The task of handling user support for a young startup can seem a bit daunting if not totally ridiculous at times. Often we don’t know any more about the problem then the person contacting us, sometimes even less. Bugs are discovered through trial and error and from users telling us they found one. Solutions are sometimes found the exact same way. It’s chaotic, but so is everyone’s role at a startup. Luckily, I thrive on chaos (*puts on cool mirrored sunglasses*).
OK, well that may be a stretch, but being able to talk to a customer while fires are being put out behind you is an important duty for a startup. The advent of social media and the rise of the Internet changed what we expect from a company. The day of the faceless, cold company support center is ending. It is only seen now in old monolithic industries like banking and cable, but even these institutions are changing. Look up your cable company on Yelp and I bet you it will have one star and a boatload of people complaining about their customer support. Recent news headlines demonstrate the growing unhappiness with banks and their like. These type of institutions relied on monopolies and strangleholds to provide their business for so long that they did not care how they treated people. Those days are ending though. New technology brings change and these companies can either adopt or fall behind. It is no surprise that in their desperation they can only lobby government to help them keep their power by silencing new forms of technology, but even that cannot maintain them forever.
For a startup, setting up good user support service at the early stage can be crucial. As the user of an online service or application you don’t have a local branch to go visit or a number to call. You still need to know that someone is on the other end looking out for you. If when I ran into a problem making my first order with a small company called photojojo.com two years ago and heard ‘please stay on the line, your call is important to us’ (or the online variation of that) I would have abandoned them. Instead I got great personalized support, I got a human voice and a name and they got a repeat customer. Ease of communications has relaxed the boundaries between formal “corporate speech” and natural “human speech.” Open and honest communication is the difference and the key to determining success.
There is an Indian parable about blind men touching the same elephant, but all describing something totally different. Each man is partly right, but all of them wrong. Although primarily used in referring to religious and cultural disputes, the same idea can hold true for a company and its community. In the old structure, businesses operated each department as their own blind man. The marketing department had no idea what the engineers were doing, the support team had no link to the executives, and the customers and users were holding on to the tail with no ability to see around it. We can do it better. I believe that strong companies are built on strong products and strong communities. And the best communities are the ones that are able to work, share and communicate freely with the company. A company needs it’s users more than the users need the company. I think the goal of customer support for any company is more than just helping solve problems, it’s interacting and keeping people engrossed in and working with the company, and it’s keeping everyone in the company connected right back, so there is no confusion about what we are doing or who we are doing it for. We are going to be like Batman, not a blind man, on our elephants.