Customer support is hard


Customer support is something I underestimated when I was starting up. I didn't even think about it. These days though, it takes up a big chunk of my time. Some days it’s more time-consuming than sales, operations, and software development put together.

Our customer support is simple- all our customers can call me, Ambareesh or Mayank directly. There is no third number, there is no IVR. We also have a WhatsApp group for every house.

All those years as a software engineer, I could hide behind my headphones and pretend the world around me didn’t exist - even when operations and other support functions were firefighting. Good software engineers could be jerks and still get away with it!

Customer support, on the other hand, is like your wedding reception night. Is your almost-spouse sulking because somebody insulted your almost-in-laws? Smile please. Is someone drunk and creating a ruckus? Look away, and smile. Did some relatives boycott the wedding because you didn’t buy them a saree? Smile please. You haven’t slept for the last 24 hours? Smile wider please.

People are emotional

People can become unreasonably aggressive; even the slightest reaction will make it even worse. Once, a customer messaged me complaining about an unclean kitchen. The kitchen hadn’t been cleaned in a while, but this is not guaranteed by SimplyGuest; tenants are free to make their own arrangements. SimplyGuest may assist with it, but we take no responsibility. This customer wasn’t happy because I asked him to clean his plates. He reacted immediately and vacated the house.

Some people contact us after getting drunk; this is a difficult time to reason with them. I have learnt to be careful at such times. I just avoid the issue and take it up the next morning when they are sober.

No place for my emotions

Our state of mind and our emotions keep changing through the day depending on the situation and the people around us. I’m cranky when I’m hungry and I’m grumpy in the mornings.

I feel agitated several times a day- either because I’m hungry or I’m pissed off with something. Often I don’t even know why I’m pissed off. Over the years I have learnt to isolate myself, and not interact with people until I feel better. My family has learnt to deal with this. Many aspects of your behavior that are considered normal in your private life may appear to be rude in the outside world.

Customers calling to report something wouldn’t have any context of my emotional conditions. They just want to report something; if you are having a really bad day, you will get yelled at.

One good thing about my current situation is, I know all our customers by names and I have met them multiple times. That greatly reduces any emotional outbursts. Chances of being yelled at by someone on the phone are lower if you address them by their first name or if you are likely to meet them that afternoon.

Containers are for computers

Containerization is used by the transport industry to isolate shipments. It helps transporters efficiently transport any kind of cargo without worrying about what may be inside. In recent years, software developers have used this technique to host complex sub-systems in the same computer.

Often, I have to get out of one difficult customer conversation and get in to another one. If you are a normal person like me, you carry forward emotions from previous interactions. Containerization of emotions between customer calls is difficult. In fact, it even spills over into my other relations. The after-effects of these difficult situations are terrible. All the relations that matter to me have suffered. Some have even reached to the brink of breaking up.

Combined with sales, I take many calls a day. Some are good, some are bad. Both affect my mood. All this constant talking on the phone and the resulting changes in myself have affected my relations negatively and my business positively. My family and friends think I have changed in a bad way while I receive feedback that I have improved in SimplyGuest dealings. Is this good? I don’t know. You can’t measure yourself objectively if there is so much of a contrast.

What I didn’t know when starting up

What I didn’t know when I was starting up was that customers can yell at me, but I can’t. Even when customers violate a term, you have to be diplomatic about it. You can’t express your irritation, how much ever you want to. Even when the customer violates the rule a second, and a third time, you have to be polite.

WhatsApp is not the same as face-to-face communication

People appear differently on WhatsApp than they are in real life; they send messages they wouldn’t say to your face. A customer had once complained multiple times using WhatsApp about an issue and it came across as rather harsh. In real life however, she is actually very sweet and accommodating.

Threats as a way of getting things done

Customers use threats as a means to get what they want. Five of my customers directly threatened to leave a bad review on social media. Others threaten to vacate the flat. Customers wouldn’t feel the need to use threats if their demands were covered by our normal service; they resort to threats only if they are violating some term or if there is a financial implication. Under normal circumstances, you would respond with equal or greater aggression, but you can’t do that when you are running a business!

Utilizing social capital

Knowing all your customers is like a double-edged sword. Some people exploit this association occasionally. I have had many customers ask me to reduce their notice period; they say, ‘hey Subbu, I’ve known you for so many years. I have an emergency and I want to vacate tonight. Can you please waive off my notice period?” They ask for favours being completely aware that these are deviations from the house rules that they have in fact agreed upon earlier.

Long term effects

Higher order work like software development needs long stretches of uninterrupted time. With so many interruptions, my attention span has reduced drastically, and I have lost the ability to concentrate for the longer periods required to work on area like software design.

If you are starting up, if this is your first time, and if your competency doesn’t include talking to unhappy customers, please take some time out to understand how customers behave, and internalize it. Sales is harder than you think and it’s cheaper to retain old customers than to attract new ones.