How To Automate Customer Service Without Losing That Personal Touch
Automation can save you hundreds of hours, but what can you automate without sacrificing personal support?
Note from Len: This is one of my favorite guest posts we’ve ever published.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can save time in customer service without losing the personal touch that your customers love, this valuable and super-practical guide by Brian Gladu from ActiveCampaign will show you exactly how to do just that.
Automated customer service has a bad reputation. Perhaps it’s well-deserved. Most of us prefer to speak to a real person when we call support and we cringe when someone tries to pass off an automated email as if it were personally sent.
Automation and artificial intelligence can’t replace a real person manning a help desk, phone, or live chat. We are decades away from matching a human's ability to perceive, judge, and react to complex situations in a caring, helpful way.
Some automation is a necessary evil though. Most companies can’t possibly give one-on-one attention to each customer. Some automation is helpful, if not vital, for customer satisfaction.
But, it’s important automation be used correctly. Most people assume that customer service automation is about replacing, or minimizing, human-to-human interaction. That’s not the goal of support automation, and that’s not what this post is about.
Rather, we'll explore how you can exploit automation's unique (but very specific) strengths to enhance your customer’s support experience by encouraging and expediting communication with your company.
I'll give you specific automated campaigns you can set up to:
- Reach out to customers in real-time when they encounter an issue,
- Address more of your customer’s issues and concerns,
- Dramatically shorten your time to resolution,
- And create happier, more loyal customers who can’t help but evangelize your company’s support.
To do this, we are going to use the same tools used by marketers to create intelligence-driven and personalized automated marketing:
- Triggered emails
- Segmentation and tagging
- Site & event tracking
- Intelligent follow-up
- Zapier integrations
By the end of this post I want you to be convinced that automation can take your support to the next level. I also want you to know exactly how to create these campaigns so you can start implementing automated support to help your customers today. Later we’ll cover how to set up specific, fully automated campaigns.
Why bother with automation at all if human touch leads to better service, most customers aren’t happy with automated support, and there is no avoiding human intervention?
I spent the introduction explaining automation’s weaknesses, now let’s cover its strengths, because this reveals how we should be leveraging it…
Automation can do things humans can't
Automation can create a support experience that isn't possible when our processes are constrained by human capability.
Human support is (generally) passive or reactive — it relies on the customer taking the initiative to make the first contact or search through help documents.
The advantage of automation — why it helps you provide better service— is it allows you to provide a degree of responsiveness that isn't humanly possible.
For instance, you can’t have someone monitoring all your site traffic or in-app activity for indicators of distress, but an automated system can “see” signs of trouble in a nearly unlimited amount of data and “react” in real-time.
Think of automation as your “eyes and ears.” It’s your customer-concern sentinel — it’s out there constantly monitoring, watching over your users. When it sees a problem, its goal is to get two humans in touch with each other as quickly as possible or send the exact resource that walks the customer through tackling the specific problem they are dealing with.
In this way, automation allows you to provide better support than a fully human process could. It’s proactive support that scales without limit. You can begin conversations and send relevant information to people as they need it— in real-time and to many customers simultaneously.
What are the benefits of automation?
Why invest time into setting up automated customer service campaigns?
Automation can help you:
Ensure the appropriate human is notified of issues
Sometimes automation is best used simply to begin a human intervention. For instance, to send an SMS notification of a high-priority after-hours support request or to have a customer success representative reach out to a high-value account that is inactive.
Improve conversions, retention, and referrals.
By helping your customers get the most out of your product and improving their support experience, automation can help you convert and retain more customers. Their increased satisfaction will result in more positive word-of-mouth, give you a marketable edge to differentiate you from your closest direct competitors, and increase the likelihood of evangelism.
Preemptively addressing customer concerns and problems,
Distributing resources such as walkthroughs and tutorials, funneling people into user communities, and relevant help docs can help your customers have the information at hand to sidestep many of the issues that have tripped up others in the past.
Lighten the load on human resources
By preemptively addressing concerns you’ll decrease the volume of incoming service requests. The human resources you save can then be focused on providing even better service to the remaining requests — cutting down response times and allowing reps to thoroughly address each issue (rather than trying to dig out from under of a pile of tickets).
