Customer support is one of the core operational activities of any consumer-oriented company. Oftentimes it’s one of the most significant factors on the competitive landscape in any industry. The quality of your customer support basically shows how much you care and what are you willing to do for your users or customers.

In Vectr we have come a good journey building and refining customer support processes since launching Vectr 1.0 in September 2016. In September Vectr was a newly launched graphic design tool in the industry of creative software. As we were running with marketing, growth, PR and product management – we also needed to build a good and efficient process of interacting with our users.

Not even all of our competitors had any visible customer support processes in place: some were quite proactive, while others just gave support @ company address somewhere on “Contact” page of their website. The truth is: building and managing customer support for consumer products is hard and challenging. If you can’t handle it – better not start building the whole team around it. But if you can – it can immensely increase brand loyalty, user retention, make product development process better and beat your competition in all stages of growth.

So the decision for us at Vectr was obvious – we made a smart bet and have since benefited greatly because of that. We now have an amazing dedicated three-person communications and support team running and executing a variety of important functions.

The Meaning And Functions Of Customer Support

Let’s drill down quickly first into the meaning of customer support for consumer software products. Consumer software are all kinds of free and paid apps that are being used by the individual users. Sometimes companies like Adobe would even handle B2B sales to entire corporations or agencies – but it would be still the individuals using the software and needing assistance with it.

The fact that that particular software is being used by thousands and thousands of people makes building customer support processes challenging. It’s no longer as straightforward as in small e-commerce or B2B companies – where customer support is closely intersected with account management. In consumer software segment you need to build specific scalable processes of handling different communication challenges, segmenting support tickets, reacting to different events (i.e. server goes down), sharing content like the most recent updates, and the most challenging part of it – developing processes driving constant improvement.

customer support pyramid

If we were to break down the meaning and functions of customer support into levels it would look somehow like the pyramid above.

Informing and solving problems – that relates to the basic customer support activities like answering basic and routine questions to more precise questions and help requests. Oftentimes users would ask how to create specific projects in Vectr and then we’d have to either send them a tutorial link or literally briefly explain in words and GIFs how they could do it.

Reporting bugs – growing and developing software products would have tons of bugs after each new milestone. Developers’ ability to track and notice them is limited – sometimes it takes hundreds of hours in total using the app to identify them. Or multiple bug reports to notice the common pattern and be able to replicate them. It takes an established support system handling the reports, systemizing them and then cooperating with the developers’ team while fixing them.

Product development feedback – users would always want more features, faster, better, new buttons, better UI. It’s the job of a product manager defining what to build and when, but in order to do so most consciously – he or she needs to receive both clean and detailed customer feedback. What I mean by “clean and detailed” is that from the message like:

“Hi, you know I’ve been wondering if there’s any chance making the text look bent in your vector graphics editor. How do you change the text color by the way? Any chance you’re going to support Sketch files soon?” – customer support team would need to create two new feedback notes separately for bending text and supporting Sketch files. Plus, answer the background color question.

Building and leveraging relationships – customer support team in Vectr has recently evolved into full-stacked communications team. It’s never only about one channel, and it’s never only about the product. First of all – it’s all about the people and being useful to them, expecting later to leverage existing relationships.

Building up connections with selected users – influencers, bloggers, teachers etc. is another ultimate goal of customer support teams. At Vectr we’re regularly reaching out on Twitter to users having a significant number of followers, and proactively invite them to join our Facebook group where they can socialize with other users. All that increases NPS – net promoter score or how willingly people are spreading the word about a certain service.

Understanding Users And Product

The first thing we did – and you should – is understanding the users of the particular software product. Before the main launch, it’s always worth doing a public beta stage, spreading the word out about the product to the extended network and getting the first couple of hundreds of active users. Then you should watch carefully what kind of users retain and what do they have in common. Identify patterns and form complete user personas – that will help define and guide most of your growth activities.

Working with user personas is something that you should do not only before the launch of your product. Constantly reevaluate them as the product develops and matures. Even though new customer support specialists are going to quickly grasp those patterns themselves – showing them some previously described user profiles would certainly make their onboarding faster.

customer profile

Customer Support: Which Platform To Choose

At Vectr we have been using Intercom as a customer support platform since the very beginning. Intercom is, arguably indeed, the most comprehensive and surely the most expensive solution on the market. It has three separately priced products: engage, respond and educate.

Engage lets you design and automate your onboarding and communications via in-app messages or emails. Respond is customer chat system, which appears as the bubble on your website in the bottom-right corner. Intercom has the whole range of tools for the support specialists to use: templates, tagging system, GIFs. You can also define smart assignment rules when you have multiple customer support specialists. Educate is the last product – it enables you to create a knowledge base of articles and guidelines that you can send to your users. I find that one is more relevant to B2B businesses though, any B2C company would better direct users to their website or blog.

