SaaS companies are faced with a challenge -- and it’s a challenge not faced by many other kinds of businesses today.
For some traditional businesses, you sell the customer the product, the customer buys it, the product doesn’t change, and eventually, it does its job.
In SaaS, however, customers are often paying repeatedly for the product -- perhaps every month on a subscription basis -- and are using the product every day. All the while, the product is changing slightly and growing.
The customer sends you an email every time they’re uncertain about what to do or how to do it.
The unpredictable nature of software means every now and then there may be a slight momentary snag that can lead to recurring, tough customer conversations.
SaaS companies have to be in the business of customer support each and every day -- but it shouldn’t be a challenge.
Customer support presents an opportunity: an opportunity to build relationships, improve your product, and make more money month over month.
In this article, we’ll explore what customer support is, why it’s important, especially in a SaaS business, and how to implement it in a holistic and successful way.
What Is Customer Support?
This may sound like a very simple question and one you already know the answer to. Yet, many companies still fail to provide effective customer support, so we’ll start here by outlining the basics. Customer support is primarily about helping your customers when they have problems using your platform.
At its core, that’s all there is to it.
But how we do that defines how good that help is or can be. You need to be able to provide the right help at the right time. For a complex product, you need people who know the product inside and out. For complex problems, you need people who have the investigative and technical abilities to identify root causes and fix problems for the customer.
More than that, you need to have a customer support setup which truly cares about championing the customer; a company culture which cares about each interaction.
The Roles and Structure of Customer Support
A typical customer support structure will utilize a tiered system of specialization.
A huge proportion of support tickets which come through to the team will be very simple requests or queries. These could be questions about features, about billing, or just general confusion. Intuitive design of your platform along with excellent onboarding can reduce these problems, but they’re unlikely to go away entirely.
For problems like these, you might have a dedicated team of first responders: level one support.
These level one support reps filter tickets and solve tickets which they’re able to solve. But sometimes the problem is an issue they are unable to fix.
At this point, the level one support rep can pass responsibility up to a specialized role. This role can be considered level two, but may have further elements of specialization depending on your company and its size.
A prime example of level two might be a customer support engineer. These people solve technical issues for customers and investigate why something isn’t working or might have gone wrong.
The customer support engineer acts as a detective, discussing the issue in depth with the customer and likely asking the customer for technical information -- maybe getting on a video call and screen sharing so that the engineer can peer into the inner workings of a client’s browser to identify problems.
The customer support engineer can then either fix the problem for the customer or report directly to the development team for them to understand and tackle the issue.
Another form of level two support in practice could be the sales team. Perhaps a customer has a use case for which premium features would be useful. The sales rep can explain on a call how the customer could find a workaround, while also presenting them with the benefits of the premium plan as a form of upselling. This helps the customer achieve their business goals while also demonstrating the extra value the platform could give them.
A generalist vs. specialist customer support team structure is common and it makes sense. It creates a customer support funnel which can appropriately utilize the different forms of expertise held on the support team, and efficiently provide tailored help to the customer.
You can learn more about how to structure and organize your customer team in your SaaS business’ startup stage here.
Customer Support, Success, and Service, Explained
Before we shoot on to the next section, let’s take a moment to go through the differences between customer success, service, and support.
- Customer support: The act and process of tending to customer needs and being there when they need you most.
- Customer service: The act of attending to customer needs before a problem occurs; being proactive and reaching out to customers with something that benefits them.
- Customer success: A culture of wanting to create the most value for the customer at any given time and in any scenario.
To provide exceptional customer support for your SaaS customers, you should be incorporating all three. Here’s how to do it:
Best Practices for SaaS Customer Support
There are a million and one reasons we could state in this section for why customer support is important.
However, we going to focus on three main areas:
- Increasing retention and decreasing churn
- Improving your product, marketing, and sales around customer needs
- Structuring your support processes for efficiency and consistency
1. Focus on proactive customer retention.
For a SaaS company operating a subscription model, it’s vitally important you hold onto your customers once you have them.
This is simple math. It costs you money to acquire a new customer. You want the customer lifetime value to be greater than the cost of customer acquisition. The greater the LTV in proportion to CAC, the better your business is doing financially.
These are the fundamentals of business and it’s important to return to them. If you retain a customer for 12 months instead of 6, you’ve made double the amount of money gross. The cost of acquiring them has not changed.
Moreover, once you have a customer you possess the ability to sell them further services. It can be 5 to 10X cheaper to upsell a current customer than to acquire a new one, as I outlined in a post about the importance of upselling.
