Nailing User Experience for Your Customer Support Channel Strategy

When it comes to helping customers at scale, channel strategy is a tricky thing. It’s a dance between meeting customers’ needs and expectations while ensuring your support team is consistently able to handle thousands of contacts well. Not to mention a channel strategy for a tiny startup handling 500 emails a month will be pretty different from an established company fielding millions of contacts a year across every imaginable channel. Fortunately, a core set of questions can help you determine what’s best for you, regardless of size.

But before I get into those magical tell-all questions, imagine the following the scenario (based on actual events):

I want to confirm I have a camping reservation tomorrow. I hate talking to people over the phone, so I’d prefer not to call. But the email I sent two days ago went completely unacknowledged so I’m wondering if the company’s webform even works.

The live chat queue has just been telling me all reps are busy for 10 minutes now, so I’ve completely forgotten I even opened that. Calling seems like it might be the most sure-fire way to get through to someone, but I’ve been on hold listening to terrible jazz music for 20 minutes now and I have to go to a meeting.

I hang up and open Twitter while I power-walk to my next meeting, and when I see the company offers support, I’m relieved I can send a direct message instead of shouting my annoyances publicly. By the time I’m done with my meeting, I have a message back confirming my reservation. Problem (finally) solved.

Here’s the thing: the simplest and fastest way of handling this issue would’ve been a confirmation and/or reminder email sent from the reservation system. This is an issue that could’ve easily been fixed, at scale, with better product planning and automation.

I first and foremost believe in solving support issues at the source.

But when solving root-cause problems isn’t immediately possible, how can a support team set the customer experience right?

What Customers Consider

There are a variety of factors customers (often unconsciously) consider when determining what they’ll deem their “best” support channel for any given issue:

  • Reliability: Is this channel actively and efficiently monitored? (e.g., does anyone look at this Twitter account?)
  • Speed: What channel will get my issue resolved in the timeframe I need it to be addressed? (e.g., can I afford to wait for a response?)
  • Clarity: What channel is the best for handling my problem in a way I can understand? (e.g., will the representative be able to understand the issue I’m seeing and will I be able to see what they’re trying to explain to me?)
  • Personal preference: What channel am I willing to use to help with this issue? (e.g., can I stand to pick up the phone and talk with someone?)

Failing to consider all the facets shaping your customer’s support experience will end up costing you more in the long-term, whether that’s through duplicate contacts (often in costlier channels), escalations that didn’t need to happen, damaged brand equity, or plain old customer churn.

What Support Teams Should Ask

Taking into account all of those customer considerations will help guide a thoughtful channel strategy—one that ensures you’re investing in the right places so that your support costs are truly effective.

Take the time to make sure you know the answers to questions like:

  • What contact options does our core customer expect? If you’re building a SaaS tool for a technically savvy user, they’ll likely expect strong documentation or user forums to get help on their own, whenever they need it. Working on software to help people file their taxes last minute? They’ll probably want the option to hop on the phone with an expert to make sure they’re handling their money correctly and make the deadline.

  • What’s the context in which our core customers contact us? If your customers are using your mobile app on-site at a loud concert, a phone call for support might be less than ideal (but contextual chat might be just the trick). If they’re in the middle of making an online purchase, don’t make customers navigate to a new page to get questions answered; provide a self-help tab or chat to keep them engaged with the most important task.

  • What’s the emotional state of this customer contact? Some channels do a much better job of striking the right tone for a conversation; a smart chat team can be great at building an informal, friendly bond, and video chat can help dissipate the urge to write those angry, all-caps emails.

  • What’s our core customer’s ideal turnaround time? What explicit or implicit promises have you made to your customer about when you’ll respond? Some issues might require near-instant responses to be relevant to a customer (like getting their tickets for an event when they’re already on their way there) while others will feel urgent even without a clear deadline (resolving refund issues quickly). You’ll also want to consider what channels can fully resolve an issue in a single session (like chat) versus the back-and-forth of asynchronous channels like email or forums, which can be frustrating or fine depending on urgency.

The answers to questions like these should help shape what channels you invest in most when it comes to picking support tools and staffing your team. A company that champions fast phone support from a human requires a vastly different channel strategy mix compared to a company that’s all about thorough, accurate documentation. Getting clear on the ideal experience for your core customer will make figuring out your channel strategy trade-offs a lot simpler.

