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Why great customer support is important for your eCommerce site, and how to be amazing at it

When customers are shopping for goods and services they have a multitude of options to choose from. What makes you unique? How do you stand out from a competitor that sells similar products at aggressive prices? Support.

How you and your team execute support for potential and existing customers could be a turning point for your business. Positive or negative. From the moment a customer visits your site, you’re providing them with an experience. Arming them with the resources necessary to enjoy your products and utilize them flawlessly starts the moment they arrive at your website and is what can set you apart from your competition.

If you aren’t providing your customers with great support it won’t be long before they find someone who will.

The Why?


Like dropping a pebble into a pond, the experience a customer has with your business can have a similar ripple effect. Word-of-mouth is a powerful, and free, tool that can help drive traffic to your eCommerce site. Every interaction you and your employees have with a customer is invaluable and has the potential to grow your business.

When looking for recommendations regarding the best brands, products, services, and businesses, people often turn to their friends and family for advice. This type of marketing is called Earned Media, which we discuss in more detail in our post about effective marketing channels.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are the most trusted form of advertising according to a report published by Nielsen.

Ensuring your customers are satisfied with the products you sell and the support you provide them with will go along way in growing your business through positive word-of-mouth.

When word-of-mouth goes wrong

We’ve all heard stories, primarily the really bad ones, about less-than-stellar customer service experiences. Chances are, we too have had a similar experience at some point and can empathize with the story teller. We may feel outraged by how this company, no matter how big or small, treated this particular individual. This type of response can have an affect on our perception of said company and how we choose to interact, or not, with them in the future.

There’s a quote that illustrates why good customer service is crucial to the success of your eCommerce business:

If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000.Jeff Bezos

In the digital age we live in it’s easier than ever to share information, both good and bad, across multiple platforms. These stories grow, and spread, and can make or break your brand’s reputation. It’s for this reason that your customers’ perception of your brand is of paramount importance.

Retaining vs. Obtaining

Attracting new visitors to your site and converting them into customers takes a fair amount of time, effort, and money! Once you’ve established a solid customer base it would be unfortunate to see them turn to a competitor due to an imperfect support strategy. Take a look at these somewhat shocking statistics:

  • It will cost your business 6-7 times more to attract a new customer than it costs to retain an existing customer. (White House Office of Consumer Affairs)
  • On average, loyal customers are worth up to 10 times as much as their first purchase. (White House Office of Consumer Affairs)
  • It takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience. (“Understanding Customers” by Ruby Newell-Legner)
  • In 2011, 86% of consumers quit doing business with a company because of a bad customer experience. (Customer Experience Impact Report by Harris Interactive/RightNow, 2010)

When focusing on retaining customers you also want to consider the quality of your customers, not simply the quantity. More is not always better. I’m not suggesting you cut ties with customers that are challenging or don’t spend as much as others, but at some point you will encounter a customer who is rude and unreasonable, who belittles your support team, or who is unwilling to participate in a civilized conversation about their problem or concern. You can do your best to appease this customer and make things right but there will come a point where the only positive solution will be to part ways.

Acquiring new customers through various marketing channels is far more costly than retaining existing customers. Focus on retention to keep existing customers happy and ensure the longevity of your business.

The How?

Teamwork makes the dream work

When you think about providing support your first thought is likely of the support a business provides to its external customers. An often overlooked aspect of support is internal support. Support is also developers working with support staff and sales working with marketing.

Support works best when it’s done as a team. Not just a support team, but a team that encompasses many departments. To answer a customers question or solve a problem, many individuals may need to be involved. How employees and teams interact with customers, and each other, is a key factor in determining how successful your company will be at supporting your external customers.

Support starts with your employees, all employees. Creating a dynamic team of individuals that support one another is the foundation required to successfully support your external customers.

