Creating a Better Customer Service Workflow: Part 1 – The Problem

One of the ways that any small business can outdo the competition is with great customer service, something we’ve been dedicated to providing since day one. Given that we don’t provide phone support, it is even more important for us to provide the absolute best email customer service that we can.

We’ve recently overhauled our customer service workflow so that it’s simpler, more scalable, and more efficient. These changes apply to all of our sites that generate a lot of customer questions – Detailed Image, LockerPulse, and SportsLizard, but primarily you can assume that I’m talking about Detailed Image throughout, given it’s relative importance. This is the first of three posts. In part one, I’ll discuss the problem with the way we did things previously. In part two, I’ll go over our solution, and in part three I’ll outline one of the major changes that has drastically increased the speed at which we can answer any given email.

Life Is Simple When It’s Just One Single Person

When any small business is first getting off the ground, you usually just have one person answering customer service inquires. In most cases, this is how it should be: KISS. There’s no need for the added complexities that come with multiple people providing customer service.

Whether a customer emails you or submits an inquiry through a contact form, the workflow is pretty much the same: you get the email, you reply back, you and the customer continue to email back and forth until the issue is resolved, and then the conversation is forever archived in your email to be searched and referenced by you, the sole customer service agent. Everything is nice and simple, kind of like this:

Customer Service Example - One Person

With Two People, It Gets Complex

Unfortunately, as soon as you introduce a second person into the system, all hell breaks loose. Now, emails can go to either of you. You can each search your own emails, but you can’t see the other person’s. It looks a bit of like this:

Customer Service Example - Two People

This isn’t catastrophic – it’s how we operated for several years – but you run the risk of having several recurring issues. The largest deals with customers who contact both customer service people, either inadvertently (because they’re anxious and they want a reply) or intentionally (if they don’t like what one person says, they try another to see if they can get the answer they want). This can result in double work being done, confusion, and, if a customer happens to get a different response from each party, an inconsistent (and unfair) customer service experience. You also can run into issues when someone takes a day off. If they don’t check their email, important inquiries can go unread and unanswered in a timely manner.

Now, we combated this with some common sense. We’d forward customer service emails to someone else when people went away for any extended amount of time, and we’d do our best to chat with each other when we were unsure of a situation. This worked, mostly, for the better part of five years.

Eventually though, these problems became too big to overlook. We needed a way to avoid those mistakes. Everyone had to be able to see, search, and answer everyone else’s conversations without adding time or confusion to our already busy days. Preferably, this new system would save us all time.

We also needed a system that could be easily taught to an employee. This was really what pushed us to make the change now. We will be hiring soon, and one of this person’s big responsibilities will be to answer Detailed Image customer service. We need to be able to monitor what they’re doing, jump in at times, and not have to worry about fragmenting things further by creating another separate email account.

Ticketing System? Not For Us, At Least Right Now

Most companies choose to solve this problem by using a ticketing service or ticketing software. We’ve all experienced this many times as customers. You send an email or submit a question through a contact form, and then you get an email letting you know that a ticket has been created, either immediately or after someone manually creates it. Then you might get an email a little later saying “Your ticket has been assigned to Matt”. And then eventually you get a reply to your question. If you then want to reply, you either have to visit their website, create an account (sometimes), and reply in their ticketing system, or you have the choice to reply via email between those asterisks….you know, the ones that look like this:


At the end of it all, you get an automated email asking if it’s OK to close the ticket. Sometimes you then get another email asking you to rate the person who helped you.

Now, ticketing systems have some real advantages on the back end, but my partners and I don’t like this customer experience at all. I recently submitted questions to two different companies, both of which we are paying customers, both of which use Zendesk. Zendesk seems to be the new leader in this space, at least for web apps. In both cases, I had to sign up for a separate account to reply to the ticket. In one case, it took two days for the ticket to be created, and another two to get a response. In both cases, despite my questions eventually being answered, it felt like a very cold experience.

Contrast that with when you contact a company and you get a real email back. It feels much more personal, much more friendly. You can just click reply and say what you need to say. It doesn’t matter what email program you’re on, it doesn’t require you to reply in any way that’s different than any normal email, and you can attach anything you want and it will definitely get to us. In short, email is the simplest, quickest, and least stressful way for a customer to participate in a customer service exchange. At least that’s how my partners and I feel.

A ticketing system might eventually be in the cards for us. It might be unavoidable when we have 10 or 15 customer service reps. But what about when we have two or three or four? The more we thought about it, the more we were against a ticketing system right now. There had to be an intermediary step for us, one that preserved the advantages of email while still solving all of our problems. We contemplated building our own custom system, but the time and work involved seemed too complex. What to do?

In my next post, I’ll outline our solution. More to come…

13 comments on Creating a Better Customer Service Workflow: Part 1 – The Problem

  1. Anthony says:

    Hey Adam,

    I agree with all your sentiments about most ticketing system, but encourage you to ask the question, “what if all ticketing systems aren’t made of the same fabric?”

