A Beginner's Life

Hand Hold vs. Empower

5 min read
brendan with awesome glasses

I’ve been preparing my talk for UserConf for a few weeks now. A lot of it is spent talking through dialogue by myself, which gets pretty monotonous. The best part about the experience so far has been the chance to present the talk to others and get their thoughts. This presentation represents a lot of my opinions about support, which makes it great starting material for conversations with some of the smartest support folks I know.

One conversation in particular has stuck in my brain. Somewhere in the ramblings of my talk, I talk about how our most educated and confident users (I definitely steal Kathy Sierra’s badass user term) no longer want to be held by the hand and guided when it comes to support. Sure, they need help from time to time, but they really want resources where they can solve their own problems.

The question that came up was:

“what about customers that really do want personalized, one-on-one support? Do we just abandon them?”

Here’s the problem: if we bow to these requests without critically thinking about them, we are doing the customer and ourselves a disservice.

We are conditioning them to contact us (and demand to speak with us, the hardest communication to scale) whenever they need help. This holds them back from taking valuable actions in their accounts.

We are preventing ourselves from being able to do next-level work, instead spending lots of time answering the same questions (many new customers have the same question).

OK, I know this a gross oversimplification, but looking back at a lot of these requests, and following through qualitatively on what happened in the actual conversation, these request break down into two categories.

The “I Deserve Better Service” Group

The first are people that use this approach with every product they sign up for. They just believe they deserve better support and contact with the service provider than anyone else.

Being 100% realistic, at our price points we can’t serve these folks all that well long-term. We are also not built to support a customer base that expects this, so we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we attract and bring on scores of customers that expect high-touch support. So I’m very reluctant to give in to this request.

Instead, I normally approach this using as much of the talk to the duck approach as I can. I explain that I’d like to be prepared for the call they are requesting, and ask them to put their questions into words. I also set proper expectations, letting them know we might answer some of their questions by email, when more appropriate.

7 times out of 10 (that’s a guess) they respond with their questions, all of which can be quickly and clearly clarified by email (supported by links to relevant documentation, of course). Sometimes they end up becoming a customer, sometimes they don’t. But we’ve set proper expectations for them going forward, which I believe is crucial for creating a relationship both sides can maintain for the long-term.

The “I Can’t Do It Alone” Group

The second group are folks who really want to make our service work, and they are just overwhelmed by the whole on-boarding experience. They normally think they aren’t “techie” enough to figure out how to make something like video hosting work for them.

In many cases, a friend recommended us or a boss figure instructed they evaluate multiple platforms. They are doing their best to solve their immediate issue, and they just need a little help.

One of my favorite customers, with whom I converse with by personal email at least once a month, was once in this group. She had come to us from YouTube, had recognized some issues with their model, and wanted to learn from the analytics we provide.

She was doing her best to get through our documentation, and just needed to hear a friendly voice reassuring her.

“Yep, this can be complicated at first. Not to worry, we’ll get through it together.”

We love building a product that makes adding video to your website easy. It’s our goal to empower this group, and move them from a place of feeling inferior and uneducated, to power users, feeling comfortable and confident getting shit done using our app.

I see this as evidence that we need to make our resources friendlier and more approachable, not that we need to provide more hand-holding. We started creating more onboarding videos, which use lots of Wistia faces, casual and friendly language, and start with the absolute basics.

Use Video

Yes, I know, we’re a video company and we make video all the time. But hear me out – video is the best tool you can use to help the I Can’t Do It Alone group and scale your Support team’s voice.

Video does the best job of connecting the interface with the support. The viewer gets to watch you complete the actions they are looking to do, which provides them a clear roadmap to how to get it done.

Video also takes the least investment for the consumer. It leaves your users with plenty of energy to go and do the thing they came to do. Ever read a huge text block, and then need a snack and a nap in order to do anything else? OK that’s what we want to avoid.


Clearer, friendlier, and easier-to-access resources will give our 2nd group an empowered feeling (and who doesn’t want that?). They will thank us with their business, and by spreading the word about our service.

We will thank them by using our energy to build better resources (i.e. expert level tutorials on using advanced parts of our app to do amazing things) and by working with the development team to build a product that delivers them even more value.

Don’t hand hold – look for opportunities to empower wherever possible.

P.S. Every week, I send out a short newsletter with links to my favorite articles. When I write a new essay, that will be included as well. Sign up to get your copy.