Customer Service actually has a long and extensive history dating back as far as 3000 BC when traders, traveling far distances on boats to make sales, would have traditions and practices that were best used for treating their customer. As customer service has developed from our fledgling beginnings far back in the annals of time, so have the tools that we’ve used to do it. Here are a brief timeline and history of customer service and support and their tooling:
1760—1820: The industrial revolution created the concept of needing to “scale” for growth, and introduces customer service teams to help maintain mass-produced products, rather than hand-crafted goods traditionally supported by the artisan.
1776: Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, which introduced and established the basic ideas of competition in the marketplace.
1868: Watkins Liniment became the first company to offer a money-back guarantee, a version of those amazing refunds companies provide customers every day.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell patented the electric telephone. On that day, modern customer service — and the people who need it — got a huge advantage: they were able to avoid long days of travel for product information or to arrange for repairs and simply call on the phone.
1887: Coca-Cola issued the very first discount coupon — paving the way for all of those sweet discount codes and offers SaaS companies and retail products offer today.
1965: MIT’s CTSS Mail became the first host-based electronic mail program, also known as email. Email will become, as we know, an incredibly impactful and powerful platform for providing customers with answers.
1960s: Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) began to be used to handle large numbers of calls. These later developed into call centers, like the ones we know now: a large number of operators sitting in a single location handling customer inquiries.
Early 1980s: Interactive Voice Response was invented, allowing companies to make automated phone trees that can navigate a customer to a representative through verbal commands like “yes,” “no,” or “representative.”
1980s: Database software started to be used to store customer information for service agents. It then evolved into Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, which we still use in customer service and support today.
Help desk software is created. By the year 2000, these had evolved into the “service desk” concept that could help users with the integration of all of their business technology, though the term “help desk” is still applied.
Late 1980s: Quantum Link created On-Line Messages (OLM) for the Commodore 64, paving the way for instant messaging and later, live chat.
Early 1990s: People started spending more time on the internet, and it was good.
1992: Customer Service Week established as the first week in October by President George H. W. Bush, recognizing customer service as a career publically for the first time.
Mid-1990s: As the CRM grew in use, more companies began providing gifts for customer loyalty, such as cash back on credit cards, frequent-flyer miles and discounts for multiple purchases. These were the first loyalty programs.
1998: Jeremie Miller invented Jabber/XMPP, the open-source technology that most early live chat software is built on, and LivePerson, the first chat service was launched.
Late 1990s — early 2000s: Outsourcing customer service to offshore locations gains popularity as the dotcom bust occurs and companies overall look to cut costs.
Mid-2000s: The rise of the online help desk! Zendesk, Freshdesk, Zoho, Desk.com and other help desks launched within this short span of years.
2006: Twitter launched. Then, by 2011, 65 million tweets were being sent each day and companies began to find Twitter to be a good platform to conduct support. It made it easy for them to respond to customers quickly when they had issues (or compliments) and allowed them to have a sense of the person’s “social relevance” based on their number of followers.
2015: Facebook launched Messenger for Business, and set the pace for companies using messaging technology to contact customers on their mobile devices.
2016 and beyond: Since 2016, we’ve seen a rise in the growth of things like AI, automation, sentiment analysis, and mobile chat. We’ve also seen a shift from multi-channel support to omnichannel support. Meaning, instead of just having one or two channels (like email and phone) companies have shifted to their customers being able to move fluidly between channels. For example, someone can be chatting on their mobile device, and then reach out on their computer and the customer support agent will be able to see context from all prior conversations.
The benefit of these new allowances in flexibility, both from multichannel and omnichannel, is that it makes interactions with your team easier for your user, and also allows your team to have context around the conversation with the customer that they might not have had otherwise. So, rather than asking for information over again, for example, the customer support agent can see it right then and there.
Making up multichannel and omnichannel support are all of the individual channels that we will be discussing in this user guide: live chat, email, phone, and social media. Each has their individual benefits and strengths, as well as places where they might not be the best fit. We’ll go through it section by section so that you can pick what fits best for your company’s needs.
While things like omnichannel and multi-channel are useful for some companies, its best to evaluate channels one by one rather than assuming that they’ll all work for your company or your customers’ needs. Selecting the right channel or channels to use doesn’t have to be rocket science, luckily, and actually comes down to a few traits of your customers and some of the traits of your team and people on it.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding the right channel for your business.
