During a recent haircut, my barber pointed out his brand new clippers. He was excited because they would let him do his work more quickly, more accurately, and with a great deal less frustration than the older, cheaper tools his boss had provided.
Customer service professionals have their own toolkits, products they use to deliver more timely, helpful, and accurate responses to their customer base. In this article, we’ll review the basics of customer service software and explain how to pick the right tool for the job.
What is customer service software?
Customer service software is a set of tools used to collect, organize, respond to, and report on customer support requests.
It may be used to manage one or many communication channels, including email, chat, messaging, and self-service, and it may also integrate with external communications tools like social media or group chat systems.
Companies typically use customer service software to enable faster, more efficient customer support delivered by multiple customer service agents working within the same tool.
6 core types of customer service software
The categories of “customer service software” and “customer support software” cover a lot of ground and can include everything from a free Gmail account to an enormous enterprise call center system. Here are the six core types of customer service software:
- Shared inbox and help desk software – A shared inbox can be as simple as several people logging in to a single email account, but typically these terms refer to specialist software with additional features used to collect, manage, act, and report upon customer communications by multiple team members at once.
- Service desk software – Closely related to help desks, service desk software is typically used in IT Service Management functions. It may cover ticket handling and help desk type functionality, but it also extends into strategic areas including change requests, service configuration, and license management.
- Messaging and chat systems – Live chat has been a customer service staple for years, while messaging has risen to prominence more recently. Both tools offer a more conversational approach to communication with customers, with chat being real-time and messaging allowing an asynchronous approach.
- Phone support tools – Service over the telephone has a history longer than the commercial web, and despite many newer options, phone support remains popular. Internet based telephony has enabled many simple, fast phone support services, as well as new forms of the large call center systems.
- Customer relationship management (CRM) software – Where shared inboxes and classic help desks focus on interacting with customers, CRM software focuses on building and using a database of customer information, often for sales and account management purposes. Often a CRM is used in conjunction with a collaborative shared inbox tool.
- Knowledge base software – A knowledge base is a powerful tool to enable one-to-many sharing of information, as opposed to the one-on-one focus of other customer service software. Many customers prefer to self-serve, and knowledge base software helps capture, write, and publish the information needed to enable a good self-service experience.
Many software systems will handle more than one of the categories above — or offer feature sets that blend between categories. Companies looking for customer service software should choose based on the set of features they need and the service they want to deliver, rather than starting with a specific category.
Before jumping into specific features, let’s take a quick look at why you might use customer service software at all.
The benefits of using customer service software
You can certainly deliver great customer service without using specialist software, and many online businesses start out with nothing more than a free email account. Soon though, growing companies tend to run into some limitations and rough edges.
Using specialist customer service software helps you to create better customer service experiences. Here are the key ways it enables those experiences:
- Give more responsive, more consistent support. Dedicated software features like Workflows, tagging, knowledge base integration, Saved Replies, and more give your team more time to spend helping customers and less fighting their tools.
- Gather customer insights. Identify, collect, and organize all the helpful feedback, feature requests, bug reports, and use cases so they can be used to improve your service instead of being lost in the inbox forever.
- Work better together. Customer service software enables you to reduce duplicated work, keep track of customer questions, coordinate a response across multiple teams, and deliver up-to-date answers.
- Analyse and report. Use the built-in reporting features and API access of customer service software to understand changes in support volume, team productivity, type and size of customer, and much more.
- Scale up your service. Maintain high-quality service as you grow by using tools that can coordinate multiple teams of agents to support an enormous customer base, using organizational features, automations, and integrations with other tools.
When you have more than a couple of people working together to support customers, using a shared inbox or customer service software tool is the right choice. There are plenty to choose from, so let’s look at what they can do.
Customer service software features
The feature set of software platforms built for customer service covers a wide range, but can be generally categorized into six major focus areas.
Collecting features help you answer the question: “How do we get customer communication into this system so we can handle them?” They provide the first point of interaction between the customer and the customer service software.
