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Hi, I'm Thomas Cannon!

I work on Freckle with Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs, and I teach people how to add an extra layer of polish to their work. Previously I worked for BMW and Clemson University, and have a bunch of smaller apps I tinker with on the side. Follow me on Twitter!

Last week a non-technical coworker almost lost over a year’s worth of passwords due to half-assed tech support. The only reason she didn’t was because the team banded together to have our voice heard and actually fix the problem. This would have been totally unnecessary if the company’s tech support had actually done their jobs. Through a combination of bitching on Twitter, calling out deaf and limp-wristed responses, and pushing against support agents at the crucial last steps; we (the customers) had to bust our asses to fix our problem.

I’m tired of customers having to do all the work when something completely breaks.

Your customers trust you to help fix their problems when disaster strikes. Actively working to fix those problems is basic professional pride. If you can’t be bothered to proactively do everything in your power to fix disasters, don’t steal someone’s money.

You can’t win every battle, but you should try with every tool available.

The gritty details

While changing her password manager’s master password to mitigate against Heartbleed, the app froze and she had to force-quit. This locked her out of the main app, but the browser extension still worked. She tried to contact their support 2 separate times throughout the year, falling onto deaf ears each time. Last week she was locked out of both the app and browser extension; cutting her off from her passwords. After she was locked out, we had to scream and shout until we got an actual response.

Lo and behold: We got an explanation and were asked to give them backups. Progress! I dug into my coworker’s computer, pulling from years of IT Helpdesk experience to grab every potential backup I could find. I zipped them up, listed them in bullet points, and emailed them.

But when we finally got on a Skype call with them, the experience was pretty mediocre. Those backups they asked for? They admitted to not looking at them. They didn’t apologize for the broken documentation. They ignored us when we corrected them on when Heartbleed happened, and were willing to throw in the towel when they knew some passwords were missing and that we had an extension backup that might fix it all. I finally got annoyed and took over, restoring the extension backup (and the rest of the passwords).

Thankfully the emergency has a happy ending: she has all her passwords back now. But the truth is that if I hadn’t been actively participating in the support call, the support agent would have dropped the ball on her at the crucial last step.

We’re never going to use this app again. I’m helping her migrate all her data off it, because it’s obvious we can’t count on them in the worst-case scenario. Because, guess what: the worst case actually happened!

Rules for good emergency support

Good emergency support boils down to quickly identifying when there’s an emergency, quickly responding as directly as possible, involving the experts, and owning up to mistakes.

Identifying emergencies

Your support team should actually listen to what the customer’s saying when they write in.

It took my coworker 3 different conversations over a year for them to even listen to the problem. The other 2 times, she got frustrated and quit because they didn’t listen when she said the diagnostic tool wasn’t working and that they misidentified the problem.

Responding to emergencies

Whatever you do, don’t use a form letter. Seriously, this will backfire. When my coworker was completely locked out of her account and she explained the issue completely, the support team sent a templated “you forgot your password” email. She might as well have screamed at a brick wall.

Once you’ve identified that it’s an emergency, your response should be include a clear offer to phone/Skype until the problem is solved.

Pre-call prep

Before you hop on the call, re-read everything related to the case, especially the stuff you asked for. This should be common sense, but the call included this gem:

Coworker: Did the backups I gave you help?

Support Agent: I haven’t looked at them

Wat.

I would have been totally unnecessary if the support agent had actually looked at the backups that they asked for.

After looking at everything, come up with a step-by-step plan. Rehearse it if you can. Don’t wait until the call to figure out what you’re going to do.

The call itself

Being on the phone with a desperate customer during an emergency requires 100% of your attention. You need backup if you’re going to survive this and fix the problem. That’s why you should have a seasoned developer on overwatch for the entire call. They’ll monitor the situation, fill in the gaps, and explain what’s going on under the hood.

Why a developer? You need someone who knows the intimate details of the app. You’re in uncharted territory right now, and a seasoned developer will know enough about the app’s behavior to decipher what happened. More importantly, they’ll have a better idea of how to fix the problem.

A good developer can also make an educated guess about how a system behaves. The only reason my coworker’s data was completely recovered was because I made an educated guess about how Safari’s extensions worked. I peeked at the database backup, saw it was a sqlite3 database, and predicted that replacing the current database with the backup would completely restore their password.

General tips

No matter what you’re doing with the customer, you need to be helpful, own up to your mistakes, and not try to cover your own ass.

Apologize profusely

The customer’s not in a good place with your app. You need to apologize for the stress you’ve caused them and all the hassle you’re putting them through.

If your diagnostic tool’s not working, your help site leads to dead ends, or someone makes a mistake: apologize. Don’t avoid the blame, and make sure the customer gets exactly what they need.

If the customer hits a dead end in the support site don’t say “we switched help sites, you must have hit a dead link,” and not give the exact support link they needed. Also: the customer doesn’t care if you switched help sites.

Instead of:

We recently changed help sites, please go to blahblahblah.com

Say:

I’m really sorry about that, I gave you the wrong link! Try: helpful.support.link/useful/help/article.html#section-they-need

Research unknowns

If you don’t know something, research it! You can’t always be right, but customers are willing to wait if you need to confirm something.

Customers also don’t like being talked down to when they know they’re right about basic facts.

While on the call, the agent was wildly incorrect about the reported date for Heartbleed. We corrected him, but he plowed right through the call using his incorrect date.

This raises 2 stinking red flags as the customer:

  1. You aren’t willing to Google something for 15 seconds if you’re not sure about it
  2. You aren’t actually listening to me, or don’t value my opinion.

It’s hard work

When I told my girlfriend about this fiasco, she nailed the root problem with most emergency support:

When a difficult problem arises, they want to wrap it up and move on to the next customer who hopefully has an easier problem. If you say you have a way to fix it yourself, they don’t want to go to the trouble. And if you forgot some bit of information, they’ll use that as a scapegoat. These kinds of problems aren’t pleasant for anyone, and they just want the clock to run out so they can go home for the night.

Emergency support sucks. No one likes it, but it’s called “work” for a reason.

These are the moments where your support team can shine. Even if you lose the customer, you know you did everything in your power to correct a major mistake. Your customers trust you to have their back when all hell breaks loose, it’s one of the main reasons they pay you.

When disaster strikes, you need to proactively fix the problem. Your support team can go a long way by actively listening to your customers, following through, planning ahead, and owning up to mistakes. Once you give a good support team access to some of your most powerful resources and manpower, they can do some amazing things.

Excellent support generates revenue

Do you want to learn more about how your business can earn more and have happier customers? I write about support (particularly how to get developers and support staff to play nice), so sign up below to get free tips on how to give excellent support.