The Guide to Startup Customer Support

Support tickets can overwhelm a growing startup!


Maybe you started with a Kickstarter campaign.  A beautiful and quirky video that showcased your prototype and asked people to believe.  Or maybe you went the more traditional route and sold some skeptical venture capitalists on your dream.  If so, good on you!  But now that Kickstarter campaign has taken off beyond your wildest imagination.  Or you are spending your VC check on marketing and the orders…and complaints…are starting to come in fast and furious.

All of a sudden it isn’t enough to just clear your inbox of incoming emails…there are too many, hundreds a day.  And it is starting to matter whether that chat you are having is with someone who has written in several times before.  Is it fraud?  Why isn’t their problem taken care of?  Most of your team is spending way too much time on fielding basic questions from customers.

Welcome to the world of the scaling consumer startup.  When your product hits, it hits, and unless you do it right the amount of time you have to spend on customer support scales directly with the number of customers.  Now is the time to get ahead of the problem – you need to deploy training, systems, process, quality control, and, above all, proactivity, into your customer support operation.  It’s a very big, hairy task, but it is doable.  Here are some hard lessons we learned the hard way so you don’t have to.

1)  Take the Time to Develop Training

Put together some sort of training that incorporates your product, to your culture, how to find information, and everything in between.  If you don’t create written training what happens is that the agents you spend a bunch of time hiring and recruiting aren’t being prepared to succeed.  We’ve seen it before – a startup spends time finding the perfect agent.  Then the agent feels ill prepared, doesn’t think very highly of the company and typically will quit.  And the service will suck.

A lot of startups think they have training because they do side by sides.  But if it isn’t written down, then it isn’t the same training for every single person.  This is a recipe for scaling problems.  Also you want to be able to track what’s working and what isn’t, and what information people need more of.  So – side by side training is not really training.

2)  Contracts Matter

Don’t sign long term contracts if you can help it.  That holds true for technologies, vendors, and more.  And if you sign contracts with any other types of vendors, make sure you build yourself an out for terminating.

It’s not uncommon for startups to take a multiyear contract, for instance with a technology platform, in order to get a discount.  Then their strategy, inevitably changes.  For instance, they decide they are going to use a vendor or use an overseas operation and the system doesn’t support international.  So remember, think of futureproofing when you sign anything!

3)  Recruit the Right Way

Really think about what your agents are going to be doing all day long – and hire for that set of activities.  Should they be technical, should they have call center experience, should they come for your industry.  If you don’t do that thinking up front, then you waste time a lot of time in recruiting, and you also end up having agents who are frustrated because they don’t have the right skillset or attitude for the job.  So – if your agents will succeed if they are mathematically inclined…give them a math test as part of the hiring process.

Make sure to hire leads who care.  If they care about their company, their people, and the customer then that will flow to the rest of the team!  The leaders are the ones who will set the tone.  Remember that a lot of situations in a support environment can be tough – you need people who will create the right attitude to those tough situations!

4)  Be Deliberate About Your Tools

Make sure you give your agents the right tools – which basically ensure they have the right information available at the right time.  This can be a Google doc in the beginning, but your needs will outgrow Google pretty quickly.  To the extent you are going to be using a technology platform, whether it’s a phone system or a CRM, make sure to get personal references from people who use the product, rather than looking for online reviews.

As a side note – certain technologies have a way bigger effect earlier on than others.  Your first step should be a good knowledgebase and ticketing system.  Then, implementing a community program probably is a better return on your time than implementing a chatbot.  

5)  Report On What Matters

You should figure out what numbers are the most important for you track.  This will vary by industry.  That said, you should have some measure of productivity for your team from day one.  Yes, even in the beginning, when you don’t know how often people will call, you should find a way to track indicators of what your support folks are doing – even if it is the founders.  This will create a baseline from Day 1 to improve on later performance.  To do that you need to track the numbers!  How many emails answered per day, how many calls taken, how long it takes to resolve the average issue, and so on.  This doesn’t mean you are necessarily trying to minimize or optimize any of the ratios yet, but you will later.  We can’t count the number of prospective clients we have talked to who literally didn’t know if they had a problem when it came to their customer support performance.

A Final Note

There are any number of other, more complex issues you will face as you scale, but if you hire, train, manage, and report right from the beginning you will save yourself from lots of headaches!


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