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Bringing humanity back to customer support

by Colin Nederkoorn

The businesses that we love and aspire to be get the details right.

By now you’re probably encouraging people to reply to your emails. What do you do when they write to you?

You don’t want to ignore those emails. That’s the worst possible response. As your company grows, those email conversations are likely going to be handled by people on your customer support team.

I’m thrilled to share with you a conversation I recorded with Chase Clemons of Support Ops. Chase also handles customer support for 37 Signals.

In the conversation, you’ll learn how we handle support emails, how support = sales, as well as the role of support in a software business.

Before we start, I need your help.

We’re looking to find someone great to be our Director of Customer Happiness. If you know someone smart and friendly who loves making people happy, tell them to get in touch. I’d love to know them.

Now on to the interview with Chase. Listen to the audio or read the full transcript below.

Colin: Today we’re talking with Chase. Chase runs “Support Ops.” Chase, do you want to give a little bit of background about yourself?

Chase Clemons: Yeah, sure. I’m with the awesome support team over at 37signals. Been with them for just shy of two years now.

When I started with them, the first thing I asked was, “Where can I learn how to do support better?” I’m definitely a people person. I grew up in restaurants. Got a degree in public school and teaching that kind of thing. I get people, but interacting over email and with an online app is a little different, just little quirks here and there.

I was looking for a good place to learn that. There wasn’t really one, so I and a couple of friends went in and we started “Support Ops.” That’s the thing. We want to bring humanity back to customer support by showing and teaching people that it can be done right, it can be done well, and it can set you apart from everybody else that’s doing it really, really badly out there.

Colin: At Customer IO, we view support as one of our core competencies. We don’t have anyone dedicated doing it, but everyone on the team gives people customer support. We’re also an email company. When I saw that you did a PDF for Help Scout where you were talking about email copyrighting for support emails, I was really interested and intrigued by that.

That’s when I started following you, started listening to the “Support Ops” podcast, which I would recommend to anyone who ever has to interact with customers. It’s great to help you know what to do when these crazy situations come up. You and your guests always talk about a lot of experiences you have in the field. I started listening to that.

7 tips and tricks for responding to support emails

I’m excited to have you on the call today. I’d love to hear from you. What are those core things? I think you had about seven tips and tricks for responding to support emails. I don’t know if you know them off the top of your head, but would you be able to share those?

Chase: It’s one of those things that I don’t carry around in my head, but it’s one of those things that I did have pulled up. It’s just tips and tricks for responding to support emails. When it comes to emails, there are these little things you can do to let customers know that you’re human, to let them know that you’re there for them,

The seven that you were talking about, the first one being, use their name. Customers love when you say, “Hey, Bob. Hi, Bob. Hello. Hello, Bob,” that kind of thing, rather than just “hello” or “hi there.” It lets them know that you know who they are.

Second, make sure to say thanks for using your app. I know it sounds really simple, I guess is a good word for that, but it’s a big thing. There’s a lot of choices out there for your customers. Saying thanks and meaning it when you end an email with that helps out a lot.

Three, talk like they do. Don’t use formal writing or big words or things like that you wouldn’t use in real life. If you don’t say “plethora” in real life, don’t write it in an email. Write like you would to a friend, write like you would to your grandmother, that kind of thing.

Four, short, simple sentences absolutely reign. Break up those long paragraphs into readable ones. They’re reading an email, not a full novel.

Five, for feature requests, if you’re an online app like we are, or kind of with physical products, too, but not quite as much. Online apps are going to get a lot of feature requests. When you get that, repeat their idea back to them and relate to it if you can, because that shows them that you’re actually reading their email and not just canning a reply back to them.

If you can, tell them about new features, because it always that your team is working on the app. They like to see that it’s not a stagnant app, that you haven’t forgot about them.

The last one being, whenever you close your email, close it on a highlight. Something like “Happy Friday” or other date-specific line lets them know that you’re writing the email on that day. It just adds that touch of authenticity to it again. If you see somebody with, like, an email address…I saw one today, I’m a big Auburn University fan, so the last words I threw in were “War Eagle.”

Just a little tidbit at the end, just to let them know that you’re real, that you’re human, that you’re just like they are. One of the things I like to end emails on is, “Have an awesome…” Today would be Tuesday, so, “Have an awesome Tuesday.” People stop and go, “Wow! That’s a little different.” I’ll get emails back, “You have an awesome Tuesday, too.” It’s just a little fun, a little flavor.