    We use FogBugz. It’s development-centric, so it’s not for you, but I’m sure there must be other more generic ones like it. Emails go to (or whatever you want), and FogBugz automatically picks them up. There is no automated email back to the customer. If a customer sends a new email it creates a new ticket, but that’s pretty rare, and worth the tradeoff for sure. When we respond, there is a Case # at the end of the subject. The customer can respond as usual, with attachments or whatever they’d like, and FogBugz imports it all in quite gracefully. All of this allows us the backend flexibility and advantages you were describing with virtually no sacrifice in customer service or perception; as far as the client is concerned, it’s pretty much business as usual except with a case # at the end of the subject, which I’m pretty sure most people never even realize in the first place.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      What if all ticketing systems arenโ€™t made of the same fabric?

      Good point. Admittedly I only half-researched ticketing systems because the solution we came up with (actually, Mike came up with) is relatively simple and provided us with everything we need for the foreseeable future. I’m hoping to write post #2 in the next few days.

      As an aside, I’ve always heard good things about FogBugz but never known anyone who uses it, good to know you endorse it.

  2. Rob says:

    For our support contact system we just use a common email address accessed via webmail or IMAP. This means everyone is synchronised. Just archive an email when it’s dealt with and that it is reflected across all platforms to all users. If a customer responds to an email, it brings the thread back out of the archive and into the inbox. Admittedly it’s a system that probably won’t work for more than 3-4 users, but it’s simple and works for us. Interested to hear what your solution is.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      That’s essentially what we did. I’ll spill all of the details next post ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Dave says:

      I was going to the say the same. Have a e-mail that multiple people access at the same time. If you use Google Apps, it should sync up pretty well…though I guess it’s possible if multiple people remotely try and respond at the same time that can be a possible problem. You can have tags for your reps, and then if a rep takes the e-mail, they tag it with their name.

      Looking forward to seeing what you ended up doing, because I’m bringing on a full-timer starting to June 1. Like yourself, I’m always looking for the best possible/most efficient workflow.

      • Adam McFarland says:

        Congrats on the full-timer Dave!

        That is pretty much what we did and it’s working well…the next post is done and scheduled to go up tomorrow morning so that will provide the full details.

  3. Darrin says:

    I’ve always hated ticket systems. They are so impersonal. I think this would be a good area for a ‘Disqus’ like product to disrupt the market.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Definitely Darrin. I think there’s a huge opportunity here. It’s a complex problem for sure, but not one that’s impossible to solve given what companies are doing in other social spaces. You’d also think that given how lucrative of a market it is that people would try to solve it a little more creatively. Now, as I mentioned to Anthony above, I didn’t do an exhaustive search so there could be someone out there doing this, I’ve just never heard of them. Zendesk gets a lot of headlines but to me it’s not much different than any other ticketing systems. Someone needs to take a fresh approach to it.

      • Anthony says:

        I think there’s two ways to look at the reason a product doesn’t exist: either no one else has thought of doing it, or no one has found a better way given the options that already exist. Maybe this is pessimistic, but I tend to look at the latter reasoning as more likely. I’m not sure what’s so clunky and impersonal about tacking a Case # on to an email. It’s just an email, with a simple # attached to it. It doesn’t seem like a concept that needs dramatic improvement. Mom & pop bakeries have used numbered ticketing systems for over a century and I’m pretty sure their customers have no problem with it. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Remember – in terms of customer perception, the service they get once they arrive at the counter (virtual or not) is much more important than how they get there, assuming basic precautions are taken to ensure the system is efficient & reasonable enough. If you “wow” customers with what happens once they get to the counter, they’ll care very little that you tacked on a Case # to an email to get them there.

        • Adam McFarland says:

          Iโ€™m not sure whatโ€™s so clunky and impersonal about tacking a Case # on to an email.

          Oh I don’t think a case # in the subject line is impersonal at all, it’s the other stuff I mentioned: the initial email with a bunch of junk in it that just says “your ticket has been created and assigned to Joe” and then the need, in some cases, to create an account to reply or to read previous replies. Or when a ticket just goes unanswered and you get that email that says “we’re going to close your ticket in 48 hours, click here to reply to keep it open.”

          As I mentioned in the post, ticketing systems really aren’t that bad, even the “worst” ones I’ve experienced. I just know myself as a consumer that a straight email is simpler to deal with and has less potential to frustrate me, and also feels more personal. And like I said, I’m no expert on ticketing systems and what’s out there. From memory I don’t recall having experienced anything other than the traditional ticketing system or just a simple email from a company. Maybe someone has corresponded with me using some kick ass system and I didn’t even notice it ๐Ÿ™‚

          Of course, as you mentioned, the outcome of the situation and how they handle it is 100% more important than the system being used.

  4. Anthony says:

    Yeah, all that other stuff is annoying. But frankly, I think that’s more human error than anything. Most companies that send you those automated emails do so because they actively choose to, not because their ticketing system forces them to; most systems have options about how they work. Those initial emails, closing emails, etc, are not usually forced upon the company using the system. We simply turn all that crap off; it’s largely unnecessary. All that’s necessary for the system to work, at a base level, is a case #. So we leave that enabled, and leave it up to our own judgement to categorize new cases and close old ones, rather than forcing the customer to do that for us.

  5. […] my previous post, Creating a Better Customer Service Workflow: Part 1 โ€“ The Problem, I gave an overview of the issues we’ve begun to face as we’ve introduced multiple […]

  6. […] part one of this series about creating a better customer service system, I wrote about the problems with our […]

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