Forget marketing if you cannot provide unparalleled support

2013 has been a year where my brand loyalty has gone out the window. A lot of the products and services I used to love have lost me as a customer and a supporter.  Why?  Because I’ve experience poor support.  There were also certain scenarios where I chose to buy a competitive product or service to the one I was considering because their sales and support team made me feel welcome.

This is certainly not a new theory by any means. Companies are hiring agents to man their Twitter and Facebook channels for users complaining.   Having been on both sides of the coin, it isn’t an easy.  As a user, you are frustrated that you aren’t getting what you expected, whether or not expectations are reasonable.  With sometimes unreasonable users, providing may sometimes feel like a lost cause. Let me tell you that it is not, I will share my GoDaddy experiences later.

There are companies that I have been very loyal to over the past 10 years. I’ve praised their product, chanted their name and also showed my support with my wallet.  I’ve also supported brands in general, regardless of the product they released.  When something doesn’t work as expected or breaks, support is the first line of contact. Some bend over backwards trying to make you feel comfortable, even if you are wrong. Then there are others who feel like they just read you an answer from a manual without care of you moving on.  This year, my worst experiences have all been with services, namely Lunarpages, GoDaddy and Spotify.

The unfortunate part is in many cases the products and services I am no longer using were in some cases the best in the industry.  Their support and sales teams are what drove me away from those companies with the awesome products. Especially Spotify, which I feel I need to single out. Their product is one that I’ve vouched for and have been talking to everyone about. Even to this day I still absolutely love their product.  I ran into a few problems, of which their support team could have very easily resolved.  I have been using Spotify as a beta user for a while.  They gave me a free 1 year premium license.  I loved their product so much I continued to pay for it, even though it is still not available in Canada. So when I upgraded my phone, I sent a message to Spotify saying I need to install the app on my phone because I got a new one.  Instead of helping me, by sending the app by email or similar, they told me to contact Microsoft.  After saying Microsoft has nothing to do with this and that originally it was the support team that helped me install it, I got no response. Then when I asked if they had planned updates for Windows Phone, rather than saying they are considering it and sending me somewhere to vote on it, they said no and began citing market share numbers instead.

I won’t go into details on every one of my problems with various support teams, because they all have one general theme. These online companies forget the saying “the customer is always right”. These companies are forgetting how to deal with customers. No the customer isn’t always right, but you must make them feel as though they are right, make them feel loved. In the days that internet businesses didn’t thrive, people relied on that personal connection.  Once they felt that personal connection they made the purchase and would often make repeated purchases. So where has that personalized experience gone to?

Companies are focusing far too much on the product these days.  I’ve designed, launched and supported enough products to know that if your focus is the product and not the customer using the product, you won’t get too far.  There is an exception to every rule of course. When building your product, ensure that you take necessary steps to ensure that the customer feels the product or service was built for them.  I can’t say there is a good or bad approach to this – you can hire staff for the one on one connection, work with community leaders to improve the product or service, or create a smart user flow.

The personal approach

In order to provide all your current and future customers with a personal one on one connection, you will need a lot of staff.  This is often a model that doesn’t scale all too well. But depending on the industry, this is likely one that you will need to employ. If we look at telecommunications or any similar services, you usually will want to have staff looking over everything. Chances are you won’t be able to employ a proper software solution that will take care of all your problems.

This is when you see posts like the following on Twitter where people search for ways to help others with their problems.

We can see that Twitter is one example where companies need to thrive to improve their image.  I read an interesting article a while ago which described in detail how some companies are succeeding on social media. Companies are using social media to address user concerns, often with special handles.

 I’ve gone through similar experiences where my experiences with support failed. I resorted to social media for help, in my case to find a competing company I should use.  GoDaddy replied to see if they could offer additional help:

Companies responding by Twitter or other means have to deal with annoyed customers who will often lash out at them. I see no reason to, as I said I’ve been on both sides.  But most people will point fingers and blame the person helping them. As long as companies keep showing their presence on the web and reply promptly, chances are that a few disgruntled users complaining will not have an effect on your product or company image.

Brand supporters and community leaders

This route often works for companies that have the need for a community. Products that tend to be more development focused like Parse for example would benefit from a community approach. Getting enough staff to answer all development questions, often across multiple development platforms can be expensive.  Scaling that solution may not be easily doable either.  These kinds of companies often have multiple tiers of support, which have dedicated in house teams for paid and enterprise users and the other users through community forums.

I’ve been a community manager for Facebook app development since 2009. It was my way of getting to know people, improve my communication skills and to help others out. I never did it for the title, as there wasn’t one when I first started. I was offered to be an administrator after Facebook noticed that their own staff could not keep up with the forums, groups and everything else and that they needed help. In return, they offered us a nice title, some perks and of course some Facebook swag.  Though I am secretly disappointed I never got a Facebook hoodie!

Community leaders are often just as important as your staff. They are often visiting through the forums and in many cases far more dedicated than your own staff. They do this as a passion and they love what they do. Ensure that you are able to properly communicate with community leaders, allowing them to easily escalate problems back.  Their title on forums will often show that their responses should be trusted and they have some authority. In a way, it shows that your company is there to provide support even if these community leaders may not be on your payroll.

Developing a smart product

I am a huge fan of this approach as it requires the least amount of resources, but requires a great deal of data. A smart product is one that you attempt to have the product provide great feedback and support back to the user. This is an approach I took with Lightning. It all starts with the onboarding experience. The first minute on any product, service or game is the most important.  That minute determines whether you have a customer or a trial user.  It is important that you hold the user’s hand without making them feel like they are caged in.  You have to also understand that no two users may want the same experience.

The perfect onboarding experience should initially guide a user to providing critical information. Once that information is provided, giving that user a flow that is going to be contextual and relevant to them. For example, if a user says he is coming to your product to build iOS games, don’t give that user an example on how to develop a game in JavaScript.  As users progress, they may lose interest or instructions may not be understood. You must store all data you can on your users.

As users begin to fall off, you will still want to find ways to convert them. In Lightning, I’ve developed a system that detects where users have “given up” and taking into consideration their profile, would send very targeted emails to help them understand.  Even if it is impossible to convert the user into a customer, asking why they’ve given up is just as useful. As an added layer of support, I’ve also included some automated messaging sent from me (personally) with my contact information and that I am always available to help. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder a few hours or days later that they signed up.

Gone are the days of LinkedIn’s “profile completeness”. Today, we are in the age of context. Understand your users and cater your product to your users.  Make your users feel as though the product was built for them and that if anything were to go wrong, help is around the corner.

I am glad to see that customer support is becoming a priority again for large brands. It is unfortunate that many had to outsource support to save a quick buck. Outsourcing was the reason I switched from Bell to Rogers for my cellphone. Not because the jobs were across the pond, but because the support was frustrating and robotic.  I firmly believe that companies should be allocating part of their marketing budget towards support. Market dependent, retention is arguably far more important and valuable than a new sale.