33 tips for giving great technical support at a small software company without being swamped

To have the best chance of success you need a great product, great marketing and great support. Many companies with great products and marketing fall down on the support.

Good support is essential to a good user experience. Any non-trivial piece of software is going to result in questions that need to be answered and issues that need to be resolved. But supporting customers is often seen as an onerous chore. An overhead. Something to be done by those not talented enough to be developers.  This is a very unfortunate attitude. But it also an opportunity, as software companies that provide great support can really stand out from their competitors. The lower they set the bar, the more opportunity you have to shine.

The fact that the support staff and the developers are often the same people in a small company is a real strength. Because the developer knows the product better than anyone else, they can give better answers. Also, the direct feedback developers get from customers can be very helpful in further improving the product. This means that a small company can often provide much better support than a large company that has multiple layers of support between the customer and the developer. The downside is that the more time developers spend on support, the less time they can spend doing development. Eventually you may reach a level of sales where you are spending nearly all your time doing support, with very little left for the development and marketing required to grow the business. The challenge is to provide great support without being swamped by support work.

I have been supporting my own wedding table plan software since it was first released in 2005. I have managed to grow my sales for 7 consecutive years without being overwhelmed by support. In fact technical support emails have stayed at roughly 40 per week for the last few years despite increasing sales. Before that I had never really done much technical support, so it has been a learning experience. Here are some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Manage customer expectations

Make the level of support clear to the customer:

  • Is it free or does it have to be paid for?
  • Is it email only or is telephone support also available?
  • What sort of response time can they expect?
  • What languages do you provide support in – just English?

I don’t provide technical support by telephone or instant messaging, because it is too disruptive to me as a one-man-band.

Manage your own expectations

Your software is a means to an end for the customer. Very few customers will read the documentation you spent all those hours writing if they can possibly avoid it. Some of them won’t even read to the end of a 1 sentence error message (really). Some of your customers will be ‘technically’ challenged (often without even realizing). Sometimes the problem exists between keyboard and chair. Get used to it, because human nature isn’t going to change any time soon.

Make it easy for the customer to contact you

Don’t hide your support email address. Allow the customer to email you from the software itself. This also gives you the opportunity to add some useful information to the email (the software version, their OS, whether they have a licence etc).

Be responsive

Generally speaking, the faster you respond, the better. When I send an email to support I expect to get a response by the same time on the next working day and hopefully within a few hours. I try to answer my support emails at least twice a day, 364 days a year. I do this because I want to give a great service, but it also means I don’t come in to a massive pile of support emails every Monday morning. It means taking a laptop with me whenever I am away for a night. But I find it isn’t a huge chore to spend an hour a day answering support emails on holiday. Especially when I remember that the business is paying for the holiday!

But not too responsive

The downside of being very responsive is that it makes some customers lazy. If they know they will get a response within a few hours they may email you about things they could easily look up themselves. The best response to this is ‘throttling’ (NB/ I don’t mean strangling) – when you notice that a customer is being lazy, take longer and longer to respond to each email. Eventually they will take the hint.

If you are trying to look like a bigger company than you are, then you probably don’t want to answer support emails outside of normal work hours.

Respond as clearly as possible

  • Quote the customers email in your reply where appropriate for context.
  • Number step-by-step instructions.
  • Use quotes to refer to elements in your software, e.g. select ‘Help’>’About’ from the main menu.
  • Write in short paragraphs, not big chunks of text.
  • Avoid technical jargon unless you are sure that your customer will understand. For example, say “window” rather than “modal dialog”.
  • Use proper grammar and check the spelling.
  • Avoid long email signatures.

Use images and videos

It is often helpful to include an annotated image with your response. For example you can do a screenshot, highlight important items in the screenshot and then email this as an attachment, along with some text. I find the screen capture tool SnagIt is excellent for doing this (available for both Windows and Mac). In some cases it may also be worth doing a short screencast, uploading it and then sending the customer a link (SnagIt can also do this).

Restate unclear questions

Support questions can be very vague. I have even had people email me just “It doesn’t work” – it wasn’t even clear whether they were referring to the website, the installer or the software. It often takes a few emails to understand what the problem is. If you aren’t 100% sure what they mean, make your best guess at what they are trying to say and restate it in your own words followed by “Did I understand correctly?”. Ask them if there are any error messages. Ask them to send you a screenshot (include a link to instructions on how to do this).

Finish an email exchange

If the customer started the exchange, you should generally finish it (i.e. send the last email). But it is probably not worth responding to an email that is just a 1-line thank you.

Pick up the phone when required

Even if you don’t officially offer telephone support, it sometimes can sometimes save a lot of time and aggravation on both sides if you pick up the phone and talk to the customer.

