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Support automation: how to make it work for your customers

When you work in customer support, automation is often seen as the great panacea – it saves you time having to provide support but, equally, ensures your customers get a solution as quickly as possible. Whether it’s auto-responders, bots or just automated functionality, could they be doing more harm than good?

Automation may be a good thing, but don’t forget that it began with Frankenstein.

Anonymous

In this article, I’m going to go through some of the things that are often forgotten about – whether things to avoid or things to make sure you do.

By the end, you should have a clear understanding of how to best implement automations that doesn’t frustrate or confuse your customer. And, most importantly, improve your support provision, rather than weaken it.

What do we mean?

What do I mean by an automation? It’s any process that aims to reduce or eliminate the need for human involvement when providing advice or assistance to customer requests.

And, here, I’m specifically talking about customer facing automations, so those that your customers will come across.

Let’s look at a few of the automations that we may consider using in this situation…

  • Email auto-responders – this may be anything from confirming that an email has been received to sending out suggested solutions to customers.
  • Phone menus – and by this I mean, where you get routed differently depending on which option you select, but also where you can provide voice updates as well as report on queueing
  • Chatbots – these can either replace or work in addition to human chat facilities
  • Self-service portals – or anywhere where the customer can go to do tasks themselves, rather than relying on someone else to do it for them
  • Intelligent knowledge bases – where you are given possible solutions to your issue, usually in the form of documentation or a video. These are often put between the customer and a Helpdesk, so that they have to search for their issue in the knowledge base before they’re able to speak to the support team

Let’s have an example of where automations often don’t work…

When I first started in the VIP team, I found that I would occasionally get bad feedback from customers as a result of me closing their support tickets too early – often specifically saying that they didn’t know why it had been closed. Except I hadn’t closed them. We had an automation in place. After no response from a customer for a week, they get an automated email reminding them about it. This happens every week until, after a few of these, their support ticket is closed and they get another email explaining why.

So why did customers not know why when they’d had an email explaining it?

The answer becomes clearer when I explain what my personal solution was – I overrode the automation, just for myself, and did the same thing manually. Each week, I’ll chase the customer with a quick, but custom, response. Then, after a number of weeks, I’ll close it off but explain why. I’ve never had negative feedback since on ticket closures i.

There are two things at play here:

1. Auto-responders are often ignored

Let’s try and understand why.

First of all, let’s be clear that my messaging is much the same as that in the auto-responders and is timed around the same time as they were. The difference, though, is that the response is from a person.

When I send out my emails, I’m much, much more likely to get a response from the customer. And, here’s the thing, when I do, do you know what the first thing is that they usually say? They apologise.

Because somebody has gone out of their way to contact them because they’ve forgotten to follow-up on something that they initiated. They’ve inconvenienced someone – not an automation but an actual person.

The reason why these customers didn’t know why their tickets were closed were because they were not paying any attention to automated emails. Nobody was behind it. It was a piece of logic producing it. It didn’t matter.

If you need your customer to read and action something, at the very least it needs to look as if it’s coming from an actual person. If you do need to use an auto-responder, make sure it reads like a natural, personal reply – in tone, with a signature at the bottom and make it as custom as possible. Use the customers name in the body of the response and use different responders for different situations. Are you just after a confirmation after fixing something or are you awaiting additional information for a problem that’s still ongoing? Each of those are going to elicit different types of prompting.

2. Customers don’t like their queries closed without an explanation

Because they were ignoring the auto-responder, it was as if nothing was being sent. But, as the tickets were being closed because they’d been abandoned, wasn’t it obvious why the ticket was closed? 

A simple explanation, here, is all the customer needs. Make sure any auto-response explains..

  • Exactly why it was closed
  • What they can do now if they still have questions

Even if they had been reading those automated replies, that second piece of information was missing but is also vital. Here’s the kind of thing that I might add to a ticket when a customer hasn’t responded for a few weeks – it’s assuming that they still had an ongoing issue the last time I spoke to them…

Hi [their name]

As I’ve not heard back from you for a few weeks, I’m going to close this ticket now. However, if you’re still experiencing issues, don’t hesitate to get back in touch.

