The History of Customer Service: Ticket Troubleshooting to Proactive and Personal


Can you imagine a world where customer service was over physical mail? You sit down at your typewriter, write out a wordy letter, send it into the head office that’s located halfway across the country, and wait a few weeks for a reply?

Or, go further back in time: you purchase an item from an independent store, and when you get home you find it’s defective. When you return the broken item, the store owner tells you it’s your problem, and you’re not getting any help, or your money back.

Can you imagine a world where that was the norm? Me neither!

Customer service has had many different approaches over the last 100 years, but one thing has remained consistent:

  • Customers have always wanted effortless interactions
  • Customers want more personable service experiences

How did customer service tools evolve into the online systems we use every single day? When did all of these support channels merge into one system?

In this post I’ll walk you through a brief history of customer service, and how we’ve ended up where we are today. While great leaps and bounds have been made, it’s not been all positive for customers because companies simply can’t keep up with their demands.

Is it possible for customer service to meet the customer’s needs and desires? Let’s find out.

1980’s IT troubleshooting, and the birth of the “ticket”

the history of the IT troubleshooting helpdesk in customer service

The history of the modern customer service industry can be narrowed down to 1989. In 1989, Ron Muns founded the Help Desk Institute, a professional association with the mission to serve the industry by focusing on innovating technical support. The IT troubleshooting help desk was born.

The Help Desk Institute advocated providing a place where employees could receive technical support relating to their organization’s IT infrastructure. The help desk was used to troubleshoot problems or provide guidance about products such as computers, electronic equipment, food, apparel, or software.

At the time it was an innovation. A typical help desk could perform several function based around providing a single (or multiple) point of contact for users to gain assistance in troubleshooting, get answers to questions, and solve known problems. A help desk generally manages its requests through the use of software such as issue tracking systems.

It sounds great, right? But, it ended up being a really slow process for both the customer and the support rep.

We can all recognize – both as a support rep and as a customer – the standard workflow of a typical IT troubleshooting approach as it filters through different industries and verticals.

Step 1: Customer submits an issue, such as an undesired behavior or a lack of expected functionality to IT troubleshooting desk

Step 2: The support rep replies to gather more information on their situation and context

Step 3: The customer responds with added information

Step 4: The customer support rep has to dig deeper into customer issue because not enough information was given in the last response

Step 5: Customer responds with even more information

Step 6: Once the issue and details on how to reproduce it are understood, the next step might be to eliminate unnecessary components in the system and verify that the issue persists, to rule out incompatibility and third-party causes.

And so on. It’s as frustrating as it sounds. If you had a complicated request, it would often take days – if not weeks – to complete.

Companies began to look for ways to streamline the process – how much easier it would be to have this conversation in real time with their customers? Tickets that would otherwise take weeks could be reduced to a matter of minutes over the phone.

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1990s saw the advent of mainstream customer service call centers

history of call center customer service

The earliest call centers came about during the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that call centers boomed as a way of supporting customers.

The idea was that having support reps available by phone, they could resolve customer requests and “tickets” quicker by answering technical questions from customers and assisting customers using their equipment or software in real time.

As businesses could offer two different channels to support customers, their customers were now able to make a choice about how they would get in touch. And, of course, they would choose the phone. Who wouldn’t want to skip the lengthy back-and-forth support ticket into a simple phone call to get their issue resolved?

Companies quickly became overwhelmed with support requests and were failing to keep up. They needed to hire more reps to man their phones, but this increased operating costs  and thus the perception that customer service is a ‘cost-center’ began.

“Hello. Please press one for sales. Please press two for customer service…”

Businesses opted to outsource their support call centers to the rest of the world in their droves. At the time, outsourcing customer service seemed a sensible decision. It was cheap and could meet the majority of customer support needs. But often,  companies underinvested and choose poor outsourcing options which made customers even more frustrated.

It was still costly too. The majority of requests were unnecessary, wasting time and effort. And because of the poor service, customers started to look elsewhere.

Research by Sabio and the Customer Contact Association found that between 25% and 40% of all calls to contact centres are either unnecessary or avoidable. According to the research, the most common causes of these calls were customers chasing information about deliveries, and  updates on what was due to happen next.

So businesses looked at how to re-route these simple requests to easier (and cheaper) channels. Luckily, this coincided with the rise of live chat and social media.

2000s onwards into interactive and social media

history of interactive customer service using Facebook, Twitter and Live chat

Along with the rise of the internet, online chat was an innovative process to support customers in the early 2000’s. Online chat (more popularly known now as live chat) offers real-time transmission of messages from sender to receiver over the internet.

Live chat was popular with customers. Short, quick bursts of text (instead of long-form writing in helpdesks, email or forums) was a fantastic way for customers to communicate with businesses.

Shortly after, social media burst onto the scene. Now, those short and sharp bursts of text could happen across the social networks customers used when they needed quick help.

Live chat and social media added a new and easy way to handle simple requests that were coming into a company’s support department, benefiting both the customer and the business.

Customers no longer had to wait on hold or in line to get their simple questions answered. In turn, businesses could reduce their call volumes. A win-win situation, right?

Not quite.

Customer service on live chat wasn’t so interactive

In order for live chat to be “live”, the agent must be present, both physically and mentally. There’s an inherent expectation for responses to be made almost instantaneously. Most customers refuse to wait more than five minutes for a response – if not, you risk making a poor impression.

