History and evolution of customer support

The 1960s and the invention of the call center

The first time customer support occurred, in the modern sense, was with the invention of the call center in the 1960s. With business evolving and technology advancing, companies needed a way beyond face-to-face conversation to help their customers, and hence phone support became valuable and widely used. This was the birth of the call center!

The 1960s and the invention of the call center

The 1990s and the invention of email and live chat

Phone support remained the best option for providing support up until the 1990s when the internet was introduced and George Bush hosted the first-ever “Customer Service Week” during the first week of October in 1994. Email and live chat took over from phone support as being one of the best and cheapest ways to respond quickly to your customers.

The 1990s and the invention of email and live chat

The 2000s and the birth of support specific software

As customer support moved into the 2000s, companies started inventing their own software for providing excellent support, and we saw the birth of the CRM, helpdesk software and other tools made specifically for customer support. There was also a rise in social media support on sites like Twitter and Facebook and, at the tail end of the decade, technology like remote desktop support became viable. This allowed customer support representatives to remotely view their customer’s desktop and control it from afar.

The 2000s and the birth of support specific software

Customer support, today

Now, customers are firmly in the driver’s seat of their experience. They have a ton of power through social media and it’s easier than ever to research and switch to your competitor. The gold standard in customer support has been set - customers want convenience over everything else. And the top brands are already consistently providing it.

In order to compete in the future, customer support teams will need to provide an omnichannel, proactive experience. Customers won’t accept anything less than a well designed, well executed customer support strategy.

Customer support, today

Types of customer support

There are a few different types of customer support that most companies offer to their customers, though they may not use the same titles for them. They are reactive support, proactive support, and self-support.

Reactive support

This is what people typically think of when someone says “customer support”. If a customer emails in, opens a chat window, tweets at your company or calls into your hotline and you have a customer support representative that replies, it is reactive support. It means that your team is reacting to a customer issue, rather than proactively trying to solve it. This is not a negative thing, but moving more towards proactive support rather than reactive support will provide a better experience for your customer.

For example, if a customer is looking for assistance in account management, they could use a proactive tool or documentation and get their answer instantly, or they could wait and receive a reactive response from your support team telling them the steps to take. The customer could have done it themselves and it would have been a better, and quicker experience for them.

Proactive support

Proactive support is any customer support that a company implements that isn’t specifically responding to customer inquiries. Some good examples of this could be: automated emails that trigger at certain points in the customer lifecycle, suggested documentation at the bottom of certain pages within your product or website, or user onboarding or a how-to guide with your service or product when your customer first signs up or purchases.

Tip: Proactive support lowers the number of inquiries that your customer support team receives while minimizing the time it takes for a customer to get their answer.

Work on addressing common customer support inquiries before the customer even realizes that they need support. For example, pay attention to your trends of people reaching out to you in the inbox: what do they reach out about, what are they having trouble with? Once you have a handle on the specific problems that you need to address, you can start to figure out ways to reach out to customers prior to them reaching out to you. For example, if there is always a specific question that people have about your product, and it always occurs around the three-month-usage mark, trigger an automated email, notification, or in-app message right before that mark and get them the answer before the question arises.

Self-support

Also known as “self-service” self-support is anything that a customer is able to do on their own. So, for example, if you have documentation for your product or service, host webinars, write books, or have any kind of standing resource that the customer support team does not need to help the customer use, that would all be considered self-support.

How service and support go hand in hand

Oftentimes, people get customer service and customer support confused. While they are similar there are some important differences between the two that allow them to work together well for a customer-centric approach and an even better customer experience.

Customer service does what’s needed

Customer service is more transactional—for example, a customer service representative might be on the phone with the customer, answer all of the customer’s questions, finish the call and hang up. They might have offered some additional services linked to what the customer already had, but beyond that, they just did what the customer asked them and nothing more.

Customer support goes the extra mile

A customer support representative would have done the same, but perhaps recommended some additional documentation to help get the customer moving in the right path towards the next steps. Later on in the day, after the call, they might have brought up some of the customer’s concerns with members of the product team or even written new documentation so someone else in the future doesn’t run into the same issues.

They both work on the same team, using the same tools, but customer support is more proactive, whereas service is transactional and reactive.

Challenges faced in support

There are a few very specific challenges that are faced by people in support roles. These can cause problems for customers, and degrade team metrics. It’s important to be able to keep an eye out for trending towards these bad habits so that they can be corrected quickly and avoid losing customers over small customer support mistakes.

