Simply put, customer service is about ensuring that the business has met the needs and expectations of customers. A definition that makes a lot of sense for established businesses or those with as little as a proven product. For startup teams whose business model is not yet scalable and repeatable, what is customer service all about? It gets tricky. Should you listen and do despite the occasional irrelevance of their requests to your vision? or should you say No more often than you’d like? The reality is that the most difficult time to support customers is when everything is immature.
This is how you differentiate between customer service and customer development in pre-validation stages. But first, why is it such an important topic in the first place? I can think of two main reasons.
There is a limit to what a small team can possibly do and accomplish within a predetermined period of time. The time is usually predetermined or at least estimated because who is going to wait months or over a year for a feature they need today? A small team can build a product that addresses the needs of thousands of customers but never will a small team be able to satisfy specific needs of a large user base. Small teams have limited resources and for this reason it is critical to put a limit to the customer is always right mantra.
As a side note, keep this fact in mind and you will get some weight off your shoulders: never will a product be complete. But there is a borderline acceptance level that differentiates between meeting, exceeding or falling short of users’ expectations. In pre-validation stages, it is the innovators and early adopters that are likely to use your broken product and most of them understand the reason behind its current stand. The confusing part is when one or a group of early majority users seek your services then realize the mediocrity of the product. Constant communication is critical.
I find that first time entrepreneurs have hard time saying No sometimes. The excitement takes over reality which makes entrepreneurs spend countless hours building features very few want. The good news is that despite the limitations and challenges, you can still create a better support experience for customer understanding as well as satisfaction. The 3 Ps is how you do it.
In pre-validation stages and unless your product experiences the growth seen in Pokemon Go, treat every interested user personally. First, the truth is that rarely will a potential buyer or user of MVP understand the challenges and distractions you and the team experience almost on an hourly basis. Putting them in context helps you help them decide to stick with you for the best or churn. Avoid email templates, automated services and all the tools that make it convenient for you and the team to communicate with first users. This will make saying No, we unfortunately don’t support this feature currently the easiest way possible. Those who urgently need your solution will respect the explanation and most likely understand the situation. It is also the best way for a startup to filter those that love what they do from those who kind of like it.
The vast majority of customer feature requests should be pleasantly rejected unless they meet two conditions: many customers demand the same thing and when the features were already planned for later stages. Sometimes the first condition is sufficient to make the extra effort. You differentiate between customer satisfaction and development at this stage by defining hypotheses based on requests from a sample of customers followed by an interaction with a bigger group through which you validate or reject the defined hypotheses. Customer satisfaction is shown in the effort your team is making to meet their objectives. It may be that only a small sample is seeking one specific feature. Something that may or may not justify the investment. Prioritization for satisfaction differs from one business to the other. In B2B solutions, startups have a bigger responsibility to provide differentiated experience for different segments. In B2C, the same logic applies but at a lesser degree.
Have you asked, why are they specifically requesting X and not Z? Even though Z accomplishes the same goal in a slightly different way. Before saying No, it is very important to ask why to possibly help them find an alternative solution to the same problem. This not only shows care, but it is also an invaluable opportunity to understand user needs and expectations. It is one way to combine good customer service with customer development.
In sum, due to early stage startups’ limited resources and quality of products’ initial versions customer, success can be hard to implement and manage. Keeping customers satisfied is critical but can have a negative impact on core product focus.
By personalizing, prioritizing and listening to user needs, startups can reach product market fit faster, understand product use-cases beyond the initial plan, build testimonials and company story through users’ words, and clarify the metrics for customer success.
Customer satisfaction can be divided into two big stages: before and after the purchase. In early stage startups, before the purchase simply means learning the most from potential users while showing care for their needs and expectations. This can be accomplished by building personal relationships and by satisfying their needs using non-scalable resources. After the purchase, it is about making each one in the team a customer service representative and rewarding customers who take the time to identify the bugs and propose solutions, something we refer to as bug bounty programs.
How else would you do the best for customers without losing focus on the vision?