Is customer service a one-person job on your team? You might want to rethink that…
Note from Len: Tim Wu is the Director of Growth at Framed.io, a team that does an amazing job at both blogging and customer service.
I asked Tim to share some insights about their “everyone does customer service” approach, which I encourage everyone to use.
What he came up with is fantastic: rich, actionable tips to implement full-team customer service for businesses of any size.
Let’s try an unconventional exercise:
- Ask yourself: “How good is our customer support? And how can I make it better?”
- Sit back in your chair.
- Close your eyes and think.
Got it?… And… welcome back! In pondering the above, I’m thinking you’ll have a whole range of responses including:
- “I don’t know, it’s not my department, role, etc.”
- “I think it’s good, but I’m not sure how to quantify it.”
- “It’s good, but we can definitely improve x, y, and z.”
- “It’s great, and we don’t need to improve anything.”
Point being, customer support can always be improved. Responses can be clearer, documentation can be easier to find, customers can be happier. Also, we can always improve our telemetry of how customer satisfaction ties to business success. It’s a huge challenge with lots of moving parts. Today’s post will teach you how to improve on this always moving target.
Lets start at square one. We’d like to introduce a unique, holistic approach that we’ve been test-running at Framed. In three simple words…
“Everyone Does Support”
If your initial reactions include unrealistic, vague, or inefficient — no problem, I understand. While it sounds far-fetched, this method is based off some strong assertions that I think we can agree on.
- Customer support is a top priority for your company.
- Business success is highly correlated with quality customer support.
- Talking to customers is not a chore or somebody else’s problem.
And of course, here are some benchmark statistics on the benefits of better customer support. Since we’re on the same page about its importance, we can break this concept down into mindset, processes, and tools. That way you can find opportunities that apply to your business, regardless of your role or company size.
Different Sized Companies with Specific Needs
So what does “everyone does support” mean? At the earliest stages, we can take it at face value. Traditionally, startup founders cover product, support, sales, and marketing at the same time through direct customer conversations. This is well regarded as necessity due to the needs of an early stage startup:
- Product needs defining
- Lack of documentation and formalized processes
- Limited resources (people, dollars, time); few people cross functioning
- Reliance on workarounds, “hacks”, and test driving different SaaS solutions
The make up of a medium stage startup:
- Defined product, emphasis on building features
- Departments and roles defined
- Formal processes and documentation in place
- Entrenched SaaS solutions, medium friction for changes
And for late stage companies:
- Mature product, long customer feedback ⇔ product loop
- Hyper-defined department functions, narrow individual scopes
- Operational changes require long proposals and implementation
Top Down: Support Starts with Leadership
- Jeff Bezos (Amazon) puts his personal touch on major support issues and requires all employees (himself included) to attend call center training.
- Richard Branson (Virgin Group) is known to cold call customers directly for feedback. He often calls in pretending to be a customer to test the support experience.
- Tony Hsieh (Zappos) discusses how customer support is emphasized in every part of Zappos’ business culture including hiring and building out processes.
- Paul English (Kayak) gives his personal cell phone to customers. He purchased an obnoxious red telephone as the company’s main support line.
Having Support Trickle Through the Company
Beyond the C-team, we can see pros for inviting other team members into support efforts.
We all benefit from being in touch with customers. For example, as an engineer it can be very powerful to see first-hand a customer struggling with a bug.
For product-focused startups that need customer input to improve product, support and feedback are one and the same. But to pull off “everyone does support” and avoid chaos, we need to make sure to keep sight of the following goals.
- Quality – do we have a system in place to guarantee that customers never slip through the cracks?
- Consistency – are timing, tone, and willingness to help consistent?
- Effectiveness – are customers always getting effective solutions, regardless of who they talk to?
- Attitude – customers want to talk to people. Anyone involved should maintain personality, not just relying on scripts.
While it might sound intimidating to implement in larger organizations, emphasis on clear communication and processes can counter the problems of having too many cooks in the kitchen.
I’m going to put this out there now: awesome helpdesk apps like our hosts, Groove, should be a default in your SaaS tool kit. They make support ticket creation, tracking, and internal communication dead simple.
To make this framework actionable, here are a few sample process flows and suggested tools for different sized organizations.
1. Early Stage Startups
All hands on deck. Founders should be comfortable with customer conversations regardless of their role and responsibilities. Especially important during early product days and finding product/market fit. The main goals here should be on:
- No customer left in the cold.
- Setting process for tallying requests and feeding into product development.
Points of Contact & Tools
Everything starts with email, but for small, bootstrapped teams, using mail applications like Streak and Tout for better email management is key.
- Streak (free) allows you to set reminders and build a mini-CRM inside your email box.
- Tout (paid) is a staple for early stage startups who need email tracking and follow up automation.
