Discover how you can introduce or improve customer service automation, without hefty investments in AI and machine learning… while still staying human.
“Do things that don’t scale.”
(Or, so goes popular wisdom.)
Originally penned by Paul Graham in 2013, that line has become a rallying cry for start-ups and growing businesses to stay human rather than automate.
The question: is it true? As with most complex topics, yes and no.
The real problem with customer support automation lies with an over-reliance on technology to do the jobs best left for real, live people.
Certainly, it’s dangerous to approach automation with a set-it-and-forget-it mentality. Yes, unchecked autoresponders and chat bots can rob your company of meaningful relationships with customers.
But, no, automation isn’t the enemy.
Below, we’ve compiled some of the smartest ways you can introduce and maximize automation to help people—you, your team, and your customers—do more, not less.
It’s organized around five examples of automation in action:
Table of contents
But first, we need to set a foundation …
Definition of customer service automation
What is customer service automation?
Automated customer service (customer support automation) is a purpose-built process that aims to reduce or eliminate the need for human involvement when providing advice or assistance to customer requests.
In the simplest terms, customer service means understanding a customer’s needs and providing assistance to meet them.
Varying levels of external expectations (from customers) matched or mismatched to internal support skills (from you) complicate that equation. But connecting the two is what makes good customer service… good.
Ultimately, success comes through a collaborative process dependant on both the person providing support and the person receiving it.
Automating customer service creates opportunities to offload the human-to-human touchpoints when they’re either inefficient or unnecessary.
Striking a balance becomes the purpose-built process of customer service automation and includes:
- Customer self-service portals and knowledge bases
- Preloaded email replies and canned responses
- Organizational automation with “if this, then that” logic
- Live chat and chatbots (overseen by customer support)
- Assigning requests immediately to the right department or person
- And even, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)
But don’t tip the scales.
Automation should never replace the need to build relationships with customers. Instead, automation should make it easier to do so.
Here’s how …
Examples of automated customer service in action
We already know that providing quality customer service is vital to success. Unfortunately, when you’re a growing business, providing personal support at scale is a constant struggle.
The following five examples explore how an automated customer service software solution can help you deliver personal customer support by removing redundancy, clutter, and complexity.
1. Self-service: Treat your knowledge base like the frontlines (because it should be)
When your customers have a question or problem they need solved, the biggest factor at play here is speed. They want answers now.
Providing a self-serve online library reduces support volume and increases customer satisfaction. Why? Because people genuinely want you to help them help themselves…
Creating your own knowledge base is relatively simple, as long as you have the right software behind it.
“Whenever we start getting the same question more than a few times, we just turn the answer into a Knowledge Base article. It’s saved us a ton of time.”
At Groove, we’ve created a branded knowledge base to help our customers navigate through frequently asked questions in a 24/7 environment:
When building your own, think of it as a frontline publishing platform by majoring on the following key features:
Obvious access across your site
This may sound a bit aggressive but never be afraid to rub the fact that you have a knowledge base into your customers and visitors’ faces. How else are they going to find it?
The more places you feature your knowledge base, the better.
Site-wide widgets for e-commerce storefronts (like MantraBand) follow customers page after page. Notice too, the widget is preloaded with a search bar and the topics MantraBand knows are its most common inquires:
Customers can easily use the dropdowns—especially on mobile—to self select the issue they’re facing and either resolve it or reach out for help:
Live streaming service, PICARTO, takes a similar approach via email. How? It places a clear call-to-action — “I need help!” — within the very first email new users receive.
Better still, the button takes visitors not to PICARTO’s generic knowledge base but directly to its article for anyone having problems with activation.
Make search natural, on site and off
It’s Google’s world; we’re all just living in it.
For your knowledge base to enable self service, you need search visibility offsite as well as intuitive search functionality onsite.
Externally, this means optimizing your FAQs just like you would any other piece of public content: for search as well as social. Branded searches are particularly common when customers seek help, which is why hosting your knowledge base on your own domain also matters.
The result isn’t only helpful to customers who can find what they’re looking for, but—in some cases—to leads and prospective customers as well:
Onsite, people bring those same Google-esque expectations. Ensure your articles include keyword variants and that your search bar autocompletes for common terms.
Informational hierarchy is fancy term for putting first things first. Businesses pour and sweat over what visitors see on their homepages, landing pages, and product pages.
Unfortunately, that same level of concern is rarely shown to existing customers.
In contrast, Statuspage frontloads their knowledge base with the most common questions new customers face, grouped into clearly defined categories:
What’s more, the individual articles also include explainer videos, images, and easy-to-read subheadings… precisely the kind of user experience the internet has conditioned us for. It’s pages also include a bread-crumb navigational element to help users back-track when needed.
To propel users forward, related articles are an additional touch. Just be sure you group articles intentionally: meaning, through data and reporting.