No team, only Hulk

Whether by design or out of necessity, if you’re already wrangling support (and everything else) on your own, you’re a superhero. Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when you’re flying solo with support:

  1. Respond to your customers as soon as you can. You’re a busy one-man-or-one-woman-band, but getting back to your customers as soon as possible will go a long way toward establishing their trust in you. Thank them for their patience and then address their questions thoroughly and carefully.
  2. Manage their expectations. If your customers reach out asking for something that you cannot deliver due to time or otherwise, communicate with them honestly in your first reply. There’s no reason to waste their time or your time. You’re already doing a heckuva big job on your own. Explain that you are grateful for their feedback or suggestions, and will take it on board for future improvements or products (but avoid promising something if you are unsure you will be able to deliver it).
  3. Use support to build close customer relationships. As a solopreneur, you have the added advantage of being able to foster much closer working relationships with your customers. Through customer support, you can learn their businesses intimately, or understand more about their needs and wants from your product or business. Not only will your customers feel appreciated by you with the extra attention, but you can also improve your own offering based on what you learn from them. Customers who feel connected to you are more likely to advocate your business, and even return to purchase from you again. You can also lean on a closer relationship with a customer if any hairy situations arise.

As your business grows, you may find yourself stretched too thin to be able to successfully provide timely, quality customer support. Or, worse, you may even struggle to complete projects at all. If it’s a viable option for you, bringing on one person or a team of people to help with support will help your business thrive. The most significant change you’ll enjoy is a reduced support burden, and more time for you to focus on creating and improving your products.

Timing is everything

As soon as your customer submits a support request the clock starts ticking. In most cases, your customers’ will have issues that hinder their ability to effectively use the product they’ve purchased from you. The pressure is on and your ability to answer their inquiry in a timely manner can have a huge impact on how successful your interaction will be.

If you have a support team, it may be possible to respond quickly to customer inquiries. If, however, you’re on your own, you’re likely juggling a number of tasks and a speedy reply may not always be attainable. Setting expectations upfront will help set the bar when support requests are submitted. Whether your anticipated response time is 2 hours or 2 days, it’s helpful to your customers, and your support team, to set those expectations early on.

One way you can manage expectations is by replying to your customer’s initial email to let them know you’ve received their message, and will get back to them shortly. Many help desk services allow you to automate this reply, including Help Scout, Zendesk, Freshdesk, and so on. It’s one more step towards building trust with your customers, and they’ll take a deep breath and relax knowing you’ll be in touch as soon as you can.

Train. Review. Train again.

If you’re working with a support team, it’ll be difficult for them to live up to your expectations if they haven’t been clearly established and communicated. If you want to rise above your competitors, you first need to create the necessary documentation and materials for your support team to utilize. You must then ensure they receive adequate training and feedback.

We here at Sandhills Development recently created a document containing Customer Support guidelines that we felt were important to us and our customers. This was the first time a training guide for members of the support team had been created, and we scoured the internet and internal resources for a list of best practices. These guidelines help set expectations for new and veteran employees when handling support requests, and many of the practices we follow have been outlined here in this post.

Whether you’re just starting out or your teams are well established, it’s important to provide your employees with the materials and resources they need to be successful.

Help customers help themselves

Providing a customer with a great support experience doesn’t always mean there’s an interaction with a member of the support team. You can save your customers a lot of time and frustration by providing them with the tools they need to be successful without ever having to send an email or fill out a support request.

Create documentation and tutorials that help guide customers through the process of using your products and services. This can range from a simple step-by-step guide on how to renew a subscription to an in-depth video on setting up a new plugin. Providing detailed information upfront will save you hours of support time down the road.

Make sure your documentation is:

  • Easy to locate. No one wants to spend time scouring your website to find instructions and troubleshooting guides. Enter keywords and phrases so finding the necessary information is a breeze!
  • Easy to understand. Listing step-by-step instructions and adding visuals are the core components to user-friendly documentation.
  • Accurate and up to date. If your documentation is outdated with old information and incorrect visuals it won’t benefit anyone. Maintaining documentation can feel like a daunting task but the benefit to customers, and your support staff, are huge.

Learn from your customers

Happy customers are wonderful, but unhappy customers can provide us with a deeper insight of how we can improve a product or process and make ourselves better. If a customer has expressed that they’re genuinely unhappy with your products or the support being provided to them, it’s important to listen carefully, take note of what the actual problem is, apologize, and work towards a solution.