If you’re not able to re-open this ticket then you can create a new one. In this case, please quote this ticket reference ([ticket number]), so that we can pick up the conversation from where we left it.

It’s pretty simple but covers everything off.

Why get it right?

Why is it important for companies to get it right?

According to one survey, in one year alone, 61% of customers stopped doing business with at least one company because of poor customer experience. Adding in a faceless, automated service – worst still, when you use it to replace human led support – is high risk.

If your automated customer service leaves them frustrated or feeling taken advantage of, they’ll disengage from your brand altogether. 

Dissatisfied customers are louder and more visible than contented ones, so the bad publicity can quickly damage your reputation.

And it doesn’t even apply to only when it goes wrong. In a further study, customers who used cash machines more than bank staff had a lower level of satisfaction with their banks.

The downsides of automation

So, let’s talk about the downsides of any automation.

Automation makes you lose the human connection

Where automation fails, and this was the case in my example, is where you lose the humanity of the communication. 

When you automate customer service, you tone down the human element of your support strategy. Customers can resent having to deal with a machine. Indeed, empathy, a quintessentially human ability, is  an essential part of providing good customer service.

Research has found that emotionally engaging with customers reduces customer churn and increases advocacy.

In all cases, you should seriously consider whether an automation really is the best solution. And, if it is, what you should do to ensure you re-balance it as much as possible – either by adding in backup solutions for the customer or in the way that you communicate with the automation.

Automations can devalue the service you’re providing.

At WordPress VIP we like to offer customers what’s often called a “white glove service”. The meaning of this goes back to the pristine white gloves often worn by butlers. It’s a personal, bespoke service.

However, that means having to balance doing things for the customer in preference to allowing them to do it for themselves. People don’t hire butlers and then iron their own shirts. Yet ,it seems counterintuitive for a customer to contact us to press a button rather than let them press that button themselves, but when things become self-service, the customer can often then start questioning what they’re paying for. Of course, it’s for what goes into to provide and maintain that button and what it does when you press it, but people often don’t see this. 

The solutions, then, are to look at the kind of questions asked most often and what customers would expect to be able to self-manage. Site access is something that you can provide to the customer but you may want to hold back on other, less regular requests, even though they could be automated.

You can also use the non-automated processes to upsell. For example, you could allow customers to self launch new sites and then sell, as an additional offering, for you to do it for them, with whatever additional benefits you want to give them. Engineer support, live chat, etc. This has the additional benefit of really pushing home the extra services that you can provide and that the automated method is not the best solution available.

You counterbalance the devaluation caused by the automation by providing a white glove alternative that provides features that they otherwise can’t get with a self-service solution.

As a result, where you find you need to provide automation, rather than allow that to devalue your service, you can use your service to devalue the automation. It’s there if they want it but so are the much enhanced capabilities that you can provide.

People are easier to update than software

When using automation, you quickly forget about them – they blend into the background and “just work”. After all, that’s their purpose. But their message may get out of date and even be wrong. It could stop working entirely. Who remembers to correct this? Who can change this? Hold on, who still has access to change that? 

Keeping people up-to-date with the latest messaging and flow can be quicker and easier to implement and the messaging won’t get lost. If the communication is coming from people, when something isn’t right, it will soon be spotted.

It’s dangerous to approach automation with a set-it-and-forget-it mentality, yet that’s often what happens.

Companies use automations as an excuse to weaken their human service

For anyone who, as a customer, has come across support automations, you’ll probably relate to the suggestion that the more automation is in place by any company, the more likely it is that it’s probably pretty budget biased. The more that can be dealt with by an automated computer system, the cheaper it often is to run a support service. It doesn’t have to be this way but it usually is. This is how companies, who want to save money, do so.

Yet, automations could, and should, be used to improve the service you provide, not cheapen it. Any savings in time and funds that come as a result of increased automation should be used to improve the service that you offer from your people. More training, better tools. Don’t use it as an excuse to reduce headcount.