Reporting and data
All of the above features hinge on data and reporting: helpful data and reporting.
To identify what’s working in your knowledge base and where you can improve, track metrics like article performance, total visitors, search terms, and ratings.
We’re especially excited about a forthcoming feature for Groove users called article suggestions.
This will be an AI-driven system that collects data and then delivers suggested topics to give customers the help they need but aren’t finding.
One-click to contact
Lastly, while an effective knowledge base allows you to stay two steps ahead of your customers, there will be times where your knowledge base doesn’t cut it.
For these cases, make sure you’ve got a “contact support” option available on each and every page so your customer doesn’t have to go looking for it once they’ve realized they need personalized support.
2. Centralization: Behold, the humble inbox… reborn!
Email was born for one-to-one communication. As your business grows, it gets harder to not only stay on top of email, but the multiplicity of communication channels in which your customers live and breath.
From the outside in, customers don’t want to use mystic software systems to “open a ticket.” They want to use what they know and like—be it email, social, chat, or the phone.
More to the point, they also want to have your response mediated through whatever channel they originally submitted their request through.
They want convenience.
From the inside out, when you try to offer that level of convenience, overhead sprawls—your team spends their time monitoring multiple platforms, deciding how to divide the work, and so on.
“To our customers, our support looks and feels just like email. They don’t know the difference. But for our customer support agents, Groove gives us all the features we need to give awesome customer support.”
The best way to cut that overhead is by leveraging automation to bring all your support channels into one location. In essence, to reduce your collection points down to a single, all-inclusive hub.
Integration: Less is more
No matter how you talk with your customers or what channels they use, the ability to unify all conversations into one command center is nonnegotiable.
Naturally, this means (and I probably should have warned you sooner) that I’m going to use Groove as my primary example. But, the principles are universal. What really matters is selecting the right tool for your business.
Generally, we find that companies struggle to automate communication along two lines: channels and departments—this includes…
- Multiple email addresses
- Sales versus service
- Onsite support requests and chat
- Social media (public and private)
- E-commerce help requests
- Bug and other technical issues
- Integration with business tools
- Internal communication
- And phone calls
However, merely connecting those separate platforms doesn’t unlock the power of automation.
What does is (1) organizing and (2) collaborating naturally aided by technology.
Organization: From humans to bots and back again
First, the ability to organize help requests automatically comes down to knowing what already works best for you and marrying that to a system that puts what’s working on autopilot.
Groove enables this through a combination of tags, rules, and folders (don’t let those unassuming names fool you).
Tags: This is that
Tags are the fastest, most human-centric way to organize. Marking conversations with the terminology your team already uses adds clarity. As do easily customizable and identifiable colors.
It’s also the first step in automating your communication.
Rules: When this, then that
Regardless of the name they go by, rules are the real magic of automation. Because of that, we’ll cover a few of the most common—and time-saving—uses cases in their own section below.
For now, the big idea is that rules are “when this, then that” logic—conditions that trigger actions—set to automatically govern (among other things):
- Priority: low, medium, high, or urgent
- Status: open, follow up, closed, or spam
- Assign: specific or available agents or groups
- Tags: your own naming and color-coding system
Likewise, the conditions that trigger those actions are also varied…
- To and from emails
- Tags, status, and priority
- Channel: email, widget, social, or chat
- Keywords in any or specific parts of the conversation
Folders: This and that go here and there
Last in the organization trifecta are folders. Carrying on the automating logic of rules, folders can be created to automatically collect and display nearly everything:
- Personalized folders for agents or teams
- Priority folders based on the severity of the request
- Channel-based folders to house different submission sources
- Folders for starred conversations to keep a pulse on the ones you’ll want to pay close attention to
- And a host of “hours since” settings to make sure every customer gets the timely attention they expect and deserve
Collaborate: ‘Mine’ versus ‘ours’
Second, centralization through automation isn’t limited to better outside service. It can also make your in-house environment a better (happier) place.
The two are intertwined.
To do that, collaboration tools should automatically identify who is responsible for each conversation as well as protect conversations from duplicate efforts and embarrassing “crossfire.”
As a small-scale example, at Groove, whenever someone reaches out offering to write a guest post for our blog, that request is immediately sent to the marketing department by assigning the conversation to them.
The same is true for other departments, submission types, and individual agents. Your own automation efforts should do likewise by segmenting the…
Separate mailboxes within a single, company-wide inbox governed by the “To” address—support@yourdomain, security@yourdomain, sales@yourdomain, jobs@yourdomain, etc.
Folders and rules established by the “From” address to assign existing customers to an agent they’ve worked with before, to their account manager, or to a group responsible for priority support
Behind-the-scenes logic that routes conversations to the right person based on phrases commonly associated with their job and role—bill, return, bug, feature or product names, etc.
