Navigating Product Changes in SaaS Support

What is the job of a support team when the product they support undergoes an impactful change? To collect feedback, to report bugs, to answer how-to questions — yes. But there’s another role in product change that support teams too often ignore. That’s the job of encouraging customers to move forward. 

I have seen product designers, marketers, and even support leaders become frustrated when their support teams are deeply empathetic to customers about their complaints without also encouraging them to give the new thing a try. I have been one of those support leaders.

SaaS products must change in response to their markets or they will stagnate, lose their customer base to competitors, and die. Identifying which changes to make, building them out, and bringing as many existing customers along for the ride as possible is the endless task of the SaaS business. Before you can convince customers to get on board, you must first convince their internal advocates, the customer support team.

Inside every software-as-a-service support team is a hidden tension. It’s the tension between wanting the product to get better (so more customers and prospects are made happy), and wanting everything to stay the same (so the customers who are already happy stay that way).

It may not be a conscious tension, and it's stronger in some teams than others, but it is always there. Change is difficult, particularly for customers who have built their workflows around the old ways. When change creates pain for them, they are (quite rightly) quick to share that pain with the support team.

That response is understandable, but it doesn’t make it easier to deal with paying customers who are upset that what they liked about your software has gone away, or changed, or even in some cases been fixed. (Many SaaS support teams have discovered, in the aftermath of a much needed bug fix release, that some subset of customers have built an accidental buggy behavior into critical workflows.) 

That’s particularly true when the support person answering them secretly (or not so secretly) feels the same way. When support feels out of the loop, ignored, or just uncertain about the product’s design and direction, every customer complaint about product changes only reinforces those feelings.

We cannot expect our support teams to convince customers to trust in the product and to continue to invest their time and money in it if they do not believe that to be in a customer’s best interest.

Here’s the best case scenario for going through a big product change:

The customer support team has been involved and heard throughout the development process, so they know exactly what is coming, why it works the way it works, what tradeoffs were made, and what this change enables for the future.

Then they are able to take on a personal trainer role for customers — getting them excited about the end results of this temporary pain, teaching them the right techniques, and encouraging them through the hard parts.

This is customer support as a soft form of sales. It’s sharing the idea of a future where things are better and easier just over this rocky hill ahead. 

To have a support team who can do that takes thought, planning, and effort, and the support team must trust the intentions of the company. Without that insight and trust, support teams are asked to go through the pain alongside customers with no clear purpose.

You can ask them to do it anyway, but it won’t work. Only a support team who feels secure, informed, and respected will be able to absorb all that customer anxiety and fear and redirect it into positive action for you.

Here are some practical steps toward creating that sort of team:

  • Invite product designers and managers to talk to support teams about their intentions, future plans, and design decisions.

  • Embed support members into product teams and ask for their input earlier in the process.

  • Build time into your release processes for proper testing and tweaking, and involve support teams in it.

  • Help support teams prepare for common objections and questions with honest, helpful, forward-looking answers informed by future plans.

  • Offer to get into the queue and talk to customers yourself to experience the challenges and see what works.

An effective, healthy support team can be your number one driver of customer happiness. It just won’t happen by chance.

The Supportive is Mathew Patterson's column for people who care about customer service and experience. Learn more about The Supportive, or subscribe to the weekly email newsletter.

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