9 Guiding Principles for Doing Startup Customer Service Well

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Almost every market you can enter today is competitive — and probably already close to being saturated. Customer service is the one thing that still routinely separates a successful startup from a failing one.

Great customer experiences set a company apart in a crowded marketplace because they create passionate and vocal customers. This competitive advantage is hard for other businesses to break down because they have to battle that existing business-to-customer relationship first — and they need to craft a similarly good customer experience.

Get out ahead of the curve by establishing the best startup customer service practices from the very beginning.

9 startup customer service strategies

Crafting a great customer experience requires you to purposefully invest resources in customer service. To deliver the best customer service, especially as a startup, put these nine strategies into practice.

1. Prioritize appropriately

The best thing you can do to improve your customer service as a startup is to prioritize your tickets. Start by defining these three things:

  • The scope of the pain the customer is experiencing.
  • Whether their issue is widespread or affecting only them.
  • How long they have been waiting.

Each of these should play into how you prioritize tickets and how quickly they need a response. For high-pain or high-frequency tickets, it’s important that they get a response quickly. Then, traditionally, teams answer lower pain issues in the order that they are received.

For issues that are not high pain or widespread, consider this nontraditional approach: Rather than answer the oldest tickets first, start with the newest.

Imagine this scenario: 50 emails are waiting in the support inbox this morning. The oldest is from about 12 hours ago, and the newest came in 5 minutes ago. Assume that it will take your team an hour or two to work through this inbox, regardless of which order they take it on.

If the person who has already waited 12 hours needs to wait for another hour or two, it doesn’t significantly impact their waiting time. As long as your first response to them is high-quality and helpful, they will likely be satisfied.

But suppose your team replies to that customer who emailed five minutes ago immediately. In that case, you have the opportunity to create a “wow” experience by resolving an issue within just a couple of minutes.

2. Recognize and reward customer centricity

As your company grows, teams will often silo themselves and become less communicative. Be sure to encourage team-wide customer centricity instead of developing deeply specialized teams, especially early on.

Continue to pay attention to and reward customer centricity by implementing the following strategies:

  • Talk about it in your all-hands meetings, offer rewards for excellence, and build out your Voice of the Customer strategy.
  • Give customer service a seat at the table when discussing company-wide strategies and metrics.
  • Empower your customer-facing teams to pull in whoever they need to accomplish their goals. Ensure that they work closely with engineering, product, and marketing teams to keep everyone customer-focused.

That said, talking about your customers is only half the battle — you need to encourage customer centricity within the context of customer conversations as well. That means, for instance, engineers prioritizing bug fixes over a more attractive larger project, or toning down technical language while on a troubleshooting call.

For marketing, it might mean making it easy to unsubscribe from an email list, or responding to all of the comments customers leave on the blog. Customer centricity goes beyond just your customer-facing teams.

3. Prioritize using tools that help

At the beginning of a startup, it can feel like pulling teeth to get a budget for things that aren’t desperate and dire. However, getting the right tools in place from the start can be game changing when it comes to your customer service.

Identify the tools that will make a big impact, and spend money on those. Don’t go overboard, but don’t skimp on tools that will help people do their jobs better.

For some companies, that may simply be setting up a support-specific email address and designating office hours for team members to work on tickets. When you’re small, it’s best to keep your process simple, after all.

However, as you grow, you may want to find something slightly more scalable. That’s where tooling can help. A dedicated help desk, for instance, can help with prioritization, automation, and reporting.

For teams that do a ton of social media volume, a tool like Hootsuite or Buffer can be hugely helpful for delegating volume to team members — saving both time and money.

4. Don’t hack solutions

Rather than loosely cobbling solutions together, invest in developing the right solutions the first time.

Often, when companies are small and strapped for time and cash, they will push roundabout fixes for simple issues to keep their engineers focused.

Take refund processing, for instance: Rather than build a refund processing functionality into a support back end, many companies rely on multiple external tools to offer refunds. Without a built-in, back-end refund process, a customer support representative may need to:

  • go into your billing platform
  • get a transaction ID
  • go to the company’s payment processor
  • find the payment
  • ensure that it’s within the refund period
  • manually process the refund
  • then respond back to the customer with a refund ID

Think about how much time that takes up for just a few refunds.

Rather than doing something that saves time in the short run and builds up technical debt, help your team find the right solution the first time. Strike a balance between getting things done quickly and being able to scale when needed.

Calculate the amount of time that a workaround will take (short-term fix) versus the amount of time implementing a more scalable solution will take (long-term fix). This goes for both internal and external features.