Common examples include a support@-type email address, “contact us” forms that funnel messages into a support inbox, phone numbers, messaging systems, and APIs.
Customer service software tools may include built in interfaces for some channels and integrate with external providers for others.
Organizing features are for taking all that incoming communication and creating useful structure so customer service teams can manage high volumes, understand what needs to be done, and respond in a timely manner.
Organizational features in customer service software cover both tools for manually arranging things and tools for taking action automatically.
Common examples include:
- Folders and Views to easily look at subsets of the conversations.
- Tags to label conversations for later handling and reporting.
- Workflows for taking actions automatically or manually, such as adding tags, assigning to the right person, or setting priorities.
- Multiple Mailboxes to separate different sets of customers or communications from each other.
- Custom Fields, to capture useful information in a structured way about the request or the customer.
Collaboration features allow multiple people to effectively work together on the incoming support volume, from frontline support folk to subject experts and business operations folk.
Common collaboration features in customer service software include:
- Teams so that each group in your organization can see the conversations most relevant to them.
- Ability to assign conversations so that a conversation that requires a particular person’s skill can be clearly allocated to them.
- Internal Notes to allow staff to pass information between staff members while keeping it associated with the customer conversation.
- Mentions, a way to give a team member a heads up about relevant information in a conversation without making them responsible for replying to the customer.
These features encompass all the ways a reply can be sent to the customer in question. Responding features can include:
- Text editors for composing and sending responses to individual emails, chats, and messages.
- Social messaging tools to respond publicly to incoming requests.
- Knowledge base systems for creating and publishing help documents to share with your customers.
Many customer service software tools offer direct integration with other systems — and APIs for programmatic integration into even more places. Integrations allow a company to connect their customer service data with tools like:
- Slack or other communication systems for keeping your team up to date.
- CRM software for additional customer history and context.
- Shopify and other services you use to serve customers.
- Social tools for other forms of customer contact.
- Internal systems that inform customer service decisions.
6. Analyzing and reporting
Features for reporting and analysis in customer service software allow companies to better understand things like who their customers are, what they are trying to get done, where their customers run into trouble, and what they need.
Common customer service software reporting features cover things like:
- time to first response
- customer satisfaction levels
- time to resolution
- incoming request volume over time
- common request categories
Some of the above features are common across nearly every customer support platform; others are less common or are implemented quite differently. There is no single “best” customer service software, but there are ways to find the best fit for your needs.
How to choose the right customer service software for your small business
So which customer service software is the best for your business? To answer that question, you should first start with another question.
“What is the experience I want my customers to have when they need my help?”
By answering that question, you give yourself some tools for selecting the right product or, more often, the right combination of products.
We have a full article on how to pick the right help desk tool — despite the title, it’s a handy guide for how to approach most customer service software decisions.
Here’s the short version:
- Understand the job you are trying to do. Are you building a high-touch, hand-holding service experience for a select group or a mass-volume, fast-turnover retail service? Different tools suit different environments.
- Assess your resources. If you’re a team of one or two, you can’t cover every support channel all day. And if you have a limited budget, there’s no point in looking at the more expensive systems.
- Refine the list of possible options. Knowing what you have to work with and what you want to get done, narrow in on the most likely categories of customer service software you will use. Perhaps you want a shared inbox, a knowledge base, and live chat?
- Understand the “must have” features. Does this system absolutely have to integrate with an existing tool? Or is having a messaging system essential? That will help you narrow down your options.
- Create a shortlist. Using those must-have features, reviews, recommendations, and other sources of insight, pick your top few options.
- Evaluate your favorites. Now you can deep dive into your top few options, perhaps trying out their customer service and talking to existing customers.
- Trial time! Using customer service software is the best way to know if it will work for you. All the feature checklists and marketing copy in the world won’t replace the experience of using the software in your setup to deliver service.
Serving customers is the goal
No matter which software you choose, it’s the service you deliver to your customers that matters. Don’t let the search for the “perfect customer service software” stop you from defining and delivering the service experience that will keep those customers coming back.