Terrifying Tales of Spooky Support
Illustration by Erik Blad

This post is part of The Supportive, Mathew Patterson’s column for customer service professionals. Learn what The Supportive is, or browse through all of the posts from this series.

It’s a Help Scout (Howl Scout? Help Scour?) Halloween special!

We know you’re not afraid of anything, but even the most hardened customer service professional isn’t immune from a scary support situation now and again.

People love raspberries

AI in customer service

Despite what you might have heard, we’re a long way from AI producing high-quality direct customer service answers, let alone world-ending catastrophes.

However, there are certainly areas in which artificial intelligence can be really useful, so it’s good to understand the possibilities. Here are some articles to get you started:

Return of The Bug

Kristin was away with her family, out of contact for a week photographing baby turtles on a beach in Queensland. Of course she’d left detailed instructions for her assistant support manager, Rich, but he didn’t read them. He knew what he was doing.

So when the engineers told Rich the release had gone live, he let the support team know, and he went back to his project. And The Bug, which had for generations been restrained by Kristin’s faithfully performed dance of post-release flag setting and spot checking, was released once more into production.

It began in Australia, when a new team member picked up a call for help from a beer company that couldn’t download its latest invoice. She sent it off to triage and went to bed. By the time the U.S. team had woken up for the day, the queue was splattered with odd edge cases, seemingly unrelated but all resisting a simple resolution.

Still, there was no panic, not yet. No reason to think that something terrible had arrived. Until Karen. Karen knew the CEO’s phone number from back in the old days, during the very brief period it had been published as “proof” of how customer-centric they were. Karen never forgets.

Yet this time, Karen — so often a bringer of mid-morning queue-jumping chaos — at last became the hero. Karen raised the alarm, bringing the eye of the CEO down upon the queue and revealing that The Bug was once more stalking the support inbox.

Upset and confused customers stormed the inbox, beating themselves futilely against the polite but firm auto-replies. The support team scrambled to respond, desperately searching for the correct incantation to destroy the beast.

As total defeat loomed, Rich recalled Kristin’s prophecy, spoken to him on her last day before vacation: “On core release days you might have to reset the feature flags for legacy-12 customers, because they get messed up sometimes for some reason we haven’t figured yet. Don’t forget to check it.”

And so Rich performed the ritual, reading carefully from the very documentation he had at first ignored, and The Bug was once more banished from the queue. The cleanup began, and there was much rejoicing.

But The Bug … The Bug is patient. The Bug is eternal.

How to destroy persistent bugs

The most obviously “broken” features in your app can be traumatic for a support team, but they are generally simpler to diagnose and fix. The issues that really get under support’s skin are the rare ones, the intermittent issues that don’t seem to present any pattern or trigger.

Getting on top of those sorts of issues is always a team effort. Here’s how to get it done:

Interview With a Support Vampire

I need answers. I desire … clarity. I must be heard. I must — always — be heard.

You may call me a support vampire, but such names have no power over me. Once I was a perfectly ordinary customer, seeking help, receiving it gratefully, returning to my work.

But that was eons ago. The change came upon me before even the great rise of Web 2.0.

Always I take small bites, mere nibbles here and there. Never enough for you to drive me away. An irritation; not a plague to be hunted down, attacked, or destroyed. Little by little I take my prize.

Of course you attempt to repel me. The garlic of response times, the feeble wooden stake of auto replies — these are your weapons, such as they are. And for a time they work, but I shall not be deterred.

I persist.

The wisest among you have begun to recognize me, seeking to avoid my ministrations. For you, I have my disguises. A Gmail address — a witty nom de plume I adopt for a day or a week before I shed it like a snake’s skin.

And there will always be fresh delights for me to enjoy: your new agents, your unwitting engineers, and your helpful executives, stumbling helplessly into my traps like newborn giraffes.

Your empty inbox, it calls to me. It is so lonely.

I admit, this is not an easy existence, but it is mine. Whenever you begin to imagine you are free, that I am gone, it is then I shall return. I am patient. I am eternal.

I am also, incidentally, on the free plan.

But I’m considering upgrading.

Tips for handling highly demanding customers

Most support teams will know one or two customers who demand a disproportionate amount of their time, asking multiple questions daily and expecting immediate responses.

Here are a few ways to to still help those customers without the rest of your customer base receiving slower service as a result:

  • A gentle, persistent push to self-service.

    If the customer is continually asking questions that could easily be answered through your self-service options, it’s reasonable to reduce the depth of your responses and increase your linking to those self-service answers.

  • Agree on a fair priority as a team.

    You don’t have to answer questions on a “first-in, first-out” basis. The most fair order will take into account the needs of all your customers, so it’s OK to shuffle the order around and not be controlled by an over-eager emailer.

  • Share the load.

    Actively share this type of repetitive workload across your team to avoid the risk of patience wearing thin or someone burning out.

  • Wait it out.

    Many over-eager customers are going through a particular learning phase. One day you’ll get in the queue, and they won’t be there. They’ll be happily using your product, and you’ll rarely hear from them again. This too shall pass.

The Silence of the Inbox

When the unicorn first appeared, we celebrated. An empty inbox, a job well done. We traded celebratory GIFs back and forth in Slack like Chris Gatling. And for a time, we relaxed.

Soon we happily went our separate ways, picking up other tasks. Documents were updated. Thank-you notes were drafted. Long-neglected internal tools were dusted off and reworked. It was glorious.

As the minutes ticked by without a new conversation appearing, the most anxious among us began to worry. “It’s a bit quiet, isn’t it?” But the rest of us turned our heads, studiously avoiding the mouth of this particular gift horse.

Eventually, the oppressive emptiness of the inbox became obvious to us all. We refreshed, of course we refreshed. Caches: emptied. Browsers: restarted. And still, they did not come.

Theories were floated hopefully: “Maybe it’s a holiday we don’t know about.” “I guess everyone has taken off early for the weekend.” “This might be our most stable release ever!”

Gradually, hope was replaced by concern, and concern in turn by dread. The cry went out: “Send in a test question from the contact form!” The missive was sent; the wait began.

One minute passed, then five. The unicorn was long gone. Mockingly, a disco ball spun silently, spilling shards of colored light on a barren inbox. It was clear something was dreadfully wrong.

As we cast about for answers, a shout came from the marketing team. A website update was being rolled back, an email forwarder address corrected. “Not to worry,” they said happily, “nothing has been lost! All those emails will come in now!”

Everyone knew what was coming. We looked to our leader for hope.

“Get ready!” she cried, strapping on a foam hat and sipping from straws plunged into two cups of hot coffee.

And she hit refresh.

Help for handling holiday support

For many customer service teams, Halloween marks the beginning of a very busy holiday season. It can be a time of high demand, but also of enormous opportunity to deliver exceptional service and create newly loyal customers.

Thriving through the holidays takes preparation, planning, and flexibility. Here are our favorite tips for dealing with all of the normal bustle and unexpected chaos of holiday customer support.

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