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Lessons Learned: Etiquette and Empathy in Social Support

Support Etiquette: Natural, Learned through Culture, or Both?

We’re often asked about our guiding philosophy when it comes to customer service etiquette, and if there are any special techniques or methods we’ve studied on this front. At one point, this type of question seemed counterintuitive to us, since the guiding philosophy in (mt) Media Temple’s approach to customer service has always been to treat others with honesty, empathy, integrity, and respect. My personal sense of it has always been “If I were contacting a company for support, how would I want to be treated?”

But that answer seems a little easy, doesn’t it? After all, not every customer behaves the same way or needs the same response when they contact us. Many customers approach any customer service interaction with a sour taste in their mouth, a stressful situation already unfolding, or a reduced set of expectations from having had bad experiences with other companies. A small but memorable minority of callers supposes that if they are unpleasant enough, they will get something for free; others want us to solve a problem external to our systems and can’t understand why this is impossible. Contrary to needing a firm hand, these customers require extra empathy, if anything; to this end, we encourage our employees to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before taking that first step together.

Most of the time, we nail it. We heavily consider empathy, patience, courtesy, and intuition when hiring. While we never preach or pretend that “the customer is always right,” we bend over backwards with a separate team devoted to engaging customers whose support needs exceed the normal threshold. We even developed a new professional services product, CloudTech, to offer to those in need of more advanced technical solutions.

Learning and Teaching

However, as an expanding company, we have seen our share of growing pains. In all honesty, there have been moments in which we’ve failed to live up to our own standards for support etiquette. The most memorable example of this was the launch of our support chat a little over a year ago; after a few months of offering this new channel, we soon discovered that much of our agents’ natural warmth simply didn’t translate well to text. Even offering the customer the right answer quickly could be completely misread, based on the emotions and expectations of the customer.

We also saw new types of customer requests specific to chat that we hadn’t anticipated: “serial chatters”, who would open chats several times an hour, developers leaving support chat windows open while making changes, never letting our agents off the line, and the truly unhinged customers who view the anonymity of a chat window as a shield from common courtesy.

As expected, some of our agents didn’t know what to do with those new challenges, and created their own workarounds; sadly, some of these weren’t up to our standards of quality. While such incidents were few and far between, we came to realize that just expecting our agents’ empathy and intuition to carry over was something we’d taken for granted. If we were going to keep our focus on our established quality of support, we were going to have to learn from those experiences and then teach to them.

We place most of our trust in our individual team members, so that seemed like the best place to start; our team leads convened special panels to analyze each of our support channels (phones, chat, tickets, twitter, and our KnowledgeBase) and identify improvements, problems, and solutions for each. The chat group identified common themes around simple interactions and misunderstandings and, over the course of weeks, assembled a “Chat Etiquette Seminar” that spoke to these specific issues.

The seminar was very successful. We were able to identify problematic phrases, new types of problem customers, and techniques for expressing empathy via text. One element we focused on extensively was that of “tone,” which, we discovered, had been the most vexing part of this new arena. The tone of voice used by a support agent carries with it numerous unspoken communications over the course of a regular support interaction; how, then, could we create “tone” correctly in a text-based, real-time conversation? This part of the seminar was interactive, and we invited our agents to discuss their own techniques and ideas. We coached and discussed words we found could sound both enlightened and condescending based on the mood of the reader, and had teams discuss their alternatives. Everyone had a story to share and a piece of the puzzle to discover together.

This milestone set the stage for a new cultural breakthrough; our satisfaction scores increased substantially, and chat became our most popular support channel. The recorded seminar is now an integral part of our chat support training, but, more importantly, the things we uncovered, taught, and learned became organically ingrained in our support floor’s cultural DNA.

Proactive Instruction

Our approach to support etiquette training is not restricted to solving problems; most of our training is done proactively, at the hiring and “CS levels” phases. In addition to our required training between each CS career level, we invest in teaching courtesy itself to give our agents the best suite of tools possible. When we expand our support offerings, we pay a lot of attention to this detail to ensure it isn’t missed.

One of (mt) Media Temple’s most successful public support offerings has been our early adoption of Twitter as a real-time support platform - we were actually the first in the web industry to do so. Providing support via Twitter proved popular, and, over time, the demand outgrew the skilled, dedicated team we had set aside for Twitter support. In the past year, we launched an ambitious goal of full Twitter engagement, round-the-clock, with a fully-staffed support floor able to take any tweet at any time. We split off a separate support handle, @mediatemplehelp, to better diversify our support and engagement efforts on the platform, and began scheduling our veteran staff to cover this handle round-the-clock.

To this end, we were going to need to be proactive and train our new Twitter agents accordingly. Similar to our experiences with chat, we had discovered early on that the rules of engagement for Twitter were different from the channels we were used to. Our Tweetologists meticulously crafted a training program to prepare our agents to stay respectful, honest, courteous, and polite in the public sphere. Every Twitter agent goes through this program, and it shows in the consistency and empathy we put forward with every interaction.

This proactive approach turned out to be extremely valuable. Our Twitter mettle was tested in October of 2013, when the announcement of (mt) Media Temple’s acquisition by GoDaddy generated more than 17,000 tweets mentioning our company. Our social media team members all pitched in and pulled together to engage in the discussion, and assure our customers that this was a good thing while managing the normal flow of Twitter support traffic!

Social Support Philosophy

Ultimately, our support motto (“Treat others with honesty, integrity, and respect”) guides our decision-making and reminds us that empathy is king. However, social support faces new communication challenges. We’ve arrived at where we are today by carefully and closely examining different ways to communicate empathy. When we’ve stumbled in the social arena, it’s not as if we’ve lost our moral compass or stopped caring; we’ve simply missed opportunities to communicate.

On our journey, we sought the means to better empathize as well -- not easy for either party when the person on the other end of the line loses their real voice, becoming a string of text (and maybe a profile picture). No matter how, remembering the humanity of the person on the other end is still the gold standard in providing memorable, wonderful, helpful support.

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