I recently bought a new waste bin for my kitchen – a glistening, chrome-plated triumph of technology from a well-regarded manufacturer. Reading the “user guide”, it promised to revolutionise my domestic waste disposal experience – and I’m sure it would have had it not broken almost immediately and the customer service been so poor.
Although this was a large company I was dealing with, I’ve highlighted 7 lessons from the experience which would be relevant to startups, but first, here’s what happened:
After the bin broke I went to the manufacturer’s support website where I filled in a “contact us” form explaining the problem and then I settled down to wait for a response. When I hadn’t heard anything back after a week I returned to their website and sent a chaser message through the same form, but again, another week went by with not a word.
Next, I messaged the company on Facebook instead and sure enough within 24 hours I had a reply asking for some details of my problem – which I had already supplied twice via the website. The customer service representative apologised and gave me a date when I should expect a replacement, which was three weeks later due to international shipping times. They also gave me their UK support email address in case there were any further issues.
By the appointed date, the replacement had still not arrived. Even more predictably, there was no response when I messaged the support email address I’d been given – which presumably went into the same place as the web form I’d used previously. I had to post again on Facebook to discover the parcel had been returned to the manufacturer as with a note saying “address incomplete”, which I found out later was because an error in the printing process had omitted the first line of my address.
Finally, after two months I got my replacement, but not without considerable time, effort and frustration on my part.
The manufacturer had missed the opportunity to turn a poor product experience into a customer service success. So what could they have done better?
1. Acknowledge customer messages immediately
Without any automated confirmations I was unsure whether my messages had been received.
For most startups it’s not often possible to have someone replying to your customer contact points 24/7 but it is possible to give the customer an automated acknowledgement that their message has reached you. This could be a simple popup after the successful submission of a web form; an email auto reply; or an automated ticket number.
2. Avoid messaging “black holes”
A “Black hole” is the term I use to describe communication channels where customer messages go in but nothing ever comes out. They might lose you existing customers and may cost you new business. They can also make customers switch from a private contact channel like email to a public one like Facebook or Twitter where other customers can see their problems and your failures.
Black holes can happen in businesses of any size, but generally speaking the more ways you have set up for customers to contact you the more likely they are to occur.
Assuming you aren’t the only person responding to your company communications, something simple to do today is to try contacting all your web forms, shared mailboxes and social media channels. Also leave a message on the company answerphone if you have one. Check you’re happy with the responses and response times you’re getting as this is what your customers will see.
If you are the person that monitors all your channels, how confident are you that you know about them all and would respond in a reasonable time? If someone covers for you when you go on holiday do they check the same things you do?
3. Link your support channels
The better you know your customer the better their experience will be. If the person I was talking to on Facebook had been able to see my previous web queries they could have avoided asking me for information I’d supplied twice before.
This is more of a common problem for startups that have scaled into different teams, however even single employee companies can benefit from linking their support channels. Consider using a CRM or support system to track all customer interactions in one place, or think about forwarders or building integrations between different support mediums.
4. Join up your teams
When the replacement waste bin was returned the support team should have known about it so they could investigate.
As your headcount grows or you start to develop relationships with outsourced providers like manufacturers and shipping companies, make sure your processes are joined up and you all collaborate effectively. It should not be the customers’ job to report a problem with your processes.
5. Create a culture of continuous improvement
Although I now have a replacement bin and my issue has been resolved, I suspect other customers will still not get responses from the company’s web form and the shipping department may still have an address label printing problem. Without fixing the underlying causes of each issue they are likely to occur again and cause frustration for others.
While founders tend to have an incredibly proactive mind-set and will naturally aim to improve all elements of their business, do not assume that this will automatically be the case for everyone you hire. Many steps are required to ingrain continuous improvement in an organisation as it expands, including:
- Building a team with the right knowledge, skills and motivation.
- Generating a company culture that rewards and encourages improvement.
- Implementing appropriate systems and processes to measure performance and track recurring issues.
- Creating a framework for measuring customer satisfaction so you can identify and target the issues that cause the most pain.
To do this requires management support, commitment and investment to bring it all together.
6. End your support processes when the job is done
After the first replacement bin was shipped to me the company’s support team’s involvement ended, however the issue wasn’t truly resolved until I’d actually received it. Depending on your business it might not always be viable to follow up with each customer personally, but there are many simple tools that you could use to automate it.
Make sure you have an effective support process and that it ends at the right place. Good support processes don’t have to be overly complex, but it’s essential they exist and are efficient, effective and are understood by everyone who has to follow them. Without this step uour next hire will not necessarily support your customers the same way you do.
7. Ask how you did
The leaders of your business won’t have time to analyse every support interaction, but they should know when there are issues to address.
It’s a good idea to have a satisfaction feedback loop at the end of each customer issue so you can review the red flags and the shining stars of excellent service.
Two weeks after my replacement bin arrived, it also broke in a similar way to the first one.
Given that, it was unlikely the manufacturer would ever have turned me into a “promoter” where I would speak positively about their brand, but had they followed these tips they may have been able to convert into a “neutral” where I said nothing at all. Instead, I’m afraid I sit firmly in the “detractor” camp- happy to burden anyone who will listen to my kitchen bin woes …
Steve Hodson is Founder and Principal Consultant at Runlevel 7, a management consultancy that provides business and technical advisory services to startups and growing businesses.