10 steps to improving your email customer service

Since I do a lot of email customer service (oh and my company makes an email customer service product!) I thought it would be interesting to put together a list of a few things I’ve found that can greatly improve the level of service your customers receive via email. It’s not a perfect list and even I forget to do all these things all of the time, but I believe if you stick with them that your customers will feel better about your service level and you’ll see tangible increases in satisfaction and sales.

1. Say Hello

It’s very hard to communicate over email. It can be very cold and corporate and impersonal. I find that simply starting off a response with Hi Bob or Hello Bob compared with just your name is a great way to set the tone. You want the customer to feel comfortable and most importantly that there’s an actual human on the other end of the email not just a corporate cog.

2. Thank Them for Their Time

Many of my responses start off with a thank you line after the initial hello. For instance, if it’s a trial user with a question on a feature in the system I’ll often start with something like this:

*Hello Bob,

Thank you for taking the time to evaluate HelpSpot.


Again this reinforces the human relationship. It’s also a crossover to your sales efforts and acknowledges that they’re making an investment in their time and money with your product.

3. Always be the Last One to Respond

I’ve talked about this one before. No matter how an email conversation ends, I always try and be the last response. Even if it’s just a simple “no problem” or “let me know if you have any other trouble”. First, I like to make sure there’s resolution in the customers mind. If I’m the last one to respond then there’s no doubt that the request is completed to the customers satisfaction. Second, it shows that you’re willing to go the extra mile. There are very few companies I’ve ever dealt with where after I sent a “thanks for fixing it” type message they responded. Those that have tend to stand out from the crowd.

4. Reply as Fast as Humanly Possible

This is always a tricky one, but I believe you should always try and respond as quickly as you can even at the expense of your other work. Even if you’re a programmer and you’re in the zone. Nothing is more important than your customers. Yes, this will cause you delays and some frustration and most Programmers Time Optimization Books would frown upon it, but it’s the best way to do business. Having remarkably quick support has gotten me more word of mouth sales and links than just about anything else. This is another one of those crossover areas where your support is your sales.

5. Organize your Email

OK I can’t resist. My company does make help desk software you know! Seriously though you have to have a solution to organize your inbound email and trust me your email client is not it. You need a tool that can organize emails so none drop through the cracks. If you have more than one person answering emails then you need a tool so you know who’s working on what. You need to be able to spot trends and see where your product can be optimized to eliminate recurring support problems. None of this is possible with a standard email client.

6. Used Prepared Responses Sparingly

So you’ve followed my advice and have some type of email customer service package in place. Yeah, you can automate everything now. No! Resist the temptation to turn your support operation into an assembly line. Prepared responses (email templates to some) have their place, especially for extremely common requests but they should not be a majority of your responses.

The simple reason is that it’s extremely hard to make those responses not sound canned. They always sound canned. The human brain is extremely good at detecting objects (or words) which are out of place. You can’t fool it, you can however trick it sometimes 🙂

My tip is to use your prepared responses for partial replies. Write the beginning of the email yourself, but use your canned response to fill in some of the middle which you write over and over. That way the initial lead in paragraph is custom and sounds right to the customer. The prepared response then fits right in with the flow. You’ve managed to keep the human tone and still greatly increase your support speed.

7. Always be Nice

This one is flat out hard, but you must always be nice. No matter what happens, no matter how much you want to grab your keyboard and write things you’d never say in person you must keep your cool. This is especially important in emails since there will be a permanent record of what you say. On the modern web that email could be on the front page of Digg in an hour. If you feel yourself loosing it walk away or simply don’t respond if you can’t be nice.

8. Have Phone Support Available

You remember in the Matrix how all the humans stayed in the Matrix, because on a subconscious level they knew they had the ability to leave if they wanted to. That’s exactly like email support. You don’t have to advertise your phone support, but there can come a point in an email support request where a phone call is just the easiest way to get something resolved. This is a critical moment in the support request. If you force the customer to continue via email and refuse to use the phone the interaction is going to get ugly very fast as the customer and you both get frustrated.

Just like in the Matrix very few customers will actually choose this path, but it’s important that the option is open to them. In the end it will often save you time and turn a poor experience into a remarkable one.

9. Know Who You’re Emailing With

This isn’t always possible of course, but if you can try and know who you’re talking to on the other end. If you store this type of info in your CRM take a second and look before you respond. There are many questions which require a different type of response for a CTO compared to a non-technical end user.

10. Link to Self Help

When possible avoid putting your answer (or full answer) in the email. Don’t be afraid to link out to the relevant self help resources (you have a self help website right?). This is important because some things simply require more room than an email can provide (not technically, but comfortably). It also teaches customers that you have a self help area and where to find it.

47 hats a microisv consulting service launches

Bob Walsh is launching a MicroISV consulting service on his new site, 47hats.com. There’s not much else up about the exact services, it will be interesting to see what he ends up offering. I think it’s an interesting idea. I remember talking to Bob probably over a year ago and he was kicking this around.

What I’m most interested in is how he pulls in customers. MicroISV’s are notoriously cheap (even when it’s not in their best interest to be). I’m hoping Bob has some unique product offerings.

