Customer Support on the Web: Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

November 5, 2007

When customers arrive at a Web site, they have goals and tasks they want to complete—for example, buying a movie ticket, transferring money, signing up for a service, applying for a loan, asking for help, and so on. An important requirement for a Web site is the ability for customers to serve themselves, so they can generally complete their tasks without needing to contact Customer Support or ask a friend for help. However, understandably, there are times when customers do need help from Customer Support—by either speaking over the phone or using live chat—so they can solve more complex problems or complete tasks they cannot complete on their own. In such cases, customers need email addresses and phone numbers that let them contact Customer Support directly.

Sometimes, however, when a customer looks for contact information for Customer Support, it is hidden from view or buried beneath layers of menus. Some companies even deliberately hide their contact information, because they simply don’t want customers to contact them.

So, what factors should you consider if your goal is providing more optimal customer support on the Web?

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What Is Self-Service?

To create a self-service Web site that helps customers help themselves, you can support customers through various means like field-based contextual Help, validation messages—which often appear too late to be of real help—instructional text—which users often don’t read—FAQs, and user’s manuals. As customers try to accomplish their tasks, they first rely on the contextual Help and instructional text that appear on a specific page within the context in which they’re working, then on FAQs and Help on the site.

However, if there is a mismatch between the workflow a site presents and what customers want to do, if a site’s terminology is hard to understand, or if completing tasks requires so many steps customers cannot easily accomplish their goals, customers lose confidence in a Web site as a self-service channel and quickly look for other ways to get the answers they need—for example, in-person support from a family member, coworker, or support staff at work or a Web site’s Customer Support number.

Characteristics of Customers

Your customers

  • are time constrained—Their attention is broken and distributed over many activities. The less you make customers think about additional, unnecessary elements when completing their goals, the better. When customers use your Web site, they are highly motivated to complete a specific goal quickly and efficiently.
  • don’t know about your company—They’re not familiar with your business operations, your internal company jargon, or your company structure. Using your customer’s language in your user interface helps customers to serve themselves better.
  • scan content—They look for trigger words—“words and phrases that…contain the essential elements to provide the motivation to continue…,”according to Jared Spool’s article on UIE, “The Right Trigger Words.”
  • want quick answers—They value ease of use and ready access to information.
  • are not like you—They have different PC setups, speak different languages, and might have slower connections to the Internet.
  • love simplicity—In an increasingly competitive marketplace, customers are demanding simpler products. Of course, customers continue to want new capabilities, too, but not if they impinge on ready access to key functions. Customers hanker after products that truly help make their lives easier.

Your Product Is Not Your Customers’ Focus

As much as you might like your customers to focus on your products, they are unlikely to do so. However, customers value any product that

  • makes something easier to do than it currently is
  • is easier to use than a competitive product or method
  • provides a clear value proposition—what’s in it for me?
  • has a quick pay-off in terms of convenience or other benefits

Business Benefits of Usability—Reduced Support Costs

The four most common business benefits of usability are:

  • higher revenues through increased sales
  • increased user efficiency
  • reduced development costs
  • reduced support costs

Let’s focus on the fourth item in the list—reduced support costs. In his article titled “A Business Case for Usability,” David Travis wrote: “Companies benefit from reduced support and maintenance costs in the following ways:

  • “A product or Web site that is intuitive to use means that documentation can be eliminated or at least minimized.
  • “Usability testing will flush out the uncertainties customers have about a product, which can then be addressed in the page content—for a Web site—or the packaging—for a product. Providing a fix for these problems means that customers will not have to call or email Customer Support with simple questions about the product.
  • “A product that is simple to set up is less likely to be returned. For example, research shows that over 60% of mobile phones returned as faulty turn out to be working perfectly—the returns are wholly due to usability problems with the handsets. (This costs the mobile industry in the UK over £54m per annum.)”

The Bottom Line

If you can provide an easy ways for customers to serve themselves via the Web, Customer Support can focus on handling more complex enquiries over the phone or even use some of their time to sell products.

