Finding The Human: The Customer Support Starter Pack

I get voicemails.

Now, if you're like me, you read that voicemail message and probably felt a little twinge in the pit of your stomach. Hopefully, you were wiser than me and didn't read it while you were celebrating Taco Tuesday with your wife at your favorite taco stand in suburban Chicago.

It's pretty rare that we see angry voicemails and emails, which is a blessing and curse. On the one hand, almost every correspondence ends with a smile. On the other hand, I was almost completely unprepared as to how to approach this voicemail - and it was all I could think about.

Turns out, reading voicemail transcripts can be an effective way to ruin Taco Tuesday, as hard as that is to believe.

"Yeah I'd like to talk to somebody about your idiotic program but apparently every time I call there's nobody there so thanks so much no help."

So let's try a little exercise. Read that transcript again, and imagine that you had to call this person back.

How do you feel?

Are you uncomfortable?

Apprehensive?

Defensive?

Angry?

While you hold on to that thought, I want to shift gears a little bit and tell you about a dude named Patrick - one of our customers.

Patrick is in his late 40s. He lives in middle America with his wife and two high-school aged daughters. For the last 15 years, Patrick has been a software engineer for a farming tools company, but he doesn't really enjoy it anymore. He has had an idea for an app for a long time and is finally ready to start exploring it in the little free time he has. He has already gotten the interest of a couple of investors, and he wants to run a demo for them. He signs up for an online wireframing software suite, sets up his wireframes to demonstrate his app, and then sets off to run the demo for his potential investors.

Except that he cannot figure out how to invite his investors to view his app. He has poured over the documentation and found nothing, and time is running out.

So he calls me and leaves a message.

"Yeah I'd like to talk to somebody about your idiotic program but apparently every time I call there's nobody there so thanks so much no help."

Think about how you felt 2 minutes ago, and how you feel now.

Compassion?

A desire to help?

Excitement?

Why the sudden change in feelings?

Because you've found the human.


We are constantly reminded that our "customers are people too".

Two talks at last year's Elevate Summit in Palm Springs focused on it. Helen Shaw's "Friendzone your Customers" and Michael Labrecque-Jessen's (more directly named) "Customers are People too". Both excellent talks, but the fact that we needed them (and the fact that I felt the need to write this) speaks to the problem: the idea refuses to sink in.

"People" is a weirdly abstract term, when you think about it. There is almost no emotional weight to it - it is a harmless word. For those reasons, I think it is a word that is really hard to empathize with.

I vastly prefer "human". "Human" almost carries the weight of our species. To my ears, the word "human" sounds more complete. A "person" merely exists - a "human" has endeavored. So that's what I try to do with every email: I try to find the human. Once you find the human, customer support becomes a lot easier, much like it did in Patrick's case.

Admittedly, I changed some of Patrick's details because I didn't get his permission for this. But he is based on a real person - an edge case in terms of our normal interactions, but a very real person. You won't get to know all of your customers that well, but that doesn't mean that each and every one of them isn't a Patrick-level human being. They all have a whole world that exists outside of the email/voicemail they sent you. You don't have to find all of it, but finding some of it will help smooth all of your customer interactions.

So how do we go about doing that?

1. Act Like a Human

This is the first step. To find the human in the person you're talking to, you must act like a human yourself. Convincing them that a human being has answered their call for help, and not a robot, will help them open up to you.

Say you're sorry. Fall on your sword, even if it's not your company's fault.

Read their request until you are sure you understand it (or until you are sure you need more information) and then be genuinely invested in fixing the issue.

Lay off the text expanders. My personal rule of thumb is that text expanders should be used for purely informational purposes only. Don't try to bake in any emotion into them - just the facts. When you add a pre-baked emotion to them, you can turn the email into a weird tonal rollercoaster, where your written tone doesn't match the tone of your text expander. Beyond that, and on a human level, emotion should be coming from you, not text expanders. You should be feeling the emotion you're putting into your responses, otherwise it's disingenuous.

On the other side of the text expander sword, try to avoid becoming a text expander yourself. We see so many emails on a day to day basis that it is easy to fall into a pattern of answering them the same way. If you find yourself typing the same greeting every time, or closing out emails the same way, try to make an effort to mix it up. It will keep you feeling fresh.

When I feel my responses starting to feel stale, I often will set up a goal for myself: for the rest of the day, start each email differently. Not only does this help me come up with new ways to greet folks, but it also keeps me present in the emails I am writing. It stops my robot brain from kicking in. After all, if I'm writing the same thing over and over, I should just make a text expander. 😜

2. Use Language That Makes Them Feel Like You're on Their Team

Writing into support is akin to shouting into the void and hoping for a response. Customers write the email, send it, and then hope that someone on the other end is listening - that they will reach out and snatch their message from the ether. It is a lonely process.

One of the best things you can do when replying to support mails is use words like "we" and "us", especially if you're giving your customer steps to walk through.

When you say "Here is something I'd like us to try" (rather than "..something I'd like *you* to try), it makes the customer feel like you are working towards the same goal as they are. They have a teammate, and you're both working to resolve their issue.

3. Above All Else: Do Your Best

Lastly, and most importantly, try and do your best. The amount of tickets I do in a day is going to differ from yours. The amount of tickets I have in the afternoon differs from that in the evening.

Scale is a very real thing for us, and it can be real hard to read "mix up your responses" when you're staring down the barrel of a 30 ticket queue. Don't worry about point 1 and 2 if you're buried in tickets, just worry about trying to do your best. Customers will be able to see that.

Doing your best also means making sure that you are taking care of yourself. Mercer Smith has a wonderful talk on self-care (including a selfcare-pizza) that can help you understand what it means (and what to do) to take care of yourself. It's a lot easier to do your best when you're at your best.


This is just a starter pack of ideas on how to find the human in your customers - you're going to develop some techniques of your own along the way. Some of them will probably be even more effective than the ones we have listed here (so, please, share them with us!) We'd also love to hear your customer stories because it will help us do better as well.

Together, we will find the human. 🙂

Brendan for the Balsamiq Team

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