5. Set trackable goals

You don’t know what you need to improve if you don’t track it. At the core of every excellent startup customer service team are meaningful, trackable metrics.

Instead of just assuming that your customers are happy because they continue to use your product, try to find quantifiable ways to measure your improved customer service delivery.

Some metrics that serve as great baselines for improvement are:

Beyond just serving as great individual metrics, when viewed collectively, you can understand correlation and causation. For instance, as ticket volume goes up, does response time go up as well? When handle time drops, does CSAT improve?

Understanding how changes can impact your customers’ experiences gives you the data-empowered position to make meaningful changes.

6. Shorten the wait for escalated help

Help your customers get their problems solved as quickly and painlessly as possible by connecting them with the people who can help them right away.

Create processes that allow your team to expedite escalations. Rather than a team member spinning their wheels trying to solve an issue that they may not be the best equipped to handle, identify the person who can solve the issue right away.

It’s best for your customers and best for your team: Everyone is working on conversations that they are equipped to handle, and your customers will move through your customer service processes more smoothly.

7. Write excellent documentation

No matter how many exceptional employees you have working to answer customer inquiries, your documentation is always your first line of defense for customer service, and it can be especially helpful for startups.

Beyond information for your customers, documentation also helps your internal teams get onboarded faster and build consistent knowledge of your product more easily. When there’s documented information that can be referenced quickly, it’s easy for both your customers and your new employees to find answers to questions without needing to ask someone else.

Statistics suggest that 40% of customers prefer using self-service over reaching out to other customer service channels. One of the most effective self-service options is a detailed knowledge base.

Not only does this provide a better customer experience because it gives your customers what they’re looking for, but it also helps to deflect support conversations. In startup customer service, the more low-level tickets you can deflect, the more your team will be able to focus on the conversations that need a human touch.

Take a look at the common tags in your inbox, and categorize the topics that aren’t already included in your documentation. Consider conversations where your team hasn’t linked documentation to your customers and identify whether a new doc or resource might help.

Beyond documentation, consider how multimedia may help: Videos, pictures, and infographics can be a great way to reach folks who don’t necessarily glean as much from reading.

8. Surprise and delight your customers

Remember that your customers are human first. Often the best way to help them achieve their goals is with human connection. No matter how effective a knowledge base or a quick answer is, sometimes an interaction calls for extra surprise and delight.

Look at air travel, for example. There are tons of airlines you can choose from when it comes to flying. Some are cheaper than others; some offer better amenities. But Southwest has made a name for itself in the industry. The tickets aren’t always the cheapest, and the seating arrangement can be anxiety-inducing. However, they care about their customers.

Southwest accommodates flight changes and cancellations, often without added fees. They are known for singing happy birthday to children on flights, bringing extra amenities to new mothers, and just generally going the extra mile. This type of goodwill can’t be developed through technology; it comes from the humans who invest in customers every day.

Your team can create similar experiences whenever they’re interacting with customers. If they’re already logged into a customer’s account, they can look for and suggest ways to maximize the value the customer gets from using your product. You can also send swag or thank-you notes to make an impression. It requires some additional time, but the benefit outweighs the cost.

Help your team find ways to leverage human connection to create moments of surprise and delight. Whatever you implement, the goal should be to establish goodwill with customers by being helpful and responsive and going above and beyond if possible.

9. Ask your customers for their help — and use it

When you ask for feedback, make sure that you implement it. Nothing feels more futile than taking the time to provide information and insight and then getting the sense that it’s being ignored.

Take the opportunity to ask for additional thoughts or actions after you’ve helped in a customer service interaction. You won’t get helpful feedback every time, but it will be worth it when you do. If you have identified something more helpful than customer feedback (a product review, for instance), take the chance to ask that instead.

The approach can be simple: You help the customer with their issue, and once you have that resolved, you can ask something from them:

  • With happy customers, you might ask them to write a review of your product.
  • For existing customers, you might offer to help them implement more of your tools.
  • For prospective customers, you might make them an offer to become a paying customer.

You have your customer’s attention at that moment, so use that opportunity to provide an excellent customer service experience and make progress on other goals.

Leverage what you have

The key to creating excellent startup customer service is to take a “cost plus something” mindset: Try to make a benefit beyond just your input. If time is your exclusive input, you will never have enough. If you can apply that time to create more time in the long term, you will build something that can continue to grow.

Leverage what you have today: Focus on the actions that give you the best return on your limited resources, and maximize the value and outcome of every customer interaction.

Mercer Smith
Mercer Smith

Mercer is the VP of Customer Success at Venafi, a yoga fanatic, and strives to make the world a little bit happier one customer at a time. You can find her at mercenator.com and on Twitter.

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