Author: Martina Cusano , General Manager at Groupalia Srl
Dear lean startuppers, you’re working on business model canvas, bootstrapping and growth hacking ….Ok; you’re all doing it right. But, have any of you ever stopped to think about customer support? If you hear successful entrepreneurs speaking the topic comes up quite often. It seems though that none has still found a word to make it sound catchy. And as first time entrepreneurs go through the process of building businesses, they tend not to even think of customer support until they get that very first customer contact or, most probably, until they receive a large enough number to start thinking of it as a problem.
Certainly, you all lean startuppers, are focusing on building a great product and looking for customer feedbacks. You should consider customer support as an intrinsic and important part of both processes, if not the most important. More than building a great product you should actually be thinking at building a great brand. If you just build a great product, anyone could beat you at any time with a better or cheaper product. If you rather build a great brand, you are after building value for the long term. Building a great brand is difficult and requires time. The good news though is that it requires mostly attention to small details rather than big marketing investments. Think of your product as an overall experience and aim to make it magical.
“It’s not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user.”
Cit. Paul Graham, founder Y Combinator.
Every interaction with the client should aim to be surprising and unforgettable, but the customer support is where the magic happens. This is when the company and the product become “humans”, can listen to and talk to the client….it’s the beginning of a great relationship. In fact, this is when value truly gets created. Your customer support you should not simply listens and answers to the client but also be able to pass client’s feedback over to the rest of the company, that in turn should be able to act upon it.
In words it all sounds easy but in reality the only way to make it work is to focus on it since day 1 of the company, while you’re still building the product and even before there is any client. Giving a great customer support should become part of the company’s culture and values.
I want to share a short story of my experience with Groupalia. We started off the company in a very atypical way: very well funded, with a product and business model that proved to work amazingly well in many other markets. We got a great team of advisors who was telling us that succeeding was just a matter of winning the run for the market. We started in growth mode, with everyone in the company only focusing on growth, sales, active customers, gross revenues, margins. For the customer support, we simply hired young and willing people, which for a while worked well.
We kept growing at a pace of over 200% monthly. Yet, our customer support tickets were growing at an even bigger rate. Unfortunately, because of the poor investment we made – we basically used a gmail account at first and then a freemium ticketing tool – we were blind. For a while we kept scaling the team by hiring new people and using standardized emails on the most common issues. We were managing to close all tickets within 48h and that seemed reasonable.
Meanwhile, the Christmas season hit, we hired a few more people, we got the team to work on weekends and told them not to take holidays because after the 25th we would still had a big pile of tickets to reply back. Instead of seeing a sharp decrease in activity after the 25th, we were shocked by the actual number of tickets almost doubling daily. It was the chaos; and the most tragic part of it was that it took us weeks just to figure out why that was happening, and how to solve the situation.
Since that incident, we spent lots of time and money on building a strong customer support team but reality was that the culture of the company remained one where sales was the king, not the product experience.
Here are few things I learned through this (painful) process:
- Make customer support part of your product building
- As founder, make sure to dedicate at least 30 minutes daily to customer support activities (ideally you should initially take care of it entirely)
- Get everyone in the company participate in customer support
- Never outsource your customer service as a startup
- Empower customer agents to take key decisions on development, marketing and sales
- Make it a revenue center: customer service is not just a cost, it is a driver of sales
- Always monitor closely customer support KPIs
- Make it scalable by investing in software and processes
In fact, the list could go on and on. This is the kind of things you don’t study at school and no book can teach you. The secret is just to learn by doing it, always stay focused on it and make the entire company care for it. Just love your customer and let them know.