Taking too long to respond

Customers really value a quick response. If your company has a service-level agreement (SLA) in place or you advertise anywhere on your site how long it will take for you to get back to people, it is important that your team maintains those standards. Even if it’s just sending a message to let them know you are working on the issue, a customer appreciates knowing that a human has read over what they’ve written, and it hasn’t been lost entirely.

Providing the wrong solution

There’s no better way to lose the trust of a customer during a customer support interaction than by giving them the wrong answer and acting as though it is correct. If a customer responds to one of your customer support representatives and notifies you that you are wrong, the first important step is to apologize and acknowledge that you’ve offered the wrong answer. Then, move forward and try to provide the correct one, or dig deeper into what you might have misunderstood. The customer will appreciate your transparency and willingness to take the blame and will be willing to move forward in order to get a proper solution.

Lack of personalization

Canned responses and saved replies can be excellent time-savers in customer support, but they can also lead to a poor customer experience if they are done tactlessly. Whether you are using saved responses or not, add some personal tone and energy into your responses so that customers know there is a human on the other side.

Misunderstanding angry customers

Dealing with angry customers is a skill and personality trait that not everyone has naturally. For most, when someone is angry or frustrated they freeze up and do not know how to respond. Customer support representatives need to be able to handle angry customers and understand how to de-escalate a situation if it starts to ramp up.

Sometimes, though, a customer might get very angry and the agent is unable to negotiate their own feelings and also responds with frustration. These situations need to be monitored and coached on as they happen—there are valuable opportunities in every emotionally-tense situation with a customer regarding how it could have been handled better.

Tools to improve customer support

Even if your company offers the most amazing customer support and has a 100% customer satisfaction rating, there are probably still a few things that you could be doing better. Luckily, there are tools to assist with the most common things that customer support teams struggle with, and when done properly they can be implemented with ease.

A beginner’s guide to a helpdesk

Answering service

If your company offers phone support and you are outside of your traditional hours, it is frustrating for a customer to hear the phone endlessly ring and then go to a voicemail. By providing an answering service, you give them the ability to talk to a human who can at least point them in the right direction, rather than forcing them to wait to see if anyone even listens to the voice mailbox, let alone calls them back.

You can also implement a full-service answering service or call-center that handles all of your incoming phone volume. Call-centers handle all training and quality control for the calls they manage, so while it might seem counterintuitive to let something so important out of the hands of your support team, it’s an excellent way to scale.

Helpdesk

When customer support teams first start out, they often use a shared inbox on a service like Gmail in order to keep costs down. But adding a helpdesk to the tools that your team uses is a huge up-level for the customer support that you are able to provide. Helpdesks offer features such as:

  • automation for workflows and ticket assigning
  • tagging for better data about what kinds of tickets are coming through
  • escalation processes to assign tickets to appropriate team members
  • coworking features that let customer support agents know when someone else is working on their ticket.

If your team does not already have a helpdesk, finding one that addresses the needs you have for your team will be a big step forward for your customer support team.

Knowledge base and chatbots

These tools help support teams provide more self-service options. If your customer support team does not have a knowledge base already, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to deflect some of your tickets from your inbox, lower your volume, and provide your customers with a better support experience.

Utilizing chatbots or AI does the same: a chatbot is able to direct your customer to where they need to go—which may or may not involve interaction with your customer support team. If it resolves the customer’s issues quickly and without fault, it saves both your customers and your team members a little bit of time that they could spend working on more meaningful and impactful tasks.

Importance of monitoring the support team’s performance

Just as with all things in business, customer support is important to monitor. Without knowing how you are doing from a quantifiable standpoint, it’ll be difficult to shift your strategy or implement new processes within your team. There are a number of metrics that range across the inbox and into customer sentiment that can be useful for benchmarking and using to help develop your customer support team:

  • First contact resolution (FCR): FCR is when a customer support agent is able to resolve your customer’s inquiry on their first response. It’s valuable because it means that the support rep has answered every question that the customer had in the email, and also any possible follow-up questions that they could have after.
  • First response time (FRT): FRT is the time that it takes a customer support agent to respond to a conversation the very first time. This is valuable because it is important to the customer, but also because it shows if a customer support agent might be inundated with tickets. If a support rep’s FRT is growing higher or has spiked, they might have too much to deal with.
  • Number of responses to resolution: this metric is the number of responses that it takes for a ticket to be resolved by a customer. It is valuable because it can show if agents are taking the time to dig deep into conversations with your customers and understand where the issues are coming from. It can also indicate a rise in more technical issues and that you are automating away some of your low-hanging fruit tickets.
  • Customer satisfaction (CSAT): CSAT is the numerical indicator of your customer’s satisfaction with your product, service, and brand. It’s important because it indicates whether customers are satisfied, happy and loyal, or if they feel untrusting or dissatisfied with your service or product.
  • Resolution service level agreement (SLA): an SLA is the amount of time that your company has promised your users that it will take for your customer support agents to reply to and resolve their tickets. This is valuable because it sets the expectation for your customers regarding how long they should expect to wait, and gives your support team a timeframe for prioritization.

