What is the Best Strategy for Making a Start-up Grow? Everyone Works in Customer Service!

In 2008 we began working on a new project and just as all entrepreneurs venturing out exclusively with their own capital (better known as “Bootstrapping”), with no external investments, we had no other option than to carry out ourselves (the founders) all the work relating to customer service from day one (and it was definitely the best thing that could have happened to us!).

Seven years have passed and we still do not have a specific area dedicated to customer service and currently with 34 people forming our work team, we have decided to set an internal policy where each one of us (from the newest, such as a junior programmer, to the oldest, the CEO) is to work on customer service tasks 1 day for every 10 work days.

But, why did we make this decision and are confident that other entrepreneurs should also adopt it as a strategy for growth? In the following we will share everything we have learned over the past years:

1) As a first priority, we make decisions based on customer service.

This excellent habit of having everyone perform customer service tasks allows us to have direct contact (with no intermediary) with the end users. This allows us, in consequence, at the moment of defining strategically how our product will evolve over the short, mid, and long term, to always have a different perspective: that of the client. Basically, it is as if all of us were the client and we represent them during the company’s internal planning meetings (with their corresponding complaints, suggestions, etc.).

A concrete example of this happened in our own business venture in 2010 when on a strategic level we were considering changing our servers to Amazon Web Services (AWS). It was an important decision as it would affect cost and efficiency. However, based on what we heard over and over again when we worked in customer service, we decided to relegate this technical implementation for 2 years and we gave priority to the development of a whole new design focused on mobile devices.

This is definitely what had the most favorable impact on our users. The decision based on direct contact with the clients was the correct decision at that time and even today it still generates positive results and separates us from the competition. The focus on customer service is what guides the future development of our product.

2) Criticism is the best motivation.

After years of working with this philosophy, us being engineers, programmers, and designers, we realized that no matter how hard we try, we unfortunately live deeply immersed in our own world. For example, we can tell you the exact reasons why we put a button in one specific place on the screen or why a field to be completed has a certain format or even how a new function that we created “should” function within an application.

However, when we go to the phones or email to answer the questions, or better stated “critiques”, of our users, we realize that in spite of our logic and justifying of the “why” and “how” we did something, it does the user no good if they are not able to use it (not understanding) or if it is of no use.

This is why it is so important that all of us do the complete cycle, which means not just doing our daily job, but also spend time in customer service. In this way we are able to bring our feet back to earth and see the main reason for our job: “solve a concrete problem for the user who pays our salary.”

This criticism of our work does not need to discourage us, just the opposite, it should create a sense of belonging and obligation so that we take the responsibility for what we implement in order to maximize our work and impact in the future.

An example of this is what is done by Paul English, founder of Kayak, where in the technology department there is a red phone for customer service. Each time it rings a programmer must answer. When Paul is asked why a person earning around USD $150,000 per year should do this when people are available in a call center who can do it for a fifth of this amount, he responds: “the second or third time that they must interrupt what they are doing, get up, and answer the phone, without a doubt the first thing they are going to do is solve the problem immediately.”

3) There isn’t a better place to learn!

Another aspect that for us proved to be surprising and provide huge benefits is in understanding that there is no other area in the company where a new employee can learn quicker about the “what” we do and “how” we work than in customer service.

This is why, in the process of trial and insertion of a new team member, they must complete one continuous month in customer service. This allows us to analyze various aspects that from our point of view are essential: a) the ability to communicate verbally or in writing during critical moments, b) the skill to solve new unexpected problems (that do not have a predetermined solution and are not known beforehand) and c) the adaptation in order to get to know the rest of the employees from different sectors with whom they need to interact in order to finally give a correct response to the end user.

As a point of reference, for example the company FreshBooks requests as a minimum that each new prospective employee spend a period of 2 months in customer service as part of the requirements for being hired.

4) Bet on a long term relationship.

The goal in working in this new way is to build a long term relationship with the user where this person receives a direct response from those who really created the product, from those who know it inside and out and can help them with their problem in order to successfully continue ahead.

What company today will give us a direct response from the CEO? Or a programmer? Or a designer? If we are lucky someone will respond and be able to guide us. If we can separate ourselves from the competition through these small but important aspects, we will create relationships with our clients that will last for years!

Additionally, and even more importantly, we will rightly influence our programmers and designers so that they think and develop considering the user’s perspective, that they share and feel their pain that ended in the user having to call customer service.

All of this will consequently generate through time, work and dedication, a better product for those that keep the lights on for our start-up: the clients.

© 2015, Cristian Rennella. All rights reserved.

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