Today’s consumers are connected, on-the-go and always seeking convenience. In fact, more than 15 million people make a purchase from their smartphone weekly. But sometimes things go awry: a package ships late, a part is defective or that dress doesn’t fit. And how your company handles customer support could make or break your chance at continued patronage.

That’s why optimizing your digital customer support channel is essential to maintaining a positive brand reputation. When your customers really need support for your services or products, your brand is teetering in a critical gray zone. The outcome of a positive customer support experience is obviously loyalty. And the result of a bad experience is, you might have guessed it, churn.

Throughout this post, we’re going to dive into different support mediums and highlight some best practices to keep your customers happy.

Choosing a Digital Support Toolbox

A worker is only as good as the tools they use. One of the most commonly used tools in a website’s self-service section is the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section. However, an FAQ section may not be the best default option for your website’s visitors. As helpful as they can be in small doses, I’ve found they can cause a tremendous amount of friction when they’re not designed just-right. Besides, there’s a multitude of other ways for customers to seek help in your digital support channels. From Googling, to live chat, to the infamous call center, or even tweeting for support— today’s consumers have lots of choices to score the answers they’re seeking. It’s your duty to provide the best possible support, regardless of the medium.

Uncovering FAQ Friction

So, first-off, let’s explore what makes a well-intentioned FAQ section difficult for customers and what you can do to remedy it. For example, let’s say you have a customer who needs to know how to configure her smartphone. When she lands on your FAQ page, she sees three things:

  1. A Search Box
  2. Tutorials
  3. A long list of FAQs.

While the point of omni-channel is to serve channels that customers prefer, customers will have their eye guided towards what feels like the least amount of effort. So, for the wireframe above, what is the easiest starting point for the customer: enter a search; watch a video tutorial; or read a list of an FAQs?

The FAQs definitely draw the visitor in, and this why they can be great tools for low-cost self-service. However, when they are a list dominating the page, they can take away from the investment your team has put into other self-service offerings.

Here’s a different example of prominence helping to change user behavior: I have seen where phone numbers were made prominent in support centers, and everybody was trying to solve how to reduce phone calls. To fix it, we swapped the positioning of the phone number. We noticed that  the virtual agent, an automated support channel designed to help users locate self-service options, was the call to action that needed to be more prominent. The result was that that self-service went up and calls were reduced. Reducing the number of calls isn’t just great for call center efficiency, it’s also a lot less effort for customers. As stated above, low-effort resolution of an issue leads to higher customer loyalty, and as you can imagine, saves your business money.

In addition, too many FAQs become exhausting to read (more on this below). They may even be poorly maintained or outdated. This all adds  extra customer effort and bumps up a practically free support experience into a $1.50+ per contact. In my experience, emails cost a business as little as $1.50 per touch; chats at about $5.00; and phone calls $8.00. With a US/EMEA-based team, however, that cost goes up dramatically.

The Takeaway: As shown in the wireframe above, FAQs can become focal points of online support centers at the expense of other—potentially more effective—self-service options (e.g., knowledge search boxes). In short, whatever is the most prominent focal point is will receive the most usage. Try experimenting with layout to see if your digital support channels can also benefit from displaying more effective self-service options above the FAQ section.

A Wall of Text is Exhausting

When a customer is on a mission to find an answer and all they get is a wall of text, it takes a lot of focus and energy to read every word. It really isn’t any different than having a headache and then looking for aspirin in a huge grocery store.

Most customers know what they want, but don’t always have the right words to look for it. To prove this, we set up a fun user experience test just for you. See how much effort it takes for you to find “proof of eternal happiness” in this Shakespearean sonnet:

Did you find it? It’s No. 15. That’s exactly what it’s like to come to a support site with a question in mind and be greeted by a block of FAQs that doesn’t quite “get” you.

Even if your FAQ titles follow basic SEO best practices (60 characters or fewer), that’s still 600 characters, 127 words for 10 FAQs, or 191 words for 15 FAQs. You don’t want to force customers to read through that much. Ten to 15 lines of questions, or titles, are pretty horrible.

The Takeaway: FAQs that make customers read through a lot of superfluous text to have their question validated are frustrating. If you have an FAQ section, break it down into short lists, based on themes and topics. A great example of this type of topical breakdown, is Netflix’s support center. As you can see below, Netflix categorizes its top FAQs by topic in very short lists to focus on searches and not overwhelm the customer with text.

Embrace Live Chat & Social Care

Of course, you don’t have to have an FAQ. There’s no rule that says you should. If you don’t have one, then you should still establish other ways to offer quick, easy help.

One good example of an e-commerce site that offers helpful live chat support right on their homepage is Road Runner Sports, a successful U.S. running shoe retailer (brick-and-mortar) and e-comm company.

As you can see here, Road Runner Sports' live chat window pops up as soon as you browse.

Plus, live chat can boost your online sales by giving agents the opportunity to upsell other products. Having a knowledgeable, real-time sales associate at the tip of your customer’s fingers can be worth its weight in gold, or in Road Runner’s case, shoes.

LiveChat, Inc. performed a recent global survey of how live chat affects businesses. In the U.S. alone, almost a third of all businesses offer live chat, and boast more than 90 percent overall customer satisfaction in that channel.

Social customer care isn’t for everyone, but is a must for companies whose customers head to Twitter or Facebook first to seek help, such as the connected generation of millennials. Many large companies do it successfully, such as JetBlue, Target and UPS. And they’re smart to do so. NM Incite’s Report on “The State of Social Customer Service” states, “nearly 1 in 3 social media users prefer to reach out to a brand for customer service through a social channel compared to the phone.” JetBlue boasts a 10-minute response time, 24/7. Now, that’s customer commitment.

You need to be where your customers are. When WooThemes stopped offering Twitter support, customers (mostly digital natives, tech-savvy types) no longer had a way to get that quick social support they’re used to. This left many customers tweeting at the main handle, and receiving no responses (as the image on the right shows). Whichever medium you choose to offer your customer’s support, you need to lower that barrier to interaction between customer and company. You need to make sure customers don’t have to work hard to get support.\

Final Verdict: Design For Low-Touch Support

It seems logical to anybody making a digital support site to have a FAQ list. It’s what everybody does. It’s considered a best practice. But support pages that send customers on an Easter egg hunt are helpful to no one.

Here are my TOP FIVE tips for effective customer support:

FAQ’s are perfect for self-service, but can become riddled with friction if they’re not properly designed or maintained. I am not saying that FAQs should be non grata in your Support Center, but at the end of the day, customer support  is a high-stakes opportunity to validate your brand with great service. Whether that entails improving your FAQ, offering live chat, creating a stellar app, or using a Twitter support handle, the end goal of your digital support strategy should always be the same: keep your customers delighted.

This post was written using the expert research and experience of Jon Meyer, Knowledge and Self Service Leader at Twilio.