Keeping customers happy makes you more money.
But there are key moments where you should concentrate your customer service.
If you are proactive and provide great customer service at the beginning of the customer’s use of your product, then you will see much higher retention and less strain on your support processes going forwards.
Effectively onboarding new customers through hands-on customer service helps embed your company's services into the customer’s workflows while training them on the best practices of how to use it.
HubSpot product manager Dan Wolchonok, in a presentation at Price Intelligently’s conference SaaSFest, outlined how increasing retention at the beginning of a customer’s journey, during the onboarding period, had a compounding knock-on effect on revenue through increased retention every month after.
“User onboarding improvements drove Week 1 retention up to 75% from the 60s. Week 2 retention maintained that difference as it was up to the 60s from 50%. By Week 10, 25% of users were still using the product—rather than having only 10-15% of users actually active.”
Week 10 retention was doubled as a result of a 10/15% increase in retention in week one. Effective customer service can be a crucial part of user onboarding and a major driver for increasing retention and decreasing churn.
2. Use customer feedback to improve your product.
One of the great things about SaaS is that you’re in a constant feedback loop where you’re able to continually roll out new features, UI changes, or services and gain immediate feedback.
But feedback on changes isn’t the only valuable product information your customers give you.
Through talking with your customers and building relationships, you can find out a world of information regarding how your product can be improved.
Your customers probably have use cases so varied that you wouldn’t be able to account for them all without talking with them. Plus, there’s a very good chance your customers have used some of your competitors too.
One system at Process Street is to tag every feature request which comes in through our support desk, plus every feature complaint.
This means we can run a quantitative analysis on this data which has been gathered over time to find out what are the most pressing needs and concerns of our user base.
This results in development resources being prioritized to meet customer needs, while the product design team can rifle through the kinds of use cases and features described to understand what direction the product could develop in.
Even if you’re a small outfit you can still employ these kinds of methods.
Sujan Patel, when starting what is now Mailshake, moved to concierge onboarding for clients precisely so he could have these discussions with his customer base in the early days of the business.
One of the key benefits of spending so much time interacting with his users, as he tells Appcues, was the ability to understand his customers’ use cases in order to build personas. The construction of these personas then guided his marketing material, product changes, and onboarding processes. Speaking to his users is what enabled him to identify what to cut and identify what to boost.
“I have a little mobile app called Idyoma which is a kind of Tinder for language learning. I don’t have a customer support team, and my users are spread out over the world. But I’ll regularly hop into the app and strike up a conversation with people to find out more about their experience and get some feedback.”
Initially, we found that users had a couple of problems with the app which they would report consistently. These weren’t big enough problems for them to reach out to us, but they were big enough problems to stop the users from recommending the product to their friends.
- Users didn’t like the boring UX of the original version, having grown used to Tinder and Bumble and similar apps.
- Users felt the app wasn’t as fast or stable as the other apps they love to use.
- And on top of that, we needed to improve the messaging feature.
While we had been planning new features and looking to add, add, add to the app, our customer service efforts had shown us that we were actually failing to achieve the basics to the standard they wanted.
Thanks to putting effort into customer service outreach, we were able to see that our 40,000 users was not the symbol of success for the product which we thought it was. We learned we had to go back to the drawing board to improve our fundamentals.
You’re never too big nor too small to listen to your users. Customer support and service is central to having those discussions.
3. Employ user conversations to inform your messaging.
The point here is partly the same as the above.
Interacting with your customers and building relationships with them helps you understand why someone picked your platform over a competitor. It helps you realize what kind of use cases you’re most popular for. It helps you better understand the specifics of your demographics.
All of this can be used to shape your targeting and messaging strategies when looking for new customers.
In this sense, exceptional customer support doesn’t just increase customer lifetime value, it can also help to lower customer acquisition costs.
More than this though, marketing materials like content are not just for new prospects and funneling potential users.
By maintaining a close relationship between customer support and your marketing team, you can produce content which shows off the features of the product via explainers which would be useful for existing clients as well as potential new ones.
You can pump this content out on your blog, your knowledge base, or both.
Add to this video walkthroughs and further applications of different media and you can reduce the strain on your customer support team while further benefiting the user. This means that the support team has more time to devote to each user they do interact with.
4. Structure your support team for efficiency and consistency.
Like any aspect of your operations, it’s important to systematize your support efforts.
Having a clear structure for how your support team operates lends clarity to who should be doing what when. Without these kinds of structures, you will find tickets get misassigned or even missed completely.
