Startup Insights: Leveraging Customer Support to Improve Your Product

By establishing an efficient support system early on, you can gain invaluable insights directly from your users, understand where they're struggling, and identify areas where your product needs improvement.

Startup Insights: Leveraging Customer Support to Improve Your Product
Deception Pass State Park, Washington. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Today, I want to share another set of startup insights, this time on the topic of how to shorten the path from customer feedback to product design within an early-stage startup. As with previous times I've talked about early-stage startups, I'll be sharing examples from HotSpot Parking. Being involved through multiple pivots and a very bare-bones funding situation led to lessons that I'm excited to share.

The issues and challenges our customers were facing directly informed and shaped our product development. By listening to their needs and problems, we quickly prioritized features and improvements that would create the most impact and value. This not only improved our product but also strengthened the relationship with our customers, as they felt heard, valued, and became part of our growth journey.

The Role of Support in Scaling Your Startup

For startups, common (and good) advice is to launch a minimum viable product early for feedback. Gathering and then quickly acting on feedback is key. That's where support can come into play. By establishing an efficient support system early on, you can gain invaluable insights directly from your users, understand where they're struggling, and identify areas where your product needs improvement.

Weirdly, I've worked with a number of startups that isolated and siloed their customer support early on, and didn't provide easy paths for feedback to influence their product directly. I think part of this is a mislaid belief that customers can't see the "whole vision" and so can be ignored early on. The fact is, though, solving your customers' needs early will buy you the trust needed to execute a larger vision.

"The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing."
- John Russell, former president of Harley-Davidson, Europe

In the early days of HotSpot Parking, answering the phones was everyone’s responsibility. We had a Twillio twimlet that would call all our phones at once, and the small team shared the responsibility of talking to unhappy customers who had issues. I believe it's critical in the early days of a product-focused startup to have everyone share in this responsibility. It was directly helpful to understand and get immediate feedback when something confused our customers. It closed the loop in feedback to our product team.

As an important note, a lot of what I'll discuss below were features and workings in 2015-era HotSpot Parking while I was a present part of the leadership. I'm not sure how much things have changed since then, and these are shared only as learnings.

Flowering Brown-eyed Susans. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

From Support Calls to Product Enhancements

In the initial days, we were mistaken for the city helpline, courtesy of our phone number being plastered on every parking meter. We were flooded with calls about broken street lights and damaged meters. A support nightmare. Our first feature based on support calls was an automated menu that could direct municipal calls to the city. We moved from the Twimlet to a small TwiML-generating PHP script. This small change cut our support volume by half instantly. 

A lot of the calls that remained were user error of one form or another. It was rare that we had an actual failure of the underlying software. Nevertheless, we documented all of these issues and kept a close eye on what was annoying users and how we could reduce support volumes.

A wise colleague of mine from Finn AI, Ben Terrill, would frequently remind us, "It might not be our fault, but it's our problem." This adage rings particularly true when user errors result in bad experiences with your product. In our journey, we embraced a philosophy that the finest support is not needing any support at all. We found ways to automate the bulk of our support tasks. The phone lines ringing starting at 8 AM was a powerful motivator!

"The best customer support is if the customer doesn't need to call you, doesn't need to talk to you. It just works."
- Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin founder and former bookstore CEO.
Fredericton, NB at Sunset, circa 2015. Photo © 2023 Robin Monks.

Our First “Support Feature”

After spending several more weeks on the front lines of support, documenting every issue, a pattern emerged. The next challenge our customers were facing was related to inputting their license plate numbers incorrectly. It was common to see an 'Oh' in place of a 'Zero', or the characters 'L', 'I', and '1' being used interchangeably. Seeing this, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work early one morning on a solution.

Initially, it was simply known as the "license plate jiggler." This function would activate whenever an enforcement officer entered a plate number that didn't match our records. It would then search for parked plates with similar characters. If a match was found, we'd return a message indicating successful parking and flag the plate number for review in our system. This was our first step towards proactively tackling this issue.

Our Slack added a dash of fun to the process. We adopted a mascot, and so the "license plate jiggler" became an animated inflatable tube man. Whenever a potential ticket situation was averted, we'd see the wacky inflatable tube man appear in our support Slack channel. "A driver (user 1447) in Fredericton just dodged a ticket! With my help, their license plate ABCL23 was matched to ABC123."

Calls went down, and we continued this process again of documenting what the most common issues were.

The Support Feature Expands

Our next challenge was a relatively frequent support issue that necessitated a considerable amount of effort on our part to fix. Many tickets would be issued within minutes after a parking session had expired. The city was willing to cancel these tickets, on the condition that they were issued within 5 minutes of the parking duration end within a "grace period". However, this required us to request the customer to snap a photo of the ticket, for us to record the session details in our system, and then email both to the city to get the ticket cancelled.

This process was not only time-consuming but also a nuisance for both us and the customer. Could our trusty Wacky Inflatable Tube Man come to our rescue here too? The answer was a resounding yes. We incorporated logic so that if a session had expired within the last 5 minutes, it would still be considered valid within the grace period and the parker would be reminded to extend their session. To top it off, an alert would also be sent in Slack regarding this. The result? Our support queues experienced another significant drop.

Leaves changing in Chamcook, NB. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Instructing and Empowering Your Team to Provide Support

In our journey, we discovered the power of equipping every team member to deliver stellar support to our users. We made sure that everyone who was helping with support had the tools they needed to quickly give refunds, extend sessions, and use their best judgment to help customers in the moment.

The combination of support being operated by people who knew the system well and had the authority to deal with issues was very powerful in building a deep connection to our customers. The most detrimental approach you can take is to limit your team's ability to genuinely assist users. Instead, invest in training and then trust them to exercise their judgment. This trust is invaluable.

Empowering your team not only fosters a sense of responsibility but also makes each member an ambassador of your brand. This has a direct impact on customer experience and satisfaction. In our case at HotSpot Parking, this approach gave us deep insights into areas our customers were struggling with and helped us make significant improvements to our product. Invest in your team, trust them, and watch your product grow.

Building Long-lasting Customer Relationships through Support

Now, let's talk about one of the most crucial aspects of the support process - building enduring customer relationships. 86% of customers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience. When your support team can effectively address customer concerns, not only are you solving immediate issues, but you're also building trust and rapport with your customer base.

At HotSpot Parking, we learned early on that our customers valued quick, efficient, and personalized support. This wasn't merely about fixing problems - it was about making our customers feel seen, heard, and appreciated. And from this, we found that the quality of our support was directly proportional to the strength of our customer relationships.

"Customers don't expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong."
- Donald Porter, former VP of British Airways
Delicious bakery confections displayed in the Granville Market, Vancouver. Photo © Robin Monks.

Key Takeaways 

Developing a commercial product is a complex journey, with many twists and turns. From my experience, one of the most effective ways to navigate this journey is to place a strong emphasis on instrumenting, automating, and enhancing the support experience early on. This not only enriches the customer experience but also provides critical insights into where your product might need improvement.

  1. Instrument Early: Start tracking and analyzing customer interactions from the get-go. This will help you understand how your customers are using your product, and where they might be struggling.
  2. Automate Support: By automating certain support tasks, you'll free up time for your team to focus on more complex issues.
  3. Enhance Customer Experience: Remember, a satisfied customer is a loyal customer. Strive to make the support experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
  4. Involve Everyone: Customer support should not be the sole responsibility of one person or department. Everyone in your company should be involved in support, as this offers a broader perspective and a more holistic understanding of the customer experience.

Keeping each of these points in mind will make a significant difference in your company's journey towards a successful product. Turn your support experience into the fuel for your product!

Leave room to be awesome,