Why we should see customer support as a strategic capability instead of a cost center

You’re buying something online when the loading spinner suddenly appears. Anxiety sets in.

You may wait three or four seconds, then start to spiral: Why is it taking so long? Should I click somewhere to cancel? Will it charge me twice if I refresh? One second later, the spinner disappears, your payment is confirmed, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

But what if the spinner never stopped spinning? Where would you go for support?

If you’re dealing with a “white glove” service, you may quickly find a phone number with a human on the other side. But if the product is more self-serve,”like most digital services, you’ll likely need to navigate to a specific “help” website, where you’ll dig through FAQs or (mis)communicate with a third-party powered chatbot to investigate your issue.

These chatbots and voice recognition systems are promoted as a way to solve customer issues more quickly, but if done imperfectly, these interactions are extremely frustrating and directly affect companies’ NPS scores. So why are companies still outsourcing this service? The problem lies in how companies think about customer support internally.

Customer support is not a destination

We need to reframe the concept of customer support from a destination — a call center or website of FAQs — to an integrated service layer, woven throughout the entire experience.

To do this, organizations can learn from the concept of “fault tolerance,” as it’s known in systems engineering. The term is applied to systems that can continue operating without interruption when one or more of its components fails. When bandwidth speeds are slow, your Zoom call may lose resolution, but the sound will stay clear. When your iPhone is losing charge, the screen may automatically dim to help you save battery.

Designing a “fault tolerant” system means that it has been conceived to fail safely, securely and gracefully, even when operating at a reduced level. It “fails” in a way that protects people, property or data from injury, damage, intrusion or disclosure. It’s about distilling your service to its core to understand its most important value — its “key function,” and then delivering on that at the expense of other benefits if necessary. This will require design and engineering teams to closely collaborate around creative solutions that are embedded into the overall experience.

In a project we recently worked on in the gaming industry, we found that the “key function” was uninterrupted gameplay. Designing a fault tolerant system for gaming, then, meant prioritizing the prevention of game-breaking issues by constantly monitoring the product experience and making improvements that allowed gameplay issues to be resolved preemptively or without a customer’s knowledge. All other issues took a back seat.

When issues occur, embedding support knowledge in the form of copy, tooltips or videos is an easy way to proactively solve customer issues without requiring them to leave their immediate experience. But at the end of the day, customers should always have the ability to escalate their issue to a knowledgeable and capable human, either through accessible live chat or telephone. Prevent where possible, assist immediately, escalate if needed. This is the foundation of a support capability, one that quietly integrates with the core service and encourages retention.

Customer support is the experience

Shifting to this approach will take pragmatism and work. Teams need to believe that things can, and likely will, go wrong. Every industry and organization will need a slightly different method, but the principle is clear: customer support is not a destination. For many, it is the customer experience. By repositioning support as a strategic capability instead of a cost center, we can design a new model for support — one that lies somewhere between expensive white-glove service and automated self-service. One that tolerates faults without interrupting key functions. And most importantly, one that respects customers’ time.

This article was written by Abraham Espinosa. Edited by Erin Peace. Illustration by Abraham Espinosa and Erin Peace.