Kind words are worth much and cost little. This creates opportunity: when you can't out-spend the competition, the solution is to out-support them.

When customer service is given the credence it deserves, only then do companies get to see what "word of mouth" is all about.

While strict rules restrain creativity and spontaneity, that doesn't mean proven principles to fall on deaf ears. There are a number of customer service tips that have been used time and time again to create great experiences. You need to know about them.

After years of working at Help Scout and talking to industry-leading support managers, I've noticed 12 recurring tips that all of the best support departments have in common.

1. Speak as your customers do

Chase Clemons of Basecamp makes this point with gusto in A Brief Guide to Sending Better Support Emails, but the quick takeaway is that your customers want conversations, not "correspondence." You're not talking with the Queen of England.

Consider the following disappointing example (names have been removed from this real email):

Bad email

The customer is literally treated like a number. The overly formal tone creates the feeling that a letter is being written to a 16th century nobleman--is this an "inquiry" or a conversation with a real person?

Be friendly, personable, and casual. A follow-up email like this works better:

Good email

2. Practice clear communication

Excellence in anything increases your potential in everything. There are few positions for which this applies more than support--clarity in communication is paramount because it affects everything you do.

Styling affects communication.  Tone affects communication. Common mistakes to be made are using passive-aggressive language ("Actually...") or confusing customers with slang, colloquialisms, or technical jargon.

Here's another: which one of the following statements do you think is more appropriate?

  1. You are being transferred. Your call is very important to us.
  2. Hey Jane, I'm going to introduce you to our customer success specialist who will be better able to answer your question!

Easy. One is a trite platitude that people are sick of hearing. The other explains to customers why the transfer is to their benefit. Wording makes all the difference.

3. Engineer a better customer experience

Experience engineering, as proposed by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi in The Effortless Experience, aims to make the soft skills of support more tactical. It consists of two core ideas: influencing customer perception when saying "no," and solving the next issue to avoid unnecessary follow-ups. Let's examine the latter.

Here's a common way to think about a new contact: the customer is doing something, they run into a problem, they email you, and you fix the problem. Take a victory sip from the ol' afternoon coffee, add a win to your First Contact Resolution rate, and move on.

Solving for instances

But what if we thought in outcomes instead of instances? The customer might follow-up with another question related to their original goal. This time, they're helped by someone else on the team. We count that as yet another "first contact resolved," but the customer views it as "I had to contact you twice."

Instead we should think about Next Issue Avoidance, says Nick Toman. How? By knowing when to view a conversation through an outcome-focused lens -- what is the customer really trying to do? What are her next steps after this resolution? Can you help her before she asks? Can you remove roadblocks before she reaches them?

Solving for outcomes

4. Take stock of your incoming conversations

Bill Price, former Global VP of Customer Service at Amazon, created the pragmatic Value-Irritant matrix as a way for companies to take stock of incoming conversations. It was first shared in his book The Best Service Is No Service.

Its purpose is to get you to think critically about what types of conversations you're currently having, and how you can shift the ratio.

Value-Irritant matrix

To reduce low-value conversations, first figure out why customers are contacting you; tags and Custom Fields are useful for this. Price suggests a pair of questions to be raised when evaluating how you tag your conversations:

  1. Are you using too many arbitrary categories? If the use of a specific tag suddenly increased, could you tell if it was due to valuable or irritable conversations? Seeing a rise in the "Payments" tag doesn't reveal as much as a spike in "Payment error."
  2. Do you need to know what, or why? Amazon originally had "Shipping issue" (what happened) as one of their contact codes, but Price didn't find it useful. They later split the category, using codes like "Late by shipper" and "Warehouse delays" (why it happened).

Remember, making changes to favor valuable conversations isn't a selfish gesture. As Price's matrix demonstrates, you can reduce the need for many types of contacts, saving both you and the customer time and energy.