As Haresh Sippy, the Indian Industrialist said…

Automation is cost cutting by tightening the corners and not cutting them.

However much automation you use, you are always going to rely on the human element of the support that you offer – whether it’s for escalated issues, where you need empathy, or simply as a backup for when it, one day, doesn’t work.

When a customer is upset, nothing is likely to anger them more than being presented with an automated response.

Automation is a valuable tool, but it isn’t a crutch for poor human service.

Automations can get in the way

Have you recently phoned a help line? Chances are, even before you got to select from a seemingly endless list of menus, you had a message, rambling on, about how you should check out their website first. If you’ve rung because your internet has gone down in the middle of an important video call, and time is of the essence, how frustrating is that going to be? You can’t even progress to waiting for a person until you get through this and they’ll often be long and drawn out. By the time you get through, you’re more frustrated than when you started. 

I wonder how many people do hang up at that stage thinking “ooo, yes, I should check the website first”? I suspect pretty much everyone, who’s going to do that, has already done it.

Automations shouldn’t be frustrating – they’re supposed to make things easier.

If you currently send auto-replies to customers who email you for support, suggesting things for them to look up, make sure it’s in addition to the service that they’re expecting. If, by the time you respond, they’ve followed that and resolved their issue, that’s great. But I’ve had these where they expect me to follow the email and, at the bottom, it says, I need to reply again if I’m still having problems. Miss that – and it’s easy to – and you’ll be sat there wondering why they don’t want to respond. And what if those suggestions didn’t help? These auto-responses are pretty blunt tools and we should be wary of making too many assumptions about their effectiveness.

In this case, make the responses completely custom to their question, make it clear it’s automated but write in a relaxed, friendly style, which sounds like it came from an actual person. Make sure they’re aware that this is just to help them in the meantime and doesn’t hold up their support query. Customers are more likely to read them, if this is done. It shouldn’t frustrate and it shouldn’t hold them up getting support.

I recently emailed Nintendo customer support as I was having some problems with my account with them. After 1.5 months I finally got a response – please take a time to read through this because it covers so many examples of how to get something like this wrong…

Dear customer,

We apologize for the fact that your inquiry could not be answered in time.
You recently asked for our assistance. Is your request still relevant?

If so, we are inviting you to browse the support sections and articles on the Nintendo Customer Support website:
https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Support/Welcome-to-Nintendo-Support-11593.html

# Do you still have a question?

If the help articles available on Nintendo’s Customer Support website do not answer your question, please reply to this email and one of our agents will respond as soon as possible.

# Your question is answered – you do not need help anymore

If you do not require assistance anymore, there is no need to answer this email.

Thank you for your understanding and for your patience.

First of all, this is an automation but it isn’t clear that this is the case – imagine the annoyance of a customer who doesn’t realise this. “Why didn’t they just answer my question, rather than sending me this?”.

Second, there is no attempt for it to be friendly with poor formatting and lack of personal information – e.g. “Dear customer”.

Thirdly, they have put the onus on me to reply to keep the support question going – the default, no replying, will lead to no reply. Isn’t this Nintendo’s issue to own? I understand why they’ve done it this way around – when it’s taking you 6+ weeks to reply to questions, a lot of them will already have been answered, so binning as many as possible will help. But helping Nintendo. Not the customer – who is the one being inconvenienced by this approach.

Lastly, the apology is “half hearted”. They specifically apologise that “your inquiry could not be answered in time”. Not that they failed, nor why this has happened. Neither does it apologise for you to now have to respond to the email to keep the inquiry going. There is no detail as to how long it should now take. It’s the most basic of apologies, then pushing for you to online and try and resolve it yourself.

Ask yourself – who needs to be put first here? The company or the customer?

How to do automation well

How do we do automation well and avoid some of the pitfalls that we’ve already covered?