Different Kinds of Customer Support for Different Problems

As technology continues to develop, there are ever more channels companies can use for communicating with their customers—for marketing, customer service, information alerts, and technical support. Used well, technology can make it possible for a business to reduce costs, service user requests faster, and build stronger relationships with customers. But, if you try to force customers into using channels that don’t suit their needs or don’t choose the right service options for each channel, the results can be self-defeating.

Creating a Win-Win Situation

The benefits of a good match between channel and customer service task are obvious: a business can service user requests faster and do so via a channel their customers prefer.

For example, migrating some customer support tasks to the Web makes sense for business, because it takes a burden off Customer Support and potentially lets support representatives have richer dialogues with customers. It can also save a business money. For example, having airfare receipts online makes it easy for a business traveler to submit expense reports, while saving the costs of either having staff service requests for duplicates of receipts or printing and mailing paper receipts to everyone. A company might provide other types of information through more than one channel. For example, a mobile customer might want to keep track of phone usage on the phone and on the Web, depending on which was more convenient at the moment.

Understanding Customers and Customer Service Tasks

Evaluating technology usage from the standpoint of whether technology can empower customers requires a deeper understanding of customers, customer service tasks, and customers’ dialogue with your company. To make the right technology choices, we need to understand three different elements: customers, customer service tasks, and business goals.

Who Are Your Customers?

You need to answer the following questions about your customers:

  • Who are your customers, and how do they interact with your company now?
  • What kinds of support do they need to be satisfied customers?
  • Where, how, and why do customers use your products or services?
  • What channels do customers use most often when communicating with you?
  • What information do your customers need and when?
  • How do customers interact with you now, and how would they prefer to interact with you?

Customer Service Tasks

Each customer service task is unique. Examples of customer service tasks include paying a bill, transferring monies, applying for a service, booking a flight, redeeming reward points, and so on. You should get answers to the following questions:

  • What does it take to complete each customer service task effectively and efficiently and promote customer satisfaction?
  • How often do customers need to complete each task?
  • How urgent is each task? Does a task require immediate attention? Does it stop a customer from continuing to use your product?
  • Does a task require product knowledge?
  • Would a customer need help from an expert?
  • Does a task have a high value in building customer relationships?

Business Goals for Customer Service

To understand your company’s business goals for customer service, ask these questions:

  • What are your business goals for customer service, and how can better use of your online channels help you meet them?
  • When and how do you want to have direct communication with your customers?
  • Which customer service tasks are business priorities?
  • Which customer service tasks offer opportunities for cross-selling or improving customer relationships?

Technical Requirements for Customer Service

The last consideration is technical requirements. Has your company put the right business processes and technical data structures in place to support the customer service tasks? If not, the misinformation or crisscrossed orders that might result can damage rather than support your customer relationships. A business cannot support customer service tasks via its Web site unless the business is operationally ready to support them.

The Right Channel for Specific Customer Service Tasks

Let’s look at a few examples of how the answers to these questions can help you make the right decisions about what channels to use. We’ll consider three channels: your Web site, phone support, and an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system.

Task: Retrieving a Customer’s Lost Password

When As needed—random frequency
Urgency High—the customer needs the password to access his account
Value to Business Low—maintains the existing customer relationship, but there is no opportunity for building the relationship other than through providing efficient service
Web Good channel—automates this process and let customers complete this task whenever necessary
IVR Possible channel—lets customers request a new password be mailed to their address
Phone Backup channel—lets support representatives reset a password for a frustrated customer

Task: Reviewing a Monthly Bill

When Billing is a regular, monthly event; customers review billing as needed to solve billing problems—random frequency
Urgency High—helps customers pay bills on time and solve billing disputes
Value to Business High—handling billing enquiries over the phone is time consuming, compared with letting customers read their entire bills
Web Good channel—provides a readable bill online, lets customers print their bills, and sends email notifications to customers when new bills become available
IVR Poor channel—primarily to let customers hear their account balances and pay their bills, directing them to the Web to see entire bills or letting them request a new bill be faxed to them
Phone Backup channel—support representatives should focus on problem solving, not on reading bills to customers