But What About Right Now?

So back to that original scenario. If fixing the product wasn’t an immediate option and implementing an ideal channel strategy is a long-term effort, what could a support team have done to prevent all that customer frustration? Time for some quick wins.

  • Provide honest turnaround times and let people know their message was received. For example, let people know your current chat wait time or that your email response time is 2 business days. Reinforce that expectation in the automated email they should receive when they reach out and consider providing a secondary way for them to reach out for urgent issues, like responding to that email to bump the message to the top of your queue without creating multiple cases. Tools like Facebook Messenger and Intercom make this easy to do.

  • Ask for the minimum amount of information you need to help a customer well. Ideally you should take advantage of what you already know about a customer and use that to make the customer service experience easier. For example, if you can look up customer orders by their email address you know because they’re logged in, don’t require them to find an order number to contact you.

  • Allow voicemails/call-backs for callers (or better yet, scheduled calls) if you provide a phone number. Many of your customers are likely willing to wait for solid human help, but sitting on hold for 30 minutes versus getting a return call in 30 minutes are very different experiences.

  • Enable Twitter support. Many customers know that public complaining through Twitter can be massively effective—but there’s also the fact that Twitter direct messaging is just plain easy and familiar. Giving customers the option to message you for support through Twitter shows you care and can keep conversations under control.

At the end of the day, creating a customer-centric channel strategy is about understanding what your customers want most from your team and building a strategy centered around those things. Knowing what moves the needle for them when it comes to valuing your company means it’s easier to make the right tradeoffs and focus on providing the best support to your customers.

Running Remote Workshops Successfully: A 3-Step Primer

Nothing quite feels the same as real face-to-face time with people—but when you have a dispersed workforce, figuring out how to collaborate effectively despite the distance becomes an imperative.

When it comes to facilitating brainstorming workshops, this can be especially important to get right. Just because everyone’s body isn’t in the same room doesn’t mean their brains can’t be!

My experience managing a team with people in California, Tennessee, Argentina, and the U.K. has taught me a few things about taking everything we love about collaborative, creative workshopping and doing it with people around the world—and it’s not as hard as you might think.


Step 1: Be Thoughtful About Your Setup

A huge amount of the success of a workshop that includes remote participants hinges on getting the tech setup right so that everyone can focus on each other instead of frustrating logistics. If running meetings with tools like Google Hangouts is new to you or your participants, this is especially true.

Some basic considerations to help things go smoothly include:

  • Be conscious of time zone differences. When everyone is in the same room, an all-day workshop might make sense. But with when your 5pm is their midnight, things aren’t going to go well. Splitting a focused session up is not only considerate, but can be beneficial in giving people time to sleep on ideas and come back refreshed.
  • Make sure the meeting link is included in the event invitation. This is very easy to do with Google Calendar. Including your agenda and support docs in the event is also very helpful for folks to find what they need fast before, during, and after the workshop.
  • Ensure remote participants have access to digital versions of anything you’ll be passing out during the meeting. This means setting up the access permissions and sharing links before they join. You can even ask them to print materials if you’re including activities that involve hand-writing responses.
  • Reserve a room for people joining from other office locations (so they don't have to join from their desk or a noisy shared working space). This ensures they’ll be able to hear and be heard and helps to create that “getting out of our usual environment” feel you want to fuel creative thinking.
  • Test out your audio and visual connections in the room you’ll be using. Ideally, the video should allow the remote team member to feel like they are sitting at the table, so pay attention to how the camera is positioned and how in-person participants are seated. You don’t want backs to the camera or far-away and muffled voices.

Step 2: Create a Level Playing Field

Right up top, it’s important for everyone to be on board with the idea that team members joining remotely are just as valuable to this workshop as those in the room.

