Like a lot “startup tip” lists, the following points may seem obvious, but believe me, they are all hard won.
1 | Treat every customer interaction as a) the manifestation of a solvable problem, b) a feature suggestion or rejection, and c) marketing
Years ago my cofounder and I realized we were losing touch with our users and our platform, because we had (very briefly!) started treating customer support as a delegated chore.
I look back on that period as just weird. It simply wasn’t like us to do something like that, and we reversed course as soon as we realized our mistake.
When we decided to read every email and message again ourselves, and I took on primary responsibility for the customer support process (we call it “doing hello”, since our support email address is email@example.com), amongst the other typical closet full of different hats that startup cofounders like me have to wear, we very deliberately framed it internally as me looking at each point of contact with a customer as the result of a problem we should devote resources to solving, including potentially scarce and very valuable developer and designer time.
Of course, “problem to solve” involves prioritizing, and doesn’t necessarily mean “developer time”, just to be clear.
For example, some problems can be solved with a simple wording change on a page customers visit regularly, or changing the name of a feature.
Also, whether they’re explicitly asking for a feature or not, a customer in need of help may in fact be in need of a feature you’ve never thought of — or may need you to get rid of a feature that is unnecessary.
Someone who wants to use your product or platform, and who takes the time to contact you, should be thought of as a great resource, not a petty burden.
Thank them for contacting you, apologize for the issue, solve their problem, and where appropriate, ask them questions, every time.
Here’s our basic template for all responses to customer contact:
Thank you for contacting us about this and for sharing the really helpful details, we’re sorry to hear about this issue.
Our apologies again for the inconvenience. If you have any questions or need anything else, please let us know!
The Leanpub Team
And of course, all customer support is marketing. Respond as quickly as you can with a straightforward answer and you can turn angry people into your biggest word-of-mouth promoters.
Basically, never write anything you wouldn’t be happy with if it were advertising copy posted on a big highway billboard.
If this sounds like “It doesn’t scale!” advice, first of all, yeah, this is what you do when you’re starting out, things that don’t scale (not my idea!).
But second, all of this is necessary for scaling up. If you treat every interaction this way, you basically prevent that type of interaction from ever happening again, because you solved that type of customer problem for everyone going forward.
2 | Publish an edited version of every customer interaction
For the longest time, all our solutions to customer problems were essentially hidden.
Eventually we realized that every single reply we ever sent to anyone in response to a question or problem was a potentially valuable resource not just for that person, but for everyone else.
So, when someone contacts your customer support, of course the first step should be to resolve the issue for the customer, and the second step should be to propose a solution to your team internally, even if it just ends up in the “Someday, nice to have” queue of fully described solutions.
But the last step should always be to turn that interaction into a Help Center article — a dedicated web page with some generalized form of the question or problem, and a generalized answer that can be helpful to everyone.
Once you’ve got that web page, post about it on social media and elsewhere, and make an explainer video. It’s all great marketing content, and great for getting people unstuck or more productive on your platform.
Every article like this does work all on its own, in real-time for the user, and with no further work required from your team.
3 | Give customers guidance on how to ask for help efficiently
OK, this one is really important, but you have to be diplomatic about it.
tl;dr Ask for screenshots!
People who contact you have to find out how to contact you. That point of interaction is crucial to get right.
What you shouldn’t do is demand that everyone fill out some complex form or follow some specific set of demanding instructions.
That’s not just because it’ll make for a bad customer experience; it’s also because you’ll hear from fewer people about fewer problems they’re encountering, and you won’t be as productive at improving and scaling your product or platform.
What you should do is explain how following a couple of simple guidelines will benefit them in their interaction with your support team.
Here’s an example of how we do this on a contact page:
When you email us at firstname.lastname@example.org about a problem with the Leanpub website or with a purchase, it really helps the team find answers a lot faster if you provide as much detail as possible. Please note we’re not suggesting this so we can get out of doing some work for you! It’s just so we can try to help you get a solution quickly.
Here are some things that can help us find the fastest solution for you:
- If you are seeing an error message on Leanpub, please share that error message with us
- If you are seeing a problem on Leanpub, please share a screenshot of what you are seeing
- If you have a Leanpub account, please email us from the email address associated with your Leanpub account (we can’t talk about someone’s account unless we know it’s really them that we’re talking with)
4 | People love how-to and explainer content
I mentioned above that customer support is marketing, and while I know this point is kind of redundant, I just want to really emphasize it by making this point again, separately: customer support content is real content.
People absolutely love how-to content. Lots of people have built successful YouTube channels and followings elsewhere by doing this, and you should do it too.
Even if people aren’t yet in a position where they need to address the issue that a how-to article or video is about, that video may actually teach them about a feature or opportunity presented by your product or platform for the very first time.
5 | Make everyone do support at least one day per year
If I recall correctly from the book Working Backwards, by two former Amazon executives, everyone at Amazon has (or had?) to spend one day per year doing customer support.
That included Jeff Bezos, if you’re wondering.
If someone at your company doesn’t ever interact with customers, then I can guarantee you that you’ve got someone at your company who doesn’t understand your product or platform.
And if you’ve got someone who thinks anything anyone else at your company does is beneath them, including customer support and literally taking out the trash when that’s required, then you’ve got someone at your company with the wrong priorities.
Making everyone do customer support at least one day a year means they’ll not just have a better understanding of what it is you exist to do in the first place, and empathy for your customers, but also have a real understanding of the challenges faced by everyone at your company with any direct customer-related responsibilities — and at the beginning that will definitely be you, if you’re a cofounder of a typical startup.
… | One last thing
There’s one last thing I want to say here, which I know a lot of people will totally disagree with, but believe me as I shake my fist at a big grey cloud that hangs over all of this:
Nudge everyone to use email.
Email is the absolute best way to do customer support.
(Well, unless you’re running an airline or something, which I can say from recent experience on the customer side of things myself, where issues are very materially pressing, and happening in real time).
In email, an interaction has a subject line describing the issue, a clear timeline, and connected messages. Both you and the customer can add screenshots easily, and your whole team can easily pass off tasks to each other and get visibility on issues and problems. You can also use tools like Zapier and Shortcut (which we use) to add email threads directly to your task management and planning tools.
Just to clarify, a lot of the AI-type chat tools that people use aren’t active customer support in the sense I’m talking about here; they’re essentially search tools pointing to articles you’ve already written, based on one-on-one interactions you’ve had with customers or users in the past, or that you’ve anticipated having.
Maybe the best analogy I can make for where people go wrong here, at the early start-up phase, is with the 1950s space-age craze that led people to eat highly-processed and packaged food because it was “futuristic”.
It was new and all that, but it was simply the wrong way to eat.
When it comes to customer support, email is real orange juice, and complex, constantly changing customer support apps are powdered sugar juice. Both are great to drink if we’re being honest with ourselves, but which is actually better for you in the long run?
Of course, in an age when everyone competes on service, people may complain that email doesn’t allow for instant answers. But it does: you can set an auto-response with a polite message that points people to your Help Center and other resources, and reassure them they’re going to get a manual reply from a real person some time soon.
If you’ve done the five things I’ve set out above properly, you’ll combine solving customer issues, and creating customer satisfaction, with product or platform improvements that help you scale — and succeed.