Help customer issues get resolved as quickly as possible
By reaching out at early signs of distress, you can address concerns before they fester into frustration, disappointment, and negativity. The faster an issue is resolved, the less of a negative impression it will leave. Struggling to fix a problem for 15 minutes is objectively better than struggling with it for days. The faster someone can get funneled into live chat, or a ticket is opened, the faster customer support can get to it, and the faster the issue will reach resolution. Every minute counts and automation can make your company’s response as close to instantaneous as possible.
What should (and shouldn’t) be automated?
We shouldn’t be using automation to avoid interacting with our customers, reduce expenses, or simply to make our lives easier. It’s tempting at times, but it would cost us in the long run.
Our focus should always be on providing the best service and support experience possible, to be as helpful as we can, in as many ways as we can.
That’s in our customer’s best interest as well as our own. Top notch support is a strong competitive edge and a catalyst for positive word of mouth.
According to Jason VandeBoom, ActiveCampaign CEO, “Automation isn’t trying to replace human touch points, but it should be used to qualify, highlight, or progress someone to the right points where human touch is essential.”
Providing the best possible support experience is about finding the right mix of human contact and automation. The rule of thumb then is that we should use automation only when it improves the customer experience by providing additional value.
It can be a very fine line and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to what should and shouldn’t be automated. Here Alex explains why he sets aside time each day to personally read and answer responses to his automated “Why did you sign up for Groove?” email:
Automation is best used to encourage communication with people in your company, not avoid it. Used correctly, it facilitates human-to-human conversations at key times in the relationship.
These key touch points might be:
- while a prospective customer is considering a purchase,
- the first 30 days for new customers,
- a customer in distress,
- during a period of inactivity,
- after an error or downtime,
- after an indication of dissatisfaction (such as a low NPS rating)
By leveraging automation’s responsiveness to trigger the initial outreach, you can get your customers in touch with human resources as quickly as possible. You aren’t relying on them to overcome the friction involved in the multi-step process of connecting with support.
All they have to do is reply to your friendly, timely email. Then a well-trained human can step in and take over right when they need to.
Automations role is simply to start that conversation at the first sign of distress rather than waiting for the customer to do so. It gets the ball rolling, and that’s at least half the battle.
Writing automated messages that get read and encourage replies
Automated emails are easy to ignore.
We’ve become conditioned to assume they are unimportant. Unless it’s a transactional email, the unconscious thought process is that, “If it were important, a human would have sent it.”
Thankfully, there are ways to bypass this conditioning without trying to “trick” anyone into thinking you are sending them a personal email. That may have worked in 1998, but not many people are going to fall for that now (and most won’t appreciate the attempt — it might damage your credibility… or insult their intelligence).
No, it’s definitely best to be upfront about using automation. Buffer handles this beautifully, while also encouraging engagement, by explicitly inviting people to reply to their automated emails:
This is the first message you receive from Buffer after signing up.
Welcome emails are one of the most opened types of emails, and the postscript is one of the most read parts of a message, making this prime email real estate… and this is brilliant use of that valuable space.
With this simple message, you make your customer aware that all automated emails are a bridge connecting them directly to human support. It also helps your automated emails seem more personal by reminding them that there are real people at the other end reading replies. That might seem like common sense, but emphasizing that makes those replies more likely to occur.
FullContact encourages replies with a small change that sends a big message:
That communicates something vastly different than the “email@example.com” email address we are used to receiving emails from!
The third tip for automated emails that work is to keep them short and focused. This is good practice for emails in general, but even more so if your goal is to get a reply. Use only the space necessary to make your point and then invite a response by ending with an open ended question.
We are so used to companies being stiff and formal that a personal sounding email stands out. Showing a little personality— using slang, using humor, and writing in a laid-back way— humanizes the sender but also your company. It’s a reminder of sorts that, even though that email wasn't drafted and sent to you alone, there was a real person writing it at one point in time.
The informality captures our attention because the author is putting themselves out there. They are foregoing the facade and being genuine. It’s more interesting. It’s also a welcome alternative to a whitewashed, predictable message that, although safe, doesn’t give us much incentive to spend our precious attention reading it.
Use automation to…
Reach out when a customer repeatedly views your help documentation
Repeatedly visiting the same help document is a pretty clear indication the customer has an issue that wasn’t resolved the first time they visited. That’s frustrating. They might reach out to support, or they might throw in the towel and dismiss your product as “buggy” or “too complicated.”
Besides losing a customer, they might spread that opinion — coloring the opinions of potential customers and contributing negativity to your company’s reputation.