  • Start with connection. Besides basic role-sharing introductions among a cross-functional team, you can tap into the power of human connection by sharing something a bit more vulnerable, like what you're grateful for that day.
  • Disconnect from distractions. At the beginning of any workshop, I like to ask everyone to close their laptops* and put away their mobile phones. Since remote participants are using their computer to connect, it helps to ask them to close any email/chat tabs so they can be just as fully present.
  • Non-verbal cues are key. Remote participants should ideally have their videos on throughout the workshop so that their non-verbal queues can be read (give them a head's up about this expectation ahead of time so they don't feel pressured into an unwanted pajama party). Similarly, unless you have a large number of remote participants, I like to encourage folks to keep their mics unmuted—this allows for informal feedback (“hmmm” and “uhuh” type responses) to create a more natural connection with the group.
  • Explicitly invite input from remote members. As a remote participant, speaking up can be difficult since in-person participants might not see your non-verbal queues of having something to say. As a facilitator, if someone joining remotely hasn’t spoken up in a while, invite them to weigh in on the discussion. This can help that person feel included in the conversation and remind any in-person participants to check in with their online colleagues.
  • Pay attention to the clock. Time-boxing activities using an alarm everyone on the call can hear helps focus activities. Equally as important is making sure to take regular breaks—and be clear about when to return (e.g., "Let's take a 10 minute break and restart at 11:13."). 

* Having laptops in the room, however, can be really useful for breaking up into smaller groups by connecting on separate Hangout connections. 


Step 3: Get Creative with Traditionally Analogue Activities

There’s nothing I love more than a well-structured activity to get people engaged and talking with one another. When everyone is physically together, this often involves a lot of sticky notes and whiteboarding (sound familiar?). Initially, this can feel difficult to duplicate with remote participants, but some simple adjustments can help.

One lesson learned: video of whiteboarding is almost entirely useless. It’s hard to write big enough for notes to be clear and video comes through fuzzy when people are moving around in front of the board to write. I wouldn’t recommend it—but don't worry, there are equally effective alternatives!

Sticky note-based activities are great because they can help people generate lots of focused ideas without worrying much about structure or if the concept is completely thought out. While there are online tools available for more directly replicating this super helpful and beloved analogue activity, these tools can often be more work than they’re worth (you spend all your time trying to use it instead of focusing on the brainstorm itself).

Instead, use a low-tech tool that mirrors the idea of casual sharing—like a Google Doc, Sheets, or Drawing. I actually love to blend the analogue with the digital by having all participants generate ideas on sticky notes, then verbally share their thoughts while one designated note taker writes everything out on a shared doc, which the group can also vote on. There’s the added benefit of having instantly sharable documentation of your discussion.

One element that I still find tough to replicate with remote teams is the “hallway conversation”—the discussion that happens as people filter out of a meeting room after the workshop or run into one another at lunch the next day. But spending this dedicated time together in a workshop setting builds connection beyond that workshop time, which can be paired with great tools like Slack to facilitate an ongoing conversation.

Ultimately, with some creative planning and consideration, remote workshops can be a total success for your team to grow together.

Make User Feedback a Real Conversation

Embracing a healthy user feedback community as you develop a product says you're serious about meeting user needs, and it can hands-down make the difference between a flourishing product and a mediocre one.

Ever since I beta tested GatherContent's system, I've been enamored with trying out new products and giving user feedback to the companies behind those creations. With GatherContent, I've basically become the definition of a brand champion.

The product is great (and it just keeps getting better all the time), but what really got me invested—what keeps it top of mind as something I regularly advocate for among other content strategists and designers—is that the team embraced me as a valuable contributor to their development.

Did they implement all of my ideas? Of course not. Hell, at some point I probably asked for a unicorn to dance across the screen.

What they did do is acknowledge all of them, giving me insight into how the product is being developed and why. I was invested and I loved it. I happily became a paying customer when they transitioned to a subscription model.

This month, I've been trying out another web app, Sprintly, for agile project management, and it's showing a lot of promise (besides being the best looking PM tool I've seen to date). And after my experience with GatherContent, the presence of a customer feedback community was part of my decision to try it out. While the app itself has a lot going for it, their user feedback community has left a lot to be desired.


Not all feedback engines are created equal.

First, let me say that having a customer community at all is a huge improvement over more traditional methods of customer service. That said, building a community around improving user experience should itself be a solid user experience.

GatherContent used Get Satisfaction as their customer feedback community, and while it’s not a perfect tool, it provided the features necessary to facilitate our productive dialog. Giving feedback comes in four forms:

  • Ask a question
  • Share an idea
  • Report a problem
  • Give praise

These are the most common ways I want to interact with a product I'm using, and keeping it all in one community—where employees and customers alike can respond and discuss items—is beautifully simple and effective.

