Why Everyone at Your Startup Should Work in Tech Support
I’ve been in the high-tech startup world for over 10 years, working in a variety of positions, starting in QA and growing into a cross-functional product leader. Along the way, I’ve worn many different hats and contributed in many diverse roles (as is to be expected when working for small startups) and I’ve loved each and every one of them.
Out of all these roles, probably the most impactful learning opportunities, as far as understanding the product, market and users, have come from the times when I have worked as part of the Customer Service/Tech Support team.
No matter what other work you do as part of a startup, serving in a customer service or tech support role will prove to be a powerful eye opener!
I’ve always believed that software/product development is a full contact team sport. But in order for the greatest ideas to be fully reflected in the finished product, everyone needs to have direct, hands-on contact with the product and everyone needs to be involved in building the best quality product that they can. And there’s no better way to have direct contact with the product than by doing a little stint in Tech Support!
Every time I’ve put on my Customer Support hat, one thing starts to become rapidly evident: there is often a disconnect between how we think our product functions and what we think it does, and how our customers actually think it works and what it does.
As a result, I like to run internal meetings with the different departments involved in creating the product (Product, Engineering, QA, Marketing, etc.) and very often a trend starts to emerge: We all share a “general” idea of what the product is and what it does, but that is it: only a general idea. There is no unified core view and understanding about our product and how it’s perceived in the market by real users.
Steve Blank likes to say: “No business plan survives first contact with customers.”
I would like to adapt this idea, to say:
“No product survives first contact with the customers.”
One challenge with product development is that it often seems as if we are all playing a version of the old child’s game: Broken Telephone.
In order to “fix the line” and give everyone a direct first-hand experience on how our customers are using our product, and what difficulties they are having with it, I have experimented during my time as a product leader with a simple way to get more people involved with the customer’s perspective: I arrange for everyone in the company to work a few shifts in customer service or tech support.
This concept encourages everyone to interact with the customers directly while engaging other teams in the organization to come up with solutions for customers’ problems.
This allows the teams to gain a better understanding about the gap between what we think we are building and what the customers perceive. The result is that everyone starts to coalesce behind a unified understanding and common vision of our product.
This has two direct positive results:
1. Everyone starts to work closely together (across teams and departments) during the early stages of requirement gathering, making sure that everyone and every team is on the same page regarding what is being built, which brings about shorter development cycles as we require fewer reviews to align business requirements with users.
2. Better user satisfaction with our products which translates into fewer support tickets and a decrease in the churn rate which results in a direct increase to our LTV.
Here are some of the key lessons that various startup teams and departments can gain from their time in tech support:
QA: Working in tech support helps the QA team understand how the product is truly being used and discover testing scenarios that they haven’t accounted for.
Engineering: Engineers benefit by stepping into the customer’s shoes and viewing functionality and workflows through the customer’s eyes. This can lead to better features implementation.
Product Manager: Working in tech support gives the product manager a better understanding of how the product fits within the customers’ life/workflows. This will facilitate the discovery of new features while keeping business needs and users’ goals aligned.
Sales: Seeing which features are more valuable to the users helps sales people get fresh insights to emphasize in their sales presentations and collateral materials.
Biz Dev: Tech support helps this team discover the product’s core value propositions and how they translate into competitive advantages when presenting the product to future partners and when being compared against the competition.
Marketing & PR: Being involved with tech support conversations helps the Marketing & PR team figure out how users talk about the products and what words they use to describe it. Then they can use this language to create better content to promote the product or service, and improve the product positioning against competition by discussing the product and customer problems in a way that is directly relevant to the customers’ own “vocabulary.”
CEO: Startup founders need firsthand knowledge of the issues faced by the organization in growing the product and user base. So next time anyone on any of these startup teams voices a concern with the product or highlights a disconnect between the business goals and user needs, by having broader organizational knowledge of the tech support role, the CEO will be able to form an informed decision on the best way to re-connect them.
In this day of Agile development and lean startups, it’s more important than ever to present not only a great product and user experience, but a great unified vision of a product across all fronts and teams of a company. In order to achieve this, everyone needs to have a clear picture and understanding of how the product is being used by the customer, how customers are talking about the product, and how the company can help customers solve problems. There’s no better way to gain this understanding than by honing everyone’s product knowledge via a stint in tech support! Customer service is truly “everyone’s job” — and the insights gained from this experience will help every team do its job better than ever before.