Their issue might’ve been easily resolved by your support team but only if that conversation was initiated by them.
Instead, start that conversation yourself by reaching out to them first with a short, friendly:
Ten percent of the people who received this email responded. Thirty percent of those that received this email were still customers 30 days later. That’s almost 4 times Groove’s average conversion rate!
By starting a conversation with support, they are much more likely to get their issue resolved. It also makes your company appear extremely responsive and almost clairvoyant (it’s up to you whether you want to reveal how you knew they might need help… personally, I prefer letting them attribute it to “synchronicity” or “magic” when you don’t explain it).
To set this up, you’d configure an automated sequence to run on a page visit:
If you only want these emails to go to customers, you could configure the automation to look for the “customer” tag before sending the email so it would look something like this:
You can also have it begin on visits to any help doc using a wildcard:
You might want to configure a threshold of visits so that it only begins after repeat views. That way you aren’t sending a message if their issue was already resolved by the documentation.
This is one of my favorite examples of customer service automation because it allows your company to reach out exactly when a customer needs human help. If you’d like to use this automation, I’ve created a template which you can grab here.
Leverage interest data to give new customers a boost in the right direction
Your marketing and sales processes probably collected data on your customer’s reasons for seeking out your product, their topical interests, and other useful information such as their company role.
You can use this pre-sale information to provide a curated list of help resources for each new customer.
To do this, you’d use conditional content to personalize the email so that it includes resources that align with their profile.
Conditional content uses “if/then” logic:
If they are tagged as “Interested in ___” then send this.
So your campaign’s logic might look something like this:
- If they are tagged as “Interested in customer support” then send “10 Steps to Superior Support”
- If they are tagged as “Interested in customer success” then send “The 5 Pillars of Customer Success”
- If they are tagged as “Interested in improving retention” then send “15 Ways to Keep Customers”
You might not collect this data for every customer, so your automated sequence should check to make sure one of these tags exist before sending the campaign. Or, you could have logic that says: “If they don’t have an interest tag, then send them this general interest resource.”
Distribute popular support resources
Analyzing your web analytics data to find your most popular help resources can inform you on the most common issues your customers are looking into. You will want to analyze a segment that includes only customers so the data isn’t skewed by a high-ranking keyword phrase or high traffic links. We want to see what our customers are looking at most, not which help docs are getting the most search engine and referral traffic.
You could use this data to create a FAQ email that lays out the most frequently sought out issues and point to their solutions so that your customers are at least aware that documentation on these topics exists. You may even answer questions they hadn’t thought to ask yet.
Here are some of the most common issues our new users face as they adopt our solution. I thought you might find this useful too:
- “Wondering how to ___ ? Here’s how…”
- “Need help with ___? Here’s a walkthrough…”
- “Have you set up ___ yet? It takes five minutes…”
- “Did you know ___ can help you ___?”
You may find your most popular help resources can be woven together to form a logical sequence of emails for all new customers. We’ll discuss that more when we get to how to create “intelligent onboarding sequences.”
High priority support request notifications
You could use Zapier to begin an automation that checks for contacts who are tagged as “high priority” each time a Groove ticket is opened. If they are, the automation could notify someone within your company:
If your company offers “Priority support” to certain tiers, or prioritizes based on account value, this simple zap can help you provide that white glove service.
Intelligent Onboarding Sequence
Onboarding emails are a proven way to retain more users but, as Groove learned during their testing, an onboarding sequence shouldn’t be a simple drip campaign. It needs to treat customers differently depending on their interests and behavior.
Imagine this series of emails:
- Day 0: Welcome!
- Day 1: Connect your email account
- Day 2: Import your contacts
- Day 3: Design your first campaign
- Day 4: Send your first campaign
If I immediately connected my email, imported my contacts, and created and sent a campaign, this onboarding series would be annoying and possibly confusing (“Didn’t I already do that? Did I not set it up right?”).
Sending everyone the same email content is a recipe for disengagement. It doesn’t take many irrelevant emails to train someone to ignore them, and then they might miss out on key information that would have led to a successful onboarding.
Your onboarding sequence can guide customers through a series of success triggers, or key actions necessary to a successful onboarding.
At ActiveCampaign our onboarding sequence checks to see whether a new user has performed success triggers in the app and only sends prompts to perform the behavior if they haven’t already done it:
Here’s what’s happening in the highlighted portion starting with the topmost grey box:
Have they created an automation? If not, send them an email motivating them to do so, give them ideas for automations they can create, and point them toward a video walkthrough. Wait two days, and then take them to the next grey box. If they have, skip to the next email.
