02/19/14 19:00:15

Customer Support: Setting Personal Borders Without Being a Dick

As you may know I have taken on a job as support guy for IdeasOnCanvas, the makers of MindNode. I have noticed a couple of differences how Markus handles support requests, compared to me. He’s far more apologetic than I would be, not in a bad way though. Let me explain.

How the support queue works

If you write us a support email, I am going to see that message with 100% certainty. As a rule of thumb, I am the person who needs to be able to answer your question. If I can’t answer right away, I can use Google, or ask in the IdeasOnCanvas chat room for help1.

Only when I cannot answer your problem is it okay for me to forward your message to Markus. This usually means things are really bad for you. You have lost data, experience some sort of unintended behavior, or a serious iCloud issue.2
If you are in this situation where you have experienced this sort of trouble it is okay for Markus to be more apologetic and submissive. Things are far worse than, say, “when I buy MindNode on my iPhone, can I download it on my iPad as well?”. Of course we see that things are bad, and of course we are really really sorry for that.

Setting personal borders

I’ve been thinking about setting borders for the last half year or so. When is enough enough?

The problem with customer support is that it’s communication; customer support is about interacting with others. We let other people into our personal space, without them being part of it. Communication is about: being empathetic, understanding, and mindful in a situation. It is about giving and taking. With customer support, you are in a submissive position. The customer is king/queen. That means that taking is not an option, usually. All you get is to give. Give support, be helpful, be understanding.

There is a point however, where giving is just enough. You can’t let people step on you. You have to set borders. Otherwise people will call you names, they will go far beyond what is socially acceptable, and all of that to a faceless support guy, sitting there asking themselves how they can possibly be helpful to such a rude person. Of course that gets to you - emotionally.

Luckily not many people are really that mad. Normally people are very friendly. They understand that they have a problem and they are aware that they are not capable of solving it by themselves. That puts them in a submissive position as well, if you see it like that. People write to that “giant” who knows all the answers. That Deep Thought who is far more intelligent and wise than they are. The trick is to give people the feeling that they are in charge. The key is to set yourself in the position that is below your customers’.

"I’m sorry that you don’t know how universal apps work, but that’s okay because not many people have so much technical knowledge to know that that little plus symbol next to an apps’ icon is supposed to mean “‘runs universally on iPad and an iPhone’".

Obviously I wouldn’t actually write that in a support mail, because, I think, it doesn’t give customers that “you are king/queen”-feeling. I would much rather write something like:

"Yes, if you buy MindNode on your iPhone, it will run on your iPad as well".

Why? Because it directly answers the question of the customer. Why would I faff about what that stupid plus thing does?

I also like to educate customers, so they don’t have to ask again in the future. I would go on and write.

"You may not know this, but the plus symbol next to an apps’ icon is supposed to mean ‘runs universally on iPad and iPhone’. I’m just mentioning this here because many people don’t know this and I’d like you to know".

I don’t say this is a perfect support person’s answer, but it shows the point of this article. Put yourself below the customer, try to give people the feeling that whatever they ask is not stupid at all, and make them, in turn, feel nice about your company. What people ask are acceptable, legitimate, and normal questions.

Let’s talk again about borders. Considering all the (conscious) submissive and dominant positioning, you should set a border where enough is just enough. What many people fear is not that they can’t set borders. They fear that once they make a border clear, they will be rudely defending it. Most of us have been taught to be nice as long as possible and that being rude and being direct is not nice. As my ex-girlfriend used to say: “There is a difference between being direct and being a dick. You can be direct, without being a dick”.

If you take anything from this article, then this: being direct and being rude does not correlate. You can be direct and demanding without being rude and offensive; all of this while you are still intelligent, apologetic, and empathetic, at the same time. It is good customer support when the person supporting the customer hits that line between being a prick and an underling.

How to find your borders

This is really easier said than done. It is actually a lot of work, because you need to look at yourself and need to be conscious how you want to be treated and you need to figure out how you want people interacting with your company should be treated. A lot of your own personal values will determine how you want your customers to be valued.

You can ask a friend to role play a support situation with you. Find the last 10 incidents and take them with you to this friend. Now ask them if they can put themselves in the customer position, while you stay in the supporter position. In this “safe environment” you can play through the situation in multiple ways. Your friend can take it when you are tyrannous.3 Be a total asshole, just one time, and your friend is going to tell you that’s seriously not okay. The things is, your friend can tell you what exactly was beyond normal. You can then step down, or go to the other extreme opposite, or work on your phrasing… there’s nothing you can’t do, really. Just try it out!
What you will notice are unsettling feelings in situations where a response was not okay, from either side. That’s a border. Write it down. What words did you use to get there? What feelings do you have? What feelings do you want to have? What words can you use to get that feeling (not just for you but also the customer)?

After a couple of tries, you will get a much better feeling for “good customer support”. You will be able to set a "tone" for your messages. But what you really do is set the voice of your company! And that’s pretty cool, right?

I’d say the initial role play will take you a day or two.4 Once completed you should re-iterate after some time has passed. Usually about three months is a good measure. If you read this, you know how to use computers. Use that computer to set a reminder in three months.

That’s what I would recommend to do.

Now, I wouldn’t want to close this article so suddenly, without giving you the feeling that your “not knowing” is nothing to be afraid of. It is okay for you to be “not so good” to know everything. It is okay not to know. You can learn. And you can certainly improve. And that’s what I would like to see you do. Become a stronger and better version of yourself. (without becoming a dick)

  1. While I wait for a response I usually go ahead and answer another support request, because of the delay involved waiting for a reply. German efficiency at work. 

  2. Oh geez, all the iCloud issues… 

  3. I would actually recommend doing that, because there’s a lot of anger we usually suppres and it’s just healthy to let it out sometimes. 

  4. This means you can’t write code at that time, but it is still work, and you don’t earn money, but it’s going to help you in the long run. Alright?