Our three biggest learnings from handling customer support as a small business.
A few years ago, we woke up to an inbox of 250 emails.
For context…we usually woke up to an inbox of 50.
Either something had gone terribly wrong. Or our marketing was really working.
The truth was—with the way we were handling our small business’ customer service at the time—we had no idea why.
Anxiety set in. Every member of our small team jumped into the inbox. We answered whatever email we opened. Regardless of the topic or level of urgency.
We knew we needed to hire more support members. But with the inbox already overflowing, there was little time to spend on interviewing.
Today, we’re sharing our learnings with you on how we overcame the struggle of answering a lot of support tickets with a little team.
3 ways we (successfully) handled customer service as a small business
Although we’re still learning (and still a relatively small business), we came out on the other side of a sudden increase in customer service volume with three top learnings. All of which fed into both our short-term and long-term success.
- We prioritized organizing emails, not just answering them all
- We automated replies to buy time and save time
- We leveraged our size to try new things and get instant feedback
We wanted to keep the theory of small business customer service in mind as we grew. Prioritizing things like customer relationships and constant feedback. But we struggled to balance this theoretical ideal with the day-to-day grind.
These lessons tie together the tangible with the idealistic. Use them not only to get your head above water but also to carve a path for sustainable growth.
1. We prioritized organizing emails, not just answering them all
The very first thing we did was stop arbitrarily answering tickets. We took a step back and looked at the bigger picture to figure out what was most important.
For our business, we decided to prioritize bug reports, time-sensitive questions, and sales leads.
In reality, we wanted to prioritize everything.
We didn’t want a single customer to wait. We wanted to provide everyone with answers no matter their question. But we also wanted a healthy, growing business. So we needed to focus on long-term solutions.
Our all-hands-on-deck style of answering tickets would never scale. This led us to prioritize organization.
We used a shorthand that made sense to us. Our initial tags looked like this:
- New user question
- Bug report
- Sales lead
- Feature request
Spending five minutes skimming and tagging each email resulted in a much more organized inbox.
Now we could pause and prioritize. Since bug reports could have dire consequences for many users, we worked on those first. This also allowed us to alert our developers of any glitches as soon as possible so they could start on a fix.
Then we looked at new user questions to prevent confusion and churn during their first few days. Followed by sales leads. Then we moved on to answering common questions from current customers. Ending with cancellations and feature requests.
When we only had one-hand-on-deck in the inbox, this exercise of prioritizing first, answering second proved crucial.
When other team members had the bandwidth to get into the inbox though, our biggest wins came from delegating. At this point, our “customer support team” consisted of our CEO, CPO, a few software developers, and two actual customer service managers.
Because of this hodgepodge, customer inquiries were quickly funneled through to other departments:
- Bug reports immediately went to developers,
- Feature requests went straight to our product manager,
- Sales leads went to our CEO,
- The remaining inquiries (mostly FAQs) could be quickly answered by our customer support agents.
We started using folders to make this delegation smoother. We created folders for each team and added tickets that would fall under their purview.
It became much smoother to offer tailored support to each customer. And this set us up perfectly to scale. When our dev team started growing, any of them could pop into the “dev” folder and work on bug reports. They could engage with customers and ask follow-up questions while they worked on a fix.
Folders helped us with context switching as well. We could focus on answering one type of question, or one type of customer, all at once. Then move on to customers with different needs and appropriately tailor our response to them.
Training new team members became easier too. When new hires started, we quickly ramped them up using the “FAQ” folder. They were able to settle into the inbox with these easy-to-answer questions and respond to customers in a timely fashion.
Organize customer tickets based on priorities and/or delegation. Mirror the inbox to your team’s workflow or your company’s structure.
We still use this organization today. In fact, this skim-and-tag system resulted in some insightful growth tactics.
As we increased headcount, we hired support agents that specialized in the topics our customers needed help with the most. We hired a technical support specialist who covered all bug reports and technical issues. That “dev” folder became her territory.