Colin: Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, all of those rules are things that make sense for marketing emails, too. When we talk about writing marketing emails with our customers, they ask, “What tone should I have? How should I speak with my customers?” A lot of times I’ll review copy from them. It will sound really formal. They’ll use words like “plethora.”

I’ll say to them, “Hold on a minute. Write like you’re talking to the person. Make the email feel like you’re having a conversation. Short sentences are absolutely so much easier for people to digest.” A lot of times you’ll see these one sentence, giant paragraphs. They run on forever. Breaking those up into these digestible chunks makes it so much easier to read an email and parse an email and understand what’s trying to be communicated by the email.

Chase: We don’t know where they’re reading the email at. We don’t know if it’s on a huge cinema display or if it’s on a mobile phone. If it’s on a mobile phone and it’s more than two or three sentences in a paragraph, they’re scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. That’s it. It can be frustrating. You’ve got to think simple. Think concise. Write an email to your mom or your best friend.

Coordinating outbound marketing with the support team

Colin: One of the things that happens right now, and we advocate our customers do this as well, is basically when you write a marketing email, let people reply. Our emails funnel from the outbound marketing email into a support inbox.

I’d love to know. How do you view the relationship between marketing and your support team? Is there a lot of overlap? Should there be internal communication so that the support team knows when marketing’s going out, to be able to react to it and respond in a cognizant way to new features that may be released that day, things like that?

Chase: Yeah. For so long, companies have set up…You’ve got your support team over here, then you have your marketing team over here, then you have your sales team over here. They don’t realize everyone is doing support. Everyone is doing marketing. Everyone’s in sales. Every email that you send out is marketing, sales support. They’re all one in the same.

We’re really fortunate at 37signals to…We use Basecamp, of course. That’s our big project management app. Whenever an email newsletter goes out, we get a draft copy of it first. We’re able to go in and say, “The replies to this might have questions about this or they might have questions about that.”

We’re ready whenever a customer replies back to us because we know these people are…If they’re not in the trial, then they’re on a month-to-month kind of thing, so they can bail at any time. They’re able to stop their subscription and walk away to another competitor if we don’t get our part right. We never want to be caught flatfooted without a good answer to something.

Having a couple of our designers that send out the newsletters, that do that kind of marketing, talk with us and us with them, really, really helps out because that communication there is going to make sure the customer gets the best information at the end of the day, be it from the newsletter or from us or whatever.

A case for emails with “noreply”?

Colin: Along those lines, do you guys ever send out emails with no-reply? Is there ever a case for that?

Chase: I touched on an article about this a couple of months back. For me, no-reply, just never use it. Never, ever, ever, ever use it.

The only time I will make an exception and say it’s OK is if your app sends out email notifications. Like with Basecamp, when somebody checks off a to-do, then we send an email to the person that created it letting them know this person completed this to-do. There’s no interaction with us really needed at that point. It comes from a notifications app. It’s a no-reply and it works fine there.

Otherwise, anytime I see a no-reply email address, that just means that the company doesn’t care about me. They don’t want to talk to me. They’ve closed off that channel. That’s dangerous.

Whenever you send out an email – marketing, support, anything like that – always have where it flows back into your support queue or back into an actual monitored email box, because they need to be able to reply to you. They need to have that open communication lane directly back to you if they have questions, if they have ideas, just anything like that.

That communication is going to make them feel like they’re part of the app itself. I have people that write in and say, “We love Basecamp. We absolutely love it. We run our business on it. We just want you to know that you’re awesome.” Those emails come from us just sending out a newsletter.

Support as part of your sales function

Colin: That’s awesome. I know with other businesses the support team wouldn’t have any interaction with people until after a product is purchased. When you have SaaS products with free trials or where people can go month-to-month, a lot of times people will reach out to support before they make that buying decision.

With your company, you guys, as far as I know, don’t have any sales people. We don’t at the moment either. Every support request is also part buying decision, part looking for technical help. How do you view support as serving the sales function in 37signals? Do you think of it that way?

