These are guidelines for happy customers. I'm writing them because I spend too much time being an unhappy customer.

Customer Service Priority Levels

Customer service exists, for the most part, to help customers when things fail. On that basis, the best customer service in the world would be no customer service at all. If I never needed customer support again, then that would quite simply mean that everything was working as it should. So the very first step in customer service should be to figure out how to do less of it.

Stop trying to serve people in the best way and getting overly caught up in how to do it. Make your product better, make it so good that people don't need your help at all. Use every bit of customer service that you do as a guideline for how to make your product better and eliminate customer service in the future. Make your product or service just work.

In the mean time, while you're doing that, recognise that some problems are more important than others - and treat them as such. Not all problems are equal. Some things need immediate attention, while others can wait a little while to be dealt with. Too often customer support is all lumped together when the priority of support requests should be something like this:

1.) The Whole Thing is Failing

Whatever your product or service is, its core feature is dead. If you offer hosting, your servers are down. If you sell software, it has a bug that prevents the program from running. If you sell boats, they are sinking. The crux of this point is that customers have given you their money with a core expectation, which isn't being delivered on.

These customers need to be helped right-fucking-now. Not in 5 minutes, not tomorrow. They've given you money in exchange for services, and you're giving them no services. If YOUR service is failing then don't send them to support forums, don't ask them to open tickets, get a phone number and help them personally. You messed up, now you fix it.

Treat these customers like royalty, because they trusted you and you are letting them down.

2.) Money Money Money

Remember why businesses exist? To make money. If someone needs customer support for the process of giving you money, you should probably help them out pretty quickly if you want to stay in business. Money is a difficult thing because it comes with stigma. People are very conscious about their money and their financial data. Someone thinking that they may have been charged twice after completing an online order is a much bigger problem than someone finding a software bug. Problems relating to money cause panic.

Again, these customers need to be helped very quickly indeed. All of the confidence which the customer has in your company rests on how you deal with this level of customer support. Completing a payment takes trust and commitment from the customer, any problems to do with payments or money will seriously hinder your reputation in the eyes of that customer.

3.) There's a Real Problem

Nothing is perfect, which means that you're always going to have to deal with some customer support. Maybe one feature of your product isn't working right, but everything else is fine. The crux of it is that most of what you've sold is right, but there's a small problem that the customer wants help with. Your phone works fine, except when you hold it a certain way. Your new accounting app works fine, except when you assign 2 contacts to the same invoice. Your new car works fine, but the hand-break is loose.

These customers need help, but they don't need it right now. They have a real problem and it needs to be addressed, but nothing awful is going to happen between now and then. The core part of the product works, and they haven't had any problems relating to money. Acknowledge the problem, offer an interim solution if applicable, fix the problem. If you can't fix the problem, give the customer something back to acknowledge that they paid for 100% of a product and you only delivered 90%.

4.) There's a Fake Problem

Sometimes your thing works just fine, but the customer has a problem using it. At a base level, this is your fault. 2yr olds have no trouble using iPhones, so your customers should have no trouble with whatever you've built. For now though, you just need to help them out. If they bought a theme, they can't figure out how to install it. If they bought a flat-pack set of shelves, they're putting it together backwards. If they have a camera, they're shooting with the lens-cap on. The crux of it is user error.

These customers don't need help quickly. They just need help.  There's a small caveat here though: The actual importance of the customer support issue is sometimes vastly different from the perceived importance. For example, the customer shooting with the lens-cap on thinks that the camera doesn't work at all. They think that their support query is level-1 importance - aka "help me out right-the-fuck-now" - which is exactly what you should do.

For everyone else, help them out when you can. If they need a lot of help - then explain that their issues are outside the scope of customer service, but you're going to help them out as much as you can anyway.

5.) Feedback and Suggestions

Often times, customers have feedback and suggestions for your products. They see how it works, and they've thought of a better way of doing it. Other times, they'll just have things they want to ask you that aren't a problem - like "Do you want to sponsor my conference?" or "Have you considered making/selling [relatedproduct]?"

These guys are very low stress, low maintenance customers. They're getting in touch, but most of the time they probably don't even expect a response. They just want to get in touch and tell you or ask you something fairly inconsequential. You should always respond to them, but if you have thousands of customer support queries to deal with then these guys go to the bottom of the list.

