Vonjour’s Lean Startup Guide to Customer Support

startups at work

Old School Lean Startup

What makes startups unique from more mature businesses is the tremendous amount of uncertainty a startup faces. Founders start with a problem or pain point and devise an often times unique solution. While it’s tempting to go all in on an idea, before a company starts investing serious resources into the business idea they need to make sure the product can scale to support a sustainable business. Chiefly, does the idea solve a pain point and whether there are enough potential users to grow the business.

At Vonjour we have built on ‘lean’ growth principles and have created an iterative model of customer support to help founders address these uncertainties and scale their business. The goal of ‘lean customer support’ is to test initial assumptions of the business prior to making leap of faith investments into expensive software tools and customer support hires.

In the early validation stage of a company, customer support should facilitate connecting founders with their users. No matter how many intermediaries exist between a company and its customers, customers are more than metrics–they are thinking individuals that provide the necessary feedback to build a “must have” product. Startups need extensive contact with potential and existing customers to understand their pain points. As such, founders need to have many qualitative feedback sessions with their customers. Supporting early customers is the key to this product/user alignment process.

The primary goal of these early conversations with customers is to validate some core business assumptions. In order to get this initial crucial feedback, a company should invest in minimum viable support software that allows customers to converse with founders. A simple telephone number or chat box should be available on all the pages of your site so that users can easily connect with the company.

The support solution should facilitate a rapid response to customer inquiries to make early users very happy. Paul Graham has written about doing things don’t scale in early stages. Wufoo, for example, sent each new users a hand-written thank you note. Focusing on individual customers makes the user feel like signing up was one of the best decisions they have ever made, even if it is a buggy and incomplete product. In fact, engaging intensely with early users can make up for the early weaknesses in product.

The initial conversations with users should not be focused on product features of a proposed solution. The average consumer is not conversant enough with technology to necessarily have an opinion on whether they would want to use existing features in a new way. At Vonjour we never asked our target customers about specific features, but rather we ask what was the biggest obstacle in how they communicated with customers. In getting this feedback we were able to build a product that was solving their pain points.

Instead of prodding into potential feature set, founders should instead parse out from these early customer conversations whether there is a significant pain point that needs to be solved and understand their potential customer to determine whether there is a significant audience to scale into.

When talking to an early user, it’s helpful to ask them to show how they currently solve the problem. Show them how your product would solve their problem and see if they get excited about it. Video conferencing tools and screen sharing tools are very helpful in this process.

Based on these qualitative interviews, a company can prioritize product decisions in a way that are aligned with the customer to whom the company wants to appeal. It is important to make sure that the entire organization takes part in customer support conversations. Whether it is an engineer, designer, or a marketer, it is a critical practice to have everyone in the organization to do at least one to two hours a week of customer support to better understand the customer’s pain points.

From these customer interviews it is important to pinpoint a signal about who loves the product and what it is they love about the product. What is the aha moment that a user has with a product that makes it special? Most products have at least have a few people that will consider it a must have product. It’s important to learn as much as possible about these users, their use cases, and demographics so that the company can get more of them when it is time to scale company.

The next critical question is how a team determines when it is time to invest some resources into marketing and support of the product. Before accelerating growth through marketing and operations investments, it is important to determine whether the product is sufficiently solving the target user’s pain points. For a startup, growth is less a function of clever marketing and optimal customer support than it is building something that customers really need.

Sean Ellis, of Qualaroo and a well known startup marketing guru, has created a survey question to measure objectively whether the company has met the “must-have milestone.” It is a fairly simple question. Present users who have used your product at least twice with the following survey question:

How would you feel if you could no longer use our product?

  • Very disappointed
  • Somewhat disappointed
  • Not disappointed (it isn’t that useful)
  • N/A—I no longer use product

When 40% of repeated users indicate that they would be very disappointed if the product no longer existed, the product has arrived at a product/market fit or what Sean Ellis describes as a “must have” product. The “must have” or product/market fit milestone is critical in validating the initial founder assumptions. Yet even with reaching a product market/fit it is also important to optimize for the sign up conversion funnel and pricing model before investing additional resources into marketing.

Once a company has reached these three milestones, the company has the green light to start growth acceleration. At this point, the next marketing expense should be in its customer support team. Any customer that calls a support team is a great source of knowledge about your target market. Customer support will uncover issues that will help the startup grow faster without spending.

It is critical to get a customer support tool that provides metrics on your customer interactions. If customer support teams are overwhelmed in these early stages, it’s an indicator that the company is not prepared to accelerate growth until the issues driving these calls are resolved. Creating customer support channels such as phone support and chat that do not immediately connect customers to support agents will hurt a brand’s reputation. A potential user that is left on hold for an excessive amount of time will probably never consider coming back to a company and even worse leave a negative review of the company.

Companies like ZenDesk and Vonjour offer tools to measure a company’s interactions with their customers. When customer support goes above and beyond expectations, brands can drive customer loyalty and enhance word of mouth virality. Like any other part of the startup experience, customer support involves many iterations. Support tools should include metrics on how responsive and effective organizations are able to provide happiness to their customers through these channels.

Here are some additional resources that can be helpful:

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