Looking back on my life I can pinpoint several key moments that put me on the path that led me to where I am now. One of these moments in my past centers around an incredible customer service experience that set my career as a tech entrepreneur in motion. This all started when I was in middle school, and I always refer to this experience anytime I’m building a customer service experience.
The Gateway to Computers
I remember the trips to Gateway Computers as my father spent weeks researching the best computers to buy. Gateway’s iconic cow boxes and reputation for customer service won out and soon I was waiting by the door as the UPS delivery guy dropped off 3 boxes. The first was for the CRT monitor, the other was for the speakers, and the last held the DX-266mhz computer. We had upgraded the RAM to be 16mb of memory and had a modem to connect to America Online (AOL).
From the very beginning there was a magnetic pull to the computer. I would wake up early, which was very uncommon for me, before school so I could play on it. There really wasn’t much you could do on it, yet it pulled me in unlike anything else in my life.
But everything wasn’t perfect with this $3,600 computer! After a few months, it snapped off and wouldn’t turn back on. I checked the cables and tried everything. Eventually, my father called Gateway’s technical support and spent hours diagnosing it to try and find out what was happening. I laid on the floor and listened as they went round and round trying to figure out what happened.
Eventually, they concluded that the main wire that connected the power supply was run under the main board. Over time, the pressure of this cut into the wire and shorted out the entire motherboard. We’d need multiple new components, and they shipped them to us in two days or less.
The Call that Changed Everything
Unfortunately, my father traveled quite a bit for work. The boxes of components sat on the desk next to the computer and waited until he’d have time to install them. The wait was unbearable and one afternoon I noticed the Gateway support manual. It had the 1-800 number and I started to consider calling it myself. I previously heard what my dad told them, and I figured they’d never know it wasn’t him!
I called the number…
I gave them the serial number and account information.
“How can I help you today?” the man stated on the other end of the call.
I filled him in as best I could and said we needed to install the components. He jumped into action and the next thing I know; I’m opening up our very expensive computer. I’m nervous. I’m double checking everything, and I’m doing my best to remember everything the guy is telling me.
Near the end, we were wrapping up with everything and I asked him what the ISA card did. He paused and simply said, “You’re pretty interested in all of this stuff, aren’t you?”
I froze for a moment, thinking I had screwed up and he knew I was just a kid on the other side of the call. Looking back, he had to know I was with my voice and the questions I was asking! But at the time, I thought I was hiding it perfectly.
I replied to him, “Yes, this stuff is pretty cool.”
The guy then proceeded to have me fully disassemble the entire computer. I mean every button, switch, cable, and component was pulled out of the computer. He then walked me through each item, what it did and why it fit together the way it did. Our hour and half support call turned into a 5-hour call where he spent the majority of his time teaching me about computers.
Making Customer Service Its Own Reward
When is the last time you felt like a company would ever do something like this? I bet you can’t easily name one. Zappos is the only company I have even heard about that set a record for the longest support call in their company history.
We always talk about the importance of building a brand, the brand messaging, and creating unique customer experiences. Yet, most companies reward their customer service people based on the total number of calls they completed.
What is the value of customer service if it’s solely based on speed? Are we really creating unique experiences that last a lifetime with our customers or are we creating yet another bad experience tied to your brand?
Customer service is run this way because it’s a cost derivative approach. If you pay someone $15 per hour, how many calls can you get out of them per day? This is easy to calculate and the return on investment is easy to understand. But marketing your brand, especially early on, requires every touch point with the customer to be a great experience.
How to Build Great Customer Service
Not every customer service call with your startup can last 5 hours. But my advice on building a successful model is as follows:
1. The Founders need to initially run customer support. This keeps you connected to your most happy and unhappy customers. You don’t have to seek out customer interviews because they are coming to you without request. I will also argue that your founders should participate in customer support as your company grows.
2. Avoid time-based measurement models. These reward how fast you and your people get through support requests. Instead, consider tracking the completeness, reducing re-opened tickets, and the overall ratings from the customer experience ratings. Empower your people to spend real time with your customers and have discussions about it as a team later. Share your biggest wins and challenges in this department with the entire early-stage team.
3. Lead by example. If you jump on calls or rapidly answer support requests that aren’t personal, in your brand’s voice, or creating these unique experiences then your coworkers won’t do this either. How you behave to your customers will set the culture for all future interactions.
When things get tough or multiple competitors enter the market you win by providing the best experiences to your customers. Going over and beyond to treat your customers right builds loyalty. This loyalty can be an extremely powerful force for your business.
And besides, you might just influence a middle school kid who’s way too into your product. That experience might just set him on an incredible future that neither of you know is going to happen. As the years go by, he’ll tell his story to everyone that will listen, and he’ll buy countless versions of your products. Isn’t this worth the extra effort and time on your next customer service call?