5 startup-friendly customer support tips (and why you are probably getting it wrong)

Why should you care about customer support?

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Being a startup is not easy. There are so many moving parts that prioritization becomes near impossible especially in a bootstrapped business. Searching around online there are countless articles on top tips regarding setting up your business, growing it, finding a market, nailing your technology, building a team, keeping focus, etc. These are all valid and essential to building something sustainable and valuable, but often there is one key component missing from these lists - customer experience (the buzzword often replacing customer support or customer service).

Did you know that 95% of people share a bad customer experience with other people?  Even worse the nature of social media has changed the landscape to mean that 54% of people share that experience with more than 5 people.

You see it online all the time, people have taken to Twitter, in particular, to "publicly shame" companies into action by posting their customer experience problems for all to see. I've even done it myself, and I am a big proponent of trying to help companies improve their customer interactions. 

It's not just negatives that should make you take note of the importance of customer support. Looking at the benefits, it is well known that good quality customer support can create more loyal customers. One study showed that 73% of consumers maintained that receiving friendly customer service could make them fall in love with a brand. Additionally 86% of consumers were willing to pay up to 25% more for good quality customer service!

OK, we all know that stats can show what you want them to show. One thing with Customer Experience is that there is a consistent and continuous flow of these statistics that prove without any doubt there is a huge benefit to getting it right, and a large downside if you get it wrong.

I am certain that anybody reading this post will be able to recount personal stories of how they were stuck on a call for far too long to their phone provider or bounced between staff in an endless loop not getting a satisfactory solution, or getting so frustrated that you just had to hang up. These situations are real, are common, and are great examples of WHY you as a Startup should really think seriously about how you want to treat your customers. 

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The problem with Startups

Founders of Startup businesses are faced with a continual need to balance finite resources - time, financial and mindshare (focus). Whilst planning every dollar, minute and synapse need careful consideration in order to make the business a success.

When bringing a product or service to market, the primary focus has to be on building the software/gadget/service, getting it stable, finding customers, growing a team, demand generation and demos, lots of demos.

However, how often are the implications of customer support brought into the conversation? Up until very recently, this was more often than not a very low priority in Startup business plans. Sometimes, it is missing entirely.  I've spoken to a number of companies that have adopted the attitude of "we'll deal with it when it becomes a problem" and then start suffering the moment their product hits the market.

Often the necessity is that existing staff members will "take up the slack" and deal with customers themselves - in addition to their day job. This means they are helping customers rather than delivering the latest code, product revision or marketing campaign. Whilst customer feedback is absolutely crucial, and a vital part of the customer service function, if dealing with customers gets in the way of a product launch or go-to-market plan, it can be disruptive and a big problem for startups.

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In particular, the advent of crowd-funding platforms has enabled a new type of entrepreneur to bring a product or service to market without necessarily having the experience of running a sustainable business previously. Business plans are built and are focused on go-to-market, product development, and general growth, and tend to ignore customer service. 

One of the major challenges for startup (or scaleup) businesses is that customer service is seen as a relatively large cost, and does not seem to have a tangible return. In companies that are strapped for cash this can be a real challenge.  

 

Happily, at ThreeDotZero Studios we have noticed an increasing trend in a new wave of customer-savvy startups that really want to set out from the very beginning to look after their customer base, and are building this logic into their plans.

 

The problem with Scaleups

Sometimes companies set out with great intentions, build focused teams, treat their customers well, and actually get a good reputation for solid customer service. Then they grow. They grow faster than plan, and their internal team that has perhaps been a series of capable multi-taskers now faces growth challenges that they are not equipped to deal with. 

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Sometimes companies start with just sporadic email support and everything is fine with low-volumes. Then they grow. Their customers are now expecting fast Twitter or Facebook responses, chat windows and maybe even the ability to talk on the phone. No longer can the founders and the first few staff handle this as a part of their day job, they need help. 

