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How we define Customer Service: The sweet spot between sales and support

December 26, 2018

In summer 2017, the Olark team decided to focus our brand and product development on a new use case: live chat for sales.

We knew that many of our customers were already using live chat as a sales tool, and that many more wanted to explore the possibility, so this shift felt like a natural next step. However, it did leave our support team grappling with a bit of an identity crisis. After all, we saw ourselves first and foremost as a support team, and Olark was our primary support tool. Did we need to become sales pros to match the company’s new focus? What really distinguished “chatting to sell” from “chatting to support”, anyway?

As we worked through those questions, we realised that:

  • The line between “sales” and “support” is murky at best. Our support team was actually already doing a lot of selling, and doing it well.
  • Only a fraction of sales work is about delivering a crisp pitch or pushing a hard sell. Much of it is about understanding the customer and solving their problem, which is exactly what support teams are already pros at.

In light of these points, we redefined ourselves as a service team, and reformulated our goals and tactics to reflect a combination of soft sales and traditional support. This shift didn’t really change our day to day routine at all; it just made us more aware of the selling we were doing, and more thoughtful about the various ways we were using our skills to help customers at every stage of their journey.

So, if you’re wondering whether your live chat support team can moonlight in sales, I’d bet you money that they can. In fact, if your support team doesn’t already see soft sales as part of their job, you’re probably missing out on some customers. Here’s how I’d recommend you approach empowering your support team to sell.

Move from a “support” mindset to a “service” mindset

When I ran the numbers, I immediately realised that our team was already chatting on a daily basis with visitors who didn’t yet have a paid account with Olark. A substantial share of those chats were essentially sales conversations — the visitor would describe a business problem or ask about certain features, and our support team would explain the various solutions that Olark offered.

But even though the data confirmed that we were already selling (and doing so effectively, I might add — many of the visitors who chatted with us went on to become paying customers), I was resistant to the idea of our support team doing Sales with a capital “S”. To me, sales was all about slickness and persuasion. It wasn’t what the members of our support team were hired to do, and furthermore, I felt like it wasn’t really what most of them wanted to do.

I finally broke that mental barrier by redefining our team’s role as service. Adopting a term that felt broader and more flexible helped me expand my thinking around what our team could excel at, and as a result, the idea of experimenting with sales felt like less of a leap.

Moreover, I realised that I’d actually been doing the team a disservice by clinging to the term “support”. Support is typically narrowly defined, and is often seen as a cost center rather than a value-add — a support team helps customers, but they don’t acquire or retain them. However, my own behavior tells me that support teams actually have an enormous impact on acquisition and retention, whether they are directly “selling” or not. I am much more likely to purchase from a company that has a reputation for friendly, responsive support, and I am much more likely to become a repeat customer if I have a positive interaction with a support team.

In contrast to “support”, “service” is a term that’s much more commonly associated with revenue benefit. Services are marketed and sold, often at a high price. By presenting our team’s role as service rather than strictly support, I encouraged everyone on the team and across the company to think more creatively about our role in adding value.

Emphasise soft sales

In contrast to “hard sales”, which is all about getting a prospect to make a purchase, “soft sales” is about helping someone decide whether a product is right for them. It’s a process that will feel familiar to most support teams, as it largely parallels the steps involved in responding to a support request.

A soft sell starts with asking questions, understanding why the customer is interested in your product, and developing empathy. What are they hoping to do or achieve? Have they tried or considered any similar products? If so, with what results? Yes, that’s a really common challenge. This approach is remarkably similar to the one that a support agent follows when handling a technical inquiry — What isn’t working? Have you tried these steps? What happened when you submitted that form? I’ve had that issue, too, and I know it can be stressful.

Next, the conversation shifts toward problem solving. In the support context, the agent works with the customer to find a fix or workaround for the problem they’re having with the company’s product; in a soft sales scenario, they help to identify ways that the same product could solve problems in the customer’s business or day to day life. The exact problems and solutions may look quite different — but the creativity needed to formulate the best recommendation, and communication skills needed to explain it to the customer, are very much the same.

There’s more to soft sales than this brief comparison suggests, of course. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, this article from Quiet Revolution explains it very well, and is definitely worth a read. But for now, suffice to say that soft sales in the context of service is something a support team can not only handle, but will likely enjoy and excel at.

Support your service team

So — your support team has embraced the service-oriented definition of their jobs, and you’ve sold them on the idea of soft sales. You could probably just say “go forth and sell!” at this point, and they’d do a great job. But there are a few more things I’d recommend doing to guide them along the way:

  • Encourage questions. As noted above, asking questions is critical to success in both support and soft sales. Your support team already knows how to ask good questions, but they might need a few nudges to do so in a sales context. Take some time to review transcripts from sales chats, and have your team point out moments where they might have probed further to understand the customer’s needs.
  • Help your team differentiate between sales and support chats. Can you identify some signals that will help your agents determine whether a chat is going to focus more on sales as opposed to support? For example, maybe traffic from certain URLs — such as marketing landing pages — tends to be more sales-focused. Make sure your agents have that information when a chat begins, so they can mentally prepare to sell rather than support.
  • Revisit your standard responses. In the past, your team might have taken a very factual approach to certain inquiries — if the customer asks about a feature we don’t have, just tell them we don’t have it, and leave it at that. Facts should still be front and center, but you may also want to nudge your team to find out why the customer wants that feature, and how they plan to use it. If you have another feature that serves a similar purpose, your team has an opportunity to make a sale.

Celebrate service. Acknowledge that your service team does support and sales, and give them kudos for all the value they’re contributing to your company.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Originally published by Rhoda Meek at