Episode 11: Customer Support

How a business interacts and supports its customers is super important to keeping hold of them – and attracting new ones. We speak to two direct-to-consumer brands who take their customer support seriously and dig into the details about doing it.

Courier Workshop episode 11: Customer Support

Courier Workshop episode 11: Customer Support

How a business interacts and supports its customers is super important to keeping hold of them – and attracting new ones. We speak to two direct-to-consumer brands who take their customer support very seriously and dig into the details of how they go about it. Plus, we get the lowdown from a Zendesk expert on the essentials every business needs to have in place from the beginning – and then how to scale it.

AMIRAH JIWA: From Courier, I'm Amirah Jiwa.

DUNCAN GRIFFITHS NAKANISHI: And I'm Duncan Griffiths Nakanishi. 

AMIRAH: And welcome to Courier's Workshop podcast. Every two weeks, Workshop breaks down one essential business topic and explains how it could be useful for you. Our goal is to get you just the right amount of info to help you apply what we're talking about to what you're working on. I'll be speaking to experts with practical tips and founders with relevant experience. 

DUNCAN: And I'll be explaining the essential terms and summarising the key takeaways at the end of the show. 

AMIRAH: Today, we're talking about customer support or customer service. The way you interact with and offer support to your customers plays a huge part in how somebody feels about your business. And it has the power to inspire loyalty and turn customers into brand advocates. Forget recorded messages and hold music – modern customer service is all about talking to your customers the way that's most convenient for them. To get a fresh perspective on the topic, we spoke with two direct-to-consumer brands that have really invested in their customer support functions and that use their teams to create additional value for the business beyond just solving customer problems.

COULTER LEWIS: I think it's easy to think of Sunday as a company that makes products to help you care for your property. But actually what we sell is an experience. 

JAMES LOACH: At Harry's, the customer is at the core of everything we do. It's really important for the customer experience team at Harry's to be not only the voice of Harry's to the customer, but the voice of the customer within Harry's as a whole.

AMIRAH: First up, we spoke with James Loach, who heads up the UK customer service team for Harry's, a men's grooming brand. 

At Harry's, the customer experience team is responsible for collecting key insights from customers and feeding them back to the relevant team within the business so that Harry's can improve their product and service. 

JAMES: We work solely in-house with teams hired by Harry's directly. Both teams in the US and the UK report in commercially as well, which is a pretty big deal because oftentimes CX functions will report in more operationally. 

DUNCAN: Hey, definition number one. CX is a commonly used acronym for ‘customer experience’, which is the sum total of a customer's perceptions and feelings towards the brand. 

JAMES: By having the teams within the commercial functions, either into the general manager in the UK or through the insights team in the US, we make sure that the things that our customers are telling us really get back to the business in a very quick way and we're able to action them and they're able to inform decisions that we make throughout the whole business. 

AMIRAH: Can you give an example of a time where feedback from the customer experience team actually led to a product change.

JAMES: A specific timely example, I think, is when we ran our first Christmas in the UK. Our packaging is lovely and it comes in a beautiful box, but it says Harry's on it. And we got feedback from customers that very first Christmas saying, ‘This is great, but now people know what's in the package because it's got a big Harry’s logo on it.’ And so we were able to take that information and use it for the next Christmas and the Christmas after and now this one to really make sure that any gifts that were bought for Christmas and that any products at all that were shipped within a certain time period close to Christmas ended up being in this plain outer wrapper so that no Christmas presents could be spoiled.

AMIRAH: What kinds of qualities do you look for when you're hiring for this function? And how do you make sure that the people you bring on can deliver the level of service that's required? 

JAMES: We're looking for really smart people that have a lot of empathy and really want to not only help customers, but also be great at taking that feedback from a customer and making sure that is shared within the business so that we're able to drive results from it. A common mistake is to just throw anyone at the CX function when you're starting a company, because all of a sudden these contacts are coming in and you're like, ‘Wow, we just need people to go there,’ but instead it's much better in the long run to be really intentional. So, at Harry’s, someone joining the CX team goes through the exact same full hiring process as anyone else joining in the company. So including multiple phone screens, meeting a whole bunch of different people from different teams at Harry's when they do an on site – or a virtual on site at the moment – and then obviously going through rigorous reference checks as well. 

So the whole process between when we onboard people at Harry's – again, it's very deliberate – they will have the usual onboarding process making sure they're completely up to date with the brand and the products we offer and the history and who everyone is and what every other department does. And then they'll also have the specific CX onboarding as well, which takes two to three weeks and is a mixture of learning presentations, learning PowerPoint, but also lots of shadowing, lots of seeing how people do things on the job. And then lots of reverse shadowing as well, obviously, so actually starting to do emails, do calls, do chats, but have other people from the team sitting with them and really assisting them as they go. We wouldn't expect anyone to be fully productive and ready until about at least three months in. 

