Tech Support *is* sales


You probably think of “tech support” as the bottom of the food chain. “Shit flows downhill” and all that. After all:

  • Tech support deals with insane customers.
  • Tech support answers the phone; a job even salesmen don’t want.
  • Tech support keeps angry customers at bay while having no power to effect change.

Yep, that sounds lowly. Dismal too — how would you like to deal with an irate voice screaming at you when you know how to fix the problem but lack the authority to do it? This is a masochistic job for a poor slob with no other job prospects, right?

If this is your attitude, your conception of tech support is completely backwards and you’re missing out on important channels for marketing, product development, and sales.

The unexpected face of your company

We’ve all been jarred by someone’s voice not matching their picture. Take English footballer David Beckham, the quintessential picture of manly sportif — washboard abs, ex-captain of the English national team, and married to Posh Spice.

But then he opens his mouth. It’s like Kermit the Frog got kicked in the balls. (Oh, sorry UK folk, I mean kicked in the bollocks.) It’s so unexpected it’s the only thing you remember. Of the 3,204,523 pub conversations where someone said “Have you heard him speak?” maybe only 17 could tell you what he actually said.

You assume your home page is the public face of your company, but what happens when you open your mouth? What happens when your bullet points collide with your behavior?

For most of your customers, tech support is the only human interaction they’ll have with you. Are you really going to leave that up to your worst-treated, least-paid, least-qualified employees?

Tech support is sales

At Smart Bear we made millions of dollars in both individual and enterprise sales without “sales.”

Well, at least without the usual definition of “sales” — a collection of processes, personalities, and management single-mindedly focussed on hauling in revenue on a quarterly schedule.

How did we get six-figure deals without playing golf or using Salesforce? Simple: Our tech support was sales.

You could say the purpose of tech support is to answer questions or to unstick people who are confused, but I say the purpose of tech support is to make your customers fantastic at their jobs, which happen to involve your product. (Yes, I’m flagrantly paraphrasing the legendary Kathy Sierra, but the idea applies as much to tech support as to product development.)

So this means you don’t just help them locate a command in the menubar, you find out what they’re trying to accomplish and help them do that. You don’t just explain a feature but help them use the result to impress their boss. You don’t just apologize because you don’t have the feature they want, you help them work around it and be successful anyway. You know your product and problem-space better than your customers, so it’s not that hard to make them far more successful than they would be stumbling around without calling tech support.

Enabling your customers isn’t just about your product, but rather your entire company. Make your customer awesome and she’ll give you money so she can keep being awesome.

That’s sales.

A pleasant surprise

Everyone’s stereotype of tech support is negative. Oh the tales:

  • Ask tech support how to change the font and they’ll tell you to reboot your laptop.
  • Ask tech support to change your billing address and they up-sell you on three things you don’t want.
  • Calling tech support requires a GPS to navigate the labyrinth of menu options (which may have changed), wait-queues, and typing in your account number 3 times “for security purposes,” as if someone who stole your account number is incapable of typing it more than once.

When your customers expect a turd sandwich and you deliver a turkey club with chipotle mayonnaise, you earn major bonus points, like users twittering about your service, people switching to your service because of tech support, or customers not only following your Tweets but instructing their followers to do the same.

Oh look! Apparently tech support is a better “social media outreach” program than hiring interns to spray comments on random blogs. Are you surprised?

They say “under-promise, over-deliver,” and tech support has “under-promise” built in! Sure super-fantastic tech support is best, but even if you merely act like a human being you’re already ahead. If you just answer email with a non-automated response you’re killing it.

Why pass up such an easy opportunity to thrill a customer? Isn’t “a pleasant surprise” too rare in business, and don’t you want to be known as the company where it happens every day?

The closest thing to getting “outside the building” while staying inside the building

The Internet is abuzz with Steve Blank’s phrase that everything you need to know about your customers is “outside the building,” meaning that real customer development means talking to folks face to face, seeing their problems in the wild, and watching their faces react to your pitch, not brainstorming around a whiteboard and twiddling the font size in your PowerPoints. And I agree!

Still, for the Work-a-preneur or the bootstrapper with no travel budget it’s hard to get outside the building. Yes you should try as much as you can — it’s worth it — but what about the other 94% of the time that you’re at your desk, by which I mean the coffeeshop table closest to the power outlet that isn’t loose?

Tech support is the next-best thing. Tech support is where people complain about what’s not working, what’s missing, and what’s confusing. But it’s not enough to just catalog problems!

The insights lurk in the meta-questions. If someone’s confused, for example, the immediate task is to set them straight, but there’s valuable product development to be had:

  • What caused the confusion in the first place?
  • Is my customer’s world-view different from mine?
  • Is our terminology wrong?
  • Are we using the wrong metaphors?
  • Do I need to optimize the new-user experience instead of the expert-user experience?

