It was my pleasure to chat with Leo Widrich of the Buffer to find out just how he and the team are able to manage the huge amount of customer support emails that come in for their successful product.
While I knew that Leo and the Buffer team were Help Scout users for quite a while, what I didn’t know was just how essential it was to their outstanding support (every email is answered in a timely manner and with complete thoroughness, take it from a guy who emails Leo a lot!)
A few great things that you'll learn in this interview:
- Why the Buffer team considers "above and beyond" customer service to be their #1 priority when it comes to user interaction.
- What to do with unhappy customers, and the silver lining that they offer.
- How the team handles the thousands of emails that they receive from the tens of thousands of Buffer users.
All that and a lot more great insight from Leo, so let’s get started!
How Buffer Does Customer Support
Greg: I have to ask, when Buffer really started gaining traction, did customer service ever become stressful? In the earliest days of Buffer, what was the method to maintaining some order among customer emails?
Leo: Yes, that’s a great question and I remember it was a real struggle. The way we used to handle support emails was to get them through to our personal inbox.
At first, it was only Joel who received them and then only me. We always tried to look for a way to have a shared inbox, but we couldn’t find one. It was a huge pain.
Some emails were best answered by myself, some by Joel. So we forwarded emails back and forth and got them all mixed up with our personal emails. It was also very hard to keep track of things that we wanted to remember about that customer like social profile details or past email convos. To tell you the truth, at one point, we thought about building our own tool! Thankfully Help Scout came along to rescue us!
Greg: Outside of email for customer service, I know you’ve written about the benefits of using Twitter for customer support. What are some ways that you have found Twitter to be useful in addition to using email?
Leo: Yep, that’s a great point, I believe Twitter compliments email perfectly to deliver great customer service.
The 3 biggest advantages for me are these:
- With Twitter, you get the one-to-many effect that you can’t do via email. So if your servers are down, or you have a bug fix that affects lots of people, you can just send one Tweet and reach lots of people. That’s not possible via email.
- The other aspect of Twitter of course is speed. Sending an email often is a big barrier for some people, whereas sending a Tweet isn’t. So we can catch those people, that wouldn’t email us at all via Twitter.
- You can reach out to people on Twitter who just mention “Buffer” for example, who don’t necessarily address you. That’s amazing. It gives you a big chance to WOW people with your service, when they would never expect a response, another big complimentary factor to email.
Greg: Outside of techniques & tactics, I’d like to simply ask “Why?” Why do you feel having a managed system for customer service is important at all, and why is the diligent management of customer support essential for the Buffer team?
Leo: Starting with “why” is absolutely important. Giving the best customer support possible is at the very top of our list. Like literally, it is the number one thing we want to get done every day. That’s partly also the reason why we call our support team a Happiness Team. There are 2 aspects to this for us.
- The first and most important reason, is that giving great customer service is what gives us the absolute best marketing for Buffer. Instead of us going out and telling everyone how amazing Buffer is, which is much less effective, we want to do it in a different way. We let people come to us with any problems or questions they have. We then help them in the fastest and best way we can and they go away feeling happy and WOWed telling their friends about us.
- The second reason for us to be in such close contact with our users is to make Buffer more awesome. Every day, we are evaluating, why certain questions come up. Instead of fixing it for people individually, we want to dig deeper and see which UX improvements we can implement here.
Uncovering these issues is only possible if you really make customer service your core focus.
To give you an example, what we really want to achieve is getting more emails like this:
I’ve got nothing to say about Buffer really but I’ve heard your reply to customer emails are so speedy and super friendly so I thought I’d test you out.
My question is this: is Wales more densely populated than New Zealand, and which one is closest to its prospective pole?
And being able to help out, no matter what, with something like this, is what really pins down the “why”:
So great to hear from you.
That’s a terrific question, I hope I can answer it all for you. So Wales has a population of 3,006,400 people spread over 20,779 km2.
At the same time New Zealand has a population of 4,367,800 spread over 268,680 km.
So this means Wales is vastly more densely populated than New Zealand.