Be Honest About Your Use Of Automation

Up until now, I’ve said how automations should be implemented in such a way that they have a friendly and personable tone and sound as human created as possible. However, you should always make your customer aware that this is the case – never underestimate your customers, as they may think you’re trying to trick them. 

The idea of the natural way of writing is to bring the customer in, looking at what the automation has to say, rather than them ignoring it as an obviously computer generated response. However, most customers can soon smell an automated chat or email miles away and then they’ll lose confidence in you, as they’ll feel you’ve tried to cheat them. Indeed, the more it’s intended to not sound like an automation, the more important it is for you to then make sure it’s clear that it is, if only via a simple piece of text added to it to inform the customer of this.

Always be open and honest with your customer.

And what if your automations are wrong? Maybe the customer has worded their question in a way that’s confused your automation or it could just be a new problem, not seen before. Then the automation is useless and, worse still, they could make the situation worse. But make the customer think they’re getting advice from a person and they may not appreciate that this may not be coming from a totally reliable source – after all, an autoresponder or automated knowledge base is simply guessing, based on keywords it’s recognising.

Where you can, give a choice

Make sure all your automations can also be addressed by a person too – don’t create a button that can only be pressed by the customer. If it doesn’t work for them, you should be able to do it too.

Or, to use a phrase that I read elsewhere, “maintain a human escape hatch”.

Even better, the customer should be given a choice as to who presses it, and not only because it’s not working. Give as much choice as you can. This goes back to what I was saying about not allowing it to devalue your service. If necessary, it can be part of an upsell.

Don’t replace a system – complement it

As we mentioned before, when we think of automations, we often think of auto-responders or telephone messaging. These complement existing support systems and, wherever possible, should be where you concentrate any implementation of automations.

Use them to add to the existing service that you already provide and not take away from them. If you see reductions in the requirements for your human service as a result, that’s great. But by doing it this way, rather than ripping away one to replace with another, you get to see what helps and what doesn’t. What enhances your support and what makes it more frustrating. And you have your existing support service on-hand to help if it doesn’t work too. Over time you can tweak it to maximise the benefit of having them both working together, symbiotically. 

Don’t make it difficult to speak to someone

Have you ever tried to find a phone number for Amazon from their website? You have to go through a maze of screens and questions before they’ll offer one up. But sometimes you just want to talk to someone and no matter what’s thrown in the way to put us off, it’s not going to stop us. Instead, we just end up deeply frustrated at how difficult that was.

When someone needs help, don’t throw your automations in their way to such an extent that it’s hard to even know if you provide anything else. Remember what I said already about using automation to really sell the times when they’re not used? In this case, Amazon doesn’t want you to call because, the more people do, the more they have to employ for their help desk. By hiding it away, if the customer can’t find the number then, best case, they come away thinking that this massive company doesn’t offer phone help. Worst case, they’re incredibly dissatisfied. Was it worth it?

Use automation for simpler support issues

When a problem is complex, human input becomes essential to understand, negotiate, and solve the issue. 

Ensure automations replace only the simpler, repetitive tasks and, even then, with no guarantee that even something simple won’t become more complex, ensure that clear paths are in place for the customer to quickly and easily move from away from the automated solution.

Yes, you have a button that they can press but if it doesn’t work, how do they get alternative help? How good is your messaging for that? This is an area that companies so often fail – sticking a phone number somewhere on your website in case all else fails is not a solution for this.

The quality of your information is critical

Whether you’re using auto-responders, chat bots or knowledge bases, the documentation that it serves is vitally important. Get your support team into a mindset where any changes are automatically updated in the documentation and spend time improving the documentation skills of your team. In my own experience, money is never wasted when it’s spent on documentation – customer facing or back end.

And don’t spend all your time providing good quality documentation and then have the wrong results served up to the customer. You should be spending just as much time and effort on your search functionality, to ensure it surfaces the right results.

There’s a good chance too that your customers, if they’re anything like me, will use a search engine to try and find answers too. So how good is your SEO? Does Google serve up the correct answers and in a format that’s helpful – using metadata to present your results directly in the search results in a friendly way can make a massive difference.

Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Bill Gates

Because automation isn’t a silver bullet, it won’t fix your broken processes for you. Automation does only as you tell it.

If your process was already broken, it will do the same thing, and give you faulty results. And, chances are, they’ll be on a much larger scale, as automation efficiently replicates your inefficient operations. As a result, you amplify the issue.

Only look to automate any process that you, and your customer, are 100% happy with. And make sure it exactly duplicates that process. Follow it up, straight away, with your customers to make sure this is the case, rather than making assumptions.

I recently needed to contact my internet provider because I wanted to have a new service added to my account. I wanted to do it online but their website is a mess. They have a very old looking customer section, along with a beta version, which has been in that state for years. The beta site lacks options, though. In both cases, I had no idea if I could do what I wanted online. Because of the pandemic, they weren’t offering online chat, so I was left with calling them. On their site they give 2 phone numbers – one for sales and one for technical support. Different numbers but if you call either you get through to the same automated service – “select 1 for sales, 2 for technical support, etc”. In fact, in the customer portal, there was a third number, which is the one I rang, as I assumed that was one specifically for existing customers. Sure enough, it went through to the same set of options as the others.

I followed through the flow, which was that I had a question about my account and wanted to amend it. I got through. They took my details, put me through security checks and then informed me that I needed to be put through to sales as it was a new feature that I was after. Why have an option for adding new features to your account, if you then need to call someone else?

Lots of automations, lots of channels – what went wrong? This example actually covers so many of the things that I’ve covered too. With unclear communication channels, an automation that appears to no longer work correctly, and badly implemented self-service portals. And how did the automations help in the end? I ended up speaking to two separate people and, yes, after being transferred to their member of sales, I had to go through the same security checks again. Add duplicated human effort into the mix too.

In the end, I had the feature added that I wanted. I was told it would take 3 days for it to work and I’d receive a confirmation email when it was. I never received the email and it was working the next day.

What are the answers to automation, then?

Automation can have many benefits but it should always be balanced with the level of customer satisfaction that you want to provide.

Automation can be done well, though, and I’ve given some advice during this talk on how to do so.

  • Make email responders seem as human as possible
    • Get real support people to write the responses in the same way that they would usually reply
    • Use as much personalisation in any response as you can (without going over-the-top and making it sound unnatural)
    • No matter how human you make them, don’t try and trick your customers into thinking they’re anything other – make them friendly and appealing, but clearly indicate that they are automations.
  • Change email responses regularly – a customer who keeps seeing the same response will quickly switch off from it. If you can send out random responses, all saying the same thing but written by different people, then that’s the ideal.
    • Consider seasonal changes to the text
  • If you can, continue to provide the non-automated versions of anything to your customers
    • You can upsell this, emphasising what can be done better than the automation
  • Never automate broken processes
    • And make sure that, by automating them, you don’t then break them
  • Ensure you always have people who can manage your automations and regularly check on what they’re doing.
  • It’s critical that the information that the automations provide is accurate and well written
    • Good search capabilities are critical and should be just as high a priority
  • Test any automations – both initially, and then at intervals. Ask your customers what they think but, separately, make sure you also track their perception of your service overall, as well as the devaluation I mentioned before. So, even if customer service is improved, does it affect their view of your value for money? In other words, has giving the power to the customer meant that they now think they should be paying less for what you do provide?
  • Balance. If you’re looking to provide a basement tier support and are happy for your customers to know that, automate everything. But, chances are, that’s not what you want – automation is a superpower but it’s also a balancing act.
  • Otherwise, don’t do it to cut costs. If you save money, direct it to other parts of your support service.

In the wrong hands, Automation can create a monster. But, do it right and you can really benefit from the advantage that it brings. I hope what I’ve briefly covered off today gives you pause for thought – both on how to best implement it but also whether you need it at all.

  1. I appreciate that correlation is not causation – it may be a coincidence. Nonetheless, I believe the changes I made to my own workflow were beneficial to the customer, whatever the reality is[]

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