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Often,  live chat was also poorly executed. Take this well publicized Amazon conversation from 2013:

live chat doesn't have a history of good customer service

To improve productivity, businesses made their support reps use canned responses –  which were overused to the point that customers could never tell if they were talking to a bot or a human. Adding to the frustration, it was common for live chat customers to to be redirected to another channel like email, self service FAQs, knowledge bases, and help center articles.

Brands weren’t so interactive on social media

Social media networks are great channels for supporting customers. For the customer, it allows them to fire off quick and short requests and receive near-instantaneous responses pointing them to a solution. Plus, everyone can see the interaction, holding the business accountable for the information it presents, which can also help other customers struggling with the same issue.

This caused an overwhelming amount of customers to start tweeting, Facebooking, and messaging for help. It’s reported that 67% of users have used, and continue to go to a company’s social media account to obtain customer service.

Businesses found it difficult to meet customer expectations. Research cited by Jay Baer tells us that 42% of consumers expect a response within 60 minutes on social media.

To counter this, companies started using poor automations using the classic customer service sentence “We apologize for the inconvenience” to make it seem as though they had heard the customer’s request.

history of customer service industry over social media platform twitter

Companies simply didn’t know how to support the extra volume.

Today, many SaaS companies have, or are contemplating, opting out of phone support. Cost per contact on phone support is expensive. Even worse, phone support can leave resolutions open to interpretation, and detailed tech advice is usually best given in diagrams and screenshots.

Quitting phone support frees up extra resources, allowing teams to provide better support over email, live chat and social media.

The way customers communicate has evolved, but organizations are still stuck in the 2000s

A recent study by Twilio and market research firm Vanson Bourne analyzed how consumers from seven different countries want to use tech to talk to businesses and brands in 2016.

What’s interesting is how quickly messaging has grown as a preferred way of communication, both for consumers – and even for the devices they use.

Gartner made a prediction that echos the sentiment in this research. They estimate that there will be 25 billion connected things (network or internet-enabled devices) – or three for every person on the planet – by the end of 2020.

The quick increase in adoption rate for messaging now seems obvious. Rather than customers making time to sit down at a laptop or desktop computer to ask for help, they can ask for help wherever they are because everyone has a messenger in their pocket.

future of customer service will happen in messaging apps according to Twilio

While consumers overall prefer messaging over face-to-face interactions with businesses (and millennials even more so), businesses haven’t quite caught up to this new world yet. The need to connect to your customer via messenger is going to be pivotal to a great customer experience.

Also, a shock in this study is how little email is a preferred channel for communicating.

Helpdesks, built on the support ticket paradigm or email support paradigm, are no longer applicable or fit for purpose in customer service communication today.

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Currently, customer service is like a prison sentence – not because the service is so bad – but because you’re given a number and told to wait in holding until your case can be processed.

The future is proactive and personalized communication

history of proactive customer service

Now, the relationships between a business and the customer are changing. With the rise of subscription businesses, we’re moving away from transactional customer service towards a time where customers expect personalized experiences when dealing with a business.

When a customer is dissatisfied with the service they receive, it’s easy for customers to take their business elsewhere, and they will be happy to do so.

Businesses have tried to tackle this. They know that customers aren’t happy with the way their requests are being processed so have added customer happiness as another goal for their team to aspire to. But customer delight, as a step in a support process is so unnatural.



Personal and easy interactions will be the new norm

One-on-one support can be expensive, but it’s worth every penny. With personal service channels, you have the opportunity to build strong relationships with your customers. Profitable, long-term relationships.

89% of customers say personalized support is extremely important to them—to be treated as an individual, and not just a ticket number.

When receiving personalized support, customers benefit from in-depth knowledge, and tailored, seamless experiences. It means being proactive, and resolving potential roadblocks before they happen.

Proactive and personalized support is not something you can ignore as you develop your customer service strategy.

Customers want effortless interactions

We’re slowly coming to the realization that customer conversations need to become asynchronous. The tools we use must blend the best of email, the best of live chat, and the best of social media, to facilitate the nuances of communicating with customers and meet their modern expectations.

We need to move away from the idea that tickets are the only way to be supporting your customers. In fact, it’s better if we step away from the idea of tickets altogether. As we’ve learned, the “support ticket” is a 1990s term for the IT services industry and means nothing to how we should be building relationships with customers.

Your customers don’t see themselves as email ticket customers or Twitter ticket customers, so why would you? Tickets silo people and channels. Tickets prevent easy, friction-free service for both your team and customer.

It’s time to move away from support ticket thinking. Teams need to understand the bigger picture of who their customer is and what they’re trying to achieve, and not just focused on resolving single tickets.

Move into the future of customer service

Customer support has come a long way already. The helpdesk was revolutionary, providing the basis for all our customer support needs for the last 20 years and more. However, like all outdated technology, it’s time to retire the helpdesk so it can hold it’s good reputation before it’s too late.

Now, it’s crucial that businesses move into the future of customer service. They must understand their customer and put the end user at the heart of every interaction. They must make conversations so simple and easy – for both the customer and the support agent – no matter where they come from.

It’s down to you. Will you leave the helpdesk behind, and be part of the future of modern customer service?

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