Sales moved from our CEO to our customer success team. Feature requests and general inquiries became customer support and customer experience ground. We built out more proactive ways of answering these common questions using our knowledge base and product guides.
This first step in organizing our emails allowed us to scale the team in a much more efficient way.
2. We automated replies to buy time and save time
We tossed around the idea of cloning ourselves as a support solution in the early days. Ultimately, the moral complications were too much for us to handle. Instead, we learned how to rely on auto-replies.
Our first autoresponder simply let customers know that we received their message and when to expect a response. Immediately, this took a huge weight off our shoulders.
I’m sure, as a fellow entrepreneur, it won’t surprise you to hear we were responding to customer emails around the clock. We sacrificed our own time and personal lives to make sure our customers were happy. But, again, we knew this wasn’t the way to run a sustainable, healthy business.
So we got smarter about it. We crafted an autoresponder that felt like a clone of us. We kept evolving the language and generalizing the copy to make sense for every use case. And we came up with this:
We stopped stressing about responding to every customer within minutes. We got some sleep. The autoresponder set expectations and gave us back a work-life balance. Which was (and still is) crucial to our company’s growth.
To save time when actually responding, we used canned replies. The majority of questions were about Groove basics or new user confusion. We quickly realized the redundancy in typing the same reply again and again.
We did a lot of copying and pasting. We’d search through the inbox thinking, “I know I responded to this just the other day…” A lot of wasted time.
We ended up creating canned replies for any response we even thought we might use again. Starting with a template was a huge win for efficiency and consistency.
These canned replies would eventually turn into knowledge base articles and user guides to help customers get familiar with our software. We saved even more time when people started helping themselves from the knowledge base rather than emailing.
And again, this helped with training during growth periods. New hires are able to quickly shoot out canned replies without needing review or approval from a manager.
3. We leveraged our size to try new things and get instant feedback
Being a small business allows us to stay agile and move quickly. If something isn’t working, we change it. There’s not a lot of red tape or hoops to jump through when we want to try something new.
We leveraged customer support early on as a way to test customer reactions and get feedback on product and brand decisions. Customers expressed themselves candidly in the inbox every day. Rather than use our tight budget on hiring agencies to provide audience insights, we used the inbox to uncover extremely valuable business intel.
In the early days (although don’t be shocked if you still see it happen now), Alex, our Founder and CEO, was solely responsible for customer support. When people realized they were talking directly to the business owner, their whole demeanor changed.
They treated him like a colleague and a friend. Our customers were running their own startups and understood the grind. They wanted to offer him valuable feedback, not just complaints.
We dissected how Alex interacted with customers so we could replicate it. As our support team grew, we embodied his “voice” in our individual responses and canned replies. Our marketing team took note, too. They began writing blog posts and emails using this voice. It enlightened our entire sales funnel.
We’ve expanded on the definition of “sound like Alex” over the years. It includes a more general vibe of authenticity and respect. Treating our users more like colleagues than customers. This very blog post is a reflection of it. Clearly, we still use this insight today.
It all began by taking note of customer reactions in the inbox. Don’t overlook anything as a small business. Even subtle nuances in customer behavior in the early stages of a business can have a huge impact on your future growth.
Thoughtful small business customer service leads to big business wins
We still consider ourselves a small business, and we’ll likely never shake the term “startup,” so this is by no means a finished manifesto. But if your lean team is struggling to get ahead of an influx of tickets, these learnings should help you scale your own support efforts.
The real crux of small business customer service lies in the balance between short-term and long-term results. You need to respond to customers as quickly as possible. But you also need to position your business for sustainable growth.
We often rush through small business growing pains, chomping at the bit to seem more mature. (No judgment here, we all do this.) As we take a moment to reflect on our learnings though, it’s clear that a thoughtful approach works best in the long run.
We’re still learning, always will be. Now that we’re no longer answering emails until 2:00am, we just have more time to put all these lessons to work.