One of the best things about Intercom that makes it superior is the number and quality of integrations available. Intercom is integrable with about any major and smaller platform and service: Slack, WordPress, GitHub, Product Board, Shopify are just a few of them.

When the user base grows big enough and paying per bunch of users gets too expensive – the good hint is to reach out to Intercom team and negotiate a special annual contract with them which will put the marginal price down.

Before sticking to Intercom though we did quite a bit of research on the alternatives which I’d like to share. Remember that each of the tools below is different. Some of them have more functionalities dedicated to customer support, others were built more for marketing and communications automation.

  • UseResponse – customer livechat, emails automation, API. Pricing starts from $15.
  • Crisp – neat customer support and marketing automation service. Has a free basic option and the first tier begins at $25.
  • UserEngage – pretty much Intercom substitution service. About twice cheaper price. They seem to have added a bunch of other functionalities too like pop-up forms. Not sure about the overall quality of the service though and how it all works.
  • Vero – that one is email automation platform and has no customer support chat option. You could potentially use it in a combination with other software that does only customer chat – like Olark.
  • Drift – has a very similar selection of tools and capabilities to Intercom. Highly priced though too same as Intercom.
  • LiveChat – most fit for small businesses and e-commerce stores, not really the best option for any consumer software company.

Customer Support Infrastructure: Tools And Hacks

Except for the core user-base management system, there are a bunch of useful tools and approaches the customer support teams could use in their work. It’s very individual depending upon the industry whether of them will work though.

Grammarly is a must have tool for any customer support team. It’s an extension and web-based tool checking the spelling and grammar issues as you type. When being bombarded with messages it’s easy to make stupid typos – Grammarly helps a lot. I also love their YouTube ad, it pretty much illustrates what I am talking about.

GIFs collection is another must-have thing in the toolkit of a support and communications team. You could shoot the GIFs explaining the functions of the product or giving some useful hints once, and then either upload them as templates with some supporting text or use the directories like Giphy.com if you don’t mind making them public.

Use templates as much as possible. Try picking the customer support system that lets you build a system of templates – that’s the core thing making customer support scalable and increasing the productivity dramatically. Make sure you include some awesome visuals in your templates – people love seeing how to do something, not just reading and trying to replicate.

Feedback Collection And Product Management

Your product management system would ideally have a built-in feedback collection feature. We are using Product Board at Vectr which is a startup company itself based in the Czech Republic. Product Board has a neat system allowing you to create notes containing the username, the desired feature and the full message.

Since recently Product Board is now very conveniently and easy to integrate with Intercom. Adding a tag in Intercom productboard adds the whole conversation into the Product Board. That really helps to live up to the motto of building the product people want.

Collecting customers feedback is vital for successful product management. It’s also important to smartly analyze that feedback, check which features are most desired and aligning it all with the development process. Once the features are built – it’s important to reach out with good news to people who desired them.

product board

Comms & Dev Collaboration

Similarly, there must be a system in place to fight bugs and product issues. In fast-growing companies, the product is being developed rapidly which means that many things are going to break. It’s not only the product team that must react fast – but also support team. Users are the best testers and once they report that something is wrong – the information must be quickly passed on to the dev team.

The challenge is always to identify the real issues and filter out the cases of product misunderstanding. Oftentimes the users would report the button or feature missing just because they didn’t figure out for some reason where to find it. Other times – it’s a terrible UI bug that actually makes the button hidden and completely destroys the user experience.

Again: use the integrations as much as possible. Intercom neatly integrates with GitHub, marking the conversations pasted into GitHub issues and reopening them once the respective GitHub issues are closed – so that support officers are reminded to reach out to affected users. Try to include as much information as possible about the user and the steps to replicate the problem – that would save the valuable minutes of developers’ time.

intercom github

Continuous Improvement Processes

Once you’ve got all the customer support processes running – it’s time to continuously improve them. Usually, when the support team is being preoccupied with hundreds of conversations and issues every day it’s hard for them to look down on the whole process and identify the areas of improvement.

Thus there needs to be someone, CEO or CMO let’s say, who supervises not that much the daily work of the support team as the whole work process. He or she would be the person to notice that GIFs are outdated, that there are some new integrations available etc.

Customer support processes aren’t also that easy and flexible to change. After all, it’s customers and their needs that often define how support officers work. Make sure everything you introduce makes the work of support specialists easier and more convenient, as well as being aligned with customer requests. Throwing too many operational duties and process guidelines on support officers is going to make work too daunting and affect the overall quality of support.

Customer Support Improvement Circle.

Building customer support teams and processes for consumer software companies is always challenging. But that’s the ultimate price of time and effort that is certainly worth paying for increased customer activation and retention rates, positive PR mentions highlighting the exceptional customer support and established relationships with industry influencers and leaders.

Thanks for reading! Would be happy to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn: @vladyslavshvets. Also follow my  newsletter not to miss the next article 😉