Customer service is one of the toughest business functions to scale. When you have more customers asking more questions, increasing the number of hands on deck isn’t just a viable solution, it’s often the only one available.
But scaling support can also be emotionally hard on entrepreneurs. The reason we call them “growing pains” is because growth comes bundled with tough decisions most people would rather avoid.
For example, it’d be nice to roll out the red carpet during every single customer conversation, but we intuitively know that won’t scale. In fact, if we don’t optimize for efficiency some customers may have delightful experiences at the expense of others.
Not all conversations are equal
Bill Price, former Global VP of Customer Service at Amazon, knew about these problems first-hand.
“Customer satisfaction is everything,” as Price often asserts, and the only way to improve it is to understand what kinds of conversations you’re having, and what kind of conversations you should (or could) be having with customers. Price and fellow consultant David Jaffe share how they approach this opportunity in their book The Best Service is No Service.
One immediately useful takeaway for ecommerce entrepreneurs of all sizes is the philosophy of reducing “dumb contacts.” These are conversations that are irritable to you and irritable to customers; conversations no one wants to have. They’re represented in the bottom left quadrant of Price’s value-irritant matrix.
Reality is always a little more chaotic than a 2x2 matrix, but this perspective can fundamentally shift how you look at customer contacts. For each category of conversation, there’s an ideal way in which they should be handled.
Valuable to you, valuable to customers. If you’re helping to close a sale, saving a sale already made, or learning something new from customers, you’re extracting a lot of value and want to encourage these conversations as often as you can.
Valuable to you, irritable to customers. If customers are annoyed by the hoops you’re asking them to jump through, you should lower the barrier by making these steps as easy as possible. Sometimes these steps can’t be eliminated, but they can often be simplified.
Irritable to you, valuable to customers. If the conversation needs to happen but provides zero or negative value to the business, self-service in the form of FAQ pages and help docs can provide customers with the quick answers they need.
- Irritable to you, irritable to customers. No one benefits here! And because of that, you want to do whatever you can to eliminate the source of the problem. Consider these conversations a leaky pipe; you can place a bucket to catch the drip temporarily, but long-term you need to fix the leak itself.
After applying the value-irritant lens, you still need to get a handle on what kind of support requests you’re currently receiving. It stands to reason that the best way to make an improvement is to start with understanding how things are going right now.
Why do customers contact you today?
A proactive move most store owners benefit from is setting a basic tagging or categorizing strategy for their incoming support requests.
The common pitfall to avoid is tagging conversations with labels you’ll have a hard time parsing later on. I call this the “bookmarks” problem, as unhelpful support tags often resemble disorganized bookmarking apps where items are labeled with comically unhelpful descriptors like “cool” and “interesting.” If you don’t get precise, you won’t know exactly what’s changing when you use these tags to examine the past.
Price and Jaffe recommend a simple set of questions you can ask when evaluating whether a tag or category name is going to be useful.
How would a spike or a crash make you feel? If the use of a specific tag suddenly increased, could you tell if it was due to good or bad conversations? Seeing a rise in the number of conversations tagged with “Pricing” doesn’t reveal as much as a jump, or a dip, in contacts labeled “Pricing confusion.” A spike in the former may cause a raised eyebrow; a spike in the latter will stop you in your tracks.
What’s more important: knowing what, or why? Price and Jaffe note that tags defining what happened, such as “Shipping issue,” are often far less useful than tags that identify why it happened. For example, it’d be better to split the tag above into codes like “Late by shipper” and “Warehouse delays” to make the real source of the problem obvious.
Are you leaving a gap for a “Misc.” takeover? As soon as “Other” or any variation of a catch-call category is available, it will usually dominate the top spot in terms of number of conversations tagged. You can keep your tags focused by applying the MECE principle: every conversation should be tagged, but only tagged once. No “Other” overlap allowed.
💡 Note: If you’re sticking with a personal inbox for now labels and spreadsheets can work, but you’ll have a harder time measuring your efforts compared to what’s possible in a reporting tool available in most help desks.
Prune away the unnecessary
When all of your incoming customer contacts are viewed as an amorphous blob, it’s hard to tell what’s a valuable conversation versus what’s an irritable one.
You might think that when a customer gets the solution they asked for, all is well, but through Price and Jaffe’s framework we see it isn’t always that simple. Some conversations are indicative of a larger problem, so taking a “ticket closed” approach to supporting your customers will result in a number of missed opportunities.
Your overall support quality is defined not just by response times and satisfaction ratings, but by the quality of conversations you’re having with customers. If you prune away unnecessary conversations, they’ll no longer dominate your inbox and your time, which creates more room to have meaningful conversations with customers. And who wouldn’t want that?