Customer Service Channels

Once customers have been grouped by importance, the next question is what channel is going to be most appropriate to dealing with their problem. Different channels for different problems and different types of customer. Pick one based on whether or not it's suitable:

1.) Text Based Services - Email, Twitter, Forums

People try to distinguish between these, but the distinctions are largely irrelevant. The key is that the customer is trying to get in touch with you through the medium of a keyboard. The keyboard (assuming it's attached to a computer) has a profound effect on people, and apparently changes personalities. The keyboard is a method of communication which uses 0 of the human senses. You read the words someone has written, but you don't see how they feel. You read what they've written and then you interpret it (usually wrongly) to try and figure out what it all means.

Benefits:

  • Quick to produce, quick to consume.
  • Very easy.
  • Can reply to lots of people with the same message.
  • Historical data of conversations if preserved.
  • Free.

Drawbacks:

  • People can (and WILL) interpret text wrongly, so will you.
  • Can take longer to resolve complex problems.
  • Public conversations for all to see.

Conclusion:

The perfect medium for 90% of customer support, but you need to exercise extreme caution in how you express yourself to ensure that customers interpret you correctly. I add a :) to the end of a huge number of my replies to other people on Twitter not because I'm a 14 year old girl, but because I want to make sure I'm interpreted with the correct tone. There's a big difference between. "Don't be such a dick!" and "Don't be such a dick! :)" - People will often read text and interpret it based on their own assumptions of whether or not you're being friendly. Most significantly, if text based communication starts going down hill, it's a slippery slope. Once friction has been created, it becomes very EASY for both parties to send snarky replies to each other.

The biggest advantage of this medium is that it's "quick and easy" - so if it stops being those things then you're using it for the wrong reasons. If something isn't getting resolved with a keyboard, switch to voice.

2.) Voice Based Services - Phone, VOIP, ScreenSharing

Voice communication has been around for ages, whether by telephone, over skype, or even through some sort of remote screen-sharing support utility. Voice communication is handy because you can get a lot of back and forth done very quickly. An hour of emails flying back and forth about an issue can almost always be resolved with a 10 minute phone conversation. The downside of course, is that everyone has to be around at the same time

Voice is a great next step after text because it introduces tone. We actually get to make use of one of our senses to interpret the way in which something is being said rather than just guessing. It's easier to understand the problems and the emotions of the customer, and at the same time it's easier for them to understand you. You become a real person to them, and not just some faceless text on their computer screen.

Benefits:

  • Tone and emotion are conveyed.
  • Much easier to resolve complex problems.
  • Private conversations.
  • Easier to calm down angry customers.

Drawbacks:

  • Generally slow for most communication.
  • Often difficult to schedule.
  • Non-reproducible. No FAQ's on the phone.
  • No way to go back and look up what was said by who.
  • Can be very expensive if used a lot.

Conclusion:

The biggest problem with phone-calls is the perceived time that it will take. We know that one email will take 2 minutes and one phone conversion will take 10 minutes. What we often fail to remember is that to accomplish something complex: twenty emails will take 40 minutes and one phone conversation will still only take 10 minutes. As a rule of thumb, if you can predict that a problem will take more than 5 emails or tweets to resolve... then pick up the phone.

3.) Face Based Services - Retail Outlets, Meetings

Not very relevant to most tech based businesses, but still relevant to agencies and other people who conduct some form of customer service through meetings. The age-old face-to-face situation is what we used before introducing all these newfangled layers of technology to help us out. Speaking to a customer in person is great because it uses at least two of the senses, if not more. The more senses that we have in action, the easier we find it to empathise with our customers, and vice-versa.

Benefits:

  • Tone and emotion are easily conveyed
  • Easy to resolve complex problems
  • Private conversations
  • Cheap

Drawbacks:

  • Painfully slow
  • Generally painfully hard to schedule
  • Macho men
  • Non-reproducible
  • No historical data

Conclusion:

Face-to-face customer interaction isn't much better than voice communication all round and is really only used for convenience, or for when two individuals really need to get to know each other prior to engaging in a large business agreement. It's easy to communicate and help people in a face-to-face environment, but there is also the added drawback that men often feel the need to be macho and to assert their authority in real life (You know, to prove that they're real men), so sometimes logic/sense is replaced with testosterone.

4.) Physical Services - Post, Fax

If you force your customers to communicate with you like this then Jesus hates you and kittens die every single time you do it. With a few miniscule exceptions, there is absolutely no reason that your customers should be the subjected to the torturous bullshit of "writing a letter" that will only serve to aggravate them further.