One example that I have been watching is a 3D Printing company that started out with a fantastic reputation for great customer service. They had a full in-house omni-channel support environment in place (phone, chat, email, online knowledgebase) and their people seemed to know what they were talking about. Their customer communities online showed nothing but positive feedback. In the last 8 months they have grown significantly with new product releases, upgrades to existing products and a universally well-received product line.

However, since this growth, their communities have started showing a significantly increasing trend in people becoming dissatisfied with how they are being treated, with many examples of being ignored, slow responses, contradictory answers from more than one staff member, missing or old information on the website. It seems that the commercial success of the business has been at the expense of the customer experience and now there are once-loyal customers questioning whether their next purchase will be with a competitor or not.

 

Levelling up your customer support game

So, logically it makes sense to build customer support into your plans. I don't think any business sets out to deliberately ignore customers or offer bad customer service. However because it's a bit of a black art, it's not necessarily a priority, and it has a cost that can easily spiral out of control, it becomes all-too-easy to bury behind other priorities. 

We've spoken to many startups, scaleups and established businesses over the years and have put together 5 things to consider when considering your customer service strategy.

1. What do you want to be?

With any new customer, we start with the company vision. What is the company trying to achieve, and how can customer service help enable that. Keeping this vision at the center of all decision-making helps with clarity, focus, and consistency. 

Once you are clear on the role that customer service plays in the vision of the company, you can then go on to figure out what kind of service you want to offer. Is it pro-active, white-glove, beyond expectation, or is it simply functional and efficient, to-the-point? Knowing how much importance you place on this function will help with how to structure things and how to execute your plans.

2. Plan it as an investment

Customer service is often seen as an expense, a necessary evil of doing business. However, if you consider the myriad of positive benefits it can bring, it should really be seen as an investment. In certain companies, it's part of the marketing budget, especially if pro-active, outbound in nature and helping customers pre-sales. Even post-sales support can be seen as a great investment based on the ongoing customer loyalty, upsell opportunities and positive word-of-mouth towards your brand as a whole. 

3. Think like a customer

When planning how you want to deliver your support services, canvas your customers, think like your customers and build something that they feel will work for them. OK, every customer will think differently and have their own requirements, but there will be a fairly obvious overlap of requirements that will fit 80% of your customers very readily.

Some will like phone contact, others like the flexibility of web chat or the convenience of email. Increasingly people are becoming more comfortable with Chatbot technology or finding their own answers on a well-managed knowledgebase. Usually, a combination of these channels will be the sweet-spot for most brands as it gives multiple contact options to customers. With an ever-growing amount of cloud-based options, they need not cost a fortune.

4. Identify value beyond the contact

Dealing with customers is something that all brands need. However many companies do not recognize the huge benefits that this activity generates beyond actually handling the customer inquiry. Contact Centers and digital equivalents generate huge amounts of useful data if structured correctly. Not only can they show trend data for certain types of inquiry, but treated correctly they can identify bugs, feature requirements, upcoming catastrophes or future opportunities.

Data in the Customer Service environment (no matter which channels you decide to use) is invaluable to Product Management, Development, Product Marketing, Brand Marketing, Sales, Finance and Operational teams.

5. Feedback, feedback, feedback

Your Customer Service environment is the frontline that is in continual communication with your customers. It's a direct line to the realities of how your product or service is performing in the market.

Gathering pro-active feedback from your customers on a regular basis will not only give you actionable insights but also make your customers feel like they are being listened to, engendering loyalty and goodwill. Asking them about how they use the product or service, what they would like to see in future revisions, and making them feel valued as part of that exchange is hugely valuable for the entire business.

 

How we can help

At ThreeDotZero Studios, we like to help by listening. By understanding your particular ambitions, your customer needs and your business strategy, we can help to figure out what options there are to suit where you are in your business lifecycle.

Sometimes we help with defining the strategy, other times we help figure out what data you have, and what you need. Often we help plan a customer service deployment or even simple build an environment for you.

Whichever option makes most sense, it starts with a no-pressure, jargon free chat. You can get hold of us by clicking on the button below. We'd love to talk !