The most important function at the company

It is probably not a great idea for the boss to publicly have favorites, but I was known at Periscope Data to occasionally blurt out that the support team was my favorite team. Well, they were. I probably got away with it because support is such a typically underloved function that my comments were no threat to any other team’s ego. 

At our startups, we invent new products. Usually a new foundational technology is powering a new product that has never been invented before, which lets people do things in ways they’ve never done before. At Periscope, raw SQL of almost limitless complexity could finally run fast enough to build your entire BI dashboard in minutes. At Modelbit, a single line of Python can capture your entire ML model, its code and its runtime environment, and deploy it to a production container in minutes. 

With anything new, there are rough edges. There are rough edges when the technology doesn’t work as well as it should, and there are rough edges when customers use it in ways you did not anticipate. You’ll need to rapidly understand and react in both of these scenarios. You’ll also need to keep customers happy through this decidedly under-construction phase of the company.

How? Simple: Exceptional customer support. Not “good” customer support. Not “great” customer support. Truly exceptional customer support. Your customer support should be so good that customers don’t understand how it’s even possible.

The founders personally own support for as long as they can. Sales and support are the ways your market talks to you. Yet while everyone knows we should be doing “founder-led sales,” founders are criminally eager to hand off customer support. This is weakness. Everything your market says to you is critical. Getting the same dumb question over and over again? Your product is not as intuitive as it needs to be. Customers breaking the product in unintended ways? Evidence of where the product needs to go. Customer feedback, often in the form of complaints and questions, points the way to product-market fit. The closer you are to the feedback, the faster you learn.

When a customer is talking, drop what you are doing. Today, when a customer talks in a shared channel with Modelbit, my phone buzzes. Does this mean my phone buzzes all the time? Sometimes, yes. Is it weird when I suddenly get up and leave a meeting because a customer is talking? Also yes. But look, in my life I get only a couple shots at building something that changes the world. The path to changing the world leads through customer feedback and right now, a customer is talking

Fix bugs immediately after they’re reported. Or as my co-founder Tom puts it, “there just shouldn’t be bugs.” In the early days, there are many moments where you’re asking a customer to stick by you through some gnarly growing pains. The stunning speed with which you fix their bug reports is an easy way to build the trust you’ll need in the harder moments. Like responsiveness, this is an area where you can set a standard early on that becomes a foundation of your culture as you scale.

Measure support response time in seconds: At Periscope, we measured our response time in chat support. The average response time was under 5 seconds during business hours. So when we hired a support team, we gave them that SLA. This held up for many years. It did eventually slip, but not by much. A fun side benefit is you can ask your SDR team why the support team can answer tickets with SQL code in them in seconds, but SDRs can’t follow up with an inbound lead that fast. 

Yes, you can scale exceptional customer support. You’ll start by using exceptional support to cover product gaps. Then you’ll discover it’s a competitive advantage, and you’ll want to scale it up with the company. Investors will tell you this is impossible to scale. They are wrong. Periscope’s support reps had to know SQL, and had to reply to customers in seconds. Was it impossible to hire for? Not really. We paid competitively for their skillset, and sure, that made the support team more expensive, but not prohibitively so. And it became the cost center at the company I was consistently proudest of.

When you scale the support team, scale the feedback mechanism. At first, the fact that the CEO reacts with alacrity to every ticket will mean the whole team reads those tickets. This stops when you hire a support team. Build a cadence of forwarding every ticket to the whole team and then talking about them. When that breaks down, build a cadence of reporting out the key customer learnings every week at all-hands. Make a big show of paying attention and setting up a process to incorporate the feedback.

Tell them they are the best, and then expect the best. People often join customer support teams to make some kind of career transition, and are expecting to “pay their dues” for twelve or eighteen months before moving on. That is fine. But you must make it clear that they are joining the greatest customer support organization in the Western hemisphere, at a company that prides itself on its customer support. They should feel like a rookie walking into the Golden State Warriors practice facility for the first time. 

Make it a career path. By the time we had career tracks at Periscope, the support team had become customer solutions engineering, and spent half their time supporting customers and half their time writing code to automate internal operations. Then they started getting hired onto the sales engineering, data analytics, and product management teams. Then a funny thing happened: People started to want to move to the solutions team because it would eventually open up technical career options. SDRs would stay up nights teaching themselves enough SQL to interview on the solutions team. This, as much as the comp, drove the talent levels we were able to maintain on the team.

Make new execs do a support rotation. I never did this because by the time a new exec started, I always felt I needed them in the seat "yesterday." Then months later, I'd sit frustrated at an exec team meeting because strategy discussions lacked the depth that comes from hands-on experience with the product and its customers. I will not be making this mistake again.

Celebrate the team. This is so easy and so often overlooked. Most companies have forums for celebrating big sales wins and new product launches. Get the support team up there celebrating their wins. Make it as big as a big new customer or a big launch. Include direct quotes from customers or, better yet, customers themselves. Incentives matter, and compensation matters, but sometimes the best way to get excellence is just to expect it and then celebrate it. 

If you’re lucky, your competitors will think of support as a cost center to be minimized and automated. You know better. It’s your customers talking to you, showing you where you need to go. And it’s the way you show your customers the love and respect you feel for them.