Beehind the Curtain: Secrets of our Support Success

Friday, August 2, 2013
By dreeves

The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain

We’re often praised for our stellar customer support. For the possible benefit of other startups, or anyone else who’s curious, here are our secrets!

First, all the usual “customer is always right” stuff is just common sense if you’re genuinely excited about promoting your company and having your users feel good about you. I’m skipping everything that was obvious to me from the start. But there are a few things that maybe seem obvious in retrospect that I didn’t appreciate until doing a ton of support myself.

Be (really) informal

Never ever say anything corporate-like about “apologizing for the inconvenience” or “being of further assistance”. In fact, if you read what you’ve written to a user out loud and it’s possible to tell that it’s not being spoken to your best friend, rewrite it. No exaggeration — I treat that as a hard rule. It also helps get replies out quicker, once you’re used to it.

UPDATE 2016: This is all standing the test of time beautifully but one thing we’ve noticed is that just because something sounds sweet and friendly in your head doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to read it. Classic example of the illusion of transparency. So err on the side of effusive friendliness.

Be grateful (even to jerks)

The best-friend heuristic has another benefit: If a user is ever frustrated or annoyed or hostile, put on rose-colored glasses and willfully reinterpret their tone as helpful and constructive — something your friend would say because they genuinely want to help you improve — and respond with the appropriate tone of gratitude.

Today in a Hacker News thread about procrastination where I gave a Beeminder spiel, someone replied with this: “So the time not wasted on facebook goes wasted in your pseudo solution?” My reply was:

Ooh, no, I think beeminding is pretty low overhead! Especially if you connect it with RescueTime or another automatic data source. Maybe still too much learning curve up front but once you have it set up and dialed in it’s nearly frictionless.
I’m also anxious to learn what makes it give the impression of being a pseudo solution. We think of commitment devices as the nuclear option in the war on akrasia.

“It’s very unlikely that that person is actually a jerk.”

If it had been a support email I’d have added something like “thanks so much for the feedback on this!” Note the willful oblivion to how much of a jerk the person was being. And in reality it’s very unlikely that that person is actually a jerk. They probably genuinely had the impression that Beeminder is nothing but a cynical, gimmicky attempt to capitalize on people’s akrasia. Which is valuable for us to learn! (Yes, I know that everyone reading this blog fully understands how we’re the opposite of that, but we have to care about first impressions.)

Don’t just offer help, ask for it

A lot of phrases like “we appreciate your feedback” sound downright insincere, having been ruined by big slimy corporations. It’s reasonably obvious to steer clear of things like that, especially given our first rule — be informal. But I spotted this in an old email from one of us: “Let me know if there’s anything else that I can help you with!” Perfectly informal and sounds so friendly and helpful. But I’ve come to believe that it backfires.

Here’s my latest thinking on why. First, people are thoroughly cynical about companies wanting to “help” them. Second, psychology! People want to help people. They go out of their way to do so. People are nice, even altruistic. They don’t want to take up our time asking questions.

When we were just getting started and willing to do pretty much anything for our initial users, Melanie, our resident fitness expert, would offer advice and coaching and people would think to themselves “well, that’s not fair, I’m not paying for that”. If you emphasize how much their feedback is helping you, users respond better. Generally the point of customer support is helping users, but we now make it a point to emphasize how they’re helping us, too. For example, to the seeming jerk in the example above I’d maybe add, quite sincerely, “it’s hugely valuable for us to learn about things that are off-putting or confusing at first so please keep the feedback coming!”

You can bend over backwards offering help and it makes users feel guilty or suspicious and ignore you. If you ask them for help — or make clear that asking you questions is not a burden but a vital form of feedback that you need for improving the product — then they respond effusively, and bend over backwards to help you.

“Make clear that asking you questions is not a burden but a vital form of feedback.”

In any case, at this point it’s an empirical fact. People respond better to helping us than us helping them. To be clear, this is no gimmick. Users only need our help in the first place because our website sucks. We’re not helping them, we’re just making up for the sucking (and learning how to unsuckify it). So no matter how much you help someone don’t talk about it that way. Turn it around and explicitly thank them for helping you suck less.

Reply immediately

It’s just ridiculous how well users react to immediate responses. People have written whole blog posts about how amazing we are just because of quick responses. Seriously, it’s impossible to overestimate how much this matters. I continue to fail at this because email sucks so hard, but holy crap does it matter. I guess the psychology is that it’s frustrating to be ignored and you half expect to be, so every hour that goes by is confirming that expectation, and the growing frustrated feeling can’t be undone by the eventual reply, no matter how good it is. Or forget the psychoanalysis and trust the results: immediate responses are a goodwill goldmine.

Avoid going down rabbit holes

If you need more info from a user, keep to one dirt-simple question so they don’t put off reading/responding and can just fire back an answer. This also helps with the immediacy of responses, which, in case I didn’t emphasize it enough, makes users want to have your babies.

Also, don’t waste much time with users who are not in your target audience. In our case, maybe they’re not nerdy enough to appreciate the graphs, or it becomes clear that there’s no way they’ll ever put in a credit card. Don’t let those people take time away from your bread and butter (in our case, profligate nerds). We’re quick to point people at our competitors if they don’t share our data nerdery or at similar apps that focus on tracking if they don’t seem into the commitment device aspect of Beeminder.

What not to do, and what to do instead

Here’s a response from one of us, early on, to a support request from someone who couldn’t figure out how to set up a goal in Beeminder:

What was the objective of your goal? What exactly were you trying to measure? If you let me know these things perhaps I can help you set up an appropriate goal that will be suitable for what you want to track.

It’s not obviously bad, of course, but it violates most of the above rules. It’s slightly too formal (“appropriate goal that will be suitable”), it asks more than one question (rabbit hole danger, and hampers immediate replies), it offers to help without asking for help (or emphasizing that this is helping us), and it doesn’t show gratitude for the feedback. Here’s how we’d probably rewrite it now, some ten thousand support replies later:

Ah, let us help! We’re working on making this all clearer so this helps us as well, in figuring out what’s currently confusing (so thank you!). First question: What is this goal actually measuring?

PS: Beemind it, obviously

This almost goes without saying, but if you have trouble staying on top of support, or especially if you tend to avoid it because it can be a slog, you should beemind that shit. You could use GmailZero but right now Andy — who’s much better at email than the rest of us — has taken charge and is beeminding our support inbox with a Do More goal:

(UPDATE 2013-11-29: Swapped that for Bethany’s version, who’s been support buck-stopper lately.)

Whenever we hit support-inbox zero, we put a +1 on that graph, which forces us to hit zero on five days of every week.

UPDATE: Discussion on Hacker News.

UPDATE: I really like Nathan Kontny’s advice to end every support email with “Does that help?” It’s a simpler hack for the same goal we’re trying to accomplish with “don’t just offer help, ask for it” — overcoming people’s reluctance to bother you with further questions.

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  • crainbf

    Yes, having used Beeminder for close to year now I must say in terms of responsiveness and handling issues that come up I’ve never seen anyone equal you guys. Nothing short of awesome. Keep it up!

  • Juest

    Okay, I want to add one remarkable thing that you guys figured out that I didn’t recognize until you pointed it out:

    the flipping of who is being helped- and being religious about inverting the lens in a way, where all questions is a matter of being helped as a team, recognizing that all help given out can be framed as people helping you out, which makes the person feel empowered rather than indebted.