Teaching The Art Of Customer Support – with Sarah Hatter

by Tim Jahn on March 25, 2011

Sarah Hatter is the founder of CoSupport, a company that helps web and mobile app companies with their customer support.  Sarah used to work in customer support at 37signals.

I invited her here today to share why she left 37signals to start CoSupport, how she plans on teaching the art of customer support, and why the customer support model of today needs to change.


Tim Jahn: You used to work with 37signals, with Jason, with David, with the whole gang, which people either love or they absolutely hate. I love and obviously, you love them as well.

Sarah Hatter: Yeah, very much.

Tim Jahn: So, you were the head of their customer support team, right? Or you were —

Sarah Hatter: Yes, and for a long time I was the only person there doing support. And then the last four years or so, the customer base has like pretty much doubled every year in size and the number of support requests are getting. And so, now when I left they now have five people on support. So, it quadrupled, I guess, in size since I started.

Tim Jahn: So, it took like two or three people just to fill your shoes?

Sarah Hatter: I didn’t say that. You might’ve said that, I didn’t say that.

Tim Jahn: So, you’ve left 37signals. You are an entrepreneur now, a creative entrepreneur doing a web business called CoSupport. And why don’t you just give me a — what’s the pitch here in CoSupport?

Sarah Hatter: The easy pitch is that we provide customer support sort of solutions for people who build web and mobile apps. So, we can do everything from writing your help documentation for you to actually training your team on how to do support, doing a full audit of your customer needs and products, and helping you find the right support tools, maybe it’s a zendesk or at sicily or maybe it’s just a free product like Gmail.

Having done the job for so long and having used all of the products and done a lot of consulting through my friends who are web developers that kind of know where to start people when they’re first building an app with what support they may need. So, now we’re making a business out of it. It’s very fun.

Tim Jahn: So, I develop a really cool website, a web app and I have customers using it and I’m working all day on developing it. When the time comes and I need support because people are complaining or they want new things, I call you and then you help me out?

Sarah Hatter: We’ll help you out. Yeah, and again, sometimes you don’t really need a full staff doing support. If you were just a one or two man shop it’d be a lot easier for you to just have really great documentation about your product online or have a really great user guide or videos or screen casts that people can watch and learn about product. If you’re a paying app, you definitely need someone to help you with billing issues and you need to learn how to figure out a refund policy.

And especially with the nature of our industry, people are so quick to review publicly people’s products in like a kind of a fit of rage or at a very emotional outburst. And you need someone who can really help you learn how to monitor how to monitor your public feedback and respond to it in a great way that will turn the experience around for a customer. So, there’s a lot we can do.

Tim Jahn: So, what made you leave 37signals and start CoSupport?

Sarah Hatter: Well, I wanted to start my own business and I knew that I probably would be a better entrepreneur than I would be an employee, and I for a long time had been getting requests from people to do consulting or speaking or helping them set up their support team. And when you’re bound to one company you can’t really fairly give your time or your experience or attention away to another company.

So, what I found was that I could just get all this stuff out of my head. And the last thing I wanna do is not share my experience and my knowledge, especially when I think that it could do other people very well. So, I’m excited to be out there and just finding smaller teams and helping them build up great customer service and then seeing where they take it from there.

Tim Jahn: So, your idea with this model here, the idea of kind of helping people with their support in an outsource type model and then kind of training them and hopefully getting them better at their own customer support. There’s good satisfaction, there’s sicily, there’s all sorts of really cool web apps that have popped up in the past few years centered around customer support, but your take on this seems entirely different than anything I’ve seen. What is your take on this and how did you come about doing it doing it this way?

Sarah Hatter: My take on this is that I’ve used all those products and I’ve worked with lots of people on support and I’ve seen bad customer support, people using the same tools as people do in great customer support using the same tools.

And the reality is you can have all the tools as you want, you can have all the money that you want to spend on a help desk, but if you don’t know how to do great personal relational customer support it really doesn’t matter.

I always tell people too, when we talk about hiring in support people, hiring for personality and hiring for culture is way better than hiring for skill because skill can be taught, it can be learned, personality can’t be learned.

It’s the same way when you’re thinking about there’s these great tools, get satisfaction is a great tool, but if you’re using it incorrectly or you’re using it in a way that isn’t productive customers, it’s not a great tool in the end, same with help spot, or sicily or zendesk. You can have all the technology you want, but if you don’t have a great personality behind that to reach your customers, it’s not gonna do you any good.

So, we’re kind of filling that gap where we know there’s great tools out there. We know how to use them all. We can teach you how to use them all, but mostly we’re gonna teach you how to use great language and be human and not respond like robot, and not use phrases like thank you for feedback which is just gross.