  • Don’t take things personally or get offended. Removing personal feelings from the equation is one of the hardest things to do these situations, but injecting emotions will only compound the issue at hand.
  • Apologize. We’ll discuss this one in more depth later, but a simple apology can have a huge impact on mending a damaged relationship.
  • What could/should have happened versus what did? Why? Did a product underperform? Did you fail to deliver on the services provided? Were expectations not set correctly? The first step to making things right is to identify exactly what went wrong and why.
  • Implement and prevent. What can be done to fix the issue and help ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future? Gather the key members needed to address the issue and create a plan.
  • Follow-up. Customers want explanations and resolutions, not excuses. Provide the customer with a thorough and easy-to-understand explanation of what happened, why it happened, and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again. Thank them for taking the time to point out the issue and, if applicable, provide them with compensation.

Don’t immediately close the door on an unhappy customer. Take time to learn from the experience and reflect on ways in which you can improve and grow.

Go off script

The Easy Digital Downloads support team recently received an influx of support requests for the wrong company. Our first reaction was one of confusion. Our confusion quickly changed to shock and amusement as we got a better handle on the situation. Once we were able to collect the necessary information for the correct company, a saved reply became a vital tool when addressing these inquiries.

If you notice customers are frequently asking the same questions, your first task is to make sure your documentation is up to snuff. If your documentation checks out and you’re still seeing repeat questions, a saved reply might be a helpful starting point (I did say starting point, not a complete answer).

A quick copy and paste can easily provide your customers with the information they need while saving you time and energy. While this strategy can be time saving, it can also set off red flags with your customers if executed poorly. Below are a few points to be mindful of when using saved replies:

  • Use the customer’s name when replying. We use Help Scout which provides several variables that can be included in a saved reply, but depending on the system and process you use, this can be easy to overlook.
  • Make sure all of the customer’s questions have been addressed. Saved replies make answering questions quick and easy, but they also make it easy to overlook part of the initial message. Reread the customer’s questions or concerns and your reply before hitting the send button.
  • Remember, you’re a person, not a robot. Saved replies still allow for a degree of personalization. If you know the customer is in the same time zone, wish them a good morning or good evening. If they’re a long-time customer, thank them for their business. Customers will appreciate that you’ve taken notice and spent the extra time to add some personal flair.

The customer is not always right

GASP! I know you may be thinking I’m crazy, but hear me out.

One of the major disadvantages of thinking this way is the power it gives to a customer and removes from an employee. Your support staff need to be trusted to make decisions that are mutually beneficial to your company, and your customers. If your employees are afraid to correct or guide a customer who has misunderstood a product, service, or feature, it will only result in a decline in the customer’s satisfaction. And sometimes, customers are flat-out wrong.

You and your employees are the experts. Don’t be afraid to tell a customer that a product or service won’t perform the way they need it to, even if they insist it will. It’s better to be upfront than have to provide an explanation to an irate customer later. If a competitor’s product or service will better fit their needs, suggest it to them! Customers will respect your honesty and genuine desire to help – and appreciate that you’re not out to make a quick buck at their expense.

If the problem is caused by user error it’s OK to correct them, politely. Walk them through the necessary steps to resolve the issue. Avoid words and phrases like but, should, yet, just, to be honest, and I hope this helps. shudder

And as we mentioned earlier, there may come a time when you need to decide if your relationship with a specific customer is no longer beneficial. In these situations it’s safe to explain to the customer that it’s in the best interest for all parties involved if the relationship is dissolved.

Show empathy and apologize (when necessary)

When support is being handled via email, chat, or other digital mediums, it’s easy to forget that there’s more than the problem and the text in front of you; there’s a real person on the other end with real feelings. When a customer is facing a difficult issue it’s important to recognize the struggle they’re facing and the impact it’s having on their life, and possibly their livelihood. While outside stressors may also have an impact on their current state of mind, it’s important to remember your customer is a human being.

When drafting a reply to a customer be mindful of the language you’re using and the tone being conveyed. Customers facing technical issues may be feeling a mixture of emotions and are often owed an apology. An apology, no matter how simple it may seem, can have a huge impact on the customer’s mood and perception of the situation. Apologies need to be sincere, not over-the-top, and aimed at the actual issue: “I apologize our documentation for downloading files from your account is outdated; thank you for pointing this out. While we work on getting it updated, please follow the instructions outlined below.”

