With every product and company I've built, I’ve always personally helped with customer support. When we first started, I didn’t have much choice. In a small business, everyone does everything.
But even now that we have great customer support teams at Semplice, mymind and Carbonmade, I still love jumping in there myself. I also have every designer on our team help with support for our products as well. Here’s why.
1. Doing customer services forces you to use your own product
Now you may think, "Who the hell doesn't their own product?" But the reality is, as business owners, designers or engineers, we're often not using our product at all because we're too busy building it. Or we use it in limited ways (to test new features or troubleshoot bugs, usually) that don't reflect the way the majority of our customers regularly use it. Doing customer support requires you to actually use your own product as the consumer would in real life.
This forces you to think from the perspective of your customers, and often these perspectives can be surprising to you. You might learn that people try to do something with your product that it wasn't intended for, which gives you insights into how you can make it better or add a feature that solves a particular problem.
2. Customer service is the most natural, helpful form of user research
The best insights you get through customer support aren't always through direct feedback (such as "I want feature XYZ"). Rather, they come from simply observing the way your people use your product.
I'm personally not a big fan of user research or anything similar to it, because it's an isolated and unnatural forum with a forced objective – leading to isolated and unnatural results. In your support forum, you find the people who are already invested in your product, who use it in a natural and uncontrolled way. Instead of asking them to perform a task with knowledge they're being observed, you see how they're intuitively performing those tasks – or failing to perform them. As you see them use your product in real time, you might observe issues they're not even aware of themselves. Those insights can change the future of your entire product.
3. Putting the "user first" suddenly becomes instinctive
Customer support is where those who are unhappy or disappointed come with anger, and where those love your product come with ideas and a smile. It's usually one of the two extremes, rarely the ones on the middle. Everyone else usually doesn't even bother to write you an email (I'm actually one of those people – I rarely or almost never contact customer support).
When a designer on your team has a direct connection to these two extremes, their investment in the product deepens. They hear the positive feedback and see how their work is making a difference. They see someone not only noticed the seemingly small feature they designed, but how it made their lives easier or better. That's more validating and motivating than any internal pep talk or meeting they'll sit through.
And a funny thing happens with the negative feedback. From their new perspective in support, the designer begins to see themself as the customer's ally. The customer's pain points become personal to them, since they're the ones answering to them. The designer soon becomes the champion of the customer, pitching their ideas and voicing their complaints to the team.
They could receive this same feedback, positive or negative, second-hand from a project manager or user experience specialist, and it wouldn't feel the same way as being personally responsible for it. Designers like to wax poetic about designing for the user, but customer support makes that goal a reality.
4. You learn how to talk about your product and product decisions
One support message has the power to either turn off a customer forever or make them a lifelong advocate for your product – thus bringing even more customers to your community. I'm proud to say almost every week a customer tweets about our excellent customer service, which is a better ad for our product than we could ever pay for.
Rather than relying on canned responses, we've learned the more effort we put into personal messages that explain our decisions (even if it translates to a "no" for the customer) the more empathetic, and even enthusiastic, people are. Whether they come to us angry or excited, bringing them behind the scenes of our decisions makes them feel like they're on our team.
No one is in a better position to represent the product and explain the reasoning behind product decisions than the designer who worked on them. The designer is already informed about how the product works and why or why not a request may be possible. Learning how to voice these decisions only helps the designer understand the product better themselves and grow in their role. It also helps them see the complete picture of your business beyond the design, which leads to smarter, more strategic decisions in the first place.
5. It makes a better team member, collaborator and designer
In a customer support role, we learn to better understand the different facets of our business and roles our team members play in it. We have to know it to explain it in a helpful way to customer, and we have to understand it to help our team solve problems.
Anyone who's ever worked on a product knows the standard testing methods to troubleshoot an issue. Rarely though, do we follow them. Usually we're too busy rushing around asking each other why that thing we need wasn't done yesterday. When you do customer support, you quickly realize why these standard workflows and methods are set up in the first place. You might waste hours testing and going back and forth with a customer before realizing, finally, they were in an outdated browser or simply looking at the wrong screen (and you might have lost the customer for good by that point).
And so we quickly learn the technical details of our product beyond the surface level. We learn how to make our engineers happy, by collecting the information they need to properly troubleshoot from the beginning. We learn how our product marketing influences our customers and the way they speak about the product. And all of this knowledge, once again, results in better design.
6. It teaches you an important career and life skill: sales.
Part of (good) customer service is selling, or reinforcing why someone bought your product in the first place. And learning how to sell benefits anyone in any role. The skills translate beyond just customer facing interactions, from the way we present our work or ideas, to the conversations we have with our team, to even our personal interactions outside of work.
One big selling lesson I've learned from doing support: Never force it.
We never try to push people to buy our product. If they're uncertain or it doesn't seem like our product will be the right fit for them, that sale won't do us any good. The customer will struggle and ultimately be unsatisfied with our product, causing grief and wasting time for them and our customer support team. On top of it, over-eager sales tactics only turn people off and take them from curious to suspicious.
Doing customer support will help your designer learn these nuances to communicating and influencing people. If your designer struggles to verbalize their ideas or opinions in person or in writing, have them do customer support for a few months. It's a crash course to understanding human behavior.
(I could write another entire article about what I've learned about selling over the years while running product businesses, and I probably will soon.)
Everyone should do at least a couple of weeks customer support, regardless of whether you're an engineer, a designer or a project manager. Jumping straight into this role is the best onboarding for new team members because it throws you straight into the "lion's cage." Nothing can explain the product better or give you a better sense of how things stand than looking at what users are either struggling with, or what they love the most. You could study manuals on the products for weeks and never learn these things on a meaningful level.
Most importantly, helping people is incredibly satisfying. I personally love helping creatives do their best work, and our Semplice, mymind and customer support teams do that every day. I’ve said before that one of my main goals in life is to be useful. Customer support, in that sense, means immediate gratification.