Since support, product, and marketing can roll into one set of responsibilities, treat social media as another touch point for customers. Designate one person to manage your social accounts with SaaS staple Hootsuite. Have them act as a “dispatcher” by sending specific questions to the right people. One more plug for Groove, they have easy integration options to turn tweets into assignable tickets.
Driving Product through Support
Because founders and early employees will likely talk to customers through multiple touch points, it’s important to maintain a couple things:
- Trackable documentation on all bug fixes, feature requests, and customer complaints.
- Birds eye view for employees of product and customer priorities.
Even with small teams, you can’t assume everyone will have a full grasp of all support conversations. Make sure you designate a dispatcher. They’ll be the first point of contact and assign next step conversations or tickets to specific members.
They’d also make sure recurring requests are updated on visible documents once conversations are resolved. For this, we use a combination of Google Docs and Trello to make sure requests are recorded, bugs are squashed, and long-term product work gets planned. To get started, nothing beats a good old fashioned spreadsheet.
2. Medium Stage Startups
Because medium-sized startups have hit their stride with product and department roles, it’d be unrealistic to expect everyone on support 24/7. In this case, key people in the support department would act as the dispatchers for different departments throughout the company.
To maintain transparency across the company, take another page from Kayak and set up monitors that display key business metrics. Site traffic and growth are obvious, but also include support ticket count and actual responses. When things start to scale, this is a tangible way to bring the customer support dialogue to an individual level.
Consider the “5% Support” Model
In their post, Emily Wilder explains how everyone in the company would dedicate a day of the month to answer support tickets.
Putting designers and programmers and everyone else in direct contact with customers isn’t about putting out fires; it’s about fire safety. It’s about having the kinds of conversations that lead to better products in the first place.
While they’ve been able to scale up with things like: hiring, extending business hours, and improving documentation; the founders of 37 Signals are well known to build their culture around staying in front of their customers.
Here’s the 5% Support rule in action at Buffer where every team member in the company sets aside a few hours each day of the month to handle support emails or answer to tweets.
Points of Contact & Tools
Medium-sized startups will have moved past quick fixes and hacks. SaaS management is the name of the game, so aside from a dedicated helpdesk solution, they’ll most likely have a few other tools in the belt:
- Dedicated CRM for sales based B2B companies. Pipedrive, Close, RelateIQ, and Nimble to name a few.
- User event tracking like Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, Segment, Amplitude to see what users are doing.
- Engineering focused ticket tracking management like JIRA.
- Customer feedback widgets like Qualaroo.
In a medium-sized company, 5% Support is comprised of a dedicated support team to set the standards, with other departments rolling in on 5% intervals. In this scenario, the full time support team will guide their colleagues and facilitate by assigning knowledge-specific tickets and proofreading responses for consistency and effectiveness.
Once tickets are closed, non-support team members can return to their regularly scheduled responsibilities with a better understanding of customer needs.
3. Late Stage Companies
For late stage companies, the concept of “everyone does support” feels a bit abstract. We’ve seen how CEO’s in large, successful companies can hop on direct calls, establish company-wide culture, and set processes. However, it’s easy to feel lost within dozens or hundreds of co-workers. Thinking back to the initial response of…
I don’t know, it’s not my department, role, etc.
The important takeaway is that “everyone does support” is already baked into almost every function of a mature business.
- Marketing – knowing your customers allows you to reach more of the right ones.
- Sales – doesn’t end with closing a sale. To retain customers, you need to know their problems.
- Customer Success / Account Management – making sure your customers succeed with your product by knowing their struggles.
- Engineering / Product – knowing what to build for your customers.
Everyone at some point will talk to customers. Maintaining a dedicated time to support will improve everyone’s own capacity and understanding.
At a late stage company, imbuing an “everyone does support” mentality can occur during key points in an employee’s career – specifically: onboarding, training, and the periodic 5% support shifts. Or take a page from YouSendIt’s book and set up all-hands volunteer parties.
Rather than forcing victims to pick up the slack I instead shot out an email asking for volunteers to join the “support party” promising nothing but delicious snacks. I asked people to drop by my cubicle and sign up for a 2-hour slot. Within minutes a stream of engineers, operations team members, and product managers quickly scrawled their names on my whiteboard.
Wrapping It Up
With that, my role and work as Director of Growth at Framed Data has, at times, felt more like support than marketing. While our make up as an early stage startup allows this flexibility, we’re eager to see how the idea of “everyone does support” will mature as we grow. I’ll end this post with one of our team mottos.
Talking to customers is not a chore, nor is it somebody else’s problem.
- (Video) UserConf 2012 – Kevin Hale (Wufoo) – How to Design Software Users Love
- Other awesome “everyone does support” cases
- (Book) Chapter 8, “Unconventional PR” of Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers discusses customer delight and support as channels for growth with notable examples from Hipmunk and Zappos.