Have they sent an email campaign? If not, send them an email motivating them to do so, give them ideas for campaigns they can create, and point them toward a video walkthrough. If they have, don’t send them that email and skip to the next.
In this way, your follow-up sequence tailors itself to their needs based on in-app behavior so that your customers aren’t being sent prompts, tutorials, and resources that aren’t relevant.
This kind of intelligent, forking onboarding based on behavior is also demonstrated by Groove’s onboarding. If they created a mailbox, they get this email:
And, if they didn’t, they’d get this email:
Groove has created 22 different emails. During their 14-day trial, a new user will receive six of those emails depending on what they do (or don’t do) in the app.
If a new ActiveCampaign user is not using the app, (they are not performing key behaviors even after being prompted to do so) they are diverted into a sequence that tries to engage them. We try to start a conversation with two questions in hopes that one or the other will prompt them to respond (thanks to Alex, for the tip on the first one…)
Using event tracking, you can also look for failure triggers, or signs of customer frustration, distress, or disengagement:
- Hasn’t logged in for 10 days.
- You could send them a message giving them suggested next steps, video tutorials, or simply remind them to come back.
- Started to ___ but didn’t finish it by ___
- They may have gotten stuck. You could send them a message asking if they need any help getting ___ set up or you could send them a walkthrough for the remaining steps.
- Has not touched ___ feature
- You can explain the benefits of this feature, give them use cases, and point them to a walkthrough for setting it up.
- Received an error when they…
- You can apologize that they were affected but reassure them that technical support is aware of the issue and are working to resolve it.
You can deliver automated messages for low priority accounts or have customer success or support people notified for high-priority accounts:
You can make your onboarding even more targeted (important and relevant) by aligning it with their interests. People have a variety of results they are seeking from the same product. Tailoring your onboarding sequence to their interests will make them more likely to open and read your entire onboarding sequence— reducing drop off and keeping them attentive to future emails they’ll receive from you (as they’ve learned they are always pertinent).
During purchase or free trial sign up you can use a simple checkbox so that people can quickly indicate what they are hoping to to do with your product:
Automate support request follow-ups
Checking back in with someone who sent a request communicates that you care and gives you another opportunity to make things right if the initial response wasn’t helpful.
Unfortunately, most companies don’t have the resources to devote to this kind of follow-up.
Using Zapier, you could have an automation begin when a new customer support request is closed in Groove using Zapier:
That automation could wait 24 hours and then send a friendly message asking if their issue was fully resolved and if there is anything else they need help with.
Leverage net promoters and improve NPS
You can tag your customers with their score and what group they fall into (detractor, passive, or promoter). The application of the tag can trigger an automated follow-up sequence that is appropriate for their group.
Promoters are willing to help spread the word about your company so give them suggestions and continue to strengthen their loyalty by rewarding them:
- “Please review us”
- “Join our community”
- “Follow us and share our content”
- “Refer your friends and family and earn rewards”
You can work on converting passives into promoters. Passives are a difficult group to work with because they are somewhat dispassionate. They aren’t very happy or very upset so getting them to voice their opinions can be challenging. Instead, you may want to send deals to keep them from seeking out your competition. This also gives your company another chance to “wow” them with an excellent experience.
The concerns of detractors can be assuaged by clearly communicating you are interested in their feedback, giving them a simple method of providing that feedback, and then reassuring them you are actively working toward resolving their concern.
Where to begin…
The specific automated campaigns you want to implement depend on the needs of your customers and unique touch points inherent to using your product.
But, I hope these examples have given you some idea of what automation is capable of, and how to use it, so that you can create real-time messages triggered by customer behavior.
Start by making a list of the success triggers and failure triggers as new customers get up and running with your platform. Create a separate list for later on in the customer lifecycle.
For each failure trigger, ask yourself, “What indications are there the customer is here?” The indications become the events (or lack of an event) that begins an automated campaign.
The answer to, “What resources can I send to help them overcome their issue?” becomes the content of the message.
Your list of success triggers becomes the sequence of emails you’d send during onboarding.
Also, ask yourself, “If we had unlimited resources, when would we contact each customer?” Any touch points you don’t have the human resources to handle become automated campaigns.
If you have any questions about automation and how it applies to customer service, let me know in the comments section.