On the frontend, much of this can be managed by the pages and forms you create.
Atlassian, for instance, tackles automation through a general inquiries page that’s immediately divided into four specific inquiry pages as well as drops downs on each form:
Every one of those frontend elements is then used to automate who inside the company receives the inquiry.
Of course, as you well know, the “who” often varies between individual agents and teams. When multiple people are involved, automation becomes even more critical.
Why? (It’s actually pretty ironic.)
The better your teams are at serving customers—the more proactive and time-sensitive they take their jobs—the easier it becomes for two or more people to begin addressing the same request simultaneously.
Thankfully, eliminating these kinds of mistakes is easy as long as…
Whatever help desk solution you choose includes real-time collision detection that notifies you when someone is replying to a conversation or even if they’re just leaving a comment.
Canned replies and (gasp) auto-responders that don’t completely suck
We’ve all seen it before: the cold and impersonal automated email that makes you instantly feel like you’re just another cog in the machine.
You’re assigned a ticket number and get a generic, faceless “your request has been received” message.
Or worse, you take the time to fill out a request for help, provide a detailed description of the problem, and get…
Messages like that are exactly why automation has a bad name. And why I cannot stress the value of prioritizing what we call “canned replies” instead of autoresponders.
What’s the difference?
Autoresponders are one-size-fits-all emails that work well for marketing and general announcements but fall apart in sensitive situations like service and support.
Canned replies, on the other hand, are pre-written answers—pre-populated messages—to frequently asked questions or workflows to address common scenarios.
However, that doesn’t mean that all automated messages are bad.
Autoresponders: Bots serving humans (cautiously)
The difference comes from whether the message is perceived as useful by the recipient. The classic example is the message you get immediately after you reach out to a company that tells you when you can expect to get a reply.
Bad (autoresponder) apples aside, customers expect to be notified that their request has been received. Unfortunately, a recent study of ~1,000 small, medium, and large companies revealed:
It’s an opportunity to build a deeper relationship with your customer, which is even more crucial for situations where this is the very first time the customer has ever received a response from you.
We’ve written a much more detailed article on how to craft the perfect auto-reply email.
The big-picture, however, can be captured by two images:
This type of automation can be expanded further by building on top of it through an API. You can use this to assemble an automated system which replies to people asking common questions with links to knowledge base articles or another similar resource.
“More often than not, customer inquiries involve questions which we have answered before or to which answers can be found on our website.
“The ability to use Groove’s bot to resolve these tickets clears the queue for customers with more complex questions. As a result, our staff can devote more time to the questions that truly require personal assistance.”
Canned replies: Bots serving humans (without other humans even knowing)
In contrast, canned replies are a phenomenal way to make replying to customers more efficient, faster, and easier for everyone involved. They also keep the tone and language consistent between agents across conversations.
Within Groove, you create canned replies by selecting an overarching group you or your team establish (Category), naming the individual reply (Template Name), and writing it out.
After that, anyone can select it and edit it during the usual flow of a conversation:
Read more about creating, using, and deleting canned replies.
4. Live chat and chat bots
It’s predicted that by 2020, 80% of enterprises will rely on chatbot technology to help them scale their customer service departments while keeping costs down.
But, the elephant in the room is a big one: how satisfied are customers with chatbots?
Customers are looking for fast, simple, and—above all—helpful service. But they still value customer service that’s personal and empathetic.
No doubt, there will be challenges with the impersonal nature of chatbot technology.
This creates an opportunity for emerging and scaling businesses that want to use their customer experience to differentiate their brand and take the battle to their competitors.
However, the challenge remains that these companies need to figure out how to provide that level of customer service at scale.
Humans can be an impatient bunch—but they’re not to blame entirely. It’s the way our society is now hardwired to instant gratification.
More and more, we’re seeing a live chat widget on the corner of every website, and every page.
And customers love it.
It makes sense when you consider the benefits of live chat: ease of contact combined with lightning-fast resolution times mean drastically reduced customer effort, the single biggest driver of customer loyalty.
Live chat support is a huge opportunity for businesses to add a powerful, customer-loved channel to their customer service strategy.
How to create a memorable live chat
It’s about working smarter, not working harder. This means implementing workflows and automations to send questions to the right person at the right time.
If you can anticipate customer concerns before they occur, you can provide proactive support to make the process easier. For example, send tracking numbers and updates when the product ships or delays happen.
When you’re having the real-time chat, keep these tips in mind:
- Personability: always introduce yourself and treat it like a conversation, not a transaction; infuse chat with the same tone your brand exudes
- Speed: 60% of customers don’t want to wait longer than 60 seconds for a response (in other words, live means live)
- Expectations: if you can’t resolve the issue in your initial chat, let the customer know exactly when, how, where, and from whom they can expect a result
Advanced chat options: Olark and Groove
To offer a native, on-site chat experience, we’ve partnered with Olark. That means, Groove customers and Olark customers can use both tools’ functionality seamlessly from inside either platform:
- Extensive customization
Alter and brand your chat box size, shape, location, text, colors, welcome message, menus, and more.
