Relationships and customers

  • With many startups focusing on getting a product out the door, customer support is something that can get overlooked
  • Customer conflicts are unavoidable but it is how you resolve them that determines how strong the long-term relationship will be

Relationships and customersI HAD the pleasure of attending the TechVenture conference in Singapore last week, and caught an interesting presentation from which the key takeaways I thought were worth sharing.
For those unaware, TechVenture was launched by Singapore’s National Science & Technology Board (now known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research) in 1996, to promote entrepreneurship, in particular technology entrepreneurship.
It has since evolved into a platform where venture-capital and private-equity investors gather to interact with entrepreneurs and innovators to explore collaboration.
On the first day of the conference, Kevin Hale, a partner at Y Combinator, a well-known venture firm and incubator that specialises in funding very-early-stage startups, took to the stage to share his thoughts on scaling up a business.
Hale, prior to his involvement with Y Combinator, was also cofounder of Wufoo, a web application designed to remove the inefficiency and tediousness from the form-building process, which was acquired by SurveyMonkey in 2011.
His work with Y Combinator focuses on helping the firm’s portfolio of companies with user-experience design, product development and customer support.
Hale’s presentation on scaling up a business devoted a good chunk of time to the need for startups to take a good hard look at how they approached customer service — and for good reason.
At the end of the day, how a startup handles its user base can either make or break an upward growth trajectory. In a crowded marketplace with plenty of viable alternatives, what’s going to stop a user from jumping ship to a competitor offering the same service or product?
The topic of excellent and seamless customer support is especially pertinent in both this country and the region as a whole, where gripes over bad experiences can be found littered throughout social media channels, blogs and story-telling sessions among friends on a daily (if not hourly) basis.
One great analogy Hale used was for startups to think about it in terms of social relationships, with new customers akin to dating someone new, and existing customers much like dealing with a spouse.
“The stakes are different with a new user compared with an existing one. For example, if on a first date you catch the other person picking his or her nose, that could very well be the end of it.
“But if you’re married for over 20 years and you catch your husband ‘digging for gold’ on the couch, it’s not likely grounds for the wife to call up a divorce lawyer,” he said.
Relationships and customersIn the quest for new users or customers, Hale pointed out that startups need to think about that first impression in an “out of the box” manner and to look at areas typically overlooked.
“It’s about what kind of impression you give the first time you send them an email, or the first time they see an advertisement, visit your site or contact you for customer support. To make an impact, you have to think about it in an out of the box way.
“And for many startups, it’s a very hard thing to think about if you’re not used to it, and it’s more than just ticking off a checklist of things to get done,” he said.
In the case of existing users, Hale pointed to the work done by psychologist John Gottman on marital stability and relationship analysis.
“Gottman could accurately predict how stable a marriage is based on watching video footage of a couple fighting. He had an accuracy rate of 85% after watching 15 minutes worth of video. It’s not that every successful couple doesn’t fight; the fact is, everybody fights,” he said.
And we all fight about the exact same things: Money, children, sex, time and others. Which in a business context translates to: Cost/billing, users or clients, performance, roadmap and others.
“The trick lies in how you resolve these conflicts, that determines how stable the relationship is,” he added.
According to Hale, the problem is that software engineers and designers are often divorced from the consequences of their actions.
Before a product launches, 100% of time is spent on software creation, but after launch, startups find that their time is increasingly spent on running a company (also affectionately referred to as “all the other crap”) and customer support.
One way to deal with it is to ensure that you are engaged in support-driven development, with humility, accountability and accountability built in to the process.
“You make everyone do customer support, with the product’s creators becoming the greatest supporters.
“I remember at one company, the founder diverted all customer support calls to the product developer team. His rationale was that if they got enough calls about a certain issue, they’d just fix it to stop the calls from coming in,” he said.
Another point Hale raised was to never discount the emotional element of the customer support process, recalling an incident at Wufoo where the team added an extra field in the support form for customers to indicate how they were feeling.
The Wufoo team found out that 75.8% of customers filled in that emotion field, compared to the 78.1% that filled out the field indicating what browser they were working on.
“What our customers were telling us was that their emotional state of mind was just as important for us to know about when solving a technical issue,” Hale said.
So what’s the message of today’s column? For a tech startup, as important as it is to focus on building the best possible product that you can, it is equally important to spend some time thinking about how you are going to support your users when they, already committed to your offering, run into issues.
For added motivation, just think about all that customer rage our local telco operators, everyone’s favourite punching bag, receive on a daily basis.
Now, think of maybe a quarter of all that rage directed at you and your team.
Motivated yet?

This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
Previous Instalments:

Mapping out an IP strategy
Don't be too much in love with your idea

Bad apples in the startup ecosystem

Rise of the clones
Funding for all
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