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What 10+ years in support taught us about working with customers

Photo of Zach Kulas
by Zach Kulas
May 29, 2018

In an effort to share more stories from more people who’ve done it before, I’m excited to bring you our first guest post (!) from Zach Kulas, director of global support at 99designs.  For more stories like this, check out our tips on how to hire support agents and generate referrals from support conversations.

Communication can be difficult for everyone, even when your job is centered on it. As a customer support representative, you must draw on a wide range of talents, including basic communication skills, tact, negotiating, human psychology, personal organization, and of course – expertise in your industry, in order to satisfy customers. Juggling those responsibilities is no easy feat, especially while maintaining a friendly tone of voice.

As Director of Global Support at 99designs, I know this firsthand. We connect graphic designers with clients of all kinds. Acting as the intermediary between two very different groups of people inevitably comes with miscommunications. Luckily, there are ways to handle these mishaps in a fair and balanced way.

Now that we’ve spent ten years finessing our position as mediator between clients and designers, I figured it was time we share our expertise. Here are five common customer support miscommunications and the most effective solutions for each, based on trial and error from my years on the 99designs Support team.

1. False Expectations

All illustrations by 99designs designer Fe Melo.

The mind believes what it wants to believe. When clients are reading your company’s terms, policies, or even prices, they sometimes opt for the version that’s what they want, not what’s actually written or stated. Maybe things aren’t made clear on your website, or maybe the client didn’t remember to check the fine print. Or maybe it’s just a big misunderstanding. Either way, it’s up to the customer service rep to clear up any confusion.

The best way to respond to situations like these is to explain your company’s terms, policies, and rules, but don’t explain why the client is wrong.

Drawing attention to clients’ mistakes may make clients defensive, which can make the interaction more difficult than it needs to be. Rather, calmly explain the proper procedure, citing references, and let the client come to the realization that they misunderstood on their own.

At 99designs, a common false expectation we run into is with trademarks. Since we work in graphic design, many people think they are getting a trademark for a design or business when they use our site, when in actuality, trademarks are issued through governments. Rather than tell the client they are wrong, we’ll share websites or resources on trademarking to help them find what they need outside of our site.

Key Phrase: “I completely understand why you would want that. As you can see here, according to our site policy…”

This sympathizes with the client, but at the same time insinuates the impossibility of appeasing their request. Make the fine print the bad guy by pointing to written policies to justify why you cannot satisfy their request.

2. Not so tech savvy

Customer support is a staple for the tech industry, where interfaces are complicated, and user flows are often experimental. But helping clients navigate technology isn’t confined to the tech world. In reality, any company with a website, app, or software may have to help less tech-savvy clients.

Our 99designs contest platform is entirely digital, so our support team often guides new clients through the setup process. Other times, the situation can be more complicated, with confusion arising from preexisting misconceptions, such as the client not knowing what words like “hosting” mean or not knowing how to transfer money digitally. In any case, customer support reps must provide clients the guidance they need.   

The best way to do this? Patience. The slower you explain things, the better. You shouldn’t cover every little detail — clients can tell when you’re being condescending — but if they mention difficulty in a specific area, you should go over that area thoroughly.

By making sure the client figures out how things work, you’re setting them up for future successes (and fewer calls to customer support) both on your site and with others.

Key Phrase: “Are you ready to continue?”

Don’t rush your clients. Make sure they’re ready before moving on to the next stage. When it comes to technology, baby steps are best.

3. Failing to Honor Payment

Whether they misread the agreement or simply aren’t satisfied with the service, clients occasionally attempt to renege on their payments. It’s best for everyone to handle these issues with civility, not threats or legal action, so reps must take extra care to calm down these clients.

My advice in situations like these is to outline the terms of the client’s commitment, but don’t mention the penalties… at first. The last thing you want to do is back clients into a corner where they feel they have to pay, or else.

It’s best to convince clients to honor the agreement through positivity (the advantages of your service) instead of negativity (the penalties for breaking the agreement). If all else fails, see if you can authorize a small compensation for their dissatisfaction, such as free shipping or company credit.

At 99designs, we’ve had situations where clients come back long after their project is completed and expect designers to work for free. It’s a balancing act to make sure the client understands that a designer has provided everything they’re required to, and if they want additional work done, they’ll need to pay that person for their efforts.

Key Phrase: “I’d be frustrated too.” 

Seth Godin sums up customer support frustration with the client thinking, “why isn’t this as important to you as it is to me?”

Simply by validating their feelings of frustration, you’re more likely to calm them down enough that they become more reasonable.

Sometimes it helps to explain the prices to clients — in our case, all the work that goes into creating a design. Because our clients only see the finished product and not the process, they don’t fully understand what they’re paying for. Once we explain what designers actually do, clients are more receptive to their fees.

4. Missing Information

Not all customer support problems are so dramatic – but they can still be troubling. For example, if clients entered inaccurate information in a form or simply missed a field. That means you have to ask them to do extra work by providing more information, which can rub some clients the wrong way.

So what should you do? I’ve found it helps to ask for the necessary information in a way that doesn’t make clients feel that they did something wrong. Don’t make it seem like the mistake was on your side, either; frame the problem as “these things happen.” Also, focus on why you need this information to remind them of the benefits they’ll receive.

For example, many ecommerce shoppers are suspicious about entering their phone number and leave that area blank. But if you explain that you need the number in case of emergency shipping issues (and not soliciting them during dinner, as they fear), then they’ll happily give you their number.

Key Phrase: “I’d love to know…”

This is one of the friendliest ways to ask for information, and it glosses over the concept of blame altogether.

5. Emotions gone awry

Last is one of the thorniest issues a customer support rep has to manage: emotional clients. This can manifest in many different forms. Sometimes you will have a client who is having a bad day and needs to vent. Or you may be speaking with a client who loses their cool and acts out in a way that makes you feel less than good. Whether the emotions are directed toward you or elsewhere, having an upset client on the phone is never an easy situation.

How are you supposed to calm down an emotional stranger without losing your cool yourself? First things first, let the customer vent to blow off steam.

Play therapist for a few minutes and allow them to share their feelings rather than silence them.

This can be especially difficult if their outrage is targeted at you specifically, but usually, the customer calms down once they feel that their feelings have been heard.

Key Phrase: …

Nothing, just listen. The golden rule for unhinged clients is: don’t interrupt. Let the client finish their ranting and stop when they’re ready. The best thing a rep can do in this situation is simply listen.

Conclusion

Sometimes it isn’t about what you say as much as how you say it. True, certain word choices have proven more effective at reaching clients than others, but the underlying factor is what kind of person is saying those words.

Keeping a cool head and speaking with genuine concern can take you a long way in customer service. And don’t forget that clients can usually tell the difference between reps who actually care and then ones who are literally “phoning it in.”


About the author

Photo of Zach Kulas

Zach Kulas

Zach is Director of Global Support at 99designs, the world’s largest graphic design marketplace. 99designs helps connect a global community of freelance designers with businesses of all sizes to complete their design needs.