Support Essentials: Communicating Effectively

It might sound trite, but when it comes to providing customer support, communication is key. This is especially true when dealing with angry or tense customers, where the annoyance of communication failures only magnifies their agitation.

But figuring out and fixing common sources of friction in communication can be a great step in improving the chances of success with any customer. In my experience, there are four main obstacles that seem to most regularly make communication fail, which then snowball into making the whole support exchange fail.

1. Language and Knowledge Barriers

If you and the customer speak different languages, then even with the help of online translators it can be hard to hit the bullseye in communicating simple instructions or posing simple questions.

This problem can also exist even if both parties are using the same language: if the customer is especially new to the platform you are supporting, for example, then there is a knowledge barrier that can be just as high and as frustrating to work around as a “real” language barrier.

Solution: When it comes to knowledge and language barriers alike, one of the best ways to break through and establish clarity in communication is to rely on actual language as little as possible: communicate exact steps for them to go through with any sort of visual aid available that improves clarity, especially screenshots and video screencasts. Where written language is necessary, bulleted lists, step-by-step instructions, and very literal language can help. Abbreviations should be spelled out, and where possible, choose simple words instead of complex terminology.

2. Reading Into Tone: Don’t Take it Personally

As anyone who’s read a YouTube comment section can confirm, people are far more acerbic online than they are in the real world. Being rude is embarrassing to any decent person, and the fear of embarrassment in the real world keeps a person’s tone and demeanor (generally) in check.

But many—if not all—of these social pressures are removed when engaging in an online support exchange. This make it hard to decipher how a customer truly feels—in your head, the language may read as especially harsh, when in reality the customer might have only been a little bit annoyed and in a bit of a rush when they wrote it. A person’s true tone and feelings can be difficult to gauge and easily misinterpreted by anyone trying to provide them support.

Taking this harshness personally can sour the exchange early by changing your tone for the worse.

Solution: If a customer’s tone or comment gets your blood boiling, take a break from that support exchange and engage in something else. Come back to it later with a cooler head, remind yourself to not take it personally, and try giving the customer the benefit of the doubt.

3. Mismatched Expectations

If a customer expects a different support experience than what your team actually provides, then you can bet on an unsatisfying outcome. When the customer is angry, there’s often an impulse to go “above and beyond” as a support provider to try and turn the situation around. But before going down this path, it should be established up-front what you can and cannot do for them.

The customer might not be satisfied if they expect a lot more than what is possible, but it’s worth trying to lay the groundwork and set a bar that you can then try to surpass in your efforts.

Solution: Have a page with a clear breakdown of what the support team is capable of—not just a page of legalese Terms and Conditions, but a human-readable breakdown of what sorts of things are covered and what things are not. We’ve made such a page here, for example, and have found it extremely handy for new customers who might not know what “support” specifically includes and excludes.

4. Staying on Task

Have you ever seen a comment thread that tries to pack many questions in at once? From a user perspective, this is totally understandable—they want to share all of their concerns so you can address them in your reply. Unfortunately for support staff, it can quickly make the exchange disorganized and thus make it harder to provide succinct answers, hindering your ability to resolve the issue effectively.

Solution: Acknowledge the difficulty of replying to multiple questions in a single thread, and establish the fact that being disorganized in the thread will only hurt the speed and effectiveness of their support exchange. I personally get the focus back on track by saying, “We can certainly get to to those other issues, but to provide the most efficient support here we should tackle [insert main issue] first.”

Using basic HTML formatting when possible is a also great help. You can use blockquotes to quote specific chunks of the customer’s reply and respond to each quote in turn—this makes it easier to write the reply by letting you tackle one question at a time, while also making it easier for the customer to absorb all of the information in your reply. Text formatting, including header tags and even horizontal rules, can be used to further “segment” your reply for easier digestion.

Though each customer is different, and every issue has its own nuances and details that deserve attention, there’s a common thread in all of them: For any single customer support exchange to go well, there has to be good and clear communication.

You might not always be able to improve the customer’s communication. But you can certainly improve yours and your team’s, and make your lives easier for doing so—while providing better service to your customers, too.

This is the first post in a series from The Events Calendar team, Support Essentials. The next post is coming soon—subscribe via RSS or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to make sure you don’t miss it!