AMIRAH: Which channels do you offer customer support on? 

JAMES: In the UK we have phone, email, chat and social media channels. I think when we're thinking about those channels now, what we're also seeing is there's a clear advantage and demand to move into some new areas in the future, such as messaging, which is becoming a much, much bigger deal. 

AMIRAH: Do you have any other advice for small businesses looking to use customer service to create value? 

JAMES: One of the things that I mentioned already, but going back to it is really making sure that you use the insights the CX team provides. It can be sometimes easy to think of it as a percentage of contacts or a percentage of orders when a customer is having a certain issue. But it's still really useful to focus on those things and solve those problems, even when it's only a very small number of people having the problem. I think the thing to think about there is: just because there's only a small people reporting it to you, there could be many more people out there experiencing that problem who don't get in touch. And, therefore, it's really worthwhile thinking about how you fix that.

AMIRAH: Now, here's Coulter Lewis, founder of Sunday, a brand that uses climate and soil data to sell customers the exact right lawn care products they need. At Sunday, ongoing customer support is a key part of their offering and a major reason customers make their purchase in the first place. 

COULTER: What we found was that nobody knows anything about lawn care. I mean, I think we talked to hundreds of people – what we learned was that they felt like they were supposed to. There's an expectation that, as a man or as an adult, when you buy a home, you're supposed to know these things. But that information and knowledge and knowhow doesn't materialise like that. And so you have a population of people who have little to no experience and knowhow, feel very intimidated by this, but it became clear to us that if we could guide them through step by step and build that confidence over time and really empower them to go out there and do this, that was the greatest value we could offer. So that shapes the whole offering from Sunday – what the company is. 

AMIRAH: At what point does your customer experience team interact with customers? 

COULTER: We're a digitally native brand. Our customers come through our website and that is the only place you can purchase something right now. And that starts with your home address. So we don't sell anything to a customer unless we know about their environment and where they are so we can tailor the solution for them. So after you enter your home address, we pull up imagery of your home and pull up data on your soil. We pull up your climate and your recent weather and ask you some questions about your goals and your history with your lawn and then create a custom solution that's sent to the customer right on time, exactly the right amount and the right ingredients for that property. 

So the way an onboarding looks for a customer of ours is: they would go through that sequence of questions and information I just shared, sign up for a plan. They would then receive an email within about a day where the CX agent on our side would actually pull aerial photography to their homes, super-high-resolution photography, and measure out their lawn and create a boundary for that. So they get the exact sizing correct and exact area correct. And then they email the customer with that information and say, ‘I'm your lawn adviser, I'm someone you can talk to throughout the season as you have questions, or if you have things you want fixed on your lawn, come to me and we'll figure it out. And here's my analysis of your property. Let me know if there's anything you want to change.’ So the conversation actually starts before there's any product even delivered to the customer. 

AMIRAH: And how do you make sure that those team members are equipped to provide that kind of support?

COULTER: I think we find people who have a passion for the mission that we're trying to accomplish as a company and a curiosity and a willingness to dig in. And so people come to us with zero knowledge, so we wouldn't throw somebody in on their first day and make them a lawn adviser and have customers calling them with questions about how to care for their lawn. They'd be answering more questions along the lines of ‘my box is late’, ‘I have a damaged product’ – problems that are less turf-science related. And then, over time, they would elevate into a position where they're more answering the more challenging questions. 

Then we have a program we call Sunday School where, weekly, they go through different in-depth learning on particular topics, like there might be one on fungus and what causes fungus issues in grass and what can customers do to prevent it. And in the country right now, where is the weather conducive to this and where is it not? Drought stress and different kinds of core topics to turf care, really getting them steeped in turf science, not all the way down because we have a turf PhD as our chief science officer. That's a lifetime of learning, but enough that they're very educated. 

AMIRAH: Any other thoughts on the value of really investing in your customer service team? 

COULTER: There are ways in which customer experience drives growth, helps customers upgrade on what they're purchasing and purchase more products. They are the front line of our brand. The 10-second video you see on Facebook has less impact on the customer than that five-minute conversation you have with someone. Obviously, the conversation is expensive and not as scalable, but you're able to create a much closer connection and real advocates through those human interactions. 

I think e-comm 1.0 was: you can save some money and get it fast. Really meeting very, very basic needs. And as that's been really fulfilled, and Amazon really is very good at those things, I think we're moving to a place where more old-fashioned, good service, good experience, I feel good about this brand from start to finish is what it's going to take to be able to do well. 

AMIRAH: As Coulter and James both made clear, the people you bring on to your customer service team will be key to its success. Our final guest on today's show is Kristen Durham from Zendesk, a company that creates popular customer support tools. In her role as VP of Zendesk's Startup Initiative, Kristen works with early-stage companies worldwide to help them set a strong foundation for customer service. Here she is on best practice and the key things to look out for when it comes to this essential function. 