And once people have those little tips, once they learn from experts, what experts say they should do, then as they get comfortable they’ll be better at being human on their own. So, they can take whatever experience and training they’ve gotten and build upon that for themselves.

Tim Jahn: So, you’re almost teaching people the art of customer support in the sense of —

Sarah Hatter: I hope I am. Yeah, I think that’s definitely my goal. And there’s so much stuff that I think comes naturally because it sounds professional or you’ve heard it before, somebody said, “Sorry for the inconvenience to you” a million times and so then you end up saying it.

And especially when you’re not really — if you’re a developer and customer service isn’t your main focus, it’s so much easier to each those blanket statements than it is to think about having a real conversation with a person. It’s not a bad trait, it’s not a fault, it’s really just a habit that a lot of people have. And so, breaking that habit is what introduces really great customer relationships, I think, when you don’t necessarily have that mindset already. It just takes a little bit of training and a little bit of work and people can do great things with it.

Tim Jahn: So, you launched this obviously, knowing that there’s a need that you feel like you’re gonna solve here and there’s a big hole in the industry. Why are you gonna succeed? Why isn’t this gonna fall apart and people are gonna go back to the way they were doing customer support before they met you?

Sarah Hatter: Oh, I don’t think people are ever gonna go back to the old way of doing customer support. I don’t think that people are — people are seeing that what’s really driving product success is their customer’s feedback and their customer’s love of the product.

And sometimes a really bad product, maybe a mobile app that crashes a lot or is very buggy, can have a great, fantastic, loyal following from people just because they love the personality of the company, or it can be completely the opposite. It can be an awesome product that never has any problems, doesn’t get very great reviews and people don’t like because they don’t like the way that the company handles customer support or just any press releases or help documentation.

All of that stuff matters now. We’re seeing a lot how a company like Zappos, they call themselves customer service company that sells shoes. I mean, that’s kind of big deal. Apple has completely branded, trademark branded their type of support called AppleCare where its known, they have stores where you can have a genius help you. I mean, this kind of stuff is really — people want step-by-step instructions from a human being.

They want help. They want personality more than they want just a document or a user guide or a pdf to download. And certainly, we’re also finding that people’s impatience these days leads to their “bad experience,” people want an immediate email back. They want an immediate response on Twitter. They’re going to get on Twitter and they’re gonna slam a company and they want to see an immediate response from them. And that really determines whether they keep slamming the company, whether they keep using the product, or whether they’re vocally emphatic, I guess, about how much they like or hate the company.

So, I think a lot of larger brands are realizing this, maybe more than the smaller brands are. You see companies like Comcast on Twitter they have like, I think I heard last year they had 19 people who their jobs at Comcast were just to monitor their Twitter feeds and the blogs. I mean, that kind of stuff is really remarkable for a company that’s known for not having great customer service.

They’re really trying to engage their customers in a much better way and turn around that experience so, I think that’s admirable. And I think, especially people that are running development shops of two, three, four, five people, they’re really realizing that the livelihood of their app relies on iTunes reviews, Twitter feedback, all this kind of public historical record. It’s always gonna be there. Google’s always going to have these search results that either someone ranting about some silly little problem or someone praising you for the way that you handled the silly problem.

Tim Jahn: You bring up an interesting point with — well, Comcast I have my own thoughts about, but the idea that we all want an immediate response, because I’m the same way, not necessarily on Twitter.

But like when I send an email to a customer support rep for whatever, it’s partly the reason I dropped the previous hosting company I was using was because they would take days or you know, their customer support ticket center would say next available response 22 hours from now and I’m like, “That’s unacceptable for web hosting.” —

Sarah Hatter: It’s ridiculous.

Tim Jahn: Yeah. I guess my question is when you’re a small one person shop, if I just built my web app, I can answer customers four questions as they come in. I probably only have a few dozen, thousand, hundred, whatever customers, obviously, the company grows, we have tons and tons and tons of customers. I have 50 people working with me now.

How do you keep that — still that immediateness, that personal — like you said, it’s all about the personality that’s gonna keep me coming back to your company for customer support. How do you keep that going when you —

Sarah Hatter: A lot of it just has to with establishing your values for support, for your company and holding true to those as long as possibly can. Especially when you would talk about someone taking two, three days to respond to an email, I mean, that’s absurd in this day and age that you can’t get back to email within an few hours.