Those are tactical questions stemming from the immediate problem, but then there’s even more interesting strategic questions:

  • Does this hiccup belie a customer pain-point I didn’t know existed but I can solve?
  • Is there enough evidence of a conceptual mis-match that I should pivot?
  • Is there a new product idea here?
  • If they’re abusing my product to get what they really want, can I provide what they really want from the start?

This last line of questioning is exactly how Smart Bear came to be a company about peer code review and not “version control data mining.” If I hadn’t paid attention attention to these meta-questions, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Yes, it’s that critical.

To answer these you have to go back and forth with customers to hack into the root cause. You have to see hundreds of emails so you get a gut-feel for what customers are experiencing — something you can’t get from a Incident Summary Report or somesuch automation.

Tech support is the closest, most honest chance for product development — certainly more straightforward than squeezing it through traditional “sales.” Here’s where real users discover and report on your product.

Are you listening, or just throwing it away?

What else?

What else can tech support do if you’re willing to give it the attention and power it deserves? Or do you think I’m wrong and it really is better to have $1/hour people protect you from those inane customers? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

35 responses to “Tech Support *is* sales”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Jason Fried of 37 Signals and Tony Hsieh of Zappos would agree. In Rework, Jason claims that everything is marketing, including tech support. It’s sad that so many companies forget this.

    I saw both of them speak this weekend at Big Omaha, it was amazing! Tony even told war stories of people calling in for support. One included a sales associate calling Zappos at 3 in the morning for local pizza places! What a way to build customers for life!

    I think if us entrepreneurs would take your advice and the advice from Jason and Tony… we would be one step closer to changing the world.

    Thanks for writing this. Take care.

    .-= JP’s latest blog post: Viva La Business Cards =-.

  2. Another spot on post Jason! For just over a decade we’ve been publishing and supporting Virtual TimeClock in the time and attendance software space where the majority of our customers do have full time IT staff. Our competitive advantage (and majority of our sales) are due to our technical support staff. Support is not at the bottom of our hierarchical barrel at all. In fact, our support staff are either engineers who work on the product every day or working with our engineers every day. They are completely available to prospects as well as our paying customers.

    The genius of our approach was deceptively simple: Since day one we constantly discuss what our customers are telling us they need and how we can meet that need. We then compare this process to how we’re being treated when we need help outside of work. Every CSR and technical support person has the mandate to understand our customers needs and then delight them by making sure they (and the rest of our company) help them enjoy doing business with us.

  3. Something to understand is that you must empower your customer service (tech support) team to make their own decisions. Most tech support places I’ve seen (and in the past, worked for), they were adamant that you stuck to the script or didn’t give them too much information, or if the customer wanted something, you had to get manager permission.

    I suppose that’s why I’m not compatible with those companies. I insisted on actually helping the customer using my brain, not the script. Oh well.

    Great article, and I agree with you BIG TIME.
    .-= Chris Mower’s latest blog post: Your Way is the Best Way =-.

  4. The good news is that people have become so accustomed to terrible technical support that the bar is so low you really don’t have to do much to astonish them. Vaguely sensible reply in < 24 hrs and you're there!

    The bad news is that people have become so accustomed to terrible technical support is that many will never even try contacting you so out of the ones that do the technically challenged (or dare I say it… intellectuality…) ones tend to be overrepresented.

  5. My sentiments exactly! We are an IT company that prides ourselves on Fantastic Support. Anyone can sell you computers, phones, networking, etc. for your company. Hell, you don’t even need to pay an IT company to purchase most technology these days. What people pay us for is being the Trusted Advisor to help them make educated decisions, and, most importantly, to be there when things break.

    Technology is not the cure-all. It’s useless if it doesn’t solve a busy need. Keeping technology working with little down-time is the key. However, when the inevitable occurs, providing fast, friendly and trusted support will continue to build the relationship.

  6. I couldn’t agree more, this is definitely something I strive to do when supporting the users of I find it really fun chatting to them, especially sharing (and hopefully amplifying) their excitement about the apps they are building with our service.

  7. I think everyone would agree that making support a priority is a Good Thing. Do you have any suggestions on how to hire top-flight people to do support and keep them happy doing what can be a rather grueling, menial job?

    • I work such a “grueling menial job” for a fortune 500 company that boasts that they are a “top 100 places to work for” for the last 11 years straight. I’ll let you know how they got me:

      1) Aggressive recruiting – They showed that they cared about the interview process and they showed alot of interest in me. Flattery goes a long way.
      2) Flex Time – Tech support is more than solving problems and answering questions, it can be building demos and prototypes
      3) Make it a core part of the buisness – Most developers who get hired are required to support customers for a few weeks before they go onto their jobs. Almost all of our current upper managment worked in the “tech support” division when they started…so don’t make it a dead end…make it a jumping off point.
      4) Competitive Pay and Fun Work environment – A nice salary, wearing sandals to work, and shooting co-workers with nerf guns makes people happy.

      The company i work for may be atypical (our tech support calls come in from NASA and Lockheed Martin), but the core is the same. Treat people like people…after all you’re only as successful as your customers.
      .-= Richard Schneeman’s latest blog post: Stack Overflow Style Notifications – Using Jquery =-.