According to a study by MarketingDive: 25-year-olds and under primarily chose social media as their preferred means of communication for customer service, while those over 55 opted for telephone contact. The people somewhere in-between (25-34-year-olds) preferred email the most, followed by mobile apps. There’s a stark line in which platforms are most used and preferred by certain demographics. Do you know what demographic group makes up the majority of your userbase? If not, that may be an interesting and useful piece of information to have as you go into selecting which channels you’d like to offer for support. After all, if you decide that chat and email are your best bets, but a majority of your users are over the age of 55, it’s likely that you may run into some trouble with people wanting a type of service that you don’t provide.
While it’s true that it’s not necessarily going to be a deal breaker if you don’t offer the type of support that they are keen on, it could eventually cost you some valuable revenue due to loyalty or upselling. According to Internet Retailer, online sales are expected to reach $523 billion in the next five years, up 56 percent from $335 billion in 2015. That’s a huge opportunity for earning that you are missing out on by not offering the type of support that your customer likes best. So, research which demographics make up your user base, and try to make decisions based loosely around what they prefer and enjoy.
Some products are more technical than others. For example, if you are selling a stuffed animal with bendable arms, the type of inquiries you’ll receive in support are different from if you are selling a much more technical product, like a service that integrates into someone’s site via code. The questions for the bear may be around billing, customization, and may lend themselves to quick, fairly straightforward interactions. The inquiries that come through for the second product, may be fairly technical and require a bit more deep-diving into what the true nature of the issue may be.
Different channels lend themselves to different types of troubleshooting, so depending on the type of questions you run into on a day-to-day basis, you may want to consider one over the other. For example, email can be good to asynchronous communication when a question requires a lot of deep-diving or troubleshooting on a technical side. Chat can be excellent for quick transactional back and forths, such as ones frequently used in a retail setting. The phone is a difficult medium but is useful for putting customers at ease if they are anxious or nervous about something within your product. 70% of issue resolutions occur through voice; hearing a person’s voice can better build trust for some customers than reading an email.
Understanding where you want to go, especially with your product and support strategy, can serve to give you a crystal ball into your future of which platforms you want to — and should — use to best support your customers.
Different support channels, depending on how and when you use them, require more or less bandwidth. For example, phone support requires a high amount of focus and can’t be multitasked, whereas a customer support person can have multiple chats or emails open at once and not run into any trouble. If you have a small team and desperately want to offer phone support, you might consider what capacity you choose to do so in — maybe, for example, you choose to only offer it for enterprise customers, or for people who specifically pay for a phone call.
While offering certain channels can be very attractive to different types of customers, it will be significantly less attractive if your team can’t keep up with it and your wait times persistently go up. In terms of scalability, the functional channels, from most to least scalable, are email, chat, social media, phone, video chat/in-person support. Depending on the size of your team and the number of conversations that you have coming through, one or two of those in tandem may work better than the others. Try to preserve your first response time over any other metric or decision that you make for your team.
Live chat support is quickly growing to be one of the most popular methods of both providing and receiving support. 63% of customers say that they are willing to come back to a website where they received support via live chat software, and an immense proportion of customers — 90%! — deem live chat helpful. Who wouldn’t want to have more of that in their support offering?
Here are a few more compelling metrics about live chat:
Chat support is cheaper than phone support. Over the phone, an agent can only talk with one customer at a time, but if they are chatting online, they can handle several conversations simultaneously without affecting the level of service or customer experience.
According to the research, when customers contact companies by email, the majority of them expect a reply within 24 hours or less. Conversely, the optimal response time for online live chat interactions is less than a minute, and some customers may even leave your website if they have to wait for a reply for more than 2 minutes.
Many customers don’t even want to take the time to make a call, they’d rather have things be instantaneous. Luckily, modern technology and live chat allow customers to get support anywhere, even in a crowded subway.
Sometimes AI is not perfect. While there are definitely some chat-bots that are outstanding and can answer basic questions or make it easier for your customers, that’s not all of them.
If you don’t have enough time or team members to provide live chat support to all your customers, you can choose to only offer it to certain types of customers or only on certain pages. For example, you could make chat available only to your VIP customers, or only place the chat button on pages where a fast response would make a difference (like cart or checkout pages, or your top exit pages).
Automatic chat invitations are annoying if misused, but can make a huge difference to your conversion rate if used correctly.
Live chat can be a great addition to your knowledge base or to the help section of your site. Add a chat button to those pages and let your customers contact you if they didn’t find the answer to their question or if they are having trouble understanding the article.
