When founding a startup, you can't expect your customer service to look uniform during every stage of business development. I should know -- I've spent the last 7 years of my career building the customer success function at HubSpot. In 2010, I joined the team as one of HubSpot's first "inbound consultants."
I grew with the team and played a big role in many of our successes … and failures, which I'll also take full credit for. I've seen customer service grow from the ground up, and that's exactly what I want to focus on with this article -- the ground level.
When you're in the founding stage of your company (with somewhere around 0-5 employees), customer support is far from your number one priority. In fact, it's likely not even on your radar -- nor should it be. When dealing with your customers at this stage, you need to be thinking through the lens of product-market fit.
How do customers lend a hand here? One word: feedback. As your team is onboarding customers and answering support requests, you need to be consistently considering and applying feedback. Ask yourself, how can the feedback you're receiving inform product development? The end goal here is a product that best suits the needs of the market.
With all of this in mind, here are some clear-cut dos and don'ts for customer service in the founding stage of a startup:
6 Customer Service Tips for Startups
1. Set up a simple workflow to manage customer requests.
This won't be more than a "email@example.com" email address and dedicated support times for each member of the team. You really want to keep your "intake" process simple when you're small, so while adding cleverness in here may be appealing, it's not usually the best choice -- what works today will soon break as you scale.
Just stand up the simplest process you can and focus your time on working with and learning from your customers. That's what will move your business forward the fastest.
2. Meet regularly to review common customer issues and build fixes into your product roadmap.
A key value of support that many growing companies miss is that it gives you an incredibly accurate pulse on what your customers want from you. Most startups listen to their market to determine what to build; this is often led by the sales people or CEO, who can be very loud voices for a product development team.
But equally important is ensuring you're listening to your customer constituencies. These are the people who took a risk on you early, and they can turn into your biggest advocates over time if you pay back that trust they placed in you.
3. Involve your entire team in helping to solve customer problems.
As you scale, teams and data silos form. Keeping support a team-wide, inclusive process is the key to staying customer-centric as you scale and build specialized teams. And, if there was only one thing you could focus your entire company on, wouldn't it be your customer, anyway?
There's no better way to stay close to the voice of the customer than support. To do this, empower support to pull in whomever they need from the organization, and ensure that support has a seat at the table when it comes to discussing company metrics.
4. Stay focused on using customer support as a learning tool.
Commit to always making your product better and listening carefully–especially to your most vocal, demanding customers. Use customer feedback collection tools to gather information about customer satisfaction. For example, you can trigger an NPS® survey after a support case is closed. Customers will provide you with immediate feedback that can significantly improve your support process.
5. Don't optimize for efficiency ... yet.
The initial goal is achieving success. It's very, very tempting to spend weeks building ticket macros, ticket SLAs, and systems integrations to smooth out your support process. Without a doubt, these are helpful, once you're big enough for those tools to drive tangible efficiencies.
But when you're small -- just a person or two -- the leverage you get from support is by delivering amazing service and experiences that differentiate you from your competitors, not by doing a ticket 2% faster. While you're small, fix your eyes on your customer and their success, not on your systems and your efficiency.
6. Don't let your engineers hack together workarounds that will need to be maintained down the road.
Instead, provide real engineering solutions to the types of problems new software has. Engineers and support people both love quick fixes, but make sure you're taking a sustainable view to the solutions you're building. Too often, startups build a house of cards out of bug fixes in an effort to rapidly solve for the customer, only to realize down the road that their app needs a full-on rewrite just to survive.
Those are incredibly expensive, and often can be delayed by being more thoughtful about the way engineering makes fixes to solve customer pain. To strike the right balance between speed and sustainability, support needs a strong voice in the executive team of a company, and support and engineering need an ongoing dialogue about roadmap, tradeoffs, and customer vs. market needs.
Now, let's take a look at some customer service tips that are specific to small businesses.
6 Customer Service Tips for Small Businesses
1.Develop a rapport with all of your customers.
When you're running a small business, it's easy for your team to get to know its customers. Your customer demand is small and support agents can spend plenty of time diving into service inquiries. As you scale, however, that extra time will shorten. When your customer base grows, your agents will need to focus on efficiency as much as they focus on customer satisfaction.
Before this happens, be sure to take advantage of early opportunities to bond with customers. Your first users are probably your biggest fans and they'll likely become customer advocates if you build a rapport with them. By investing in these customers now, they'll become valuable assets to your business.
2. Hire employees who are great communicators.
Small businesses tend to have small service teams of about three to five people. And, in many cases, customer service isn't the rep's only job. For many small businesses, employees find themselves wearing different hats and performing a variety of tasks, including service and support.
This structure can work, but it depends heavily on your employees' skills. You need to be sure you're hiring people who are stellar communicators and great at working with people. They need to be able to understand customer needs and flexible enough to adapt to sudden change. Good customer service is an effective way to grow a customer base, but you need excellent support reps for it to work.
3. Focus on customer retention strategies.
If you've just started running a small business, you may want to write this stat down. It can cost up to 25X more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. This means improving customer retention is your key to increasing profits.
You can develop a customer retention strategy that delights customers and encourages them to return to your business. One commonly used method is a customer loyalty program that rewards people every time that they buy from you. This incentivizes them to return to your business and avoid your competitors.
4. Adopt free customer service tools.
When your employees are juggling multiple problems at once, having software that organizes their workflow can help them keep track of goals and complete tasks on-time. Every customer wants individualized care but as your customer base scales, it's more difficult to manage each service interaction. This is where customer service tools come in handy.
There are plenty of free customer service tools that can automate service and support functions. For example, a ticketing system can record service interactions and assign cases to idle reps. Your team will know who's working on which case and which cases have yet to be assigned. This creates an organized process that ensures all customer requests are answered in a timely, consistent manner.
5. Take advantage of social media for customer service.
Social media is one of the rising stars of customer service mediums. Customers love using it for support because they can instantly report problems and automatically receive notifications on updates. Additionally, popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter offer in-app customer service tools, including live chat and AI. These automation features streamline the support process and improve the customer experience.
6. Collect customer feedback after each interaction.
Customer feedback is incredibly valuable when a service team is first starting out. Not only does it let reps know what they're doing right and wrong, but it also provides management with insights into customer behavior. Negative feedback shows what customers are trying to do and the roadblock that's preventing them from reaching their goals. Positive feedback reveals your customers' values and the aspects of your business they admire most.
Analyzing this feedback can help you make important business decisions that extend beyond customer service. Marketing teams use this information to create effective campaigns that attract your target audience's attention. Sales teams will identify timely opportunities to upsell and cross-sell, optimizing your odds for a repeat purchase. And, finally, product development can use this data to fine-tune products and address common customer roadblocks.
In summary, customer service is a team-wide effort that sets the groundwork for future success further down the line. Don't view your customer support as a chore -- look to it as an opportunity to learn more about your own product. When it's done right, customer service can be one of your most valuable assets as you found your company.
To learn more, review our list of recommended customer service blogs.
Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.
Originally published Sep 5, 2018 8:00:00 AM, updated August 14 2019