KRISTEN DURHAM: I think that, for most companies, there's a natural progression, right? You need to acquire users before you can support them. And so, oftentimes, companies focus almost exclusively on marketing, on sales. How do they bring more users to the platform? It's expensive up front to acquire these customers. It's even more costly to lose them shortly after. And more and more it's less the product and more the customer experience that determines whether a user will stay with your company long term. And so I think that, right now, what we're seeing is that shift, that recognition that retention is critical. The post-sales experience is critical. 

AMIRAH: So what's the best way for businesses to build a robust customer support system? 

KRISTEN: Starting in a shared inbox is super common. And you can survive for a while. I think we use the rule of thumb that at the point in time that you have more users than you can remember or easily count, it's time to get out of your inbox and into a tool that will make it easier. 

Definitely a support platform is the next step beyond the shared inbox, and that support platform can work with a variety of communication channels. Zendesk is built originally on email, but it integrates social media channels. You can add live chat support, you can add phone support all directly within that platform. But the key is that everything is connected because, as you're building this customer record and as you think about providing convenient ways for users to get in touch with you, you really need everything to work together. You really need that customer, whether they send you an email one day or have a very urgent issue and decide to call you another, you want that person showing up in your customer service organisation as the same person every time. You want them to have a connected experience; you want the person responding to them to have a really robust view of who they're talking with. And so the support platform is key to that. 

AMIRAH: Apart from helping companies organise all their customer interactions in one place, what are the other benefits of using a tech platform for customer support? 

KRISTEN: These interactions in a customer service environment are places where not only do you drive customer retention, but you can build trust in your brand. You can enhance your product roadmap by getting direct feedback from users. And so using a platform can help you in a few ways as tools are reading your tickets, looking for things that unify them and connect them. 

DUNCAN: ‘Tickets’ or ‘support tickets’ refers to an interaction between a customer and a business' support system or customer support employees.

KRISTEN: Can start surfacing some of those key terms, the things that are appearing over and over again and naturally you can build a data model around that. 

AMIRAH: As I understand it, tech can also help you track how your customer support team is performing against various key metrics. What are some of those metrics that businesses should be monitoring?

KRISTEN: One is the first reply time. So that's how long somebody is waiting on you to reach out to them at all. And the other is full resolution time. So how long are you dealing with their issue? Realistically, I think if you're just getting started, if you're replying to everybody in the same day, that's a good start. And then if you're resolving their issue within two days, is also a little bit more reasonable, considering you're going to be building process and implementing tools and doing a lot of things at the same time. But chasing after those two data points is really important. They're the most highly correlated to the ultimate satisfaction of your user with the way that they're interacting with customer service and that customer satisfaction has a direct correlation to net promoter score and the willingness of those customers to either speak positively or negatively about you in the market. 

DUNCAN: Net promoter score, or NPS is a metric that shows how likely someone is to recommend the business to someone they know. Customers rate your business on a scale from zero to 10. The NPS score is worked out by subtracting the percentage of detractors (those who score between zero and six) from the percentage of promoters (those who score it either 9 or 10).

KRISTEN: So these are the two things that we obsess about, that we encourage customers to obsess about as well. 

AMIRAH: Finally, are there any other things that businesses should really invest in or consider when it comes to their customer support function? 

KRISTEN: As we talk about consumers' demand for convenience and wanting to interact with you at the places that are comfortable for them, the other reality is most consumers actually don't want to have to talk to a company. I think it's something like 60%, 65% would rather self-service a solution. Building a help center takes consistent investment over time.

DUNCAN: A help centre is a centralized place which is often online, where customers can find the help and support they need for common problems. That's typically in the shape of FAQs, guides or tutorials. 

KRISTEN: It's one of the most scalable and high ROI kind of investments that you can make as you start making those investments in a help centre. That does make it easy for a user to get the answers they need, leaving the team's time there and available for when there's a problem that actually requires a human. 

AMIRAH: If you want to try out using tech to support your customer service function, Zendesk has a programme where eligible startups can use their products for free for six months. Just head to zendesk.com/startups for more info and to apply. Thanks so much to James, Coulter and Kristen for joining us and for sharing their valuable perspectives on customer service. And thanks to Fiverr for sponsoring today's show. Now here's Duncan with today's key takeaways.

DUNCAN: Number one: don't underestimate the value of great customer support. It's a really important way to acquire and retain customers. Number two: you should offer customer support on a variety of channels and use a tech platform to keep all those interactions in one place so you have organised customer records. And number three: make sure you're using the interactions you have with your customers to generate insights that can help you make improvements to your product and brand. 

That's it for today. If you're looking for more tips on delivering excellent customer support, check out our step-by-step guide on the topic at mailchimp.com/courier. 

AMIRAH: Workshop is back in two weeks. See you next time. 

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