Live chat tools need to integrate into support inboxes to have any real context for your support team members to use. If you want to provide a great customer experience over live chat, your messenger tools need to have excellent integration offerings.
There’s no need to install anything or switch between tabs or apps to chat with your company’s support team. Your customers can get support on the spot and won’t have to install anything, even if you have to use screen sharing or co-browsing features.
Going by the statistics, you only have half a chance of having a good live chat interaction: 47% of customers haven’t had a positive live chat experience in the past month.
Agents will likely get asked the same questions pretty frequently. With live chat, they can use canned responses or saved replies and reply to more chats.
According to Kayako, scripted responses are obnoxious to your customers. 29% of consumers say they find scripted responses most frustrating, and 38% of businesses agree.
Now you have an understanding of some of the metrics around the channel, as well as some of the ways that it can be excellent or frustrating both for you and your customers! If you’ve decided to move forward with using chat as a channel, here are some tips on how to best make use of its benefits and work around its weaknesses.
Now that we’ve covered some of the best practices as a company, let’s dive a little bit deeper into how agents can make the most of it with chat support.
We might be a little biased, but for suggested tools in this space, we recommend Chatra. Chatra has a few really awesome benefits that makes it a great fit for companies interested in the tips and tricks above:
Email support has been in the game longer than most of the other channels, outside of the phone, and has remained a main staple for providing support since its introduction in the ‘90s. Email is dynamic in that it can be used for solving quick one-off issues, or it can be used to delve deeper into a question or bug.
Many companies start with either phone or email as their main source of support since those are the two that have traditionally been used, and are assumed to be the most familiar to customers. This is starting to change with all of the research coming out about millennials preferring live chat and social media messaging over other platforms for support. Depending on the company and what product or service they’re selling, they may skip right over email and phone, and go straight to chat.
That being said, email does have a lot of value. Here are some great metrics for email support:
For every amazing thing about a channel, there are usually at least a few things that aren’t so excellent, and email is no different.
Excellent for a first channel when opening up support at a small or just-starting company.
Fairly limited in terms of where you can offer it and how seamless you can make it. While you can provide an email address, you aren’t able to create the email and take the work out of the process, like you are with other platforms.
A great form of support for asynchronous communication — this is especially important for things like debugging or troubleshooting that can’t be done instantly, or close-to-instantly.
Not great for if you need to give someone a step-by-step walkthrough as they are doing something.
Simple and straightforward to set up and maintain.
Less feature-full in terms of tracking information, reporting, and other “fancier” features, like screen sharing, that other support channels offer.
Useful for tools that allow for scaling: saved replies, autoresponders, automated SLA workflows, and more can help level up your team without needing more people.
Limited in functionality to the point where, if this is your sole point of contact and you have an outage, it may be difficult to respond to everyone who has an issue at once.
Doesn’t require any additional installation on the customer’s side, and allows your employees to work from wherever they are.
The asynchronicity makes it difficult to build deep or meaningful relationships with customers, so it might not be the best if you have a customer success or sales team that needs to do that. There’s no real-time method of communication.
Email makes it easy to follow-up on past or outdated conversations.
Email can mean your customers wait a little bit longer than they might have normally so that they can get a proper response.
So, now that you know the pros and cons of using email support versus leaving it behind, let’s talk about how you can knock every message you write out of the park.
Email is a fairly straightforward channel, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be feature bereft. The best email tools have a ton of robust features that make their product useful both for the individual agents using it, and the company trying to gain customer insights out of it.
One such product is Help Scout. Help Scout has been serving the market of SMBs and startups for years, and does an excellent job of both improving on their core product, and adding new features (like chat!) to their product lineup. They have a series of robust integrations that can be used to build context around a conversation, and their product feels like you’re using Gmail or another personal email client. It’s easy for the agents to use and comforting for the people receiving messages from them. If you’re keen to learn more about the features of Help Scout, you can do so here.
A second option for this is GrooveHQ. This is a straightforward and simple helpdesk with few bells and whistles. It allows customer support representatives to focus on what matters most: the customer. It looks just like a Gmail inbox, and is strictly used for email support. While there are additional integrations that allow the feature set to expand, Groove does not offer chat or other channel support functionality. You can read more about Groove here.
Finally, Front is an excellent option for teams that use multiple channels and apps for support and want to bring them all into one space. It creates a dashboard where a support team member can see all of your different channels and what’s coming through on them, in order to maximize queue management. It’s excellent, too, for companies that have multiple teams working in the inbox such as sales, success or engineering. If you’re interested in learning more about Front, you can do so here.