Chase: Yeah. Again, people just throw this phrase around, but we honestly think that all of us are marketers. When somebody is in their free trial…Right now our free trials are 60 days. That’s two months that they could potentially have a question. When they write an email to us, not only are we providing support, we’re providing a reason for them to buy our product.

Say, for instance, I’ve got two identical apps, which are really easy to do these days. Anybody can make a knockoff of some app. I’ve got two identical ones that I’m looking at. I send an email to one and get a standard response back saying, “We’ll be in touch in 48 hours. Your email is important to us. We really love you. Yadda-yadda, whatever.”

The other one gets back to me within an hour. It’s the information I need. They’re really happy. They’re really cheerful and upbeat. Which one am I going to go with? It’s going to be company B every single time because support is something that sets you apart.

Like I said, you can copy an app. With enough time and things like that you can hack together something that looks like any app out there. You can make a Facebook knockoff or Twitter knockoff or whatever. But providing a great customer experience, providing that great customer support is something that you can compete on.

It’s come down to the point now where you can’t compete on just features with an app. You’ve got to out-support the other guy. You’ve got to make that a point where, when somebody says, “We’re looking for a project management app. Where do we go?” Their friend pipes up and says, “I just got a great email from the Basecamp support team. They really rock at what they do. Definitely check them out.”

How to scale personal emails and your support team

Colin: That’s actually a pretty good lead-in to talking about scaling support. Let’s say you’re a pretty new company. You’ve got a few people on the team. One person’s handling support. They have the knowledge of the entire team in their head.

One of the things that we’ve seen which is pretty clever is basically allocating an individual support person to each person who signs up so that you round-robin through your support team. Anytime an email goes out to that person, when they reply, it goes to the same support person so someone really knows the account well.

That’s one way we’ve seen to scale support. How do you think about scaling a support organization so that quality is high as you add new people to the team?

Chase: At the end of the day, it all comes back to you’ve got to hire the right people. You’ve got to hire somebody that’s solid, that you can trust, that you can trust with your customers.

There’s a lot of support teams out there that will hire somebody on in this call center setting or whatnot. They’ll pay them minimum wage. They just expect them to be burned out and gone inside of a year. That’s completely the wrong approach to take about it.

You’re hiring a support professional, somebody that’s going to come in and get to know your customers and get used to talking with them and know them inside and out and that kind of thing. You want to have that really, really solid hire. This person’s going to be the spokesman for your company. I think this is something that people don’t think about a lot. They think about, “That’s marketing. That’s our press,” whatever. No.

The person that interacts with your customer the most is your support person, your support team. For all intents and purposes, they’re the voice of your company to your customers. You want to make sure you’ve got the right person in that role. That means looking for people that are creative, that are self-motivated, that you don’t have to watch over them all the time, that just have good personalities – people people, for lack of a better word.

We talked a little bit about it before, but there’s a great phrase. Hire for soft skills and train for hard skills. I can teach anybody to use our support app. I can teach them Basecamp. I can teach them even on some level how to write an email. I can’t teach somebody how not to be rude to a person. I can’t teach them to be nice. You either are or you’re not. Hire for soft skills, train for those hard skills.

As you grow your team from there, as you start scaling up your support, everything else is going to take care of itself. They’re automatically going to be watching out for your customers. They’re automatically going to be able to do the right thing just because you hired the right person.

Handling inbound feature requests

Colin: Day in, day out, we get bombarded with feature requests. I imagine you guys do too.

Chase: Yep.

Colin: I think it’s in the book “Getting Real” where Jason Fried talks about not writing down customer feedback, not making a list of feature requests. (A) Do you guys follow that rule? Do you keep all the feature requests in your head? (B) How do you relay that information to the rest of the team?

Chase: It’s definitely one of those where if we wrote down every single feature request that we got…Any given day, I’ll get 10 or 15. 10 or 15 a day, that’s 60-75 a week. There’s no possible way that you can write all these down and keep up with them. I’ve seen people try it with apps that track how many votes a certain thing has and all that.

At the end of the day, when you ask your customer support person, “What feature request do you see the most?” They’re going to be able to name the top three. Not having a list or anything, I know that right now with Basecamp our top feature request is private items. People want to make things private inside of Basecamp. I totally understand it and I can outline the reasons for it just because I see that and I talk with customers day in and day out that are looking for that and that have ideas about that.

