Amazing customer service is your startup’s secret weapon against big competitors who just don’t care. A great way to delight your users is to send them a “surprise personal” email. But that means lots of responses in your inbox every morning, so how do keep doing that at scale? We’ve the perfect tool and a few tips to help.
Customers are used to being maltreated. … Go out of your way to make people happy. They’ll be overwhelmed; you’ll see. In the earliest stages of a startup, it pays to offer customer service on a level that wouldn’t scale, because it’s a way of learning about your users. Paul Graham, Startups in 13 Sentences
At some point though, you will be stretched too thin.
Before we get to the juicy stuff though, if you don’t send an automated “surprise personal” email to all your new signups yet, go read our previous lesson about email first! I’ll wait :)
Using your normal inbox doesn’t scale.
Every startup we’ve talked to starts out with just a simple support email address that goes to everybody on the team. But as soon the email load reaches about 20 messages a day it becomes incredibly inefficient for the entire team to read every message.
Case Study: Bugsnag
At Bugsnag, originally, we had a single shared support inbox, but questions such as “who is dealing with this support request?” and “how many outstanding request do we have” became difficult to answer as we scaled, so we definitely needed a system like Help Scout.
Too often companies solve this problem by making their support email address harder and harder for users to find. Which means that only the most confused and most pissed-off users ever bother contacting them. No wonder it’s a slippery slope to support becoming a dreaded task.
Case Study: Buffer
At Buffer, we forwarded emails back and forth and got them all mixed up with our personal emails. It was hard to keep track of things that we wanted to remember about each 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! Read the full interview…
We started hitting this barrier ourselves in mid-March, so we started looking for ways to improve it. You might be tempted to cut back on support (we were), but don’t do it! There’s a better way…
Help Scout is a customer service tool that integrates seamlessly with email, so your customers still see email coming right from you. You get all the benefits of email without the maintenance downsides.
I’ll let you in a on a little secret actually. When the other guys at Segment first suggested we try out Help Scout, I was against it. I thought that we should just tough it out and stick with email because I really didn’t want to lose our personal touch. I was very wary of “support” tools.
And here I am two months later, completely converted. We’ve reduced our support load by two-thirds. The first trick is to…
Setup forwarding emails for your team.
A personalized forwarding email is an email address that looks like it’s a personal email, but actually gets sent to the entire team. For example, my regular email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, but I also have a forwarding address setup at email@example.com. (Notice the extra “t”!)
Whenever anyone emails firstname.lastname@example.org, their question doesn’t actually go to my personal inbox, it goes into our Help Scout account, so they are guaranteed a much faster response time! You can checkout more about how it works from this Customer.io blog post.
Bugsnag uses a similar method:
Case Study: Bugsnag
When we switched to Help Scout, we wanted to keep the personal feel of direct emails, so we set up a forwarding system that mimics our real email addresses. Emails to
email@example.com get forwarded to our team’s Help Scout inbox. And when we reply to support requests in Help Scout, the customer sees the reply from
firstname.lastname@example.org so the whole process is completely transparent.
It works well with our welcome and drip emails too. We automatically send a personalized welcome email from
email@example.com address after a customer signs up, and any replies go straight into our support system. That way, if I’m out of town, my co-founder can still reply and make sure our customers stay happy.
Once you’ve setup a dedicated forwarding email, you never have to worry about specific support requests getting lost in the shuffle. And then anyone on your team can start answering support requests.
Which brings us to the next point. Now that support can be managed by anyone, you’ll want to…
Rotate your support leader.
At Segment we rotate who’s in charge of support on a regular basis. I’ve been handling it myself for the past two weeks, and next week Calvin will take over. There’s no real schedule, it’s all about who has bandwidth to spare and can assume the role of the support load balancer. That way no one ever gets too burnt out on doing support.
Quick tip: When you swap your support leader make sure to update your drip emails to have the new leader’s name! That way things don’t get awkward when Jim starts replying to Susan’s emails.
Wistia calls their leader a “traffic cop”:
Case Study: Wistia
Have a traffic cop. One person from the team performs triage on the inbox, looking for conversations in-process (i.e. replies) and assigns them to the correct person. This again reduces inbox fatigue.
At Wistia, when we hear about a bug that the original developer can track down much faster than a support team member, I assign the conversation to them, with a note highlighting key information from the thread.
In our workflow, assigning a conversation also triggers an email notification. That means our team can stay out of the support inbox unless prompted.
That’s the trick to support: most support requests can be answered by anyone on our team; they’re low hanging fruit. Those are the requests that your support leader should bang out responses to in a couple minutes.
But then there are some support requests that require an expert. For example, I’m not going to try and answer a question about our Salesforce Integration because I didn’t write it, Ilya did. It would take me twice as long, and I’d probably still give the user a wrong answer.
Instead, I just assign Ilya to the conversation in Help Scout and he’ll answer it between coding breaks.
Be careful though, transferring someone can be a jarring experience for your customers. It might feel like they are being brushed off. When you transfer a user, make sure you explain why you’re passing them off; telling them you’re transferring them to an expert is always a good idea.
Don’t cut support, reduce the questions coming in.
The final piece to the support puzzle is getting the right mindset. It’s way too easy to think of support as an add-on to your business instead of a core feature. If you think of it as an add-on you’re going to end up marginalizing it.
Three months from now, after you’ve switched to using Help Scout and your support load is still growing at 2x per month, if you still think of support as an add-on, you’ll be tempted to cut it.
I know because we still find ourselves thinking this from time to time.
It’s easy to get annoyed at having no time to work on “real features” when you’re spending all of your time answering questions.
Instead of eliminating the burden by axing your support, eliminate it by fixing the low hanging fruit in your product that take up support time. Most of your support requests will be targeted at only a handful of features. If you make those features more clear, you won’t have to keep answering questions about them.
You can probably eliminate 50% of your support requests just by fixing the top three problems in your product. Then you can double your user base again without having to skimp on customer service.
So there you have it. That is all the knowledge I have gained since we started Segment on how to provide really good customer support, and it’s been working very well for us.
I’d go as far as saying that if you’re a small startup and you aren’t delivering amazing customer support yet, you’re doing something very wrong. It’s not hard, and it has a significant impact on your business. Just be genuinely nice and try to solve people’s problems as best you can.
And if you have any questions feel free to shoot us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org! (Yup, that one’s managed by Help Scout too!)