The Psychology of Customer Support

Posted on behalf of Paul Hendrickson, Senior Support Analyst
Tech Support, Customer Care, User Satisfaction Engineer, Manager of Fix-All-The-Things, Level 86 Client Success Warrior… in the end, they all boil down to basically the same thing: the voice on the other end of the phone when stuff is broken.  In today’s professional environment, a huge amount of the day to day client communication at companies across the world starts out with something along the lines of “hi, something isn’t working how it should, I need help”, and that’s important.  Unfortunately, as with so many seemingly routine interactions in our fast-paced, repetitive work lives, these experiences can be overlooked, or simply not given the attention they need.  Likewise, depending on which end of the phone you’re on in these instances (Customer vs. Customer Support), you may see these interactions in very different ways.
This piece is intended for the people on both sides of the conversation, in hopes that through a little understanding, we can make these experiences a little better for everyone.
You see, I’m one of the people being called in these situations, rather than doing the calling – the Customer Support side.  That said, I’m under no delusions when it comes to how the customer’s day is probably going by the time we talk, so assuming you (the reader) are the one doing the calling, let’s start this whole thing by agreeing on a simple premise, and working our way out from there, if that sounds alright to you.  Okay, good.  Simply put:
You don’t want to talk to me, and that’s okay.
Phew, I’m glad we got that out there early on, I didn’t want it to be some kind of ‘elephant in the room’ thing.  But it’s true, right?
From a client perspective, just by nature of you feeling the need to reach out for support at all, you’re probably not having a very good day.  Deadlines are approaching, systems are down, tempers are short, and there’s that one supervisor breathing coffee-breath down your neck as to why you weren’t able to use your mystical precognitive powers to predict your problem before it existed.  Maybe the situation could have been prevented, which can put you in an even more defensive position.  Yep, I’m not going to dance around that fact either – lots of things I see day to day are either the result of a mistake by the user (I know, I was shocked too), or just something that could have been prevented with a little additional attention.  And you know what?  That’s okay too.  It happens.
When you get down to it, the “how” or “why” are only as important as their relevance to resolving the issue, and making the broken thing not quite as broken, from a logical perspective.  But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  How much of Customer Support – and I mean good Customer Support – is logical, and how much of it is emotional?  If the issue gets resolved, does it matter?  Of course it matters, and it’s what separates a “yeah, it was fine, it got fixed” Customer Support experience from the kind of experience that gets references, recommendations, and the most valuable support (and business) commodity of them all: PROFIT!  No, just kidding.  Trust.  The most important thing is trust.
Now let’s switch things up a little, and you can assume the perspective of the customer support person, instead of the client doing the calling.
The role of Customer Support essentially boils down to fixing problems, right?  Well yes, but only partially.  That’s the “logic” part.  The other part of it is the “emotion” part that I mentioned earlier.  See, sometimes, as scary as it sounds, “turning it off and on again” doesn’t necessarily do the trick.  In fact, depending on the severity of the problem, it can require multiple rounds of fact-finding, troubleshooting and analysis just to understand the root of the issue, forget actually resolving it.  What I’m saying is, the process isn’t always quick and easy.
When I am working on a difficult situation like this, I have three objectives, in this order:

  1. Make the customer feel better.
  2. Fix the problem.
  3. Create a rapport.

Making the customer feel better:
You don’t have to resolve (or even understand) the problem before you set the tone of the experience.  No one wants to feel like a burden, or be talked down to.  Just by reaching out to a support person, the customer is placing themselves in a position of vulnerability, and that isn’t fun.  Remember, you’re on the same side – the “we want this thing to work” side.  Creating this understanding not only helps ease frustration and tensions, it creates a level of trust in the care they are receiving from a professional they are putting their faith in.
Happy customers (and people in general) are just better to work with, and all it takes is a little understanding and patience*.  Maybe I’m in the minority here, but if I need to work on a support item with a customer for potentially hours, I’d rather they not be frustrated and angry the whole time, and this needs to start with the support person.  In a more practical sense, in most cases, you’ll find people to be more receptive to questions, ideas and the like when their mood is improved, which is a huge benefit to the timely and effective resolution of the issue.  It’s a win/win.
*Usually.  For some people, feeling better starts with a heavy dose of airing their (sometimes valid) frustrations, which can put you in a tough spot.  Just keep in mind, they aren’t mad at you (probably), they are unhappy with the situation.
Fixing the problem:
Uh, you know.  Fix the problem.  You’re the expert.
Just kidding, sort of.  Fix the problem, but involve the client in it if possible.  What good is resolving an issue if you haven’t put the customer in a position to prevent it from happening in the first place, next time?  Obviously this depends on your client base, but in most cases, your customer doesn’t want to be treated like a child, and they will appreciate not being talked down to.  Explain your findings, your process, and the resolution, along with tips to avoid it in the future.  Empower your client to be as successful as possible, and you will both benefit going forward.
Create a rapport:
Gates’ Law: Everything That Can Break, Will.
I just made that up, but you know, it’s just the nature of the beast.  If it wasn’t, I (and maybe you, depending on who is reading this) would be out of the job.  No matter the precautions, training, or monitoring, things will go wrong, and when they do, the customer needs to feel confident in the help they are reaching out for.  Everyone wants to feel like they are in good hands when something goes wrong, it is just human nature.  As a Customer Support person, you’re in a unique position to provide this at a very direct level, and the relationships and confidence you create through your interactions can make a huge impact on the overall experience a customer has working with your company.
Long story still pretty long (brevity is definitely not my strongest suit), the Customer vs Customer Support relationship in modern business just makes no sense.  We aren’t adversaries, we’re on the same side, and it is well past the time when we started acting like it.  Remember, the person you’re talking to on the other end of the line is just that: a person, with their own responsibilities, frustrations, stressors and everything that goes with it.
A little understanding not only goes a long way to having a better outcome with technical issues, but in making the experience more pleasant for everyone.