. It’s also useful to be able to send replies over email too (for example, if you’re on the move), with the system taking the email content and sending it as a reply
  • Cross-channel support - if you’re expecting customers to send in queries via social, in-app or other channels, you’ll want to make sure whichever solution you go with can assign tickets across channels
  • Third-party integrations - not needing to switch between your helpdesk and third-party apps such as Stripe and Mailchimp can be a huge timesaver
  • Reporting capabilities - a good support function can’t last long without strong reporting functionality. You need to be able to measure and improve

The providers:

Groove Intercom Zendesk Freshdesk

Time to implement: < 2 hours Technical support required? No

Day four: Set up an autoresponder

If you read the opening lines of this guide carefully, you’ll remember that one of the key things that users look for in world-class support is to feel that their problems are listened to and being worked on.

So an autoresponder should be standard for all new queries - essentially to thank users for their request, inform them how long they’ll have to wait for, and reassure them that the request hasn’t just gone into the ether.

If you’ve used any of the help desk providers above, autoresponders are easy to add. We’ll even provide the copy for you, as it needn’t be fancy (although dressing it up can be an easy way to delight your customers).

Hi there

Thanks for contacting us - this is a confirmation that we’ve received your request and are working on it.

We aim to resolve all queries within 48 hours.

Yours

The Team

See? Not complex, but a huge reassurance to an angry user who’s just taken the time to send in a request.

Time to implement: 20 mins Technical support required: no

Day four: Triage fast

A good triage system is vital for effectively managing tickets at high volume, but it’s worth thinking about even when you’re just starting out. Low-priority cases shouldn’t get in the way of high-priority stuff, urgent cases shouldn’t be dealt with at the expense of important cases.

Consider a simple tagging system to identify tickets which have significant revenue impact or require investigation because they could be symptomatic of a broader problem. Once marked, have a process that ensures these get dealt with first, no matter who’s working the queue - everybody should understand that these tickets take priority.

Conversely, think about marking tickets that don’t require immediate action or should be actioned by non-support staff (for example, product suggestions). Being able to see a clear backlog of cases that require immediate attention becomes increasingly important as your business scales.

Time to implement: 20 mins Technical support required: no

Day four: Assign tickets properly

Many businesses start out in support with an all-hands-on-deck approach, some sort of round-robin system where everybody takes a share. As the number of requests begins to increase though, this sort of system can quickly become unsustainable.
You’ll want to consider individual skill sets and workloads in assigning tickets for resolution — and have a way to reassign cases according to the ability of the assigned person to actually process the request.

Most businesses implement a first-line responder system far too late — it can be a real time-saver. Normally, these team members will be able to filter 70-90% of cases, leaving only the remainder for the rest of the team to process. When engineering capacity is expensive (and it nearly always is), it makes sense to leave somebody else to deal with password reset requests.

First-line responders can be found relatively cheaply on Upwork and normally require minimal training.

Time to implement: < 4 hours Technical support required: no

Days four and five: Never answer the same ticket twice

Canned responses are such a logical support resource that it’s simply stunning they’re so underused.

If your business received the same ticket more than once, there should be a canned response for it - it’s that simple.

These boilerplate responses are an incredible timesaver and can be set up in all of the major helpdesk solutions.

Often, they’ll contain much of the same content as your knowledge base (which is already based on your most common requests), but in an email format.

Remember to block time to revisit all your canned responses and add, edit or delete as necessary. Even if there’s no time to update your responses during your regular workflows, a simple tag such as “canned response required” will make it easy for the rest of the team to flag new topic suggestions that can be added when there’s time.

If possible, you want your canned responses to use merge fields including the requester’s name and the support representative’s name — it makes everything feel more human.

Once your responses are set up, set a percentage target for their usage. In most organizations, canned responses should be used for over 90 percent of incoming cases, even if manual work was required along the way. Support reps shouldn’t be typing “I’ve done that for you” or “Please can you provide the following information” unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Time to implement: 4-8 hours Technical support required? No

Day five: Always be tagging

We’ve already mentioned several ways that tagging can be used for achieving certain support goals. If you can bear it, it’s worth tagging every case with a simple classification though - the groupings you’ll collect can be passed onto other teams and used internally for process improvements.

If you can write a list that covers common ticket subject matters, tagging can be a one-click process for support staff using most modern helpdesk solutions.

Time to implement: < 1 hour Technical support required? Yes

Days five and six: Link up your processes fast

If answering a ticket requires consulting third-party systems, significant inefficiencies are present in your support structure from the outset. The time required for a support team member to open a new window, browse to another system such as Stripe, log in, find the customer and answer the question shouldn’t be underestimated — especially if it’s happening several times a day, across different systems.

Integrating with other systems often gets overlooked or deliberately ignored when setting up first-time support processes - it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “why should I invest in this now when we’re just testing this system?”

If you’re taking support seriously, you should.

Being able to access end-to-end processes quickly not only speeds up resolution time for customers, it also improves the experience for your team, encouraging them to provide a better support experience.

You’ll need to review your own internal processes to identify which integrations are the most important for your business, but based on experience, these are the most common areas:

  • Internal backends for bespoke processes
  • Payment processors (e.g. Stripe, Paypal)
  • Invoicing/accounting systems (Xero, Freshbooks)
  • Dunning systems (Churnbuster, Chartmogul)
  • Mailing list services (Mailchimp, Sendgrid)
  • CRM systems

By simply answering a week’s worth of support requests, you’ll often get an idea of what apps are being used to answer requests — consider spending a week drawing up the list of suggested integrations and then sharing with the team/support team for feedback.

Many helpdesk solutions come with integrations out of the box, but customer development may be necessary for internal systems.

Time to implement: 8-16 hours Technical support required? Yes, often

Day seven: Start improving

All of the advice in this article will make a dramatic difference to the experience of your customers, and it’s all possible to implement in a week or less. Realistically though, support is an ongoing process that can always be optimized.

The reason we focused heavily on ticket management and tagging above is that tagging is a key way to monitor that you’re heading in the right direction. Consider building a weekly wrapup of requests by support area for review by the whole team, with specific reoccurring problems flagged up front for both the support and product teams to discuss.

Using a formal helpdesk system will also help you to measure key metrics such as volume, average resolution time, first response time and replies per ticket. It’s worth keeping an eye on these, but it’s also important to pay attention to what your customers are saying, which is arguably a more important metric.

Use post-ticket survey tools to contact customers after a resolution and find out more about their support experience. Often these sorts of surveys are built into helpdesk tools, but you can also hook up a simple flow using a tool like Zapier to send prettier, more personal messages.

Time to implement: 2 hours Technical support required? Yes

Day eight: Reap the rewards

Feeling inspired? Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas on how to implement or streamline your own startup support processes, even if you don't follow the whole thing verbatim.

In some ways, support is like wind to a sailboat.

Harness it in the right way, and it will take you forward, faster and faster. Ignore it or approach it wrongly, and it will be a drag, forever slowing you down.

If you think we missed any vital steps in building our world-class support operation, let us know on Twitter or via email (hello@nickelled.com).

Until next time!

comments powered by Disqus