I've never been a fan of being forced to search community-supported forums for answers because they're usually bloated and difficult to parse, but Get Satisfaction has provided thoughtful paths for getting exactly what I need out of an interaction.

UserVoice, on the other hand, differentiates between types of interactions, creating a disparate community in the process:

  • Contact support submits an email (moving a conversation about problems to individual inboxes instead of the community, where everyone could learn from a single conversation)
  • Give feedback is a way to submit ideas within the format of "I suggest you..." Most people ignore the prompt.
  • The Knowledge Base provides topics and FAQs that help you get up and running and troubleshoot. Unfortunately, several of these articles are repetitious (e.g., the categories FAQs and Getting Started cover many of the same issues in separate and slightly different documentation articles).
  • There's no encouragement to provide praise. Sad. There are lots of good things to be said about Sprintly so far!


Let your customers help you.

I first realized that my ability to communicate in Sprintly's UserVoice community was limited when I noticed that there wasn't a way to comment on documentation articles. These items allow only two responses: "This article was helpful" or "Flag this article as inaccurate." What I was reading was helpful and accurate, but most of the time I had more questions or knew I could add information that would be helpful to other users.

After several tweets, UserVoice eventually told me that clicking "flag this article as inaccurate" would allow me to provide feedback to the company (I tried this out and it did what I'd originally expected: marked it "flagged" but didn't provide a way to give more details. Oops.).

They also said that these options made dealing with comments easier to sort through on the support side (fair enough). But flagging has the connotation that you're sounding the alarm, so why would I anticipate using this to give comments (even if it did work)? Forcing a user to say something is inaccurate in order to add depth to the information seems completely counterintuitive.

Instead, providing a way to capture and embrace the knowledge, experience and time of your enthusiastic users is the best way to develop a vibrant and useful community (and customer base!).


Know exactly what to sell your customers, without even asking.

One day in Sprintly, I was adding new stories and trying out features, finding answers to my questions and happily voting for and creating ideas in the community… when I was cut off.

With UserVoice, participants have 10 points they can use to vote on existing ideas or add new ones. After you use them up, all you can do is view information and add written comments to existing items. Essentially it restricts users' voices to a certain volume, which makes me wonder if a volume knob would've been a better glyph than their megaphone.

But I get it. I can be overly talkative. I have a lot of thoughts, and they're not all diamonds. There's a need for balance in understanding what your user base wants as a whole. But really, you're completely cutting me off from adding ideas to the pool? Ideas that the builders behind this app might really want to tap into? You know, when I'm telling you exactly what to sell me?

I'm all for prioritizing the highest-value features before spending resources to create something that might just be a crazy idea that totally fails, so limiting how many votes a user can cast is fine by me.

But limiting user feedback, particularly if it has to do with new ideas, only serves to mute the conversation.

User feedback is a rich (and free) brainstorm that can make the difference between a decent product struggling to figure out how to improve and a fantastic product that gives users exactly what they want and need.

When all is (hopefully) said and done, companies are more than capable of prioritizing this feedback themselves, letting the weak ideas fall by the wayside and building upon the strong ones. Asking users in your feedback community to cull the pool is cutting potential off at the knees.


The outspoken will always find an outlet.

Before social media, customer service was primarily about managing angry customers, if not in person then by phone or possibly email. And to be fair, complaining on Twitter may be the fastest way to get resolution from a company.

But this doesn't have to be the whole conversation anymore, and we shouldn't limit ourselves to managing problems.

Stubborn vocalists like me will turn to mediums outside of the immediate customer community to connect to the people behind the product. I've been tweeting at Sprintly's founder since I was cut off by UserVoice, and to his credit, he's been super responsive. But he shouldn't have to manage feedback in so many places—it's not efficient and it's not collaborative.

I recently discovered that I could even work the system and create another user profile from which to start all over with points, but I don't want to hack it. I want it to be better. UserVoice may be more than a helpdesk, but it's less than a community.

The bottom line is that, as with anything, everyone will have opinions. The question is what you do with them. Your perspective on how to handle user feedback (and which user feedback community to choose) could be the difference between your product being loved by many or tolerated by few.