5. Always use positive language

Positive language is a great way to avoid accidental conflicts sprung from miscommunication. While the change is subtle, the effects are drastic.

Say one of your products is backordered for a month and you need to relay this information to a customer immediately. Consider the following responses:

  1. Negative language: "I can't get you that product until next month. It is back-ordered and unavailable at this time."
  2. Positive language: "That product will be available next month. I can place the order for you right now and make sure that it is sent to you as soon as it reaches our warehouse!"

Redirecting the conversation from negative to positive places focus on the proposed solution. When the outcome takes center stage, it reduces the odds that customers will be upset.


6. Give credence to complaints

Harsh words are not always indicative of insight, and complaining customers are not always a sign that something is wrong. Be that as it may, sometimes great feedback is buried within the vitriol--give credence to every message.

To stay consistent in tone and process, use the CARP method:

  • Control the situation.
  • Acknowledge the dilemma.
  • Refocus the conversation.
  • Problem-solve so the customer leaves happy.

Receiving the same complaint repeatedly is the beginning of a narrative. This shouldn't dictate what to do next, but it will begin to reveal what requires your attention.

7. Know how to close

The ability to close improves every single interaction. This is not closing a sale, it's closing the conversation with a customer.

Leaving an issue unresolved creates unnecessary problems. Data suggests as little as ~4% of dissatisfied customers will ever speak up. Not everyone will communicate what is bothering them--often because you haven't communicated that you care.

Your willingness to correctly close a conversation shows the customer three important things:

  1. You care about getting it right.
  2. You're willing to keep going until you get it right.
  3. The customer is the one who determines what "right" is.


"Is there anything else I can do for you today? I'm happy to help!" Always look for small opportunities like this.

Make sure you and your team always get to a place where, "Yes, I'm all set!" rings loud and clear.


8. Help customers help themselves

Great customer service should always be available, even when you aren't.

When done right, self-service is personal at scale. View your help content as a top-tier reply from your support team made public for all to see and benefit from. Screenshots, videos, styling and more ensure your frequently asked questions will get frequently loved answers.

While impressive efforts like VHX's documentation will take you some time, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the journey to a useful knowledge base starts with your first article.

9. Make use of strategic automation

"Filtering" can sound worrisome in the realm of customer service, but it more accurately serves as direction. Customers receive the best support possible when they are sent to the right place the first time around.

With Workflows, you can trigger automatic filtering through subject line keywords. This offers a number of advantages:

  1. Make iterative improvements. Want to keep response times down to ~6 hours? Set up a Workflow to remind the appropriate user(s) so that messages don't sit and collect dust.
  2. Highlight opportunities to 'Wow!' By setting up a folder and a Workflow for a keyword like "Refund" in the subject line, you'll add a streamlined way to salvage potentially lost customers. Special conversations ("Upgrading," "Canceling my account") let you provide superb support at key crossroads.
  3. Better manage VIP customers. It's helpful to filter enterprise or long-term customers to their own folders to ensure timely responses. They may have different needs; set them up for success by getting them out of the main inbox.

Meaningful automation helps create more meaningful conversations. Best to use it wisely.

10. Be data-informed, not data-delusional


Why rely on "It feels like we spend a lot of time on this issue..." when reporting can easily eliminate the guesswork?

This is actually an important, often-overlooked issue in support. Too much focus is given to the frequency of issues over the average handle time for each.

Rather, that is your world before customer service metrics. Your world after is clicking the "Time Tracking" tag and gaining immediate access to data that tells you how many emails you receive about the feature, as well as how long it takes your team to handle the conversations.

Measure your customer service

Although great data cannot guarantee good decision-making, it's better than flying blind. The right data will help you keep your team in the loop. "Here's how we did this week" becomes easy and valuable. Satisfaction Ratings top it off by allowing you to see where support interactions went really well (or very wrong). Both are learning opportunities.

Better learning results in meaningful improvements. Being able to see through the haze of a thousand of emails is illuminating, and an important step in getting there is not relying solely on your gut.

