Note: This post is the third in a series of posts about starting your own on-line business. To see other posts in this series, see the Entrepreneurship category of this blog.
In this post, I’ll talk about how to interact with customers, either potential or active, to make sure you are providing enough value that they’ll actually want to pay you for your product or service.
The point of this post could be summarized in three words: Extreme customer service!
I believe in the principle of listening to your customers and giving them what they want, not what you think they want. You do have to be careful with this, and I’ll go over that later. But when you go the extra mile to make them happy, it’s amazing how loyal they can become.
Another important concept is to act quickly, both in answering e-mails, and in responding to requests. These are the things that will win your customers over to you. A good first impression goes a very long way.
Fast E-mail Response
The fact is, if you e-mail a big company today, you probably won’t get a response for at least 24 hours, and you may even have to wait 2-3 days. And the response often sounds like a canned message that doesn’t even answer your question.
You can do much better than that! And your customers will love you for it! I can’t count the number of times I have e-mailed someone back within 15-30 minutes (or even 2-3 hours) after they wrote an e-mail message, and have them respond with something like, “Wow! Thanks for the fast reply! You guys have great customer service!”
I value my time too much right now to spend all day in front of the computer answering e-mail as soon as it comes in, but I think this was an important ingredient that made my business successful as I was starting out. I now have a fabulous customer support team that answers e-mails in a timely, professional, friendly, and helpful manner. Building your customer support team is something you’ll probably do down the road, but I want to tell you how my team is structured, since I think it’s pretty unique.
Building a Customer Support Team
When e-mail got too heavy for me to handle on my own, I first tried to outsource to a call center that would handle e-mail support. They wanted several thousand dollars a month for 24/7 support, but it was an absolute joke trying to get them trained and answering e-mail the way I wanted. They also didn’t have any good system for me to login and see how their reps were answering questions, which was vital to me, in order to provide feedback and make sure they were doing a good job. They wouldn’t even provide me good service in addressing these issues. I cancelled the service after a week.
As I was talking this over with my mom, she had a brilliant idea (which isn’t uncommon for her). Why not see if there are any Music Teacher’s Helper’s customers who want to help with answering e-mails? They already know the product, they understand the customers, and I can manage the system however I want. I thought this was a great idea. I posted an offer on the company blog for a free subscription to Music Teacher’s Helper, and an additional payment for every e-mail they answered, for anyone who wanted to be on the support team (I think I was paying $1/e-mail at the time). I had several people respond, and after getting to know each one, and their availability and commitment, the team began.
I setup some support center software on the server so that all e-mails would go to a central location, and the team members could login from home to answer any available messages. I could login and answer e-mails myself, run reports on the tickets that had been answered, create a knowledgebase of common questions and answers, and manage everything from there. First I tried Kayako, but found Support Center to be much better for my needs, more customizable, and more affordable.
Talk about keeping costs down! With this system, I don’t have to rent a building or purchase equipment. I couldn’t have better people on the team, and they’re all happy to do it, not only because of the free subscription and extra cash, but the feeling of contribution to other teachers like them, being able to help and answer their questions. They also get to be at the front lines of handling feature requests, making suggestions, and are the first to hear about what new things we have planned. There is no outsourced call center that could match the quality of our customer support team.
Because they do such a great job, I now check my e-mail just twice a day (well, sometimes more – it’s still an addiction), and try to clear my inbox completely during those sessions. It’s surprising how quickly I can get through an inbox and take care any tasks the new messages bring in. If there are tasks that I don’t want to complete right away, I’ll make a note on my to-do list, which references the e-mail, and then get it out of the inbox.
I do have the occasional customer who really wants to talk to someone on the phone, rather than get an answer through e-mail. I have never found the phone to be necessary. There is no question I haven’t been able to answer through a well-worded e-mail. Video tutorials have also helped cut down on requests for phone support, but there are still those who want it (and I have made an exception on rare occasions).
I really don’t like using the phone – it’s an interruption, and you never know how long a conversation will take, especially if the person is a chatterbox. Because of that, and the extra costs and maintenance of providing phone support, this is something I haven’t implemented, and I don’t know if I ever will. If someone isn’t computer savvy enough to figure out a simple program through video tutorials and e-mail, they might not be the type of customer we want anyway (most figure it out on their own even without the tutorials).
Speaking of customers you don’t want, there are occasionally those who like to write in with angry complaints and demands, or dozens of questions that show they’re not even trying to figure things out themselves. These high-maintenance customers can sometimes really tax the system, and use up more time and resources than they’re paying you for. Often with just a little hand-holding, or some kind words, they can turn into good, low-maintenance customers. But sometimes it’s better just to let them go.
In all cases, however, it’s important to respond kindly. Apologize if they are frustrated and try to help them. If they do leave, you don’t want them to tell others how awful your service was. And sometimes in all the negativity, you can even find gems of feedback that will help you improve your service or product. And it’s good to take note of those. But just because they’re more verbal and emotional about it, doesn’t necessarily make their comments more valid. Use good judgment.
Be Careful with Expectations
I do want to issue a caution, though. Once you set a high standard, such as 30-minute e-mail response time, or fixing bugs on the same day they’re reported, it’s going to be very difficult to “undo” that expectation, and you may have disappointed customers if you don’t continually meet it. So I wouldn’t recommend advertising, “We answer all e-mails within 30 minutes!” unless you’re absolutely committed to always doing so.