Benefits:

  • Nothing

Drawbacks:

  • Everything

Conclusion:

Don't fucking do it.

Customer Service Methods

Once you've prioritised your customer service requests, chosen which one to deal with and what channel to use: you actually need to do something with them. They've gotten in touch with you (generally) because they have a problem of some sort. It's time to solve that problem. Here's how:

1.) Say you're sorry

This should (but doesn't) go without saying. As already established, if a customer is contacting customer service, then it's because they're having a problem which is probably your fault. Apologise and mean it. Actually give a damn. Don't just apologise because I wrote it here or because other people tell you that you should, apologise because you care so much about your product that you're genuinely embarrassed that it isn't functioning correctly. Be sincere.

As humans, we all have huge egos. We all like to think we're a lot more important than we are, and we definitely all like to be treated as though we're a lot more important than we really are. "The customer is always right" is a misleading statement which many people enjoy disputing, the sentiment which the statement really conveys is "The customer is always most important". The customer isn't always right, in fact they're wrong a great deal of the time, but they never stop being most important. Showing a customer humility and making them feel important is the absolute key to making customers happy. If you are defensive, condescending, or anything else that implies that they don't really matter to you - then you lose.

User error is your fault. Build it better, document it better, and apologise when customers make mistakes because you didn't make your product's functions clear enough.

2.) Resolve the issue

Fix it. If someone is getting in touch with you then it's because they need something to happen. Your first goal (after apologising) should be to find a way to solve their issue. If there's a bug in your software, patch it. If they aren't happy with their makeup, change it. If they say the food is cold, exchange it for them. For the most part, customers care more about you trying to fix an issue than whether or not you actually fix it. People want to know that you care about them and that you recognise the problem and want to fix it - the rest is often secondary.

In January 2011 I moved to a city called Lincoln in the UK. After moving into my new house, I discovered Virgin media (my broadband company) were suffering from a big network fault which meant I got 50kbps speeds instead of 50mbps speeds. Ouch. The company literally couldn't fix it. They needed to assign a budget and a team to the area, get planning permission, and then carry out the work to upgrade the infrastructure. It's going to take 4 months to upgrade, but I'm still with them because I got such amazing customer service and people *trying* to help me and find interim solutions.

If you can't completely fix the problem, try to at least partially fix it. If one part of the product is broken, suggest another way in which they could accomplish the same task. For example if one part of your WordPress plugin was broken, you could suggest another plugin to the customer which they could use in the mean time to complete that one specific task while you fix the original product.

3.) Give them a refund/discount

If you can't fix the issue or the customer has been majorly inconvenienced by the issue, give them discount or a refund. Do not be shy. Yes the point of being in business is to make money, but a happy customer is worth much more to your business in the long run than an angry customer. If you give an angry customer their money back (you always let them keep whatever they bought too) then they will probably become a happy customer and use you again + recommend you. If a customer feels like you've cheated them out of their money then not only will they never be a customer again, but they'll tell all their friends to avoid you too.

While companies should do this all the time, they often don't. So this method has the added bonus that it may be unexpected and pleasing to the customer. Being given a refund/discount when you feel that you deserve one is good. Being given a refund/discount when it hadn't even crossed your mind is really good.

4.) Give them a freebie

If nothing so far has worked and the customer is still unhappy, or the issue was so large that you feel it warrants it. Give the customer a freebie. Even if you've already given them a full refund. This is really just an extension of the last step. Essentially what you're trying to do is not just refund the customer for the problems they had (making you 'even') but to go the extra mile and compensate them for the inconvenience which you caused them (making them 'happy').

Consider whether or not the customer is worth to you whatever the wholesale cost of your product is. Happy people spend money. So make them happy.

5.) Ask for their advice, and then do what they say

With all customer service, but particularly those customer who have had a particularly tough time, ask them for their feedback and then do what they say. Once again this comes down to humility. Customers like hearing that you consider their opinion to be worthwhile, they like being made to feel important, and they like it when you go out of your way to improve your company based on a problem which they experienced.

Keep in mind that this method is largely pointless (and potentially even damaging) if you make a whole load of empty promises or simply ignore the customer's suggestions. Your most vocal critics can quickly become your most vocal evangelists if you make them feel like they matter and that you really care.

In Closing

This post is dedicated to @VodafoneUK - who really suck at customer service. If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more stuff like this, I've just written a book on the subject. More details coming very soon - subscribe to my blog or Twitter or Facebook in the mean time!