We don’t write them down or anything like that. Whenever designers and programmers start looking for a new feature to work on, one of the things they’ll do is, they’ll stop by support and say, “What are things that people are looking for?” We’ll say, “X, Y, and Z.” They’ll pick up whatever interests them at the moment.

At the last meet-up, we were talking about customers who really want private items. A couple of our designers and programmers stepped up and said, “I’ll take a stab at that. We’ll see how it goes. No promises or anything.”

That’s the big thing. You’ve got to be honest with your customers and let them know that even if you have a great idea, we’re a small company. We’re small team. We might not be able to get to it. We can’t make promises about what will and what won’t make it into Basecamp in the next couple of months.

But there’s no reason that you couldn’t say, “That’s a great idea. I’ll make sure to share it with the team,” like we do. That’s how we handle it. It’s not going to work for everybody. I know. I’ve talked to people. They give me flack about it all the time, but it works for us and it works for our team.

Colin: You have a wonderful response that is in a PDF of email responses that you have. They’re not canned responses, but they’re examples of how to respond when someone has a feature request and you’re not planning to build it.

(Get the pdf of chase’s example support responses).

We do something pretty similar – acknowledging the value in what someone is suggesting, trying to understand where they’re coming from, and really appreciating the thought that they put into crafting that email to you to express that they really want this feature.

Chase: At the end of the day, it’s about what I call “finding the right fit.” For us it might be Basecamp, it might TeamworkPM, or it might be Asana. It might be whatever. At the end of the day, my first responsibility is to the customer and finding the best fit for them. If that’s with us, that’s great. If they have a feature request…

I was talking to a guy this morning that absolutely had to have Gantt charts, which I personally think are the dumbest things ever when it comes to project management. But he was old school. He liked them. He needed them. I was fine with that, so I said, “Yeah, you can use Basecamp. Here’s a way that we can kind of make this work. Or you can use this other app over here, which is just as great. The support team is just as great. They do have Gantt charts. It’s all about finding the right fit. That’s what I want the most for you.”

He understood. He really appreciated that we would even think about suggesting a competitor, because it shows that we have the customer in mind. We lost a customer, potentially, but the word of mouth that he’s going to give us for other people is so worth it.

Colin: I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent.

Chase: Tangent! It’s going to be great.

Helping people solve a problem whether or not they pay you…

Colin: This philosophy. It seems almost revolutionary that as a company, whether or not the person ends up paying you, you want to help them solve their problem. Where do you think that’s coming from? Certainly, we think that way. You’re expressing that you guys think that way. Where is that coming from? Why do you think it seems so revolutionary to people when you actually do that for them?

Chase: For a long time, people got used to this mode of, “When I walk into a company and they’re trying to sell me a product, they’re not worried about me. They’re worried about their bottom lines. They’re worried about their commissions. They’re worried about whatever their company needs.”

If I go to AT&T and say, “I want an iPhone,” AT&T is not going to say, “Verizon has a better plan for what you’re looking for. I think they’re going to be a better fit.” It’s just not going to happen! But when it comes to these younger companies that are growing up…I say “young.” 37signals has been around for 10 years now, but we’re a relatively young group. I’m only 27.

When I talk to a customer, if the roles were reversed, how would I want the customer to respond to me? If I was approaching them and needed something, what would I want them to do for me? It’s an easy answer. I want them to give me the best info and find me the best fit. If that means losing a customer and saying, “Here’s TeamworkPM. Go try out them.” I’m OK with that, like you guys are. You’re OK with finding the right fit, because it’s the right thing to do.

Colin: It’s interesting. There’s a certain philosophy as a company. You either adopt it or you don’t. If you adopt it, it’s in everything you do. It’s not just support. It’s in your marketing. It’s in how you build your product. Doing what’s best for the customer permeates the entire business. It’s not just limited to one part of the organization. There are a lot a companies that are doing that now. It’s really exciting for me to see that, because I hate those stodgy companies that just make you miserable to do business with them.

Chase: Spring is here. I’m looking for a lawn mower. I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would be this hard to find a lawn mower. Every single place you go into, “This is why you want to buy us.”

“What about your competition across the street?”

“We don’t talk about them.”

I’ll tell them, “I’ve got five acres that I need to mow, and I’ve got five hours that I need to do it in. What kind of mower do you need to get? I’ve got $3,000 to spend. What kind of mower are you going to give me?”