  8. Tech support is so critical that I have actually left service providers after being fed up with how they treated me. They are the face of the company and should be given every incentive to perform at a high level.
    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: From Whiteboard to Company =-.

  9. This is the best post I have seen from you Jason. We are pretty well known for our support and I could see myself nodding my head in agreement with most of the things.

    The support team could also send out links to good articles and white papers on topics which could be a “value add-on” to the topic in discussion. Since we offer a charting solution, there a number of people who get in touch with us to say: We are making a column chart to show trends and want to highlight a particular data set. Now we know the a line chart is more suited for showing trends. So when our tech support is dealing with any of these queries, they let the user know that they should be using a line chart for showing trends and send links to articles someone from our team has written on the topic. People get the solution to their problem and they also learn something more, which they wouldn’t really expect from tech support. They love it.

    Tech support also helps with finding out keywords for PPC campaigns. When we as marketers are bidding for keywords, we can only assume that the user *will* search for our tool with this keyword. Tech support being in everyday touch with these users would know what term people use exactly, and hence can pass that on directly to marketing.

    They can also point out which features of the product people are using the most, which ones they are having the most queries with and which ones they don’t know at all about – and all of these can be valuabel insights for both the marketing and the development team as well.

  10. I agree. Many-a-customer has made their buying decisions based, at least in part, on the company’s reputation of support. This extends beyond technical support but you know what I mean.

    However I think it important to remember, there is a tremendous need for balancing the cost of providing support to the revenues that can be attributed to it. Without accurate and meaningful measurement practices one cannot adequately quantify the bottom-line impact a good technical support environment produces. And without that, technical support will never be considered more than a necessary expenditure that a company will ALWAYS work hard to minimize.

  11. Here at our company, supporting the customer is the job. We do happen to develop some software towards that end. However we put the top dogs on the Tech Support calls every time. The second string hardly ever gets to talk to a real customer with problems.
    .-= Maintenance Man’s latest blog post: A Work of Beauty =-.

  12. Tech support is very much the “duty of care” area behind any product on the market.Fail in that, you fail your customers and ultimately your business.. There’s no sense in having a “if your too stupid to figure it out, thats not my problem” attitude in any business venture. Helping the customer get it right, coupled with a satisfaction of knowing they bought the right product not only equals countless dollars, but a successful, sustainable business as well

  13. It is amazing how little companies pay attention to the value the tech support team provides. You do a great job outlining that value here. I would venture to say that if you are not making the support team and process a central part of your day to day business conversation you simply losing out and some extremely valuable information. About a year ago we instituted regular reviews of customer service issues with our support people. I look forward to those meeting more than anything else I hear from sales, product management or finance because nothing is hypothetical – you are hearing things you would never imagine. Even being in front of prospects isn’t as good because real customers that are paying you money already don’t hold punches. Fantastic post.

  14. “What else can tech support do if you’re willing to give it the attention and power it deserves?”

    Transform your company from a seller of technology into a source of professional relationships, for one. But that will only be possible if the CEO and the board have both vision and courage. The first step along that path is for the label “tech support” and its variant, “customer support,” to go away. There is no real economic value in break/fix “support” as it is currently defined for either customer or company.

    Mikael Blaisdell
    The SaaS & Support Forum

  15. Jason – great post.

    There are lots of business models and therefore lots of customer technical support models. It’s really important to understand what role Support plays in supporting the business before the product goes to market.

    One of the biggest mistakes I see made with smaller, younger companies is they create what I call “Reactive Service Models” without realizing it. There’s a plan to bring product to the market and well defined success criteria (be it sales, margin, whatever..) but it stops there.

    More often than not it’s after sales success is acheived that a business realizes they haven’t prepared for the support needs customers face. It certainly isn’t ever part of any product roadmap I’ve ever seen.

    The result is a Reactive Service Model. Too late. Too expensive. Too overwhelming for those that have to cope with it.

    Postive Cusomer Experience = #FAIL. It’s critical that it gets the attention it deserves early on.


  16. Great thoughts here, Jason. I got a chuckle out of ‘tech support has “under-promise” built in!’

    Do you think this idea would work in a larger corporate business? Take HP, for example. Part of me feels that HP receives so many support calls that it might be better for such a company to hire the $1/hour support staff.

    But I do see the value in treating IT support like a branch of marketing.
    .-= David S’s latest blog post: Google Ends Community Editing In Maps =-.

    • Yeah I agree HP can’t take this advice. Part of their problem is their customer base is so large and much of the questions really will be as simple as “reboot the machine.”

      So the take-away is: Therefore a small company can easily and automatically beat a large one on this point, and therefore should. Why pass up the competitive advantage?

  17. Bang on. Support completely shapes my perception of a company. Marketing and sales may bring me to a company but support keeps me there – screw up support and you can forget about the rest of it.

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