Put your documentation online

If you have your documentation online you can easily include links to relevant pages in your documentation in your email. This might also encourage the customer to look in the documentation first next time. But don’t just send a link. Answer their question in the email and then include the link as supplemental information.

Help the customers to help themselves

The beauty of a software product business is scalability. In theory, you only need to create your product once and then you can sell it to as many people as you can convince to buy it with negligible marginal cost. In theory. In reality, while a software product business is inherently much more scalable than a consulting business, the marginal cost per sale is not negligible. Far from it. Customers need support.  Here are some of the way you can reduce the support cost per customer:

  • improve the user interface and documentation, based on customer feedback
  • add an FAQ
  • allow customers to retrieve their licence key direct from your website (emailed to the registered email address, for obvious reasons)
  • encourage customers to look at documentation, FAQs, forums etc before emailing you (below is the window I show when customers select Help>Technical support in PerfectTablePlan).

Note that it has been shown experimentally that the more text you show someone, the lower the percentage of it they read. So it is generally more productive to concentrate on simplifying the user interface, rather than writing more documentation.

Of course, you can also reduce support requests by making it difficult for the customer to contact you (the Amazon model). But this leads to less feedback and a worse user experience, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Allow customers to help each other

If you have a sizeable user base you can set-up a forum to encourage users to help each other. This can have various benefits:

  • customers may be able to get answers straight-away by searching existing content on the forum
  • customers may answer some questions for you
  • customers may respond faster than you can
  • it increases your SEO footprint

But it also has its drawbacks:

  • nothing looks sadder than a deserted forum
  • a forum has to be actively moderated or it will end up reflecting badly on your company
  • spam can be a problem

Automatically report crashes

It is often possible to detect that the software is going to crash or has crashed and send yourself some diagnostic information. This allows you to monitor how stable the software is and gives you some clues for debugging. For example, on Windows you can use the Win32 API method SetUnhandledExceptionFilter() to detect when things have gone horribly wrong. Don’t send it without their permission though. Give them the option to see the information you are going to send and then allow them to send it with a single button click.

Remember that every computer is different

There is a rumour that there are 2 identically configured PCs somewhere in Nebraska. But I don’t believe it. The customer may have configured their OS with all sorts of strange options you have never heard of. Anti-virus software, malware, DLL hell and hardware issues can cause problems. A cosmic ray might have even passed through their RAM! So I generally don’t spend too much time on a bug report unless either I can replicate it myself or 2 separate people have reported it.

Be proactive

I actively seek feedback from my customers. It increases the support burden somewhat, but I think this is more than compensated for by increased customer satisfaction and improved feedback.

Make use of feedback

I think all developers should spend at least some time supporting the products they developed. A few days every now and then in the support trenches answering customer emails and phone calls would give developers a better appreciation of how customers think and of the real costs of that cool feature shoe-horned into the release a week before the ship date.

Look at every support request as a possible way to improve your product. The first time you get a support request you answer it. The second time you get the same request you need to start thinking about how you can improve the product so that question doesn’t get asked a third time. By continually improving your product in this way you can greatly reduce the average amount of support time required per customer over time. Obviously you need to make it easy for customers to contact you to make this work.

Don’t take things personally

No matter how hard you try some people are not going to like your software. I once got so angry with Microsoft Project that I nearly threw a monitor out of a window. An angry customer might send you an angry email. Try not to take the criticism personally (link note: funny, but sweary). Maybe the customer is having a bad day. Perhaps they just don’t have any manners. As long as they remain a small minority, try not to lose any sleep over it. On the plus side – at least they cared! And it is often possible to turn a passionately angry customer into a passionate advocate for the product. Indifference is much harder to convert into a sale.

Don’t shoot the messenger

If someone reports what they think is a bug, you should thank them, rather than taking it as an insult to your programming skills. Experience shows me that most people who encounter a bug won’t bother to report it. If you have ever tried reporting a problem to a big company like Microsoft, you will understand why. An unreported bug can result in a lot of unhappy customers and lost sales. Customers who report bugs are a precious resource and should be treated accordingly.

Tell a customer when you have fixed their bug

Whenever a customer reports a bug  I record their email address along with the bug report. When it is fixed I then email them. This encourages them to report other bugs they find in future. Similarly for feature requests.

Give credit where credit is due

When I list bugs fixed in a release I also give the names of the customers who reported the bugs (first name + initial of last name). If a customer has been particularly helpful, e.g. putting significant effort into helping me find a bug, I may also list them in the software ‘credits’ window. It doesn’t cost me anything and it encourages these customers to feel more ownership of the product and report more bugs.

