Sunday, October 27, 2013

Practical Guide To Building A Small Business Customer Support Organization

By: Alon Cohen EVP/CTO

I was asked by ERANYC, a startup incubator in NY, where I mentor entrepreneurs from time to time, to give a presentation about how to build a customer support organization.

At where I currently work, our team has done a tremendous job at that, and we recently won the New York NYER “Best Customer Service Award”.

After going through the process of building a support organization three times and after giving it some thought in order to give my ERANYC talk, I was able to put together this “practical guide to building a small business customer support organization”.

This short guide was inspired by Jeremy Watkins and Jenny Dempsey our customer support leaders at who worked very hard along with the rest of the company, to win the above NYER prestigious award.

In 1989 I co-founded VocalTec and after a while, we were about 3-4 people doing everything that had to be done in the company from coding to customer support.

Years later co-founding 2005 I co-founded an e-commerce website for human intellect. At least this was our starting point in case you check the site now. And more recently around 2007 being the first hired employee at, I had to do customer support, which I still do from time to time with great pride, and so I was an integral part of the process of creating the award-winning support organization.

In short, this is my third round going through that support formation process.

A mature support organization is complicated and expensive with a whole bunch of procedures and tools. However, that complexity is not created in a day and there are many simple ways to start an effective and simple support team with almost no cost.

This blog article will provide you with few guidelines that can help you, a small business owner, to jump-start your support organization and grow it as the company grows. It is not that complicated. First:

1) Define Your Support Goal

Not every organization need to have customer support here are some examples.

  • Zappos (will “Make Every Customer Happy”)
  • (are striving to be “Awesome”)
  • Google (Free product. Enough said!)

To maybe better understand the goal goal to be “Awesome” here is how Jenny & Jeremy, the lead people, define it:

“Awesome embodies much more than just happiness - it embodies a genuine, honest, friendly and real approach to customer service. We want our customers to feel empowered and appreciated by our service. We want our CSRs (Customer Support Representatives) to have every resource available to resolve problems while being able to let their unique qualities shine. We’ll do whatever it takes to help the customer - even if it means spending extra time/money/resources to do so.”

Heaving a clear goal is important as it defines the effort and budget you will spend or willing to spend on your customer support efforts.

2) Define Your Support Technical Parameters

Based on the type of service you provide and even the support your competition provides you will need to define your own support parameters. This will help you decide on the tools you will use and the number of people you will need. Here are some samples for customer support technical parameters:

  • Response time (1 Minute or 3 days, Weekday only, or 24x7)
  • Modalities (Web, E-mail, Phone.....)
  • Synchronous (i.e. Phone, Chat)
  • Asynchronous (i.e. E-mail and Voice mail)
  • Sourcing (In-house, Outsourced, Offshore)

Customers appreciate it when they can communicate with your support agents in the best way that fits them, so try offering E-mail, Phone (Toll-Free), Chat, Twitter, Facebook, and even SMS.

3) Select Your Ticket System.

A ticket system will help you keep records of your communication with the customer and the thread of that communication. It will help you know when a problem was resolved or it can remind you to get back to a customer who might be waiting for an answer.

There are a bunch of ticket systems out there some of which are expensive and some are free. Here are a few examples.
  • Gmail (Free – keeps your communication thread in one place)
  • Zoho (Very low cost)
  • Kayako (Very economic hosted and non-hosted versions)
  • Salesforce (Very Expensive)

4) Build Backend Agent Tools

An agent can be as good as the tools you provide him/her with. In the same way that a blind person has a hard time navigating without a cane, an agent with no tools is just as blind. As a minimum the agent Backend Tools have to provide the ability to perform the following:

  • Refunds
  • Account Cancelations
  • Check Log files
  • Password Recovery
  • Password Reset
  • Account Search
  • Package tracking
  • Customer Authentication (Is the caller really is who he says he is?)

5) Best Practices

You will need to define some work methods and best practices that agents will be able to follow and convey to new agents.

Empower your agents to help bit provides guidelines and safeguards. For instance, Zappos gives each agent $100/Day to make customers happy. Here are some other ideas:

  • Enable few trusted agents to open free accounts (no to all)
  • Enable few agents to offer discounts
  • Enable agents to provide refunds within limits:
    • Not every agent can make a refund.
    • A refund cannot be larger than what the customer originally paid.
    • A refund must be done to the same card it was originally paid with.

6) Make your Company DNA Conducive to Support

If you believe (like I do) that customer support is imperative for your company’s success you need to make that part of the company’s DNA. You need to make sure the company culture supports that notion. In the first startup that I co-founded half of the company was convinced that customers are evil. By the time I tried to change that it was a steep hill to climb. So:

  • Make EXCELLENT support, part of the company DNA and culture.
  • If possible give every developer some customer facing support duties. You will get better code.
  • Make sure everyone knows that the customers pay their salaries. Not you, not the investors, 
its the customers that pay every employee’s bills.
  • Hire agents with personalities that derive satisfaction from helping other people.

7) QA the support

After you set up your support organization you will need to monitor the support levels and make adjustments.

  • Read every support e-mail. It is not such a big task when you are small.
  • Eliminate (or block) negative words like (Unfortunately… We are sorry but… No we can not....)

Remember that when an agent must answer with a negative word it is probably because the product is missing a key feature. Learn from the above, and improve your product.

8) Monitor Key Metrics

Send a questioner to the customer after each closed ticket, with one question, in order to learn about your Net Promoter Score (NPS). This question is along the lines of

“What is the likelihood that you will recommend our service to others?

Monitor other service level key indicators like: “How many calls were answered under 1Minute” see sample list below:


9) Training

Being a customer support agent could be frustrating for many people. You must keep training new agents
since there are always new features
and there is usually a high agent turnover rate in that profession. Make sure agents know how to use the tools and remember, a frustrated agent will have a hard time providing a good level of customer support.

10) Special Treats

If you show your customer that they are important by offering all kind of special treats they will respond in kind (see letter below). Here are some options to help you make your customers feel special:

  • Customize your support to each user. Use their name.
  • Try to avoid ready-made answers.
  • Visit customers.
  • Learn how they use the system and add features to your wish list.
  • Discover customer pain points and work to fix them.
  • Send customers handwritten thank you notes.

To summarize, we all like to get better customer support wherever we go. We help that happen by educating other business about customer support. We find that we improve ourselves by educating others. To get more ideas and updates on how we do things at read the following:

  • Check our Support Leaders’ blog 
  • Check out Jenny singing her own “Customer Service Blues” song talking about the hardship of being in the front line 

If you need something else to think about here is a take-home question:

Which support function should have a faster response time?

  • Sales agents
  • or Support agents

Let us know what you think.

Alon Cohen,