5 Tips for Startups to Get Their Customer Support Strategy Up and Running From Day 1

Published June 28, 2011
Last modified June 28, 2011

Today, Zendesk is teaming up with startup accelerator MassChallenge to help early-stage entrepreneurs grow and succeed.

MassChallenge runs an annual global startup competition, in which young companies compete for $1 million in cash prizes. This year, 125 finalists were chosen from nearly 700 applicants. The finalists come from all over the world; and between June and October they are given free office space in Boston, pair up with mentors and industry experts, and work to grow their vision. In October, each team pitches a panel of expert judges who then award grants to the most promising business. In 2010, 16 companies were awarded grants.

To help these young companies get started, Zendesk is offering free help desk accounts to all 125 finalists during their time in the competition. We count many startups among our 10,000 customers; and, of course, Zendesk has a startup background of its own. We have seen and learned that the companies who take customer support seriously from day one benefit greatly over those companies who back burner it until it's too late.

The importance of support from day one

Sometimes it's hard to think of Groupon as a startup. Groupon is one of the fastest growing companies ever; they currently have well over 50 million subscribers to their daily coupons and deals.

Groupon is also one of our biggest customers - nearly 1400 support agents receive on average 15,000 support requests per day.

But of course, Groupon started like many of the young companies participating in MassChallenge - a few people and a small support team. When they signed on with Zendesk in the early stages of their growth, they had just eight support agents.
Groupon takes support seriously. As Groupon's director of support Joe Harrow says, to really grow their customer base, “[w]e needed something real here,” in terms of customer support.

Many of our startup customers say the same thing. Customer support is an integral part of their success and something where a little early planning and setup will pay off tremendously.

To get perspective on support for startups, we spoke with Zendesk customer and 2010 MassChallenge winner Alex Cook, Founder and CEO of Rentabilities.

"Rentabilities helps you find and rent anything, anywhere. Anything you can buy, you can also likely rent," Cook says.

Rentabilities can help you find not just those tables and chairs for your wedding, but also pretty much anything you might need for just a little while: thousands of costumes, massive party boats, plants, helicopters, even iPads.

We asked Alex for advice on support for startups, and specifically for the 125 companies following in Rentabilities shoes over at MassChallenge right now.

Support Advice for Startups

1. Customer support is the best way listen to your customers

"Every single customer interaction is like gold to your startup," Cook says. "So it's worth an hour or so to setup a system and do it right." Customer support is more than solving problems or answering questions - it is also a feedback machine. The better able you are to capture and then analyze the feedback you are receiving, the better off your start up will be. You will learn what works and what doesn't about your product or service. Get a system that allows you to organize, track and then report on your customer conversations.

If you're using Zendesk, you can use a combination of custom fields and tags to collect and organize valuable feedback from your customers. The support team at Tumblr, for instance, uses Zendesk tags to track patterns in their customers' questions, feature requests, and problems.

"A startup stays alive by constantly learning as fast as possible," Cook says. "One of the best ways to learn quickly is by talking to customers."

2. Customer Support isn't always about saying yes

The flip side of this is knowing when to say no to customers. "One of the difficult parts of customer support is saying no and filtering," Cook says. "Everyone has an idea, an opinion, or something custom they want you to build for them. It's your job to say no... and it's hard! Being transparent with your customers helps."

One way to be transparent is to offer a public feature request forum. You can easily encourage and moderate feature requests in you Zendesk by adding an Idea Forum. There, you can let your customers know that you have heard them, and be honest about what you are planning and not planning to do. Customers can actually take "No" just fine. What they can't take is complete silence when they suggest something.

3. Good Customer support drives word of mouth

People tend to share their positive experiences with their friends and social networks. As Cook says, "Delivering an exceptional customer experience gets people talking about your company and its products." And word of mouth is the strongest type of marketing.

One of the biggest ways a young company can differentiate itself from competitors big and small is to just be nicer, more human, more responsive. Email may be enough when you have one customer, but, "once you get more than five emails a week, it's time to get a system in place. It becomes really easy to lose track of a customer interaction."

Because something else that people tend to share? Bad customer support experiences.

4. A real help desk solution confidence in user base and makes you appear more professional

While no startup should pretend to be something they are not - see the point above about transparency - you will do well to make your company look as professional as you can. Putting energy into design, content, and a real help desk (as opposed to your Gmail account) will all be signs to your potential customer that you are to be trusted.

"Tools like zendesk allow us to appear like a team of ten, giving us the ability to stay organized, quickly respond to customers, and delivery a wow experience," Cook says.

5. It's much easier to build a support workflow early and scale it than it is to institute a workflow when you have a huge backlog.

Just like the Boy Scouts say, "be prepared," you want your support to scale, not buckle, as your customer base grows. Putting in the time to set up a basic workflow -- when and how to escalate tickets, building support ticket queues, etc. -- to start building out a knowledge base and capturing customer feedback, will save you tremendous headaches later. The alternative is to be staring at an email inbox with a couple hundred messages in there.

"I recommend just taking the 30-45 minutes to setup a help desk now," Cook recommends. "It's super easy to do, and once you are setup you're golden. I also highly recommend looking for a simple live chat solution." One of the benefits of a system like Zendesk is that you can set something up very quickly. Even our very non-startup larger customers say that the quick setup is a huge benefit for them. We know how busy startups are (believe us); we want you to be able to set up your help desk quickly and get back to developing your product.

We'd like to wish the best of luck to all the MassChallenge finalists and startups everywhere. To learn more about MassChallenge and how to apply next year, go to their website:

To get your own startup set up fast for great customer support, sign up for a free trial of Zendesk.