I’ve got 99 problems and Customer Support should solve every. single. one. right now…
I remember one summer, after my four cousins and I had grown up and finally started working. We were gathered around the dinner table, and my mom asked us, “What’s your least favorite thing about your job?” Every single one of us said: the customers.
Anyone working in a Customer Support department — especially in a startup — today, would probably have a similar response, if they were being honest.
These helpful departments need help — more help than any other department, and no one is talking about it. Probably because the people living it are all too burned out!
I’ve previously worked in Customer Support in a startup; I have friends and family members who did as well — from the east coast to the west, in companies from 5 people small to 400 big. In fact it’s a combination of speaking to one of those friends today, paired with reading reviews criticizing the customer service of another startup (hey, Peloton!), that have led me to want to share these thoughts. The pattern I hear about, and felt, is nearly always the same: everyone in CS is drowning, physically and emotionally, in work, and there’s no end in sight.
I know the toll this takes both in the moment and years later for the individual and for the company, so I want to share what I believe is causing the problem, as well as a few ways startups can begin fixing it. Here’s the combination of contributing factors — including startup philosophy, new technology, and cultural norms — that may have led to the increasing amount of stress and exhaustion for those in online customer-facing support roles:
1. MVP product development philosophy: In startups in particular, we’ve become star struck with the lean model that ships as fast as possible and encourages getting feedback from customers so you can iterate into a successful product. This means at the start you are likely extremely responsive to all customers’ requests. This sets customer expectations that can carry forward dangerously as the company grows. In addition, this rapid stumbling onto a product “that works” can sometimes lead you to create products without thinking through the implications of what it really takes to service them. The service becomes an afterthought — not part of the scope of the product.
2. Lack of emotional intelligence enabled by technology: Technology such as email and text communication has removed much of the emotional reaction from the equation. It’s now easier than ever for a customer to berate anyone on the other side, without realizing how it’s impacting them, as they don’t see the response they’re causing. This has resulted in more heated complaints, and as a result, has created a larger emotional burden on the CS employee.
3. No boundaries because of technology: It’s also easier to get in touch with anyone, anytime furthering eroding work and life balance for those serving others. This pressure to be “always on” means the rest required to recharge rarely happens. And, incoming requests arrive from an overwhelming amount of channels — phone, email, social media, video chat — creating a non-stop flood to digest.
4. Added pressure to please due to technology: The web has also enabled more transparency, which adds a layer of complexity. There’s now additional pressure for the person in the role of helping customers to go above and beyond, because any customer who’s not satisfied with your response has an easier way than ever before to elevate their claim, and perhaps make you lose your job.
5. The Zappos-ification of customer support: Once Tony Hsieh started delivering happiness with extreme customer service, it raised the stakes. It made other startups want to keep up, and it helped grow customer expectations especially when it comes to online companies. While Customer Support can be a key part of a company’s brand, it needs to be staffed and empowered appropriately to succeed. Not just given a new set of expectations to be delivered upon because it’s the industry norm.
6. The stepping stone mantra: Many startups fill Customer Support roles by promising that it gets you a foot in the door into a fast growing, sexy company, and that from there the world is your oyster, internally. When in fact, you’re generally greeted by a closed door on the other side because you’re learning how to do the same things repetitively, rather than growing the problem solving skills that can unlock your potential. On the flip side, the company’s chase of cheap labor leads to inexperienced employees who don’t know how to solve problems in a way that makes them totally disappear, nor how to be strategic about the type of prioritization that genuinely helps customers more and saves (or makes) money in the long run.
7. Yes and!: Those who most often choose Customer Support as a career are generally empathetic folks who like helping people. They enjoy being supportive, and as a result they don’t like to say “no”. Due to their very nature, they accept all sorts of work that they probably shouldn’t. As a result, when a company is trying to do too many things, it’s the department that ends up feeling the brunt of it, and may be the least likely to speak up.
8. The Peter principle: While not always the case, more often than not the CS department is run by an early employee who’s been promoted from within: the one who was hired because none of your founding members was passionate about the area, was great at cranking out email responses, and now knows every product feature inside and out. Here’s the thing: that’s probably not the leader any department needs to scale.
So, some pretty powerful forces are at play. The good news is, there are a number of ways startups can start solving for the pain today:
1. Help your Customer Support department identify metrics that matter: Too often this department touts the number of tickets closed or the average response time. This incentivizes the wrong actions because it doesn’t ever get to the root of the problem so that you can stop the number from climbing. What if rather than answer an email in 30 seconds, a CSer pitched a product feature that made $500,000? Why not measure based on the total number of pain points identified and solved that impact more than half of all customers? Or set a repeat customer revenue target?
2. Brick and mortar stores often have signs such as “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” Find the online equivalent: Why not provide a way to rate customers so that you can chose to fire them ahead of time? If someone’s going to buy a $30 product and take 10 hours of support time, a company should get to choose whether they want that customer. Another idea is to post a “sign” on your online store — set expectations upfront or during the checkout process about the specific service level you provide.
3. Force the emotional awareness: Ask your customers to rate how urgent their issue is themselves (maybe even going so far as a scale that forces empathy: what if the person about to help you is at a funeral, what if they’re at a dinner with friends, what if they’re at their desk at work.) Maybe show the customer a real photo of whom they’re talking to, or only allow video chatting. Maybe auto-post every 100th support message to a CS blog to publicize the types of things people are saying anonymously.
4. Be strategic about what your CS actually needs to do: Stop doing what the Joneses are doing. Set clear expectations and provide the context behind them, including the data that backs it up. Don’t be afraid to limit the scope of your service by channel (maybe just Facebook chat, maybe only phone — what do most of your customers use to communicate today?), by day (when do your customers shop, when do they use the thing you gave them?), and by time (is your product essential to their work, to their family, is it merely a want type of purchase?). If you’re promising 24/7 support preplan what that means for the whole year including holidays and how you’re going to scale your staff rapidly up and down — don’t rely on getting your whole company to pinch hit. You wouldn’t do that with your finance team to help them during an audit crunch time, why are you doing it with your CS team?
5. Put all that tech to use: Insist on the automation of the repetitive stuff if it’s a must. For example create email templates for commonly asked questions and use a Zapier integration to send responses, create an easily searchable FAQ center, automate the submission of a ticket to your engineering team anytime the same error crops up for the 5th time, build systems to help power users help others and incentivize them to do so, provide more product information on the webpage — reviews, videos, etc, automagically fire customers, let customers initiate their own returns or renewals, set up an automated QA process, automate push notifications that proactively communicate changes or errors, and invest in creating a better product from the start!
Ultimately, the best but hardest answer likely lies in taking the time to reframe the role of a modern Customer Support department at each of the multiplier stages of growth. Rethink the actual problem you’re asking your CS team to solve. At the core, it’s probably something to do with growing customer lifetime value.
Maybe it’s not a department you need: maybe you need an ER, an OR, and a network of physicians’ offices. Your triage squad could be a group of Olivia Popes with a well-rounded set of skills that are empowered them to identify and solve the urgent, big problems swiftly (HBR recommends Controllers). This could mean having a dedicated engineer and marketer on board. Your OR provides help with areas of specialty (such as shipping) at predictable hours to important customers you’ve accepted with standardized “medications.” Your physicians offices distribute customer advocates throughout the company: a customer advocate on your product team to identify, share, and fix incoming pain points, a customer focused person on your marketing team who answers questions prospects have, builds key relationships, creates a loyalty program or referral network, etc.
Whatever you do, don’t wait. The people who support people really need our support.