Even if you don’t have an answer, even if someone’s reporting a bug that you know about and you know it’s not gonna be fixed for three days, you could still write them back within the hour and say, “I’m sorry, this sucks, we know about it. Hang tight, I’ll get back to you when we know it’s fixed.” And over communication like that is winning for people especially for customers, they want information even if you can’t give them a fix right away. They want to know that you’re there, that they’re not just wasting their time sending an email out to the void.

And if you start with when you’re small, when you have like you said, a dozen, thousand customers, I love that number, you can start by putting into practice, this is how we’re gonna do things. We’re going to over communicate with our customers. We’re gonna tell them we got their email, we’re not gonna send them an auto responder. We’re gonna send them a status update. We’re gonna have a fantastic status update website if something goes down people can see it. We’re gonna be responsive on Twitter.

And so much of it also comes down to the language that you choose to use. If you choose to use very human language even in times of crisis people are going to enjoy that, they’re going to love you for that. So, once you start and establish patterns that are core to your company, that are values, that everybody who comes into your support team knows that this is how we do things, then it really becomes easy to grow with your customers. As your customer base grows you can grow and still respond to them in the way because you’ve established already this very baseline of how you’re going to do things.

No one ever starts with really, really, really great support and starts getting crappier support as they get more customers, that’s not how it works. They usually start with really crappy support and then they get better as they get more customers.

So, if that’s your goal is making sure that you have a right, consistent sort of great human tone for your support regardless of how many customers you have, then you have to start at the very beginning recognizing where are we failing, where can we improve, and keep improving. And I think that’s just sort of organic when it comes to people who are committed to customer service, you know, making sure that you’re hiring people who are committed to that growth in customer service too.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, and you mentioned Zappos before and I think they’re a great example of what you just said in terms of defining your values and hiring people that fit those values. I mean, their whole thing is they make customer service engrained in all parts of their company.

What you were just describing before about all those elements of customer service, you know, maintaining a status update and making sure that you’ve your customers of your application status immediately, all those things, that sounds a full time job in itself. I mean, it sounds like you’re gonna be working just as much on customer support as you are on developing and creating more elements of your product. How do you —

Sarah Hatter: Right. That’s why I started this company because it’s very obvious that a lot of people in the development phase, number one, they want to be a part of the customer service. They want to see what people are complaining about. They want to see what people are praising in their product. They want to maintain control over their product, which includes being the front line of support for people.

But when you start to grow and you start to have publicity with your app or more users, there’s gonna come a time when you really can’t do it all. So, having a system like CoSupport come in where we can really easily identify areas where you can be more organized in support, you can do your support faster, it shouldn’t take you four hours to answer 100 questions. A lot of the times people just don’t know the best methods to make it easier and faster and more organized. So, we can come in and kind of assess what you’re doing and make it a lot easier if you’re not in a position to hire someone to do support full time.

And again, like I said at the beginning, having great user guides and having a great support site that has searchable help section where can find answers without having to contact you, sometimes people just can’t put the time into that during development. They don’t write a help section until months after the product has been launched.

So, if you start with that stuff, you’re gonna start with a much better customer experience already. Hiring a company like CoSupport to come in and write your help section before you launch, so that on day one it’s right there, you’re gonna see that your customer support is automatically going to be much lower than if you didn’t have any answers public for people.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, I think that — I totally agree with you there. The idea that have the help there from the beginning and then you have a lot less to worry about down the road in terms of, you can point people somewhere. So, you have launched CoSupport, right now you know it’s March, a little over a month ago —

Sarah Hatter: Yes.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, it’s exciting.

Sarah Hatter: It’s really exciting. Yeah, it’s really exciting.

Tim Jahn: Let that smile out —

Sarah Hatter: I know, I mean it’s kind of like I was telling someone before this is pretty much the last of first, you know, I got my badge for Southbyte, I had my company name on it. This was the first time I had ever seen that, or I got my company credit card in the mail with the company name.

It’s like this is the last time it’s gonna be really exciting because next month I’m gonna be getting a bill from my credit card with my company name on it. So, it’s kind of nice to have that, you know, yeah, I’ve had a company for a month and we’re doing really well and yeah, it’s just exciting.

Tim Jahn: This is a very, I’m just curious, how are you handling customer support for your own company? Is it just you’re using your products for yourself?

Sarah Hatter: Yeah, I’m using really simple products for myself and I’m using really simple methods. Someone writes me an email, I usually respond within 15 minutes to let them know I got it and get more information from them —

Tim Jahn: You respond to every email like that? Within 15 minutes?