Types of support channels

Support has grown immensely over the course of the past few decades. While we just started out with call centers and phone support, now a customer support representative can even dial into someone’s computer and remotely control it if they want to. Here are some of the support channels that modern customer support agents have at their disposal:

Email

Customer support provided via email is what most companies offer as part of their baseline. It allows for difficult troubleshooting, screenshots, and even items of code to be sent and worked through by the customer support agent before they respond to the customer, making it very attractive for more technical products or services.

Social media

Social media allows for a quick request and a quick response back, which is why so many customers love it. While it can be very difficult to troubleshoot complex or difficult issues, it’s a great way to send a customer some documentation or point them in the right direction.

Chat

Chat is a useful tool for your support to provide in-the-moment support for customers or prospective customers on your site. Sometimes, a company’s sales and customer success teams will also use chat as a way to really enhance the customer experience.

Self-service

Self-service is documentation, webinars, or anything that a customer can use to resolve their issues on their own. These are usually created and maintained by the customer support team but can be used without their involvement. What that means is self-service is one of the major ways that a support team can make an impact on their volume of tickets: customers don’t need to create tickets if they can help themselves.

Call

Phone support is where everything started back in the ‘60s, but it still remains an excellent way to provide support to customers. Some customers prefer phone support over having to write out all of their questions—getting on a phone with them will build additional trust. Phone support is not a great place for troubleshooting technical or code-based issues but can be good for discussing best-practices, or general “how to” questions.

Bots

Bots and AI are quickly becoming the way of the future, and it is no different in support. Using a chatbot, or AI for routing can save your customer support agents a ton of time, and also can learn intelligent pathing to suggest new documentation or things you need moving forward. While it can’t write the documentation yet, shining light on things that your team might be missing can be super impactful.

Omnichannel support

Every time a customer is passed from one customer support channel to another, they lose a little bit more of their faith in your brand. Omnichannel support provides direct links between any support channel that you offer and allows you to pass your customer easily between any of them with little effort on either your customer support agent’s part or the customer’s.

Tip: With an omnichannel helpdesk you can give your customer support agents context regarding everything the customer has experienced, subsequently making support’s job easier, and the customer’s experience better.

Omnichannel support also gives customer support agents the superpower of never having to ask a question twice. If one of their colleagues has already asked or addressed it, that context and information will be provided right within the ticket—that impacts response time, customer satisfaction, and the number of responses needed per ticket.

Future of customer support

We’ve talked about the past and history of customer support, but how about the future? There are so many new and exciting things on the rise, it’s inspiring to see how far the industry has come. Here are a few of the more exciting things on the horizon for customer support:

Data analytics

data analytics and companies that specialize in it specifically are on the rise in support. For customer support agents and managers, analytics are particularly impactful with triggering things like proactive onboarding or chats and personalizing an individual’s product experience. Proactive support is going to change forever.

Self-service

self-service is only going to grow from here. In the future, support will see a rise in support tools like FAQs for self-service, and forums or communities for crowd-sourced support.

AI

when people hear “AI” they usually think chatbots, but there are many other forms of AI and they are also extremely useful. Social Signals, for example, helps customer support agents and marketing folks recognize which tweets to prioritize over others. Tools like this will continue to grow and advance the industry.

Automation and machine learning

Automating repetitive tasks is integral for customer support, but what if there was a way for customer support agents to learn about things that needed to be automated away before it came to the forefront? Machine learning is coming into the mainstream and is going to be incredibly impactful for automation and building better chatbots.

Instantaneous, multi-device support

a customer should be able to pick up their phone, send a chat message into a company, and then move to their computer and be able to finish the conversation there without any complications or hitches. The experience should be seamless. Soon, this will be the norm for all customer support teams at customer-first companies.

Messaging-first support

Customers prefer to be able to message instantaneously and receive a response as soon as they can. Moving forward, support will be offered more frequently in social media apps like Facebook or Twitter, and shift away from traditional chat and email models of support.

Tip: Be a customer hero by making it as easy as possible for your customer to get the help they need, wherever they are.

Customer support has far advanced beyond its days of being a group of people stuck in a tiny room answering phone calls. While phone chat is still a major part of customer support culture, things like machine-learning, AI, and proactive support keep leveling-up customer support agents’ options. Customer support is unstoppable.