Google translate is your friend

I only officially provide support in English. But if someone emails me in another language I will use Google translate to read their email and reply in English, including a translation of my reply from Google translate. The quality of the translation may not be great, but it is probably good enough.

Use the right tone

Being professional doesn’t have to mean cold and impersonal. Try to sound like a real person, rather than a robot. Include your name in your signature. I address people by their first name (where known) and I’m not above including a smiley, where I think it is appropriate. Different markets and cultures may demand different levels of formality. Usually you can take your cue from how formal the customer is. Above all, try not to blame your customer or make them feel stupid.

Only support your own product

It isn’t your job to teach your customer how to use a computer. Try to steer clear of providing support that isn’t directly related to your own product. Otherwise you might find you end up as their general IT helpdesk.

Get the price right

If you are swamped in support emails, consider raising your price. Depending on the price elasticity of your product, you may be  able to generate the same or more revenue with less customers and therefore (hopefully) less support emails.

Firing a customer is the final resort

Sometimes a customer will buy your product when they really shouldn’t have, either because it is the wrong tool for the job or because they don’t have the skills required to use it. They will then bombard you with email after email. In such cases it may be best to refund them. Allow them to keep using the software, but tell them that you won’t be able to provide any further support. Something along the lines of “It appears that our software is not a good fit for your requirements. We have therefore refunded your purchase in full. Please feel free to keep using the software, but please note that we won’t be able to provide further technical support.”. This is the nuclear option. I have only had to resort to it a handful of times in 7 years.

Don’t tolerate abusive customers

The customer is not always right. Buying your product does not give them a right to be abusive, no matter how much they paid. Politely and professionally fire them if they can’t behave like a decent human being.

Never send an email in anger

People can sometimes be unreasonable, even downright rude, especially when they are safely at the other end of an Internet connection. But never, under any circumstances, respond with a rude or sarcastic email. Your email might be posted onto forums for all the world to see, forever more, devoid of its original context. Not good. Also, sending a rude response is only going to pour petrol on the fire. Always keep your emails polite and professional. If you find yourself getting angry, go and do something else for a while, until you can send a calm reply. If you can’t reply professionally, don’t reply at all.

Use the right tools

You don’t need a lot of tools to provide good support. I mainly use:

  • an email client (Thunderbird)
  • a bug/feature request tracking database (OnTime)
  • a screen capture tool (SnagIt)
  • a phrase expander for quickly typing common phrases (PhraseExpander)
  • a database of licence keys (home rolled)
  • VM software for emulating different operating systems (WMWare Workstation)

As I am the only one doing support I find that it is sufficient for me to use my Thunderbird email client to check previous correspondence (search by email address), track status (using different coloured tags for: awaiting their response, follow-up later etc) and enforce a simple workflow (move to different folders). If you have multiple people doing support you may also need helpdesk software (such as Helpspot) and/or a ticketing system.

You can use remote access software such as CoPilot to remotely log in to a customers computer. But I try to avoid this where possible, as it is time consuming and also the customer might blame me for any problem they have with their computer afterwards (e.g. a virus infection).

Think twice before outsourcing support

It is cheap to outsource your support to e-workers in developing countries. But they won’t know or care about your product as much as you do. And moving yourself further away from the customer reduces that all important feedback that you need to keep improving the product.

Time new releases carefully

You are going to get the most support emails after you put out a new release. So try to avoid putting out a new release just before you go on holiday.

Have the right attitude

While it can be frustrating to provide support to someone less technically minded than yourself, remember that not everyone is a computer geek and these people are paying your salary.

Remember the golden rule

The basic rule of technical support is to treat your customers how you would wish to be treated. If you bear that in mind, you shouldn’t go far wrong.

Further reading:

If You Want to Write Useful Software, You Have to Do Tech Support (Nick Bradbury)

Did I miss anything? What have been your experiences supporting your software? What surprised you?

14 thoughts on “33 tips for giving great technical support at a small software company without being swamped

  1. smartcompanysoftware

    I’ve thought about outsourcing my support a number of times, but like you suggested I’ve always thought they wouldn’t care about it as much as I do.

    I always have a rule not to let support emails get personal. Be fair but firm and try not to get emotional about things.

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  3. Gill Ritchie

    Hi Andy,

    Great post. I do a bit of support for a large organisation but most of what you said struck a chord and had me nodding (and smiling).

    What has surprised me about doing support?

    1) Good support people are hard to come by. I don’t necessarily class myself as one but I’ve seen the skills and mindset required to do it well. I agree with your comment that it’s often seen as a second class job but as you’ve said, a good experience with support staff makes a huge difference to people.