Customer Support Dashboards—Give Me What I Want Now

One of the greatest frustrations of the Web is the problem of finding the information you need, which can be exacerbated through

  • obscure navigation
  • deep menu structures
  • an inability to compare items
  • loss of context between pages and sections
  • an inability to find answers to common questions
  • difficulty in logging in
  • distractions such as gratuitous or intrusive multimedia

There is a real opportunity for companies to consider using customer support dashboards to provide an effective channel for customers to view information and engage and interact with a business.

We see in many of our user interactions that people do not want to labor through reading large amounts of information or be presented with brochures on the Web. They want fast, easy access so they can log in immediately and manage their relationship with a company. For example, they want to answer such questions as these:

  • What is my balance?
  • How many points do I have?
  • What can I do next?
  • What special offers do you have based on my profile?
  • How much do I owe?
  • When is my next bill due?

To reduce the amount of traffic Customer Support must handle, companies should consider handling common customer service tasks using a dashboard, providing customer information that a customer can either view on the Web or obtain by calling Customer Support.

Best Practices

Customer Support should provide quick, easy access on the Web to critical content that customers need and focus on resolving customers’ issues. Here are some tips from The Usability Kit Customer Support Blueprint:

  • To ensure easy accessibility, identify Customer Support clearly in your site’s primary navigation.
  • Provide contact information in a place that’s easy to find.
  • Provide answers to common questions in a FAQ.
  • Be responsive. People like to receive answers instantaneously, but it’s okay to provide an automated acknowledgement with a commitment to follow up within a certain period of time.
  • Use clear language. Customers are quickly turned off by overly technical customer support content they don’t understand.

Concluding Words: Craig Newmark and Customer Service

In his article “Craig Newmark and Customer Service,” Mark Hurst wrote about Craig Newmark of Craigslist:

“When Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, spoke at Gel, he brought his laptop. After he spoke, he spent much of the rest of the day typing away—handling customer service for Craigslist, right there in his theater chair.

“Craig is a genuine and admirable guy. … Craig has said he won’t cash in, even though he would probably get billions for his stake.

“But more than that, he really does care about continuing to do customer service. Here’s a recent post on his blog: cnewmark:

“‘I’m not going anywhere.... Like I tell people everyday, I do serious customer service at Craigslist everyday, and by everyday, I mean every day. My exit strategy for customer service is death; that is, I’ll only be doing customer service as long as I live. After that, probably over.’”

Now that’s customer service! 

Thanks to Gerry Gaffney and Whitney Quesenbery for their help with this article.


Gaffney, Gerry. “Customer Support—An Interview with Joel Spolsky.”, March 30, 2007. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Gaffney, Gerry, and Daniel Szuc. “Back to Basics.” Apogee Usability Asia, December 4, 2004. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

—— “Customer Support on the Web.” Apogee Usability Asia, February 13, 2005. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

—— “Dashboards.” Apogee Usability Asia, October 15, 2004. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

—— The Usability Kit. Collingwood, Australia: SitePoint, 2006.

Hirsch, Scott. “ROI Is Not a Silver Bullet: Five Actionable Steps for Valuing User Experience Design.” Adaptive Path, July 20, 2004. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Hurst, Mark. “Craig Newmark and Customer Service.”, August 31, 2007. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

McKinsey. “Steering Customers to the Right Channel.” The McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Quesenbery, Whitney, and Daniel Szuc. “Choosing the Right Channel for Communicating with Customers.” Apogee Usability Asia, October 2005. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Spolsky, Joel. “Seven Steps to Remarkable Customer Service.” Joel on Software, February 19, 2007. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Spool, Jared. “The Cost of Frustration.” Webpronews, September 20, 2004. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

—— “The Right Trigger Words.” User Interface Engineering, November 15, 2004. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Travis, David. “A Business Case for Usability.”, October 1, 2007. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

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