Sarah Hatter: Yeah, during normal working hours. If I get an email — it’s kind of part of my process, I don’t like stuff to stack up. I don’t like, “I’ll get to that later or I’ll schedule that,” because you rarely get to it later. And while you’re waiting to get to it later other stuff is stacking up. So, I’m very much into — I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know the process and I take it into my own world too, I respond to people right away, otherwise, who knows how long it’ll take you to respond to it.

And I think that should be the practice in everyone that’s doing customer support. Their practice should be getting an answer to someone as quickly as possible, one minute, two minute, 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter if you have the right answer right now. Like I said before, you can always tell them “I’ll get back to you,” but it’s better to tell them that than to just let the email sit.

Tim Jahn: I think, from a customer prospective that’s my number one that I wish would be, even if you don’t have the answer just email me back and say, “Hey, we’ll have the answer by end of day” or something. But yeah, I mean, I think the biggest problem is people think they’re just not listened to.

Sarah Hatter: They’re not listened to or they’re ignored or that they just — especially when you’re limiting yourself to doing email only support that can sometimes feel like — I mean, we still have times in our normal life where we ask a friend, “Hey, did you get that email?” So, imagine a customer asking the same thing if they haven’t gotten a response from you in two, three days. They don’t know if you care.

And by that time, the customer’s probably moved on to something else. And so, you wanna save that experience by being responsive and that’s a really simple little tip for people. Support is a lot of little simple things that are just put into practice and it’s not about you’re an idiot because you don’t know, you just don’t think about it sometimes. You gotta put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Think of your own self as a customer. Think about how you would like to be treated and then treat your customers that way.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, I think customer support is often an after thought for many people, not necessarily on purpose, it’s just kind of natural flow. You think about your product, you think about selling that product, and then, “Oh, crap. I have to support the guy who just bought it.” It seems so obvious afterward.

Sarah Hatter: Yeah, when you’re developing a product you become very attached to it and you get used it and you know it and don’t ever have fresh eyes on your product until it launches and then there’s people banging on it all day, there’s someone finding bugs, there’s someone who isn’t maybe as tech savvy as you who you really doesn’t know how it works and can’t figure it out. And it’s difficult to assume what questions people are going to have when you are so familiar with how something works.

You can come with maybe ten questions that I don’t know maybe you asked yourself like how am I going to solve this problem, but you’ll most likely those will not be your real frequently asked questions when you launch because you’re to familiar with the product. So again, like having somebody come in, a friend, or hire somebody like me or having a colleague come in and sort of peer review your app as a customer is a really great way to figure out what kind of support you’re going to need and what kind of support documentation you’re going to need too.

I don’t think that when you’re — let’s say your VC funded start up or whatever, I had a lot of friends who have done start ups, who’ve built start ups, and I don’t think any of them sat down with any venture capitalist and the venture capitalist said, “Great app, who are you gonna hire to do your support? Are you gonna use the sicily or zendesk? Have you thought about how, what your refund policies gonna be?” I don’t think they think of this stuff at all, and I know that it’s one of the most important thing to the loyalty that your customers are going to establish to the product. So, you’re right, it is an after thought and that’s unfortunate, it doesn’t have to be.

Tim Jahn: Not with CoSupport.

Sarah Hatter: Not with CoSupport.

Tim Jahn: What would you say your number one piece of advice is for the creative entrepreneur’s watching this program, watching this interview for their products? What’s your number one piece of advice for them for implementing and maintaining their customer support?

Sarah Hatter: I would say value the person who’s going to doing your support and let them know that they’re valued, pay them well, don’t settle on a $15 an hour part time job. Because however you value your customer service person, whatever training you give them, whatever accessibility you give them to answer their questions and to support them in their role is going to trickle down in how they support your customers.

You know I saw a great — this is really like a fantastic tip for anybody who’s like start up or developer who’s leading any sort of like company app, I saw this fantastic profile on the CEO of the Container Store who he says that his focus is his employees. He doesn’t even think about the customers because if the employees are happy the customers will be happy as a byproduct.

And I think when it comes to customer support people, especially in the tech industry, we look to hire the cheapest resource possible and sometimes that means hiring under educated or under experienced people, no offense to people in college or whatever. But I have a friend who’s trying to get an intern to do his customer support for free for his huge web app right now and I’m like that’s just showing me the value that you put on your customer service.

It’s showing me the value that you put on your customer experience if you can’t value the person enough doing the job. So, I think that’s probably the first thing is that if that you’re gonna be selling an app and you’re gonna hire someone to do support, then you have to realize that I’m gonna probably have to pay this person enough money that they’re gonna be happy. I’m gonna have to support them and value them as an employee, if I do that they’re gonna be happy. The customers are gonna be very happy too.

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