Work in customer support and become a better marketer

Work in customer support and become a better marketer


Sounds crazy, right? But bear with me for a moment.

Imagine how fast problems with your product would be solved if management had to handle customer complaints and how much you can learn about how your products are perceived and used in the real world, if you are at the front line, handling user complaints.

If you work in product marketing, handling customer support yourself should be a core job requirement. But even for folks in demand generation or brand marketing, working with customers to help them with their problems and questions around your product has huge benefits.

The above is especially true if you are part of the executive or leadership team as hands on learnings from the front line should affect every key decision you make.

I’m not the first to come up with this idea — I love seeing how -companies like Zapier, Slack, Basecamp, and Stripe have all adopted this approach.

Of course there are lots of reasons thrown out why you should not do this.

Fallacy #1: “Executives are far too busy”

“Executives are too busy with more important work” is the most common one I’ve heard. And at first glance, it sounds reasonable. Wouldn’t it be better to keep these expensive employees focused on more strategic tasks — and have support requests handled by a super low-cost outsourcing company in a developing country.

But if you take a step back, won’t offloading customers who have questions or problems one of end up costing you even more? Now, a call center agent in Mumbai or the Philippines is not necessarily a bad person to help your customers. But it’s human nature — they will never care about your company or product as much as your management team.

I’m speaking from experience here at two of the previous companies I worked at. Bottom line? It was always a catastrophic mistake.

First, a leading careers website made a pure bottom-line decision and outsourced all their more expensive Western European support to a call center in Prague. Let’s just say — it did not work out well. Customer satisfaction metrics crashed, and our competitors loved it.

In my next example, a big mobile game company made a double whammy of support stupidity that still sticks with me today.

First, like many firms, they outsourced most support to external call centers. But that’s not all. They then incentivized their engineers on new features — and not fixing bugs. So their marketing team might do a great job attracting customers, and their support could try and help keep them — but with engineers reluctant to fix the bugs their rapid deployments caused, this company was burning bridges with their customers left and right.

It was bashing my head trying to change this approach that led me to promise myself — if I ever have my own company, I would do this very differently.

My core belief is that by listening to your customers it becomes very hard to fail.

Many products and ideas are created in a bubble. It’s natural enough — your bubble might be your own beliefs about what the world needs or the positive feedback you get from friends and family. Well, friends and family won’t want to hurt your feelings, so most will hold back from the honest feedback you need to succeed.

Put your product out there — and make it easy for your paying customers to constantly give you feedback. That’s the killer combination for success — especially if your founders and the entire team are on support to act what they hear.

It’s this core cultural belief of taking feedback to heart and acting upon it that will level up your product — and turn complaining customers into passionate advocates. I would say 90% of the features you see on today are based on the interactions we had with our customers.

When we started back in 2014, my co-founder Mike Hawkins (our CMO) and I handled all support requests. But as we’ve grown, we’ve brought our entire team into support — from our CTO, engineers and our product managers. And because we’re all passionate about our mission — we all reply to live chat requests; not just during working hours but also late at night on our phones from a pub.

Most questions are super quick — and solved between sips of beer. But at the other end is a potentially grumpy customer. This quick intervention turns a negative into a positive — and helps us make our quiz maker better.

Fallacy #2: “But… our product is too complicated!”

When I talk to fellow executives about this, I also often hear arguments like “our product is so complicated, I would not be able to handle support”.

But that’s frankly… really dumb.

Sure, products can be quite complicated — but shouldn’t everyone in the company know the product enough to at least answer simple questions about it?

By involving everyone to handle support, you force your team to all become intimately familiar with their product. That can only help, right? You’ll get sales teams who know what they’re selling, marketers will get a firsthand interaction with potential customers, and product teams that learn what they should (and shouldn’t) focus their resources on.

In all my previous management positions, I made it a core job requirement that my entire team knew their own product inside and out. After all, if you’re not passionate about your own company’s products, how do you expect to make your customers love it? Personally, I’ve always stayed away from hiring the type of salesperson that claims they can sell “snow to Eskimos”. I’d rather hire people who are love what we make and want to keep making it better — they’re far more likely to embrace this culture of “everybody helps” on support.

But even if your product is super technical and complicated, managers can still handle incoming support requests. Often, it is enough to keep a customer sweet if someone just listens to a problem, shows that he understands, and then goes off to find someone who can help.

Imagine if a Mobile Phone company executive was handling support inquiries and heard for the 25th time within an hour that people have issues accessing the billing portal.

They’d feel the customers’ pain — and after enough of these requests, would walk over to the product team and get them to come up with a better and easier way for customers to access their billing options.

Compare that to the standard outsourced support model — where a flurry of complaints would lead to a new response template and another entry in the FAQs — but not to the product solution that actually solves the problem.

The other inherent benefit of having managers handling support is their ability to actually solve problems. Even if you do not want to go all the way and put your execs on the customer support team, at least empower your support staff to solve problems any way they see fit.