Phone support is the oldest support channel available. If you look back up to our history of support above, it predates any of the others fairly significantly. There has to be something to this channel that might otherwise seem outdated that makes it valuable, right?
Phone support has plenty of pros and cons to go through, but before we get there, here are some interesting stats and metrics about phone support that might be useful for you to know:
Beyond those metrics, here’s a list of the pros and cons of offering phone support:
Promotes trust with your customers. People love being able to see a phone number on a website, because it makes them feel like there is a real person there that they are able to get in touch with. Chat and email can feel very “fake” or distant to people, whereas phone, to some demographics, feels very tangible.
Hard to scale. Because phone support requires so much attention and effort from the agents providing it, it can be difficult to scale. Instead of chat or email where you can implement tools and workarounds that scale as you grow, with phone support you just have to hire more people. That can get pretty expensive.
Creates higher brand value. Phone support can provide a human connection in an otherwise sometimes entirely online experience. If your competitors don’t provide support via phone, it can help increase the value of your brand as it’s perceived as an added product and service that you provide. Also, phone support is the fastest channel for solving customer complaints as you can get the issue resolved within the same conversation.
Phone trees can be a bummer to navigate, and customers can get stuck lost in them or, worse yet, have to call back to re-navigate. If you don’t have a simple, straightforward phone tree it can be an even worst experience than someone giving poor service via email. It’s worse still because it’s not even the fault of any person on the team, and likely the individual that ends up answering the support inquiry call will get the brunt of all of that customer’s frustration.
Better evolution of your brand. Because you’re closer to your customers, instead of simply relying on analytics like bounce rate, click-through rate, and conversion rate, you can talk directly to customers about their thoughts and feelings. You can also solicit feedback about your products to help improve. This not only helps your company and team evolve quicker, but it also makes customers feel valued because you care about what they think and feel.
Phones are disruptive to work. Anyone who has a phone has experienced being deep in something only to be drawn out of it by the buzz or ring of a phone or text. For phone support agents, this is ten times worse, as the volume of calls they receive are so much so that they seldom get the option of working on something outside of their queue, especially not with boxed out time.
Phone support is perceived as faster by customers because they have an immediate response from a person. Even if, ultimately, the time it takes the support agent to answer the question is a little bit longer, the fact that they answered the phone immediately (or very quickly) makes all the difference to most customers.
Slower and more consuming for employees. Unlike email or chat, it is very difficult to multitask when on the phone. For example, if a customer says something over the phone, and an agent doesn’t catch it, they have to ask again. Via email or chat, the agent can just reread the transcript to see if is something is missing. These kinds of small things mean that any agent answering support calls need to always be “switched on” or they might miss a detail that could potentially frustrate a customer.
The phone is great for one-on-one communication. When trying to clarify something with a customer directly, the phone can be an excellent way to gain a better understanding of what they’re running into trouble with.
It is hard to keep everyone in the loop at once on the phone, though. While you can do group calls or conference calls, it’s better to keep context and track of who is saying what in written format. Talking on the phone does not lend itself to multiple people being needed to solve an issue.
Now that you have the lay of the land with what you can look forward to and what you can dread when it comes to phone support, we’ve put together a few tricks of the trade to make it easy as you start your new journey.
While there are so many great phone services out there, Talkdesk is our favorite. It has a ton of robust features that are important and valuable to anyone trying to do support well. They offer:
All of these features are so useful, whether your team’s been doing phone support for years or is just getting started.
The last and newest channel is social media support. Social media has come about over the past twenty years and taken the internet by storm. Starting with MySpace and blogging sites in the early 2000s, and continuing on to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram today, it feels like customers want to engage everywhere.
And, hate to break it to you, but wherever they want to talk, your customer support representatives should be available. So, why social media and where do you go?
It’s possible that you don’t need to use social media at all if your audience isn’t asking for it. As you’ll see in some of the insightful metrics below, there are a few demographics that actually don’t want to use social media as a method for communication, and a few that want it to be the only channel that they have to use. So, the first step in determining where you should be offering support is knowing more about your users and where they are spending time. After that, this list of metrics, and some pros and cons of social media support as a whole should help get you clear on what the best tactics for your business will be.