11. Give thanks in the real world

We've entered a world where retention matters in business more than ever, but web businesses seem happy to avoid interacting with customers.

They aren't pageviews--they're people. How would you feel if a deli owner asked you to join their message board just to talk about how the cold cuts tasted?

Time to bring the personal touch back to the real world. Consider this handwritten note that Jawbone sent to a new UP customer:

Handwritten note

A single picture that was retweeted 150+ times--that's an immense amount of goodwill "paid for" with a simple thank you.

What other 5-minute task creates as much ROI as that? You won't have time to hand-write every customer, but if there is one activity that should never get lost in the shuffle of building a business, it's thanking your customers.

12. Spot and deliver 'frual wows'

Memorable experiences spring from the unexpected. When your team feels stifled by red tape, remember these words from Paul Graham: "An obstacle upstream propagates downstream." If you make ideas hard to implement, your team will stop offering them.

Frugal wows are the answer, says Bain consultant Fred Reich. Take the opportunity to guide the support team away from throwing money at the problem, and instead pour thought and effort into it.

According to Rob Markey, disappointment strikes when companies try to "empower" their team the wrong way:

We know of one retail bank that gave their call center representatives the edict to delight customers and permission to waive up to $150 in fees for any customer without seeking any additional authorization.

The result? Customer satisfaction rose a little, but fee revenue declined. A lot.

When a customer is looking for nothing other than free stuff, they aren't a good fit for your business in the first place.

13. Unify your support team

Managing customer service without a playbook can feel as chaotic as a pee-wee football game.

Consider the time lost manually answering frequently asked questions. The same principle applies to explanations to your staff on the back-end. Encourage autonomy and eliminate confusion by creating unity through clarity.

How?

Use a support lexicon. "Is it okay to say this?" Support should always feel welcome to ask, but you can eliminate excessive questioning through a support lexicon, a handbook on how to talk to customers. Focus on the dos and don'ts of tone and language, and outline the style of customer service you admire.

Address common objections. A while back I had a prospective customer make a "scale objection" to Help Scout. Could we handle 50 users? I knew some of our customers had over 400 unique users and replied as such, but I felt my answer would have been better with additional information. The next week, our support team made a customer objections doc, addressing things like competitor objections ("How are you different from ____?") and pricing objections.

Outline your processes. When is it appropriate to write a piece of help content? Is it okay to set up a new workflow without asking management? How should we document bugs and errors? Every support department will have these questions, and to best address them, give guidelines that allow for autonomy but that don't leave people lost without a map.

14. Link new activities to outcomes

In his book Customer Experience 3.0, John Goodman says support teams should create goals that link process (new initiatives) with outcome (resulting impact). Otherwise, you risk setting goals that are more means than end -- an improved response time is great, but what's the long-term significance for you and your customers?

  1. Process goals track the new initiatives you start, like moving to 24/7 support or conducting an audit of your knowledge base.
  2. Outcome goals measure the results of your initiatives with metrics linked to customer behavior, like rate of referrals and volume of complaints.
  3. Financial goals tie the outcomes of your projects to the company's finances, namely in revenue saved/earned and customer value.

Attribution is tricky, even for companies who are flush with data. As the saying goes, more fiction is written in Excel than Word. The value in Goodman's framework lies in the concerted refocus from what we did in support to what impact we had on the business. The latter is where every department wants to be.

15. Invest in great people


The quality of your customer service will never exceed the quality of the people providing it. If you plan on out-supporting the competition, plan on investing heavily in a team that can deliver.

Leadership has one main objective from which they should never stray: Hire who you trust and trust who you hire.

Customer service can either be nothing more than a means to an end, or it can be a dynamic aspect of your entire business. Engaging customers and helping them get the most out of your product will give them a reason to tell others why they love your company. Use these tips, and I guarantee you'll be on your way to world-class customer service.

Published on: Aug 24, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.