On the flip-side, it’s also important not to overuse apologies or use them incorrectly. Don’t ever apologize in this way: “I’m sorry you weren’t able to follow our documentation to download your purchase.” Apologize for what is within your control to fix or improve upon. Instructions can be clarified and bugs can be fixed. You do not, however, need to apologize your prices are higher than a customer is willing to pay or for how you are required to run your business. You can provide customers with the why, but you do not need to apologize for a decision you’ve made that’s within the best interest of your business.

Remember that your customers are supporting your business and helping you work towards achieving your goals. Small acts of understanding and kindness will humanize your interactions and help to strengthen your customer relationships.

Anticipate your customers’ needs

A major strain for members of your support team is ongoing conversations. While it’s best for one agent to handle an issue from start to finish, it can be incredibly taxing if there’s no end in sight. Look for unasked questions to help reduce the number of replies.

When you’re providing support, focus on anticipating the needs of a customer when replying to a question or issue. By anticipating follow-up questions you can eliminate the need for the customer to send an additional reply. If you’re suggesting a plugin, provide the customer with a link to the product and the setup documentation. If a customer has a question on their account, answer the question and provide them with login information so they can access additional information on their own.

One item to keep in mind when providing a customer with links and documentation is that when they’re asking a question, they want the answer. They don’t want to read through paragraphs worth or information to find the answer to a yes or no question. Share this in-depth information with them, but also be sure to answer their question.

People will never forget how you made them feel

Customer support can be demanding, challenging, and frustrating. But when executed with care, it can also be incredibly rewarding.

Remain steadfast in your commitment to your customers. The level of support you provide your customers before, and after the sale, go a long way in strengthening your relationships and increasing the longevity of your business. Every single interaction with your customer is relevant.

Remember not only the various ways in which you can provide customers with a great support experience, but also why it’s so important. Excellent customer support and the feeling your customers walk away with is directly linked to the success of your business. Treat each and every customer with respect and understanding, and like they’re important to the success of your business, because, well, they are!

How have you increased customer satisfaction? What are some of your best practices when supporting customers? How did you turn an upset customer into a raving fan?

Illustration by Jessica Johnston.

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  1. Keri Jacoby

    Great post.
    I totally agree. I believe that the support represents at least 50% of the product. Most of my 5 stars reviews come from users I’ve helped.

    1. Keri Jacoby

      Thanks for sharing, Nicolas. I’m glad to hear you’re seeing positive results when providing support to your customers!

  2. Keri Jacoby

    Great article and yes, Help Scout is a support life saver for Justin and I at SlickRemix.

    @nicolas Funny I was just about to say something similar as well. After you have helped a customer even if it was something small we follow up with a short reply requesting a review on the .org repo and or our facebook page. I can’t tell you how many people we have received 5 star ratings because of this. In addition the faster you follow up with this reply after helping customer your chances of getting a review right away are really high!

    1. Keri Jacoby
  3. Keri Jacoby

    Great text! I agree to many points due to my experience as a seller of my own plugins.

    You, Keri, has written it somewhere in the section “Learn from your customer” but I want to bring it out stronger: customer’s complaints can be a great source of new ideas for your plugins or even for new products. If you turn complaints into hints of requests, demands and desires for new solutions people are waiting for your business will benefit from it.

    1. Keri Jacoby

      Thank you for bringing that up! That’s an excellent point and not something we discussed in this post. A comment or complaint from a customer can turn into an opportunity for your business to create new products or offer new services.

  4. Keri Jacoby

    Very well written Keri.

    Good worth of mouth is very important for a business. Customers if treated in the right way would become champions for your business and there is nothing better than a happy customer referral.

    But the bad customer experience spreads even faster. In a survey by Kayako, it was found that happy customers talk about a business only 29% but sad customers talk about you 68% of the time.

    The stat says it all why you should treat your customers as people and not numbers.

  5. Keri Jacoby

    Excellent post Keri, I agree that customer support these days is vitally important in terms of branding and trust, customer loyalty, and conversions. Having an FAQ page is a great addition along with using Chatbots to deal with out of hours support and directing potential customers to the right department.

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