Founders ask the big questions for our startups. Customer service answers them.
In nearly every startup I've ever built, I've always stayed incredibly close to our customers. In fact, if you're reading this via our email list, which goes out to over 250,000 Founders like you every week, you'll notice that's my name on the reply button. That's actually me. If you're one of the brave souls who have attempted to contact what you were probably assuming was a bot or some customer service queue, you were probably surprised to get a message from me instead.
We've got over 200 people, a team of marketers, a team of customer support folks, and an insane amount of infrastructure. I also own a personal assistant business in Zirtual.com — so why am I answering our own emails? Because I believe customer support is a critical function of leadership, right up to the Founder + CEO.
In the early days of building startups, I've always manned customers support first hand, often on live chat so that I could work on my other stuff in parallel. The reason I've been so adamant about being on the front lines is because all of the answers I'm looking for as a Founder — what motivates my customers, what pisses them off - are sitting right in front of me in customer support.
The great thing about live chat is that no one knows that it's me, which means I get unfiltered honesty like "Your product sucks! I want a refund!" or "You're missing this feature!" This is the kind of feedback that never shows up in brainstorming sessions or early customer discovery. It's the feedback that should be shaping the evolution of our products. The more raw, the more emotional, the more detail I can use as a Founder to shape and modify my product.
As product developers and marketers we love to rely on surveys to gauge what our customers think. We populate these surveys with loaded questions and rely on arbitrary scales ("five stars!") to convey what we think our customers mean. This all pales in comparison to having a real conversation with a real customer, especially when they don't realize they are even being surveyed.
A "survey" may say that a new feature we launched isn't getting much use, or our Google Analytics may show that certain pages aren't being accessed. But nothing beats a conversation with a real customer to say "That image you're using makes no sense" or "I can't find out where to see pricing for the product before I buy!" or "This guy on Twitter (it's always Twitter) said he used your product and hated it!"
In the early days, we need conversations that lead to a back and forth. We need to be able to ask our own questions — lots of them — to dig deeper into why our new product isn't performing how we want it to. Those front lines are customer service every single time.
There's a famous military concept called "Leading from the front", which I always think of as the General leading their troops from the front lines, not hidden behind rows of infantry. I believe Founders should lead from the front, and when it comes to building a startup, customer support is most definitely the front lines (sales is another).
When we keep ourselves exposed to our customers, it keeps us accountable. We don't get to hide behind our decisions with legions of red tape between us. Not a day goes by where I'm not answering support emails from frustrated customers, and I don't mind saying — from some of our fans.
As Founders, we need to stay as close to the heartbeat of our business as possible, and that heartbeat lies in every single customer question, every single day.
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Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.