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.