Exceptional customer support is the core of a successful business rather than an expense to be minimized

How many times has this happened to you: you install some software and it doesn’t work.

You read the instructions but don’t see what you’re doing wrong. You check the online forums; none of them fix your problem.

So you call support. Nobody answers. The voicemail message says, “Your call is really important to us. Please leave a message.” You leave a message. Nobody calls back.

On the website, you find an email address. A week later someone gets back to you with this answer: “To do X, press this button.” You immediately reply that you’ve been pressing that damn button and nothing happens which is why you need support.

A week later, you get another reply saying, “To do X, press this button.”

You want to scream, but there’s nobody to scream at except the computer.

We’ve all been there, whether it’s a software bug or pajamas we ordered that never arrive. There’s a lot of convenience to life nowadays, but sadly, customer support isn’t one of them.

With a few exceptions, big corporations do customer support badly. They look at support as a cost to minimize with low-paid teams in call centers reading from scripts.

Being a startup is difficult. Being a small business is hard. Supporting customers all over the globe with a single sales engineer is a logistical nightmare. Having an immature product that’s strapped together with duct tape and Elmer’s glue means problems aren’t uncommon.

And yet, startups have one advantage that makes all the difference in the world — we care. We’re on a mission to solve the customer’s problems. And great customer support is how we show it.

I was in the office early one morning when the customer support line rang. In truth, there are a few things I hate more than answering customer support calls. I was the CEO. I knew how to use the product. I knew all the features. But I wasn’t an engineer and I couldn’t troubleshoot technical problems.

Too bad. The first rule — answer the damn phone. Do not let it go to voicemail. Even if it means having someone in accounting pick up the phone and say, “Sorry, the support team is in a meeting now, can we call you back in an hour?” They’ve got a voice and a commitment instead of leaving a message in the void with no idea if anyone will ever respond.

I take a deep breath and pick up the phone. “Acme Tech customer support. Can I help you?”

I say a little prayer that the customer has a simple question I can answer. But the gods haven’t come into work this early in the morning. As the customer describes the problem, it’s pretty clear something is seriously broken.

I apologize for the problem and promise to have an engineer call back shortly. No customer support. Engineering.

Even though I haven’t solved his problem, haven’t really done anything other listen to him describe what’s wrong, he’s thrilled. He’s gotten hold of a human, gotten through the usual layers of customer support, and already escalated the situation to someone who can actually fix it — the engineering team. At a big company, sadly, that process can take a month.

I slack the team urgently, trying to find someone awake who can call the customer and find out what’s going on. People who work for me understand they’ll be expected to take a customer support call once in a while.

On the phone an hour later with the engineer who wrote the section of code and knows what to look for, it only takes a few minutes to reproduce the problem. The team drops their other work to spend the day writing and testing a fix. We get an update to the customer overnight for him to try in the morning.

Emergency finished, we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming. Once we have confirmed the patch solved the problem, I email the customer as CEO. I apologize for the bug he found and thank him for helping us troubleshoot the problem. I tell him to make up for the hassle, we’re adding 6 months free to his contract maintenance.

He’s thrilled. I’m surprised when he replies that we’re the best vendor ever, and he’s moving all his future purchases from our competitors to us. Finally, he says, a supplier that cares about the customer.

Yes, this actually happened. Not once, but one way or another, nearly every month. Though we tested the product every way we could, shit happens. Many times, it wasn’t even our fault — a shipping problem, a defective component, a confused customer who didn’t read the manual.

Excuses don’t matter, though. In the end, if it doesn’t work, that’s our responsibility. Not just my responsibility, or customer support, or the sales team but everybody in the company. Everybody.

Apologize, fix, and thank are the solutions.

In Japanese, attention to the needs of guests is called ometenashi. I call it common sense.

If you take care of customers and respond quickly to any problems, customers are shockingly forgiving. They accept the occasional inconvenience and don’t even mind wasting their time helping us debug our own mistakes, so long as they’re listened to and the problems resolved promptly.

Think this applies only to $25,000 pieces of IT equipment? Uh-uh. Look at most user reviews of consumer products.

A few reviews are about the product itself. But most are about customer support. The product didn’t arrive. It was defective. I called support and nobody answered. There’s a way to contact anyone. Or the opposite — I ordered the wrong size and they sent me a replacement right away — these guys are the GREATEST!!!

For consumer products, a good rule of thumb is that one bad review leads to 50 lost customers. So do anything you can to keep your customers happy. Even if that means refunding their money. Even when they’re wrong and you’re right. It doesn’t matter.

I don’t want to say the customer is always right, but I start from that assumption. And even when they’re wrong, instead of trying to prove to them the fault is theirs and not ours, I simply apologize for our own failings and find a way to make it up to them.

When there’s a serious issue, escalate the issue to the top — you, the CEO. Call the customer yourself, thank them, and ask what you can do better. Tell them what you plan to do to make sure the problem never recurs. You’ll have a fan for life.

How to ensure happy customers:

  1. Answer the damn phone. Reply to support emails promptly. Treat each one as an emergency.
  2. If there’s a real problem, drop everything else and fix it. There is nothing more important to long-term success than fixing a customer problem.
  3. Apologize. Even if it isn’t our screw-up. If the customer is inconvenienced or unhappy, at the end that’s our responsibility.
  4. Do something about it. An apology isn’t enough. The immediate problem needs to be fixed, but the underlying cause needs to be addressed. How did this problem happen and how do we make sure a similar problem never happens again?
  5. Thank the customer for their support and patience. Tell them what’s being done to fix the problem so they have a sense of personal accomplishment from the interaction. They’ll be emotionally invested in the product forever.
  6. Made sure everyone in the company understands customer satisfaction is their #1 responsibility. Not just the customer support team, not just the salespeople. Everyone. Without satisfied customers, there is no company.

Big companies see customer support as a cost center. As a startup, we should see it as a satisfaction center. It’s what makes us better.

Keeping customers happy may cost a little more in the short term, but in the long term, keeping customers satisfied is the only route to success.

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