One way to help with this is to overestimate when talking to customers. For example, if a customer has a problem, and you say, “Give me 2 hours to look into it and I will get back to you”, and it ends up taking you 6 hours to respond, this doesn’t make for a happy customer.
However, if instead you say, “It looks like this could take a couple days to figure out. Let me look into it and get back to you”, and then you get back with them in that same 6 hours, then they will be thrilled, and think you’re wonderful! That’s kind of a dumb example, but the principle is important. It’s much better to over-estimate and impress, than under-estimate and face irritation.
Handling Feature Requests
If you’ve read the great book by 37 Signals called “Getting Real“, you’ll learn that they recommend saying “no” to every feature request, until it’s been requested so many times that you can’t say no anymore. I can see the good logic in this. It ensures that your program doesn’t become cluttered, and is only filled with the most important and essential features.
However, this isn’t the way I’ve handled feature requests with Music Teacher’s Helper. And to some, the program may seem a little cluttered. But you know what, teachers love it! It does everything that teachers need to manage their studios! This is one of the reasons I don’t use Basecamp or other 37 signals products. They just don’t do enough for me!
In my experience, people don’t like having to use 6 different websites to accomplish a task. That’s why teachers like Music Teacher’s Helper. They’re tired of having several spreadsheets, notebooks, and filing cabinets to sort through. They just want a comprehensive, central repository for everything related to their studio. That’s what I’ve attempted to provide.
It’s true that most teachers don’t use everything that Music Teacher’s Helper offers. Every teacher likes to run their studio a different way, and has different needs. But the program has to do what they want, or they’re not going to use it! Don’t assume that you know what your customers want. Ask them, and then respond accordingly.
I was amazed at the great ideas that came in, especially during the beginning stages of launching the site. Making the program do what the customers wanted is what has made it successful. I couldn’t have envisioned on my own all the things that the program does today. That’s why I say it was “created by music teachers, for music teachers“.
Now, I should say that I don’t just add every single feature that’s requested. It has to make sense to me, and I make sure that it will be useful to a lot of teachers, and won’t clutter up the program too much, before it’s added. I do often wait until it’s been requested several times before adding it – although in the beginning when I didn’t have a lot of customers, I would often add a feature at first request. And I actually did end up having to rewrite the program once because it became kind of messy (and because I was such an inexperienced programmer when I started). :) But it sure won me a lot of loyal and enthusiastic customers. Just check out the testimonials!
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Handling Mail While Living Abroad
08 Oct 2009
Very wonderful idea from your Mom for handling the customer support. It really has made such a difference. :)
I’m glad my idea worked out so well! Has it saved you enough $$ to send me on a free trip to UK/Scotland? :) LOL…..
No, seriously, it I’m thrilled that so many of your happy customers also turned into a happy and productive customer support team – it has made a huge difference in your time freedom.
But the key here was you were organized enough to know what you wanted from your customer service team. If I remember correctly, you went to the time and trouble of creating a sort of “manual” for them – guidelines, etc. – as well as standard response emails for them to use and adapt.
It’s inspiring to read the testimonials from your customers – you’ve created something really valuable and unique. Congratulations!
@Allison – maybe someday we can all take a trip there. I think that would be fun. :)
Yes, I did create a short manual with some guidelines. And for my own purposes had already created several templates of common responses that I would use when people asked the same questions over and over. I simply translated these to our support center knowledgebase.
For faster typing of common phrases or even long e-mails, I use a free program called “Speed Typing” (http://www.colorpilot.com/speed-typing.html). For example, I can type “mthsig” and it will spit out my entire e-mail signature. Or I can type “pmfail” and it spits out the long e-mail I sent to people when their last Paypal payment didn’t go through. It’s been really helpful.
OK, I really must get a gravitas because I don’t like the frowny face that your blog assigned me…..
Looks like “Speed Typing” was renamed to Type Pilot and is no longer free. That’s pretty cool though. Now I see how you achieve 140 wpm! :)
In Tim Ferris’ Blog when asked “If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?” you answered this:
“I would have kept the product simpler, and been more picky about what features to include, rather than adding nearly every feature the customer wanted (necessitating a huge redesign later).”
When I read that I thought your biggest ‘mistake’ was to over add features, but here it seems that the key to your success was to add features. Seems like a contradiction, but in the beginning when you don’t have much feedback to determine what features to add, how do you decide it?
Yeah, I guess there are pros and cons both ways. We’re actually in the middle of a big redesign at the moment which is costing more than I ever expected to spend in development. But maybe that’s just the nature of software that’s 10+ years old. As technologies change, you’ve got to keep up with the game and continue serving the ever-changing needs of your customers.
As for deciding which features to include – use a mix of research along with your best judgment. Is the customer requesting something that will only be useful to them or a handful of people? Or is it something that would generally be appreciated by the majority of your customer base? And is it a quick and easy add? Or would it take intensive resources to complete, and make your software more complex and harder to manage? And would it increase the value of your software enough to justify spending those resources? Those are the kinds of questions I ask before deciding to add a new feature. Best wishes.