Get a broader view on the customer service and support industry with The Supportive, a monthly series by Mat at Help Scout.

In this month’s Supportive, Mat Patterson explains how you can provide great service without diving into help desk software.


You can’t spend your way into excellent customer service. Need proof? In 2015, Comcast announced a $300 million investment in customer service, yet in 2017 has only climbed to “below average” in ISP customer service rankings.

Now, you’re not Comcast, but the same applies to small teams who don’t have a cool $300 million to spend. You want to give your customers good service, but that doesn’t mean you should go right to investing in a help desk or any other customer service tool.

Excellent customer service is not a technology challenge; it’s a strategic one.

Which is why your customer service doesn’t immediately improve when you buy new tech. It improves by shoring up your strategy.

If you’re creating a customer service department from scratch, have a small team, or experience low customer conversation volume, then you can get started using free tools. The basic requirements for online customer service are simple. You need:

  • At least one way for for people to contact you

  • A means of replying to them

If you have those two elements, you have enough to deliver excellent customer service. Why? Because they enable you to focus your time on supporting your customers.

Using free or low-cost tools enables you to delay more expensive investments until you really need them. By then, you’ll have a ton more information about what features and tools will be valuable for your team, and which will be costly distractions.

Start your customer service department with free tools

A Gmail account

Create a support@yourcompany email address and you’re good to go. Gmail has great spam filtering, you can use labels and rules to sort the incoming messages, and it will work well for quite a while with low volumes and small teams especially.

A contact form

Your website likely has a contact form built in, so you can have it send queries to your email address. Check out our design principles for contact pages to get the most out of your contact form.

A knowledge base

Start saving your most commonly used answers in a publicly viewable spot. It can be a standard web page on your site, or a specialist knowledge base tool. Make it a habit when you write a good answer to a customer to also paste it in as a draft article to your knowledge base. You can come back later to turn it into an effective knowledge base article.

Customer community

If you have a helpful customer base and your business lends itself to community, then a free Slack account or online forum software can let your customers help each other. You can monitor and nurture it without needing to answer every person yourself.

Social media accounts

Sign up for all the social networks under your business name. It’s free, and you can use them to listen to your customers and direct them to your contact page even if you can’t offer support on those channels yet.

With these few (mostly) free tools, you can create fantastic customer service experiences, and it will likely be quite a while before you outgrow them.

As you grow, you will start to feel the pain of sharing email inboxes, but by then you will have a ton of insight into what you need to scale up and improve your support and can make a more strategic choice of tools.

When you’re ready to move up to a help desk

Start with How to Choose the Best Help Desk Software for Your Business, or to learn from two support leaders who’ve switched support tools, watch our How to Switch Help Desks Without the Headaches video discussion.

If you find your support needs growing quickly, read How to Set Up Your Customer Support Department from Scratch to give broader guidance on setting up for success.

Mathew Patterson

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.