Without effective structures in place, there is also a lack of accountability across the team. This can allow for poor practice to continue and users to be let down. Strong policies, processes, and procedures serve to create the structures for your team to flourish.
We’re going to look at two examples of real-life support processes to illustrate how best practice can be achieved.
Both approaches mirror the level one and level two structure we’ve discussed in the article so far, and we’ll use each example to focus on a different level.
Level Two: InVision achieves efficiency by empowering their specialists.
InVision Vice President of User Enablement Brandon Wolf describes how InVision’s tiers are structured and what those roles may do on a day-to-day basis:
“With a tiered approach, the support team is broken into different functional groups based on their technical know-how and interests. One tier might field things like pricing questions and feature requests, while another handles tickets that require digging through system logs and squashing bugs.”
Brandon operates with a support team of 15 people and deals with over 5,000 support tickets each month.
“The breadth of the product and the size of the team determines how many tiers or what kind of specialization there is… [b]ut it leads to one distinction: It helps with costs. If you have to hire a support engineer for password resets, you're probably doing something wrong.”
Brandon describes the tiers as customer advocates, and support engineering.
The customer advocate is expected to be involved in tickets where InVision is working as expected. Any customer issue which is caused by confusion, feature requests, billing inquiries, etc is dealt with by the customer advocate acting as a level one support.
The customer advocate will also be responsible for passing tickets up to level 2. The key here is to understand what really constitutes a technical ticket and what kind of priority that ticket should be. This helps the engineers cycle through their tickets with increased efficiency.
Brandon describes the members of the support engineering team as being engineers who are excited to work with people. A lot of effort is placed into finding the right individuals for this role, with Brandon suggesting that junior engineers who want to work with people have been amongst some of his best finds.
Though, having committed customer support engineers comes with added benefits:
“Most of the time, the Support Engineering team can squash issues on their own, but when larger problems crop up, they work directly with the core engineering team to straighten things out. Plus, there's the added benefit of devoted developer time: Tier two can work directly on small projects and enhancements for the support team, to help make their processes more efficient.”
Where level two support staff are not directly needed for dealing with customer tickets, they’re able to engage in further value-building activities.
This could involve anything from optimizing internal support processes and building automations which save the team time to creating documentation for customers to help them accomplish technical tasks and get more out of the product.
Level One: Process Street generalists learn the job by doing the job.
At Process Street, we have a variety of interesting approaches when it comes to customer support.
My favorite technique is the policy that every new hire must do at least one week of level one customer support within their onboarding period.
This throws the new hire into the deep end and, to mix metaphors, gives them a baptism of fire.
The approach is beneficial because it forces each member of staff to learn as much about the product as possible as quickly as possible. It reminds everyone on the team that we’re here to benefit the customer. These small techniques give you an opportunity to teach a new hire about the customer-centric nature of the company culture from the very beginning of their journey on the team.
It is also useful as a way to stress test our customer support process.
A process should be clear and concise while not needing additional information to allow a job to be completed properly. What is the point of a process if you still have to consult other handbooks or policies? Any BPM software you use should be able to focus the individual on the task they’re doing.
A customer support process is a great use case to test process making capabilities as the outcomes are so varied; it’s far from a linear process.
Below is a version of the internal process Process Street uses for a level one support team staff member to follow when a new ticket comes into the support box.
In action, this process uses conditional logic to display the necessary tasks given the information entered into it. When the level one support rep is unable to resolve a ticket, it will be escalated to level two support or sales depending on the ticket type.
There is no confusion -- only clarity. This keeps the level one rep efficient and the customer happy.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in the article, but there are a few conclusions it might be good to come to.
Some of these conclusions are obvious and the standard best practice approaches to customer support across the industry.
- Have a structured support process to guide the flow of tickets
- Employ specialization of labor so that tasks can be resolved more efficiently
- Use a dedicated helpdesk support software for easy ticket processing
- Listen to your customers to build on their feedback
But I want to pull out a few closer points to summarize too:
- Provide proactive customer service during a customer’s onboarding period for maximum retention.
- Make sure your support team and content team work together to create guides, walkthroughs, and case-studies which benefit existing users as well as new.
- Implement a company culture centered around customer success; don’t just say it, demonstrate it through company-wide engagement with customers.
Customer support is not about placating your angry customers. That mindset is dead. Customer support is about championing your customers and learning that they are the lifeblood of your business. Exceptional customer service is the least they deserve.
To learn more, read about principles of achieving SaaS product virality next.