I had my first experience with the power of customer relationships about one month after we (the Swipe team) attended Startup Weekend in Oslo, Norway at the end of 2012.
After pitching Swipe to a couple hundred people at Startup Weekend (yeah, a couple hundred!), we had the opportunity to personally talk with everyone and receive feedback. I had time to explain the idea behind Swipe pretty intimately with a large number a people and the conversations continued over email. It was a first exercise in customer service, since everyone had ideas and feedback, they all experienced our product and found potential problems or ideas for its future.
I love being a CEO of a tiny company because I get to take care of customer support. I find it incredibly valuable. Every founder should invest more time into conversations, because the benefits can be bigger than you think.
A recent article published in the First Round blog describes some of the same conclusions found from the Customer Support process at Eventbrite, led by Dana Killian.
“Founders tend to have very specific views on how they want to offer customer service. A lot of startups are so focused on product and engineering that customer service is automatically de-prioritized. But even if you’re a B2B play, this is a huge mistake. There are a number of advantages to establishing a strong CS presence from the start, including a much stronger product roadmap,” says Killian.
My idea is that I should be doing it for as long as I can, that I should turn it into a conversation and that good customer service is not about providing a good service, but by building a relationship.
I still find it quite amusing that the majority of the positive conversations I’ve had with our users have been the result of bugs or problems or missing features. When things go well, people use it the product “as intended” and they don’t necessarily have a reason to push the “send us feedback” button. So when traffic is high and email volume is low (like our past couple of months), it means you’re doing something well. At the same time, I miss all the emails coming through that usually began with a compliment and ended with a bug report or complaint. The general template goes something like:
“This is amazing, but why is ______ not working?”
Some can be pretty angry, some aggressive, but the majority are great people that genuinely want to help or just need help.
I always do my best to turn these emails into a conversation. What do you do? Where are you based? How do you use Swipe? Why do you use Swipe? What else do you hate/love/wish for? Is there anything we can promote for you? I think this is the most important part of the process, the part that turns it into a conversation that sometimes spans 10 emails, rather than just getting a thank you email for solving a problem.
I’ve recently been giving a series of talks around Europe about our story with the general conclusion that “it’s okay.” I think that people are more forgiving than you think as long as you tell them your story. Feedback emails are a great way to tell people bits and pieces of that story, to add context to the solution or to explain the cause of certain problems.
One particular example would be a pretty angry email I received from a guy named Josh. It was a pretty fair comment on our lack of account management options at the time, and ended with him saying that “the lack of account management is completely unacceptable.” I replied, explained, and told the story. We shipped really early and we prioritized the core product so people can start using it as soon as possible. We had people inside the app 6 months after we began to work on it. We didn’t want to sit and wait until everything was perfect. We apologize. We hope you hang in there. We wanted to give you the cool things, we’ll change your account email manually. (All this written in a much nicer way, of course).
His reply to all of that: “I totally understand! Can’t blame you for wanting to ship sooner :)”
I’ve had over 400 conversations with people that use Swipe with about 2800 emails in those conversations. I’d assume that about 20% are emails I sent out, while 80% are bug reports, feedback, or encouragement sent over by the incredible people that use Swipe.
People are surprised to see my email signature when I reply – “co-founder and CEO” – explaining why the first slide in your PDF went to the end instead of the beginning of the deck. But we’re a tiny company with three people and I don’t think we’ll hire a customer support agent any time soon. Though it can be frustrating at times, customer support is something I hope to be doing for a long time. I think most people ignore the potential in getting a complaint email.
Another feedback email I received was from a man named Peter while biking back to our office in London. I stopped at a red light and felt a buzz in the pocket. I took a look and it was a pretty easy solution to explain so I wrote a quick note and promised to email in more detail later since “I was biking.” I did answer shortly after in more detail and finished it off with my usual follow-on questions. I got back a really thankful reply for answering so quickly, along with a picture of Peter and his wife biking around Holland. I got to know a bit more about Peter with more emails and fixed his problems in the process. I think that’s really valuable.
I do my best to send feedback to every new service I try these days, since I understand the value after all the great feedback mails I’ve received. The majority of the time I just get a thank you and a short reply along the lines of “we’re considering that, but we’re doing this instead for now.”
Most people don’t take the next step to find out who I am and why I’m even using their product. That’s a mistake – you should always take the time to make conversation and learn about the real people around the world that are investing their time in your product. Maybe too many people have the impression that good customer service is solving a problem quickly and professionally. While that’s important, the biggest benefit to both you and the user is to start a conversation.
My most recent feedback message was sent to a popular music service that I use every day. They changed an element of their design and wrote a tiny blog post about it. I was pretty sad to see the change so I decided that I’d write and tell them my thoughts. I read the blog post, I knew the technical reasoning behind the change, but thought it was a solution that compromised on the wrong things. It compromised design for technical reasons instead of making technical solutions to what would be much better design. I disagreed and wanted them to know they can do better. The reply was just a link to the blog post and a thank you. It was quick, good service. But it wasn’t what they should have done.
It’s the conversations with users that helped me learn who our core users really were and why they find our product useful.
There’s no email I reply to quicker than the ones that start with “User feedback from: _____”. Those conversations are the reason why a certain part of our users love what we do and why they support us so much. I do my best to show the other guys the most encouraging emails and the most critical ones too. There’s a trend amongst startups to put the whole team on customer support, but I’m not sure I’d agree. Everyone should know what people think, positive or negative, but the CEO’s role is one that should take care of customer support for as long as possible. Especially when you’re tiny and just getting started. It involves people, strategy, problems, and opportunities. It’s not just about solving issues or tickets, it’s about understanding your audience. Understanding your users is equally important to understanding your team. It’s my job to understand people and potential and I think that naturally requires a lot of my involvement. My job is to filer and show the team the best, the worst, and sometimes the in-betweens.
I hope the people we’ll hire to lead customer service at one point will carry on creating conversations. My job is to know how our users feel, how our team feels, how our investors feel, and how our partners feel, even if it’s 2 in the morning. I quite like my job for that reason, it’s all about people. I hope more follow suit.
We’d love to have you try Swipe and please do send over your feedback, I’m looking forward to the conversations that follow.