How to Be a Good Customer

Changing your expertise changes the way you view and interact with the world.

Watching extreme sports like white water rafting is thrilling from afar, but putting yourself in that raft allows you to gain a newfound perspective and appreciation for the sport and its athletes.

Being a customer is an enduring and natural part of our lives, but many people won’t ever experience or embrace the role of doing customer support. This can create a grandiose sense of entitlement due to a lack of understanding.

For most of my life, I was that unfair customer. Harsh emails to customer support about late deliveries or flawed products and threats to write poetically harrowing reviews was my default reaction.

Not once did I consider the human being on the other end of my complaints; not once did I consider that being mean gets you nowhere.

I know the story that a customer tells himself because it’s a story that we all tell ourselves when we’re frustrated: “I am giving you money for a product or service—money that sustains your livelihood and feeds your family—and you’re disrespecting me, not listening to me, and making this even more difficult.”

In a fair world, those companies would cease to exist because customers would just leave. But the world wasn’t built to be fair, and companies that provide awful support often thrive due to proximity and necessity. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.

What can be done on our end to refine our approach for how we interact with customer support so that clarity and a proper solution ensue? Customer support is a two way street — it’s an overlooked and underappreciated attitude.

Here are some tips on how to be a customer that companies love.

Meet them halfway

How you write or ask a question to customer support matters.

Vague, ambiguous questions or concerns beget more back-and-forth between you and the support team. A lack of effort wastes time—your time and theirs. It’s like going to the DMV without proper paperwork—you return home angry, blaming the system and not yourself.

My experience in the queue has allowed me to study great examples. Here are some traits of well-crafted questions.

Before you contact support, take a breath.

We often contact support to vent our frustrations without any forethought. You may be writing or calling because you’re frustrated, but starting the conversation with anger and criticism doesn’t help solve the problem.

Tell a story.

Describe what you were doing and how the product or service failed. You don’t have to paint a masterpiece, but sharing small details can go a long way. Your words are the brush; your tone is the paint.

Send a screenshot.

Alongside a big block of text, pictures are enormously helpful in putting the situation into context. I love when customers tell a story with simple arrows and circles.

Structure multiple questions.

If you have multiple questions, structure them using numbers or bullets. This will make it easier for support to answer each question, and you in turn will receive more thorough and helpful answers.

If your efforts aren’t reciprocated, don’t blame yourself. That’s where the company fails in appreciating your thoughtful outreach. As a customer, you shouldn’t have to go more than halfway.

Grow in understanding to cultivate compassion

When we flip a switch, we expect a light to go on. When we turn on the faucet, we expect water to come out.

When it involves the companies we interact with, we expect them to meet our needs (and often our demands). We expect them to be human, because, hey, isn’t that something they would want? We expect them to care, listen, and handle tricky situations properly.

In my experience, there are two kinds of companies when it comes to customer support:

Company #1:

Think of your airline, internet provider, or a large corporation. They’re getting hundreds, if not thousands, of emails a day. What they care about is efficiency, not so much quality. That’s not to say that there aren’t large companies that focus on efficiency and quality, but it’s extremely rare (Zappos and Amazon are default examples). It’s so rare that we become delighted and surprised by such an event. (And let’s also note that there are smaller companies out there who do a terrible job of support!)

Company #2:

These usually entail smaller companies. They can take a few extra minutes to add personality to the response. The support team won’t get fired for being human. They don’t speak with a policy book in front of their faces. They’re empathetic; they listen, understand, and solve problems in a friendly, professional manner. In fact, the support is so good that we spread the word.

Knowing the differences allows you to put into perspective what you’re dealing with. Expectations dye our perception—having too many, or the wrong ones, allows for self-deceit and an unnecessary sense of entitlement.

Be kind and celebrate great companies

“It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator,” said writer Maria Popova. “Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued.”

Because I played both sides of the field, I can admit that customer support is one of those jobs that is highly underappreciated, undervalued, and taken for granted.

Companies that strive to make their customer support cheap, fast, and efficient may somehow succeed and survive, but ultimately it’s a disservice to themselves and their customers. The queue can be a treasure trove of marketing and product insight. It is the first point of contact for customers, so it creates an impression about the company, and it’s hard to redeem a bad first impression.

Then there are companies who love their customers, refine their processes, and believe that providing excellent support is just as important as their product or service.

These are the companies worth celebrating, talking about, and telling a friend. They are going against the status quo and making a difference. They’ve identified a problem in the market, and they’re striving to fix the problem in a more humane way.

Always remember that when you reach out to customer support, there’s a human being on the other end.

Work with them, not against them.

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