Customer Service

June 3, 2012

There were two posts on Hacker News this week about customer service. Both caught my eye because it’s been pretty top of mind for me:

Pregnant Rock Stars: My Approach to Customer Service (Nat Gordon)

Why Cheap Customers Cost More (Sacha Greif)

Here’s what happened to me last week:

  1. Potential customer hit our IRC live chat and demanded to be called on the phone immediately to discuss
  2. Our excellent technical support engineer (who’s on IRC almost every waking hour, and our forums, and our email queue) pinged me for help
  3. In the middle of something, I asked the customer to leave me his number to call back (to which he typed: “we can go to other companies which seem more interested in our business”, but gave me his number anyway)
  4. I called - 45 minutes later - upon which the customer said: “honestly, we’re not really happy with your level of service, and our boss didn’t like that you don’t list a phone number on your site, so we’ve decided to go with something else.”
  5. To be fair, the customer wasn’t rude or irate; we pretty amicably agreed that if they wanted I-call-you-pick-up-now service then we weren’t the right vendor for them. We don’t list a phone number because there isn’t anyone who can man it all day.

But words like “not really happy with the level of service” irk me, because it’s something that we take very seriously. I can say that without feeling trite because I do remember a time when I didn’t worry about it too much, and that was when I worked at Google. (Not diminishing Google online sales reps who do take customer service very seriously, but I don’t believe that it’s as front and center of the Google culture as it is at the customer service poster child.) I actually remember the come-to-jesus moment I had when Jonathan gave me a lecture on crossing the chasm and how happy customers are (a) easier to retain than getting new ones, and (b) a marketing investment that we should be wise to focus on.

So - I want to treat everyone like Mick Jagger, and had Mick Jagger showed up on IRC, I would have jumped out of my meeting like a shot. But as we grow it’s increasingly hard to deal with hundreds or thousands of Mick Jaggers. Everyone wants to be treated like Mick Jagger, but few would pay for that privilege (I wouldn’t, usually). These are the cheap customers who cost more, and they are most of our customers.

Sacha Greif’s suggestions are good ones. I think there’s lots we can do to educate customers (our FAQ’s need plenty of work), and “drive off” the wrong customers by explaining and pricing our product better. But I don’t believe we can embrace a large chunk of our customer base by charging them for support. I’m scratching my head about how to support them as best as we can while volume continues to grow.