3 important lessons CEOs can learn by answering customer support tickets personally
I am the CEO of a customer support software company. Oh, and I answer support tickets from my clients personally, just like the rest of my team. Don’t laugh — I’m totally frigging serious.
I do this at least once a day. Also, all requests are cc’ed to my personal inbox, so I basically review them all. Yeah, I get it — a CEO shouldn’t be answering support tickets personally. Well, that’s what you think. I answer tickets to stay in touch with the realities of my business and the level of service we provide. When you think about it, what better way is there to know how things are going rather than personally addressing the issues of your customers?
Apart from the reactions that never get old when I tell the customers that they are speaking to the CEO of the company, speaking to customers daily teaches me a lot of things about the way my business works. This is especially important nowadays since I seem to always come across business owners who have no idea what their business is really about. Here are three important lessons I learned from answering customer support tickets personally.
Lesson 1: An inspiration to pivot to a more successful product scheme
You might be surprised to hear that at least a dozen times, I’ve found myself revising our whole roadmap or marketing position based on one single support ticket. You see, customers can tell you a lot about your product, and if you listen, you could end up hitting the sweet spot.
Take Tote, for example. Originally, Tote was designed as an online shopping platform by Ben Silbermann. The app allowed people to mark their favorite items and sent out notifications when clothing went on sale, as well as pointing out physical store locations close by. The problem with the app was that paying for the items was a hassle. This was back in 2009 when quick payment methods weren’t as advanced as they are now. Thus, few purchases were being made and Tote wasn’t as successful as predicted.
What Silbermann noticed, however, was the massive amount of Tote users who would share their collections of saved items with friends on social media. Using this valuable information, he quickly switched gears and designed a new app which focused on shareable picture collections for the masses. The new app is called Pinterest, and in 2017 was valued at $12.3 billion.
For me, keeping an eye on the support queue is similar to how Silbermann was conscious of his audience’s desires. One of the most convenient features in our app — auto-detecting companies from incoming email domains — was actually suggested by one of our customers. Assigning one or more “domains” to a company and then automatically assigning users to these companies when an email arrives makes our app act more as a customer relationship management tool, and not just a customer service app. This was a huge leap forward. People can track previous interactions with a company, not just a person.
Lesson 2: A window into your business structure
Like I said before — I’m baffled at how many clueless people have a business. If I ask the right questions, it doesn’t take long for the truth to emerge: they have no idea what their business is about. Answering your own support tickets is like taking a crash course on how your own business operates, and whether its existing structure is efficient or not.
For example, you can tell if your UI is clean and self-explaining or not at all, like seeing a checkbox and asking yourself “what the heck does this do?” Here are some other questions you might end up asking:
- Is my pricing competitive or not?
- Am I targeting the right audience (look at the people who write you — how big are their companies, what is their position)?
- How good is my onboarding?
- How complicated is my product for less technical people?
- How efficient is my ordering process?
Keep in mind that these questions mostly work for B2B because customer support volumes in B2C are simply too high for founders. If your business is B2C, then there are other ways to analyze your business to better understand it. Things, like conducting a consumer analysis and a competitive analysis, as well as taking into account your indirect competitors, are all factors which contribute to a better general understanding of what your business is.
Lesson 3: Your own worst critic is who?
Call me cliche for saying it, but yes, we are our own worst critics. This is common knowledge, but what isn’t common knowledge, is how do we learn to become better leaders? Instead of criticizing ourselves, how do we build a relationship with our customers?
You guessed it — answering support tickets can teach you valuable skills that no school or wise mentor could have so that you can become a more well-rounded leader for your business. Empathy, for example, is arguably the most important skill for customer service. Speaking to more customers on a daily basis about their concerns with your product or service can help you relate more to their situation, instead of hearing about it as feedback from your own employees.
As a CEO, training your empathy muscle helps a lot in other areas too, like with your family and friends. Also, in a small, 100% remote company, where you don’t get to talk to other people a lot, this is a great way to maintain your social skills. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft said it best himself:
“The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy. I don’t think it is simply a “nice to have” but I believe it is at the centre of the agenda for innovation here at Microsoft. Our core business is connected with the customers’ needs and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy”
Emails from actual customers are usually filled with emotions. With real-life stories like “we’ve just missed a very important deadline with our biggest client because we had trouble exporting the report data, so John had to stay up till 1am doing manual exports”. An email like that triggers more empathy, emotions and feeling of responsibility than a brief line like “June 2018: customer satisfaction is 57%”.
And finally here’s some free advice. As a founder or CEO, you probably read a lot about “customer development,” “client surveys,” “net promoter scores,” and “focus groups.” Well, before diving into all that stuff just spend a day or two answering support emails. And make sure everyone in your company — developers, marketers, even the executives — spend a portion of their time talking to customers directly.
Too many founders and CEOs are hooked on metrics, data dashboards, reports, and graphs. But data is tricky. Without knowing the basics of statistics and without enough data, it’s very easy to make the wrong decision. Spend more time talking to people instead of using metrics to guess what they actually think. With a better understanding of your product, business structure, and more focus on your skills as a leader, you’ll become the role model that your employees look up to.