Providing Great Customer Service: A SaaS Startup Approach

Olark live chat

I’ve been on a journey to learn how to provide great customer service since I first started working at SaaS startups. When your team is small, everyone gets involved talking to customers. I’ve met customers in person, said good morning on the phone, responded to questions on Instagram, and answered numerous messages.

Odds are, if your startup provides a service, you’ve been in the same situation. You hope that when you pick up the phone to talk to customers, they’ll be gushing with praise about how much they love your newest feature. The reality is that something broke or they’re having a hard time navigating your site.

I’ve picked up a few tricks so far that I’d like to share. Keep in mind that every startup is different and you will probably make a few mistakes yourself. How you handle them is what counts.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

An email asking one thing can sometimes turn into another and then another. Soon you’ve done as much explaining as you can and still haven’t solved the issue. Sometimes it’s just better to pick up the phone and call.

I had an experience with a customer who could not figure out how to format her questions, even with my instructions, and seemed to be getting more and more upset. We already had her number on file, so I gave her a call and the first thing she said was, “I’m so glad you called”. It instantly warmed her up. I then walked her through my same instructions, making sure to check in with her at every step. Even though I wasn’t providing any significantly different information, sometimes hearing a human voice just makes things easier.

It’s best to know your target audience and how they like to communicate. Would they prefer to tweet at you, send an email, or give you a phone call?

Lesson #2: Leverage your small size.

Big companies often feed you through a series of automated voice operators, making it a challenge to get to the right person. As a small company, play up the fact that you can offer personalized service that the big guys can’t. You’ll answer messages right away and get to know your customers individually.

I once had a customer ask if we could provide 24/7 support. What they really want to know was how timely we can fix things and if they could trust us, a small tech company.

Knowing their need to feel secure, we told them that we automatically get reports of bugs and outages. We also promised them that at minimum they’d receive responses within one business day (often sooner). If they anticipated any busy periods, they could let us know in advance and we’d be on standby.

You might not always be able to provide this level of customer service, but it will definitely turn your early adopters into your first evangelists.

Lesson #3: Use live chat.

Olark live chat

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I’ll admit, live chat can be very distracting while you work. On the bright side, it lowers one of the largest barriers for customers to contact you because they can start typing within their browser window. It also gives you an opportunity to ask questions and get immediate feedback on what the customer is looking for.

After some experimentation, I’ve found that it’s easiest to start off with “Hi {Customer’s name} How can I help you today?” It’s simple and starts the conversation on a positive note. Sometimes customers will send you a long message off the bat. Acknowledge them (“Hi {Customer’s name}. Let me take a look at that for you”) so they know you’re there before you take a look into things.

One benefit of using live chat is that pasting links is easy. You can send links to how-to guides or check to make sure you’re on the same page, literally. You can also see which browser and operating system they are using, which is helpful if there appears to be a bug.

Eventually your customers will be looking for you on live chat. I’ve frequently had conversations that started with “Hi Ashley!” and were followed by compliments to the team. Make it easy to get feedback and you might even find some of it is positive!

By the way, I recommend using Olark for live chat. It has a clean interface for both the customer and support agent.

Lesson #4: Acknowledge frustrations, but avoid saying “sorry” or “unfortunately”.

I know this sounds a little crazy, but hear me out. I attended a local customer support meetup where I first heard this advice. The problem with using “sorry” and/or admitting fault is that the conversation takes a negative tone. It’s better to acknowledge the customer’s frustration with a phrase like “that’s weird” and then steer the conversation towards figuring out what happened. Apple employees aren’t allowed to say “unfortunately” and routinely use phrases like “as it turns out” for this same reason.

I’ve found this advice to be extremely helpful. I once had to deal with a nagging customer that seemed to count the number of times we apologized for things and then use it to her advantage to try to squeeze free features out of us. While it’s important to acknowledge their frustrations, don’t make any special promises unless they’re backed by revenue. Let them know you’d like to learn their thoughts about the product and have an in-depth discussion. Ask yourself if what they’re requesting fits the needs of your target customer.

Lesson #5: Build up a knowledge base (and don’t call it Frequently Asked Questions).

Don’t wait until you have a dedicated Support person to start documenting how to use your site. I used to answer a question on live chat, then get frustrated a week later when I had to answer it again and couldn’t find what I had previously written. Start documenting answers on a dedicated resource page, or if you have the bandwidth, use a customer service provider like Zendesk or Desk. You can call it a Knowledge Base, Help Center, or Support Center. Just don’t call it Frequently Asked Questions because that implies that the information isn’t presented clearly on your website. If that’s the case, you should fix that.

For the marketing folks out there, you can even play around with your article names and link structure for KBO, knowledge base optimization.

Lesson #6: Figure out your style of communication and document guidelines.

You want your communication to be consistent. Before you get to the point where multiple people are involved, think about how you are going to scale your customer support. Will everyone take turns handling questions on the front line? Will you have a dedicated Slack thread for incoming queries?

In the case of reporting bugs, you’ll want to establish a protocol that makes sense to your team. As I described in “Learning How to Talk to Developers”, engineers often approach problems differently. Make sure you know what information to collect and where to put it. Typically, you’ll want information about the date and time of the error, the browser used, and the error message that appeared. Outline all actions taken by the customer and try to replicate it before passing on to your engineers.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the nicest, most patient customers as I’ve learned how to best support them. Do you have any tips on providing great customer service?


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