A few days ago I was doing some research on the topic of product support when I came across a sensational article. The article in question is not exactly new. It originally appeared in the November 1983 issue of the Harvard Business Review, back when the magazine went out in print. You may be wondering why am I bringing a 37-year-old article into your attention, and there is a very simple answer to that question: because it speaks an evergreen truth about product support. Moreover, it’s not just any truth, but one whose importance has only grown bigger over the years. Now, let me dust it off for you:
Good product support is smart marketing
I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty astounding that somebody figured this out decades ago, and still, many product-first companies haven’t quite got there yet. Granted, things have changed quite a bit in the meantime. Back in the early 1980s, the majority of product support was focused on physical products, and strategy was often limited to attaching a set of instructions. Even though call centers date back to the 1960s, phone support was still a novel thing. Fast forward to our times. Technological advancement and changes in how we shop, work, and live have led companies to explore and use new channels for product support, such as:
- Live chat (relying on human agents, but also on chatbots)
- Email communications
- Online communities
- Web content / documentation
Combined with digitalization, the expansion of the service economy has allowed for the emergence of new product categories, and also for new product support strategies. SaaS is a prime example of this phenomenon. It’s a relatively new product category that tends to leverage on strategy and a multiplicity of channels to provide support. However, picking the right strategy is not always easy, and developing a presence on every possible channel is not synonymous with good product support. Which leads me to the question: how does one develop a working support strategy? To answer this question, I did extensive research and also asked leaders and founders about the importance of support in product-first companies. Now, let’s take a look at what I learned.
Lesson N°1: Forget About Marketing, and Focus on Customer Experience
In most cases, marketing is a means to an end. You ideate and implement marketing strategies with a goal in mind: exposure, leads, conversions, and whatnot. However, in the context of product support, marketing becomes an end that comes after customer satisfaction. Why? Because of another sempiternal truth:
Happy customers are among the best marketers you can get
By offering great support, you are likely to influence a customer’s actions and words in the future. I can’t stress enough how important this is:
- Best case scenario, it will turn customers into bona fide marketers
- Worst case scenario, it will mitigate the frustration that comes with an unsolved problem
These are nice statements, but also self-evident truths. The real question is how to provide excellent support with limited resources, which I believe is the case of most, if not every company out there.
Lesson 2: Tell Me Where It Hurts
In order to define a product support strategy you need to look at the following:
- Product roadmap
- Customer journey map
- Pain points and bottlenecks
- Available resources
- Tools, channels, and platforms
These will help you identify where and why your customers decide to ask for support. Subsequently, you will be able to choose the best strategies, channels, and tools to support them. Let’s take a look at some of them.
- Live support: live chat, phone support, real-time ticketing
- Asynchronous support: email, messaging platforms, social media
- Passive support: knowledge bases, documentation, tutorials
- Indirect support: online communities, social media
- Tiered support: the level of support depends on the subscription or plan
Tickets, Phone, Chat, and SMS/Text support
- Help Scout
- Salesforce Desk
- Zoho Desk
- WhatsApp for Business
Bear in mind, you can also create ad-hoc support solutions by integrating tools you already have or use. A good example here is this Gmail - Slack integration.
Building Online User Communities
- Facebook Groups
Knowledge Bases and Documentation
Lesson N°3: Make the Most of What You Have
Here is where it gets interesting. Although it can be said that most companies pursue some variation of the same generic goal (“Provide good product support at the lowest possible cost”), each one has different needs, and approaches can vary greatly. In my opinion, the cornerstone strategy for maximizing your resources is simple and straightforward: clear documentation for the most common issues. Furthermore, it is equally important to make this documentation available in a way that customers can access it before reaching the support team. This is popularly known as a knowledge base, which allows for:
- Passive product support
- Buffering access to live and asynchronous support (human agents)
Knowledge bases usually catch a significant amount of issues, and there are many companies that implement them. Examples abound: take a look, for instance, at Payoneer’s knowledge base: Payoneer is a financial services company that serves hundreds of thousands of customers on a daily basis. As you can imagine, the larger the user base, the harder to keep up with product support. In the case of Payoneer, the knowledge base serves a double purpose:
- Answer common questions, and offer the user a database to search for issues
- Prevent common issues from going straight to live support
Other companies that lean on documentation-first approaches include Facebook and Google. However, relying solely (or mostly) on documentation feels like a luxury these companies can afford. Documentation is the groundwork, but not the ultimate solution. In any case, my recommendation is simple:
- Know the pain points
- Factor in your available resources, cost of tools, and labor involved
- Implement solutions that make sense to your product roadmap and to your customers
Lesson 4: Listen to Others, and Don’t Be Afraid to Change
Product support is not infallible, but this shouldn’t translate into a free pass for mistakes and poor customer satisfaction. Sometimes, looking at what other people are doing can provide you with valuable insights for your future plans. I recently brought up the topic of support in a famous online community that gathers product managers, and got two answers that were particularly interesting. Jenkin Lee, Chief Product Officer at Baze, told me the following:
“(Support is) Extremely critical. Not that you have it per se, but that the business is intentional about the role support has in the delivery of your product experience. This understanding would then inform the level of automation, messaging, and self-service features that your product roadmap would need to address as well as the economics of the business model required for scale.”
I thoroughly agree with these words. Support does not take place in a void but within the context of a product. It has to be goal-oriented, scalable, and economically viable. The other answer came from Esther Lozano, Product Marketing Manager at Sematext:
Support is so important in product-first companies. When your customers encounter an issue, it's frustrating for them. Being there to help when that happens establishes trust and the basis for any long-term customer and contributes to higher customer retention rates. A lot of companies, understandably, can't afford to place a team of support agents. In order to reduce requests for support tickets, it's important to invest in solutions that monitor user experience and satisfaction like uptime monitoring and end-user monitoring tools. By proactively monitoring front-end and back-end performance issues, you can get ahead of them and resolve them before your customers even find out.
Interestingly enough, Esther mentioned one of the biggest challenges surrounding support: costs. This is aligned with what I wrote above: figuring out support value is crucial to deploy the right strategy, and also to pick the best tools.
Lesson N°5: Manners Are Free
In disregard of the strategy, you should never forget about two key aspects:
- Technical knowledge
When interacting with customers, your people should always be knowledgeable, empathetic, and timely. According to an article by the MIT Sloan Management Review, customers want solutions, but also a human touch:
- 92% want to be treated with dignity
- 76% want to be sure their problems won’t be repeated
- 74% want an explanation
- 63% want an opportunity to vent
- 62% want an apology
If you've ever been in an argument with someone, you will know that sometimes the issue is not as important as acknowledging it. In this line, make sure your support team does not fail at the following:
- Timely answers. Nobody likes to be kept waiting
- Empathy. Listen, read, ask questions. Apologize, be polite and thoughtful
- Knowledge. They came to you for answers. If a problem can’t be solved immediately, promise to follow-up, and keep your word
To conclude here, one final piece of advice: if a product support request takes place in a public setting (for example, a comment section in social media), be extra careful with your answers. Nobody likes to have their issues downplayed or to feel mistreated in public.
Conclusion: What Does Good Product Support Look Like?
I worked for many different companies during my career, but never before did I work for one that embodies all the lessons displayed in this article. In that regard, Integromat has been a pleasant surprise, and it shows in how customers express themselves after interacting with the support team:
Not every interaction is this cheerful, but the signs are clear: when pain points, resources, and channels are in place, everything becomes easier. We live in an era where competition between products tends to be fierce, and a carefully-planned product support strategy can mark the difference between you and your competitors. It will be up to you to look at it as an expense, or as an investment.