So, depending on what you are looking to accomplish with your social media presence and providing support, there are a few different platforms that could be useful for you to invest in. Now that you have some of that knowledge under your belt, here are the pros and cons of social media that you should consider before jumping in:
Social media offers much greater customer engagement. Facebook has over 2.2 billion users worldwide, for example. With such a huge reach you have the possibility of reaching immensely large audiences. For marketing, for example, if you post something that captures your audience’s imagination, it can be shared by anyone it resonates with, giving you a chance for it to go viral and increase its audience exponentially.
Additional resources may be needed to manage your online presence, especially if you have a particularly small or scrappy team. While the software tools and cost of entry may be inexpensive, the cost in terms of time is significant. To successfully employ social media both in marketing and support, you need to invest substantial amounts of time over a long period to see good results and customer feedback.
It grants you greater access to international markets. If your support team is capable of supporting multiple languages or your product is offered in multiple countries, it can be useful for you to be able to reach all of your customers in one space. Social media allows for that!
Social media is immediate and needs daily monitoring. If you don’t actively manage your social media presence, especially if you’ve set precedence for providing social media support, your customers might grow angry.
It offers a huge opportunity for customer feedback. Because social media is a 24/7 communications channel, you will get instant feedback on your marketing campaigns, product releases, and any other new changes from your company. That means that you’ll know about bugs almost instantly, or be able to update and fine-tune your marketing posts in the moment. It can also provide you with an immediate and honest assessment of your products or services as well as the content you are putting out. For better or for worse.
Using social media causes you to run the risk of unwanted or inappropriate behavior on your social media profiles, including bullying and harassment. It can also lead to things like negative public criticism, information leaks or hacking.
Social media is a huge opportunity to conduct market research about your customers directly. There are many simple, free or low-cost monitoring tools for social media that allow you to learn basic information about the market you are in. You can also gain intelligence on competitors, prospects, and clients, and get insights into your company, products, and services.
With social media, the rules are constantly changing. From the algorithm used by Facebook to pick which of your posts to display, to the length of tweets, to the user interface in LinkedIn, it feels like sands are always shifting underneath our feet. It can easily become a full-time job just to keep up with the latest trends and best practices. New social media platforms are launched daily and others die. You have to keep reviewing and revising your strategy on an on-going basis in order to continue providing the best support you can.
You are afforded improved networking opportunities with customers and other businesses by using social media. You have a completely different kind of relationship with your prospects and customers on social media than in any other channel: it’s a two-way conversation that allows for a much deeper, quicker level of engagement. As a form of communication, it is about as close as you can get to holding a conversation with someone while not being in the same room as them.
While other forms of support allow you to tightly control the message and its distribution, making sure that only that message is communicated and nothing else, social media pushes everything out of your hands. Once you release your message you also relinquish control as it is shared, commented upon and added to. Similarly, with peer to peer social networking, customers, prospects and anyone else that wants to could be talking to each other about your product, service, brand or company and you wouldn’t even know.
It’s low cost. You do not have to pay anything to offer support on social media. Both Twitter and Facebook, for example, have just started offering specific messaging for like Buffer, that allows you to manage all social media in one place.
It’s easy to mess up. Social media is more casual and more open. But, with the sheer volume of posts and constant conversation, it can be easy to take your eye off the ball and make public something you shouldn’t have or post something that is open to misinterpretation. On the flip side, its very nature of informality and openness, also means that it is much more forgiving.
With the pros and cons, as well as the list of metrics above, you’re probably about ready to get started using social media for support. We’ve collected a series of tips, both for you as the company, and for your employees, that will help you get started, or turn pro if you’re already using social media to help your customers.
Social media can be one of the most versatile ways to provide support. There are so many different channels, and the audience members on each have different expectations and preferences. One tool that we recommend that makes it easy to monitor and respond to all social media under one roof is Buffer. But, along with Buffer, here is a full list that they provide of other tools that might be useful:
They’ve also created an amazing spreadsheet that allows you to compare information like:
Using this, you should be able to narrow down not only what you should be providing for social media channels, but also where you can best monitor it and find the tools that will be beneficial for your team.
Support as a whole is hard, even when you are just using one channel. When you start to debate whether you should use multiple channels and jump into the vast amount of information that is the internet, it can feel overwhelming. It might even be tempting to just do all of them to avoid having to make the choice or frustrate some of your customers. Hopefully, this user guide has enabled you to find a bit more direction and understanding of what will be best for you and your customers.
Remember: social media is best for younger demographics, phone support is better for older demographics, email is across the board accepted as a form of support, and chat support is a quick up-and-comer as a favorite amongst the youth. Track your customers — both who they are and where they are spending their time — and you’ll have a good sense of where to go.