(Last Updated On: August 12, 2011)

 

(This guest post is from Jesse Maddox, the CEO of TripLingo. TripLingo makes language-learning applications specifically designed for travelers. They currently offer Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dari, and even Pirate! You can find TripLingo and Jesse on Twitter: @TripLingo & @Onwardly.)

Answering support emails isn’t exactly glamorous, and if you asked your team if anyone wanted to take responsibility for answering them, few would raise their hand. And why would they? It can be distracting from the other tasks you’re doing, and you’re likely to run into similar questions over and over from:

  • People who want to learn about your product
  • Upset customers
  • Customers who can’t figure out some technical issue
  • Customers requesting features

One reason a CEO might object to answering support queries is that support issues are focused on one user at a time- and as CEO part of your job is to focus on the grand issues- satisfying thousands of users and not on supporting individuals.

Despite this concern, and especially in early-stage startups, there are several compelling reasons to answer support emails as a CEO, ranging from keeping close to the customer to keeping the rest of your team focused.

Here are my five reasons, can you think of more? Have any objections?

Reason #1: Direct Feedback From Customers

Answering support emails and chats is the best way to get direct feedback from customers. As someone responsible for guiding the product vision, this feedback is invaluable to understanding what your users expect and how you’re meeting those expectations. Setting up a solid customer support system (like with SnapEngage) speeds up the development cycle and is a relatively cheap way to improve the product quality.

Reason #2: You Aren’t Shielded From Product Issues

Pushing this task on someone else means you don’t have to directly deal with customer complaints, which makes it easier for you to ignore them or write them off. But when you have to individually respond to 10 customers that have the same problem, their problem becomes your problem. When its your problem, you become quickly motivated to get it fixed quickly. And their problem is your problem, so this is a great way to align your customers’ interest with your own.

One example from TripLingo was feedback we got regarding audio quality on our first release. I heard this several times, and besides the customers being right, it was a great motivation to get it fixed. We’ve since built a new sound studio and re-recorded all of the 50+ hours of audio that we did initially in a poor room for recording.

Reason #3: Your Engineers’ Time is More Valuable Than Yours

Startups have few employees, so if its not you doing the customer support it’s likely someone on the engineering team. And lets face it: the technological challenges your engineers face are typically more complex than your own challenges and require their focus. And while they could probably do many of the things you do, non-technical CEOs can save precious engineering time by being the buffer between engineers and the customer.

The market supports this idea. A good engineer makes probably $150K. A similarly ranking marketing officer might make half that. Further, part of your job is to keep everyone else happy, and you won’t make your engineers happy if you ask them to do support.

And engineers, don’t take this too harshly, but developers often aren’t the right face for a company in a delicate area like support. Many lack the desire, sympathy for technologically-challenged users, and the patience for dealing with such a front-facing aspect of a company’s operations.

Reason #4: It Forces You to Be Up-to-Speed on Technical Issues

Having a grasp of what is going wrong for customers is helpful in prioritizing and having a firm grasp of the technical issues you’re facing. If someone has a technical problem, I let them know that I’ll talk to our engineering team to see if we can figure out what the problem is. Then, I talk to our engineering team. Not only does this serve as a filter of sorts for helping the engineers focus on their task, but it also ensures that I know what’s going on technically that’s causing a problem.

Reason #5: Customers Appreciate It

If you respond promptly, courteously, and helpfully to customers, they really appreciate it. Mainly because they’re not used to that level of support. They also like that the CEO, someone who has influence at the company, has taken the time to address their concerns.

I’ve probably gotten 5 or 6 angry emails from customers where their tone is really aggressive and they are upset. Its amazing how their tone changes when you respond nicely. We offer a 200-year 100% money-back guarantee, and I proactively offer this to each customer that reports a problem. This high level of support often takes people aback, and every time except once the other person has apologized for their tone because they felt bad for the way they sent their email.

Bonus Reason: It’s the Right Thing to Do

We take selling our product pretty seriously, and consider offering support to our users a part of that transaction. Undoubtedly you’re familiar with the terrible support offered by some companies, and it never fails to infuriate. Each of those instances is a missed opportunity for that company to delight you, to impress you, to gain you as a true fan. But offering solid support isn’t just an opportunity, we believe its a responsibility. So make it happen!

Final Words

We use SnapEngage for answering customer support issues via email and instant messenger. We love SnapEngage (and I originally wrote this for ourblog, but then offered to have SnapEngage post it here). SnapEngage is relatively inexpensive, and it gives your customers the option to email you or have a live chat. Live chats come through over Skype, which integrates well into my routine and makes it easy to answer questions. There are four of us on our account, so if I’m not around then someone else can answer the query as well.

It obviously doesn’t make sense for Steve Jobs to answer Apple support issues- he’d have no time for anything else. But as you’re getting started, you DO have the time, and for the reasons outlined above I strongly believe that startup CEOs should answer these questions. For TripLingo, we’ve been able to engage with hundreds of customers, get critical insight into bugs or issues faced by our users, and even gain a few fans in the process. When you’re fighting for every inch, offering exceptional support is a pretty easy way to set yourself apart.