- Flexible staffing (with a fallback)
When you’re not around, choose from multiple offline settings, including a customized away message, a contact form or hiding the chat box entirely.
- File upload functionality
For lack of a better expression—a picture can be worth a thousand words. Allow your customers to upload a file to help with their enquiry or question; or, vice versa.
- Centralized customer information
Real-time conversations demand real-time answers. We’ve addressed this challenge by making sure that you have quick access to anything you need to help respond to a customer, including account details, purchase history and past conversations.
What about chatbots?
Artificially intelligent chatbots aren’t just for Fortune 500 companies. Start-ups and growing businesses—even small businesses—can now employ AI technology to improve daily operations and connect with their customers.
With that said, technology adoption in this area still has a way to go and it won’t be replacing human customer service agents any time soon (nor should it!).
When we talk about chatbots at Groove, we’re again talking about the opportunity to automate interactions, so that the humans can focus on higher-value chats.
This includes handy automation options such as greeting visitors with custom messages and choosing to selectively show or hide your chat box based on visitor behaviour.
It’s important that your chat is just as amazing as your other support.
The customer expects speedy replies when you’re online. When a customer reaches out to you during offline hours, they still expect a timely response.
This is where assigning rules within your help desk software can really pick up the pace.
5. Advanced rules and logic: Where service automation comes to life
The moment a customer support ticket or enquiry enters the inbox, the support workflow begins. And with it, a bunch of manual tasks that are repetitive and inefficient.
Applying rules within your help desk software is the key to powerful automation. It’s one of those things that computers genuinely do better.
I outlined the basic principles behind “when this, then that” above. With the help of Groove, you can automate these tasks and set your own help desk workflows:
- Organize tickets
- Increase productivity
- Automate assignments
- Remove clutter in your inbox
- Identify the most serious support requests and prioritize those customers who bring the highest value to your business
If you’re using a tiered support system, you can use rules to send specific requests to higher tiers of support or to escalate them to different departments.
Some companies offer “premium support” as part of a higher-priced plans. This is one popular way to set this up to work on the back-end—moving requests from specific customers (i.e., those on the higher plan) to the front of the queue.
Once you’ve set up rules to manage the incoming enquiries, the next step is looking at how your help desk software communicates with the business tools and apps you’re using everyday.
Trigger actions with other tools
Customer delight is often found in small gestures.
Using tools like Zapier to deliver such gestures at scale is a great way to score extra points with your audience while helping you and your team along the way.
If you’re not familiar with it, Zapier lets you connect two or more apps to automate repetitive tasks without coding or relying on developers.
You just need to choose the app you want Zapier to watch for new data and create a trigger event to continue setting up the workflow. There are plenty of options when it comes to trigger events.
Start by identifying the most repetitive actions and seeing how you can use automated triggers to help you work more efficiently.
For example, by integrating your CRM system with your help desk, you can send an automated message to let customers know their order has shipped or inform them when a feature they’ve previously asked about, has been implemented.
Slack is another great example of how you can integrate a communication tool you use everyday with your help desk tool to stay on top of customer enquiries.
If you want to send a Slack direct message to a channel every time your team receives an especially high-priority request, you can set up a trigger for that. If you prefer, you can use these notifications to collaborate without even leaving your Slack channel.
Businesses who are able to integrate help desk software with their existing business tools are able to offer the best customer service and support. We know integrations help your team get more done, which is why we continue to focus on building our repertoire of integrations.
Benefits of customer service automation software
The level of advantages depends on how your business puts automation to work. Nonetheless, the benefits span far and wide:
In fact, there’s another side to automation, we haven’t even touch: proactive outreach.
Get customer feedback easily
An NPS survey gives you another opportunity to automate customer outreach.
A while back, we reached out to our current users to ask them about our knowledge base software. We identified and tagged users which fell within the three categories (Promoter, Passive, Detractor).
Then, we ran another campaign where we reached out to our most engaged users and asked them to review the software on one of the popular software review sites.
Set reminders to stay on top of conversations
You can automate following up by snoozing messages for specific time frames.
We use this system for short-term conversions as well as long-term projects—to track feature requests and follow up once those have been implemented.
All requests are put into a Trello board. In addition, we add links to every conversation in Groove where a customer has made a request. Depending on what the request is, and whether it affects multiple people, we also use an auto-reply to help save time on updating those specific clients.
Automation is a superpower but it’s also a balancing act.
In the wrong hands, it can create a monster.
Used wisely, it allows you to achieve the hardest thing in customer service—provide personal support at scale.