“Well, you can kind of choose this one, and it’s kind of going to work. Or you can use that one, and it’s kind of going to work.”

I’m sitting there going, “Wait, but I know I can go across the street and find something that’s a good fit. Just tell me that!” Which I didn’t know at the time. I found out later. It’s frustrating. I’ll say this. I won’t go back to that business because they were more interested in themselves than me. It’s a lawn mower, right!?

Colin: [laughs] Another email copywriting thing is, people don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. It seems selfish when you say it that way. In the things that you write and in the way that you treat your customers, you should focus on what they need and what they’re looking for, not how to serve your company the best.

Chase: Exactly.

Colin: I mentioned a little earlier. I think I mentioned it earlier. We use Help Scout to aggregate all of our customer support replies. I know you guys don’t use that, but you talk about them a lot on your podcast. We also use Campfire for real-time support.

With the number of customers we have currently, it’s sometimes a lot of fun to see multiple people in chat and be talking with them. They’re talking with each other. Everyone’s really, really excited that they have this way to communicate with us.

Tools to handle support, and relationships with customers

I’d love to know from you. What are the tools you use? What’s running on your computer during the day that helps you get your work done, helps you augment beyond just the support desk tools?

Chase: I’ll start with Basecamp, of course. That’s running all day long because we’ve got this great feature in there that shows play-by-play what’s happening across all of our projects. Like a progress page, like a timeline. I’ve got it up and running so I can see what’s going on in all of our projects. Campfire, of course, is our online group chat tool. We call it a virtual water cooler.

We’ve got a support room that the support team hangs out in. There’s lots of cat pictures. Lots. Lots. We have all-talk and things like that. Different rooms. It lets us talk as a group since we’re all remote.

Instant Messenger is running, Apple Messages is what they call it now, just in case Campfire goes down, because if it goes down we still need to be able to talk to each other. Which has happened. It doesn’t happen as much anymore, but my first year it was dicey for a little bit. That’s a nightmare when you type something into Campfire and nothing works. You’re like, “Oh! What do we do?” Messages for that, plus individual talking with friends and things like that. Those are running all the time.

We have an internal dash. We call it Dash. An internal Twitter app that we use. We couldn’t find a fast one that did just what we needed it to do, so we built one. We’ve got that going.

I should point out TextExpander, which is this awesome, awesome little text expanding thing which lets you take…if I’m saying, “Hey, Bob,” then that becomes one character instead of three or five or whatever. That’s pretty awesome. Definitely check it out. TextExpander. Just Google it. You’ll be able to find it there.

The last thing I guess I should point out is our support app itself. You guys use Help Scout. I talk about them a lot on “Support Ops.” We use Desk. Great little app. I’ve also got friends that use UserVoice and use HelpSpot.

HelpSpot is actually a sponsor of “Support Ops” right now. They’re fantastic. Everyone stops and goes, “Wait. You talk about multiple support apps? Is that not, like, wrong?” No, each one does different things. It’s, again, finding that right fit. For us, Desk works really well right now. For you guys, Help Scout, I’ve heard, is fantastic. For some people that I work with, HelpSpot’s great.

It’s finding the right fit with the support app and all the others that I mentioned that I use. Those are the ones that are running, basically, from the moment that I open my computer to the moment I close the lid on it.

Colin: Got you. Do you augment user information by looking someone up in an admin tool if they’re having a problem? Do you do that to help them solve the problem?

Chase: Yeah, we have a great little app on the backside called Queen Bee. It basically lets us know not only basic stuff – their name, their email address, how long they’ve been a customer with us, that kind of thing. It also lets us know are they an admin or are they not an admin?

It allows us to go in and even look up…Well, since we’re talking emails. When we send out email notifications, if they don’t get it, then we need a way to look in the logs and see if we did send it and that kind of thing. Having that internal app that controls all that is just phenomenal. It makes my job 10 times easier.

Colin: That’s some great stuff. I really appreciate the time and all of your feedback. I know everyone who watches this or listens to it will really enjoy it as well. Thanks so much, Chase. If you’re not already checking out “Support Ops,” it’s You should definitely listen to Chase’s podcast if you’ve got to respond to people ever. [laughs]

Chase: Oh, thanks!

Colin: Thanks, Chase.

Chase: Thanks.

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