Regarding the respective poles, New Zealand is 5,500 km away from the South Pole, whereas Wales is only 3500km away from the North pole, which makes Wales the winner and closer to its respective pole! :)
Hope that helps! Let me know how you get on and if you have any other questions, I’ll be glad to hear from you.
Greg: Onto types of customers: I think everyone would like to assume that they love all of their customers, but the existence of ‘barnacle’ customers is still something every business owner has to deal with. When it comes to these perpetually unhappy or dissatisfied customers, what is the right course of action?
Conversely, how about those ‘superstar’ customers, what do you think are some methods that can be used to reward especially loyal or vocally supportive customers?
Leo: That’s a great point, I think we definitely love and value our customers in the same way.
Actually, come to think of it, the people who are annoyed and really pissed off are the ones who usually end up helping us a great deal. In 100% of cases, their point is valid and it is a problem from our end that we could improve. When someone really continues to be very unhappy for a long time, the key is to always continue to be understanding.
One thing that we always love to do as well is to just encourage the use of some of our competitor products.
We make it a rule to list at least 3 different other products they can use, if Buffer falls short of them or isn’t to their liking. That’s the least you can do I believe.
Oh yes, and the superstar customers, we love to just shower them with love. Those people are the lifeblood of Buffer. They are the ones that make it fun to get up in the morning and dive into an awesome day of work every day. We send them thank you cards, Buffer stickers and more to express our love to them! :)
Greg: Let’s talk tools, and for the moment I mean tools outside of Help Scout: any essential apps for you when it comes to managing customer support via Twitter? How about tools & extensions for email? (I personally am fond of Rapportive and The Email Game)
Leo: So for Twitter, what I really enjoy using is the old version of TweetDeck. The column view is amazing and really gives me a great overview about what’s going on. I can also jump in quickly and reply super fast.
Outside of Help Scout, there aren’t actually any other tools that we are using for our customer support.
Greg: In addition to being an overall nice guy, you and the Buffer team are also noted users of Help Scout’s services. What have you found to be the biggest benefits for managing your customer support efforts with Help Scout?
Leo: Oh, well Help Scout just rocks, but you already know that! No, seriously, Help Scout is just brilliant, we couldn’t survive a day without it.
What I like the best is that you will see in real time, if someone else from your team is viewing or replying to an email. That’s what makes all the difference to be really efficient. We had many occasions in the past, where we just replied to one email at the same time, Help Scout is of huge help here.
The other feature I want to highlight is Help Scout’s reports feature. It makes it so much better to focus on improving support. We are working on getting our response time to each email to under 1 hour. Right now, we are of course far away from that, yet with Help Scout, we can track it very closely and iterate on it every day, that’s huge!
Greg: I wrote a post last month that discusses findings from a Gallup research study, revealing that most customers were not willing to forgive ‘poor’ service if it’s quick, and while they were more forgiving of quality service at a slower pace, slow customer service was still high on the list of reasons for customer frustration (especially for email & phone support).
How does the Buffer team aim to supply the ‘best of both worlds’ as best they can when it comes to speed & quality of customer support? Specifically, how has Help Scout aided the team in succeeding in this very difficult fulfillment of the ‘perfect pair’ of customer service, one that combines both speed and quality?
Leo: That’s a great question Greg and hits the nail on the head. Being able to balance speed and quality is the exact point we focus on the most. I think there are two components to this.
The first one is that you have super sharp people on your team, who can respond fast, yet with a high quality response, that actually solves the problem. That’s partly something you learn over time, it’s also something that just lies in the nature of the team members you hire.
The other thing I’d point out is that it’s best to always be open and honest.
Oftentimes, a customer gets a late response, because you don’t know what’s going on and it takes a bit to figure it out. Instead of that, we aim to just tell them that we aren’t quite sure about the problem, if they can help us with some more information or that we are checking with our tech team. This honesty factor is really what makes a big difference, because no matter if slow or fast, it creates the best understanding for the customer.
Help Scout is really handy when it comes to this. I am actually using it together with a tool called “Chrome auto-refresh”, which updates the Help Scout email every 60 seconds. This way, I can ensure speed without staring at the support email screen all day. That’s very powerful.
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