    2) It can be the most amazingly rewarding thing to do. I only do support occasionally and sometimes resent it because I’ve got “better things to do”. However, working with someone to figure out what their problem is and ultimately come up with a solution where they go away happy is really rewarding. I particularly enjoy the problem solving aspect of support queries so I could even go further and say it’s fun.

    3) How many ways there are to misunderstand things. I misunderstand what the user tells me, they misunderstand what I tell them. Language is slippery and confusing. It’s a real skill to read between the lines and to be able to articulate things clearly and unambiguously.


    1. Andy Brice Post author

      >3) How many ways there are to misunderstand things.

      Yes. It sometimes takes several emails to understand what the real problem is. I find that asking them to send a screenshot sometimes helps. (Non-techies always seem to put the screenshot inside a Word doc!)

      1. Tom Reader

        “(Non-techies always seem to put the screenshot inside a Word doc!)”

        I had one who took a screenshot, printed it out locally in black-and-white, used a red marker pen to highlight what the perceived problem was, scanned it back in as a very high resolution 24 bit plane image, then emailed me the resulting file. Receiving the email from them took a lot longer than telling them what they were doing wrong in the first place.

  4. followsteph

    Another awesome article as usual Andy. And I especially love the picture you used!!

    Something else I recently implemented all of the above is that we now use Sendgrid for sending out emails. Basically it authenticates your emails and has a much better chance of being received. Beforehand we would get the occassional email that would be incorrectly blocked as spam and the user would never notice it and just assumed we ignored them. That’s bad!! And I can’t blame them either, I rarely look in my spam folder any more. So what we did is get a service to manage the outbound email so that they can provide dkims, spf, etc. And I’m sure they have some kind of agreements in place with some of the bigger email service providers, but who knows. In any case, this pretty much reduced this type of support issue (and frustration on both ends) to a non-existant level. And it can eliminate any potential issues from having your domain blacklisted incorrectly as your support levels increase. For the price we pay for this kind of service, it’s well worth it!

    Another thing you might want to consider is an online support system. You mentioned Helpspot and it’s great for that. Customers can always access their personal support histories online. It’s great for certain types of customers.

    Another tool we’ve recently been testing is HipChat. It’s kinda like live support, but with private chat sessions initiated by you through an invitation code. It’s similar to picking up the phone and calling but more efficient on our end. If need be we will call, but we usually try a private HipChat session first. I’ve found that it also helps keep the conversation much more focused. And at $1/month/user, it’s well worth the price. Plus if you have employees, contractors, etc., it serves as an internal messaging system (like Campfire). The big difference Campfire and HipChat IMHO is that you can do private chat sessions with your customers through access codes, which is awesome for support.

    Another tool I use too, and I believe you do this as well but just didn’t mention it, is add tips/suggestions in your email newsletters for the more common support requests. Although longer term, it does help with time. And it tends to create more power users which is great.

    And as you said, definitely include pointers to the online documentation (user manuals, FAQ’s, etc.) to help educate your customers on how to help themselves. Good documentation can really be helpful. Although not everyone reads it, it can make a difference. I know our support levels dropped by about 80% since we completely re-did the user manual!! I knew it needed a revamp, but I just hadn’t realized how much.

    And lastly, and I believe you already mentioned this, but if you get a lot of support about something, fix it in your software. For example if something is confusing people, then adjust the software so that it’s not confusing. Not only will it reduce your support levels, but it will very likely also increase your sales! Win win :)

    Overall another amazing post Andy, you hit pretty much everything we do!!

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I might have to check out sendgrid – I am having problems with comcast bouncing all my @perfecttableplan.com emails as spam. I have to send them through gmail instead.

      1. Stephane Grenier

        It was a big enough issue for us that I had to address it. On the positive side, since we started to use SendGrid we don’t have this issue anymore. It’s extremely rare. Nothing is perfect of course but what a difference!

        There are other solutions out there, but for us we found they were the best fit in both what they offer and price. They aren’t exactly cheap when compared to having your own free mailserver, but they do seem to make the problem disappear. And the integration is very easy. And btw, you need their silver package to have company labelling, otherwise it doesn’t look professional. But even at $79/mth, it’s still a good deal if you equate it to at least one lost sale per month (it’s probably more, but that’s all you need to justify it).

        And always remember that those who contact you about this issue are contacting you a second time, how many other emails have been lost that you have no idea about.

  5. followsteph

    Btw, I also forgot to mention your post is now required reading here for those working on support for me. You said everything I want to express but much clearer and precise than I use to :)

  6. Andrea Nagar (@nagar)

    Nice article, Andy. Talking to the customers is a high ROI activity. I discovered my product was used in ways I didn’t expect and this allowed me to discover untapped niches. You need to nurture your customers especially the ones that are particularly inclined to send feedback and want to help.

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