The temptation to use automation to cut time and costs can often come at the customer’s expense. It’s all too easy to build barriers with touch tone call centers, automated emails, and canned answers that barely assess your customers’ real issues.

Automation works best when used to enrich, not replace, your customers’ human-to-human experiences. Don’t replace your team with robots; help them become superhuman. Here are a few ways to use automation to maximize both efficiency and customer happiness.

Build airtight processes

A few years back, I handled the general info@ email address for a company and governed a ton of email. Payment notifications went one way, invoices went another, and an amalgam of wholesale inquiries and vendor emails all had their own destinations. I felt like a routing service—a conduit for messages to travel from point A to point B—with no real reason to step in between.

One particularly huff-filled day around the holidays, with an inbox full of emails coming and going in every direction, I lamented to a coworker who told me to set up a filter. I quickly learned which types of emails I could send on their merry way without a second glance and filtered them accordingly. Instead of spending 20 minutes each day forwarding emails, I spent 20 minutes once to set up a proper automated system.

To put that in perspective, 20 minutes a day equates to ~10 full working days a year. That’s a vacation.

There’s likely a ton of junk clogging up the queue that your support team spends energy redirecting when they could be spending that energy on your customers. Fix the problem by drawing out an ownership map of who gets what, including certain notifications and whether or not they need to be kept for records or just tossed completely. Once you know where everything goes, you can evaluate what routing can be automated and what needs a little more human attention.

communication map

Even in situations with more nuance to ownership, automation is still an option. Your best course of action is to set up a team to whom certain requests will be routed. We have a Teams feature built into Help Scout Plus, but using a group email address also works.

highlighting team folders

Your support team might get feedback on blogs posts, advertisements, email campaigns, or social media contests, all requests that should go to “Marketing,” but specifically to whom?

The minutia of who handles what and when shouldn’t be for support to memorize.

Likewise, sending generic marketing requests and feedback to the wrong people might even start building resentment or frustrations across departments if requests are consistently routed incorrectly. To avoid cross departmental huff-fests at support’s expense, set up a separate email alias specifically for those sorts of requests, using a workflow or filter to automatically direct those inquiries to the appropriate team. Or, if setting up an alias is not an option, use something like a custom field to identify the type of request, and use an automated workflow to route accordingly based on the value selected in the dropdown.

custom fields

No one in support needs to keep a chart of who gets what sorts of requests or spend time guessing where to send certain non-support-related conversations. They only need to know what type of conversation it is and let the automation do the heavy lifting. Support won’t become a routing center, and you can shave minutes off their process so they can reallocate that focus to supporting customers.

Tease out the time sensitive

Certain support requests require a greater sense of urgency. If you’re running an online shop and a customer contacts you about a size change or address change before their order ships, sometimes you only have a couple-hour window before that bad boy goes out the door. You could manually skim your conversations for those requests every couple of hours to make sure you’re teasing those requests out from the masses, or you could see what consistent similarities could be used to automatically lift those conversations out of the general queue and into a priority folder or to a special Order Change Team to handle first.

It’s a safe bet that any email reply coming from an order confirmation probably stems from a customer noticing an error in their order or shipping address. While less accurate, you can also look for similar words in the subject and body, like shipping, wrong, change, order, or size. And, if you’re already a Help Scout Pro, you can build “Order Change” or “Shipping Change” into your Beacon topics and have any support requests filed under that topic tagged accordingly and filtered through your workflow to the priority folder. Automating requests based on urgency to elevate their priority in the queue ensures time-sensitive requests get met without having to resort to the dreaded “Oh no! Your order has already shipped so I can’t help you now!” type of response.

Delight customers with timely follow-ups

Not all automated emails to customers are evil. In fact, automated emails can make for a great way to delight your customers at scale.

At Help Scout, we start tracking bugs and feature requests with a manual process that organically evolves into an automated one based on scale. When a customer first requests a feature or reports a bug, we include a URL link to the conversation in a Trello card to track. As similar feedback rolls in from multiple customers, we add examples to the card until the count reaches critical mass: for us, about 5–10 customers. Then that feature or bug reaches tagging status.

We flag each conversation with a tag to keep track of how many customers are reporting the need and also which customers submit the specific requests. When the feature or bug fix has been deployed, that’s when the magic happens. Because we’ve tagged which customers need to be notified, we can automate an email using a workflow to alert them that the feature is now available or the bug they reported has been all patched up. Not only does this keep customers informed, it also reopens a direct line to your support team, making it easy for your customers to share additional feedback about the new feature or address any loose ends missed in a bug fix. The automated notification becomes an invitation to enjoy your product and open up a dialogue, rather than an annoying ping.


Embrace saved replies

When used poorly, canned anything—from replies to meat—leaves a lousy taste in our mouths, and canned responses get a bad rap in support. But there is a right way to use saved replies to make them a helpful, effective automation tool.

Many questions only have one answer.

Writing a new response for each uses up effort that could be better spent elsewhere. Reduced typing time buys back more attention for reading each customer request carefully to make sure they are being fully served or troubleshooting time to better understand the exact nature of their problem. The time is still for the customer, it’s just not spent rehashing the same block of text forty different ways.

Reservations about using saved replies always revolve around tone, and with good reason. Pre-plotting your responses can produce that, “Thank you for contacting the blah-bi-ty-blah support desk. We’re sorry for the inconvenience” vibe that’s so commonly mocked. The best way to capture a personal, off-the-cuff vibe is to catch yourself in the act: save the response you’re about to send to an actual customer. Or, search for other times the question has cropped up and see how you or other teammates have already responded.

Saving replies not only helps you move more efficiently through the queue, it also keeps your brand’s voice and tone consistent across your team members.

saving response from editor

As a rule, any bug, feature, or request type that has reached a tagging, flagging, or labeling status likely merits a Saved Reply. If you’re looking for areas where you can shave off some minutes, looking at your most used tags is a good place to start. If you really want to get your automation game rolling, apply the tag and send the saved customer email simultaneously using something like a Manual Workflow in Help Scout, grouping several actions together at once like tagging, emailing customers, or closing a request with the click of a drop down selection.

Staying fast and personal

Finding the right balance of automated processes and emails might take some testing, and it’s important to stay receptive to your customers’ feedback while that happens. If they get the sense they are getting shuffled around or feel your responses don’t sound like you addressed their concerns, listen and adjust. You can give yourself a competitive edge with the right automation processes, as long as you look for ways to improve your customers’ experiences as opposed to saving time and labor.

Mo McKibbin

Mo McKibbin

Mo leads Customer Experience at Brightback and is an alum of Help Scout. She coaches companies on Support Driven Growth strategy. Connect with her on LinkedIn.