Just the other day I was lamenting about the MicroISV world, perhaps this will be the shot in the arm we (I) need. I’m really looking forward to helping Bob succeed with this initiative.

another one bites the dust

Looks like we lost Alex Williams, he’s off to get a ….. job. You may remember I was wondering what he was up to a few months back. We never found out 🙁

For some reason this news has me a bit reflective. A few years ago when I was starting UserScape there were a bunch of other MicroISV’s starting up. There were blogs all over about it, so many people getting into it. The fact is that I don’t think any of them are still around at least not the ones I followed. Can I really be the last man standing? Where the heck is everyone?

I guess this goes to show you that starting a MicroISV is still starting a business. It still takes incredible persistence. The barrier to entry may be lower, but only a small percentage actually make it the entire way.

I’m not sure how I missed everyone falling off, but as I look at my RSS reader I realize there’s almost nobody in there from back in the beginning. Now that I think about it, this may be part of the reason blogging isn’t as fun for me as it used to be. There was more of an almost team effort feel to it back then. Everyone posting and trying to build up something together, commenting on each others work.

I’d love to get some of that back. Maybe I’m just not hanging out in the right circles?

need a website or web based application

If so you may want to drop a note to DnL. It’s a web consulting company started by my brother (Joe) and cousin (Carl). They’re already doing some amazing work with big name clients (including a little bit for UserScape!). They’re a very good team. My brother is a great programmer (far better than me) and my cousin is a really good sales and business man. You may have to wait a little bit as they’ve already generated a ton of work in just the first few months. Always a good problem in the consulting biz!

I’ve asked them to leave a spot open in the org chart for me, perhaps head coffee runner?

Check them out when you have a chance. Any links you could send their way would be great.


why do you use third party payment processors

Patrick has a long and thoughtful post on the scam currently being run by the payment processor SWREG, which was uncovered by Andy Brice. Obviously what they’re doing is horrible, no doubt about that.

My question is though, why do all you guys use these processors? I see lots of downside and very little upside. My main concerns would be total lack of control over the checkout process experience (as shown by this event) and the insane fees. It’s significantly more expensive to use these guys than to just run the transactions yourself via a payment gateway. I suppose the convenience of not having to get a payment gateway is the main draw, but doing that little extra work gives you complete control and will save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month. Am I missing something?

friends and family

Today my wife was noting with me how our friends and family are really wearing on her (us). Not that we don’t all get along, we do. We get along very well in fact. What’s wearing on her is how nobody knows what the heck we do for a living.

I must admit that I expected it to be a challenge to explain to people, but it’s been far worse than I anticipated. I think if we just ran a website they could maybe get that. Say, if we sold socks online. I could show them the URL and explain how we get orders and ship socks out and that would register. It would be close enough to a normal retail store that they’d get it.

Maybe even if we sold table planning software or bingo card software they’d get that. They’ve had need of these things themselves and they could download it and play around with it. At family get togethers I could gather everyone around and show it to them and get the questions over in one swoop.

It seems though that help desk software, which is downloadable but web based doesn’t resonate as well. Not to mention that it’s primary function is to run a service desk which none of them have every worked at or even thought about. I don’t blame them, but it can be frustrating from our perspective.

It’s not an obvious problem, it’s actually very subtle. For instance, no body ever believes we’re making good money. It just doesn’t seem possible that there’s a market for this thing. So when we buy things (for instance, we’re buying a new house) we’re often greeted with questioning looks, as if to ask if we can really afford such things.

I don’t blame them, heck half the time I don’t believe it myself. It’s all so virtual, with bytes going one way and money coming the other. It doesn’t seem real to me so it must be impossible to believe for them.

There also tends to be a lot of helpful advice, like get a nice suite and go down to the business district and knock on doors. Things like that. That’s how business always has been done, so it’s impossible for those not living in our little digital world to believe that we do pretty much no advertising and no local business. For the last tax quarter I collected $100 in NY sales tax. Not much, because our customers are around the globe.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspects are when we talk about working. For instance, my wife was discussing how hard we’ve been working on the new release to a friend of hers this week. How we’ve been testing and spent all day on the computer. It actually is extremely draining and yet there’s always silence on the other end of the phone. Almost a disbelief that such things could be considered actual work. That’s also often accompanied by a lack of anything to say in return, since the amazement at it even being work sucks any other thoughts out of their mind.

It may sound like I’m ranting, but I’m really not. I just find it interesting how different a world we live in from everyone around us. It’s yet another of the stresses and challenges of starting a web based business.

iphone and a tip for important meetings

Scoble with an interesting post on how the iPhone stops strangers in their tracks.

The post reminded me of a good tip for business meetings. Back when I worked in publishing I had a boss who would always buy the latest handheld gadget. Didn’t matter what it was as long as it was just released and something nobody else is likely to have already. I remember in one specific meeting it was a shiny silver iPaq. He’d always put it in the middle of the table and conspicuously use it before the meeting started. Inevitably people would start to ask about it and a conversation would ensue. Before you knew what happened he was running the meeting. Not only that, but by doing this he’d broken the ice with the others attending and this often helped him sway them to his will. In fact if you knew what was going on it was almost scary the effect it had on the others.