Think that’s nuts? Listen to this podcast from the Wall Street Journal where they talk about how customer support allowed Chewy to beat Amazon in the online pet supply market. This approach works offline as well — the UK’s key cutter and shoe repair chain Timpson’s lets any employee take any action up to $750 to solve a customer problem. The legendary Ritz-Carlton goes further — every team member can spend up to $2,000 per guest per day to make things right.

The result? Proud team members, passionate customers — and a continually improving product. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Fallacy #3: “Okay — but Riddle’s ‘just’ a quiz maker…”

Again, I talk about this a lot with other founders as well as managers in larger companies. They often counter this approach by saying that “Riddle is just a quiz maker, how hard can supporting that be? Look at our product -it has so many complicated options, how can I ever learn all that?”

I agree… to a point. Creating a quiz or poll might not rank up there with implementing an enterprise software product.

But the fundamental approach is still valid. Our product has come a long way since we launched Riddle back in 2014 — and we have learned to make things easier by listening to complaints.

And as our quiz maker evolves, we’ve added layers upon layers of complexity and possible use cases. We regularly get questions like “How do I:

 a) track clicks on a certain quiz question with Google Tag Manager so that 

b) I can create an event in Google analytics and then after the quiz completion

c) send the quiz data to a webhook so they can end up in my exotic CRM”.

To be honest, even with our team support approach, not a lot of people in the company can answer that question.

However, we’ve found the customer asking that in our support chat also does not expect that from the first person he talks to. The important thing is that all of our folks at Riddle know enough about our product that they know that this can be done.

That’s a great first response to give to a customer. We can then turn to our documentation and share some help articles on the topic before passing the case off to someone who is technical enough to help the customer all the rest of the way. In our example, a customer might know how to tackle issues a) and b) but get stuck on adding a script to Tag Manager — in which case, we’d loop in a front end engineer to help.

In the end, if we get a lot of questions around this, which we did, we will make the whole process easier and work on product improvements to limit the number of requests we get on this topic

After all, as we do not have a customer support team at Riddle, all the people answering requests do have another important job in the company. But they all realize that the only way to answer fewer requests is by focusing on building a better product. We have managed to keep the amount of support requests pretty much the same throughout the years, despite our growth.

We’re huge fans of Zapier — they’ve done a stellar job of becoming the indispensable middle layer connecting 1,500 software apps. We’ve built a Zapier app so that our customers can send quiz results and leads to Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, and 1,500 other apps.

But that flexibility also means complexity — lots of it. Support queries can quickly become super technical. Yet they still their entire team to help out.

How? Zapier is clever — non-engineering staff work a half day a week on basic Tier 1 queries, which gives them familiarity and comfort with support. And their engineers? They do a full week’s rotation every 10 weeks — which “work best because they allow engineers to dig deep on issues and follow through on complex tickets.”

We love it.

Team-wide support — the risks… and rewards

Looking back, the way we handle support has been the number one success factor for Riddle’s growth. I would say 90% of the reviews we get on Google or Capterra focus on our excellent support.

People who pay for a quiz maker expect it to work — so a functional product is usually not worth mentioning in a review. But great, immediate and helpful support is often a pleasant surprise — so they go out of their way to write about it.

However… there are risks to getting executives to help with support.

For example — if you check out our Capterra reviews, you can see a post with the title “Product is great, CEO is not”.

That’s me, of course.

One of the challenges you run into when you handle support requests as an executive is that there is no one to blame if you fail to make a customer happy.

But that’s okay. Sometimes, you just can’t please everyone — and you just need to move on.

We also ask everyone in the company to be nice (but with limits) in support. So everyone has the right to block a customer from using our service if they are abusive. It’s rare — but it can happen. But letting the customer that this might happen is normally enough to cool things down.

Execs (and everyone) on support — the takeaways

Wrapping things up — getting everyone on support has been a huge gift to our company. We’ve iterated faster, fixed bugs, and grown our happy customer base through passionate brand ambassadors. Everyone, from our founders on down, knows our product up and down — and are quick to solve problems to keep us moving forward.

It’s only been possible by empowering our team — giving everyone the ability to block abusive customers, solve hard problems, or issue refunds and free subscriptions if we messed up.

You can’t do this if you outsource support. Working off scripts and having to raise tickets to fix problems just won’t scale. And most importantly, you won’t keep your customers happy and product moving forward.

And there’s one last key point.

We’ve all become used to hyper-efficient, but strikingly impersonal online shopping at the like of Amazon.

Stellar customer support by management makes your product feel less like a big business — and more like an owner-operated local shop. You know the type of place I’m talking about — you drop in and you immediately see that the person helping you loves what they are selling, knows everything about it, and truly values you for coming in.

Tesla founder Elon Musk gets it — often directly responding to customer questions on Twitter.

If there is anyone in the third row, turn off air recirculation. Third row cooling happens by air entering from the front and exiting through the vents in the rear bumper.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 6, 2018

For nimble startups and growing businesses like Riddle — this can be our huge competitive advantage. Use this to gain market share from the big players — executive-led customer support means happier customers, a better customer/product fit, and a healthier bottom line.