As cofounders of a lean start-up, my colleagues and I are constantly deciding how to allocate our scarce resources.  Inevitably at this stage we must neglect some activities in favor of others – it’s ongoing company triage.  In light of this, it has come across to some as surprising that we focus as much energy as we do on developing outstanding customer service.

I place so much emphasis on customer service with our team because it is something I respect and appreciate greatly in other companies.  It has the power to make or ruin my day and either lose me as a customer or convert me to an advocate.  I am genuinely happy when I receive great customer service, and frustrated and disappointed when it’s terrible. Now that we have the opportunity to create our own, I’m thrilled to be able to build something that will make all our users’ lives just that much simpler, that much happier.  It is one step toward building a compassionate business I am proud of.


The Importance of Customer Service for Startups

Aside from my personal reasons, there are plenty of strategic reasons for every start-up to prioritize customer service.  For your typical start-up, customer service is one of the first activities to be neglected.  “Get ‘em to sign up, then we’ll worry about it” is a common sentiment. Customer acquisition is cowboy stuff.  Running viral media campaigns, developing hype machines, and gorilla marketing stunts can be thrilling and effective at getting attention, but without customer retention it all becomes a waste.  Customer service is our vehicle for bonding and rapport, and offers us an extremely powerful multiplier.

The Power of Expectations

It’s an amazing thing how dramatically our expectations can change our reception of something.  To illustrate my point, enjoy this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Jimmy Kimmel asked parents to give their children terrible Christmas presents early, and of course the children are beyond devastated.  By giving a little boy a girl’s shirt, the boy is crushed and furious.  Now, had the boy just been given a girl’s shirt on an insignificant day without being told he was getting a special gift, he would have said “no, thank you” and thought little of it. By building the expectation of a special gift way before Christmas, the boy has a tremendous amount of potential energy and excitement ready to be joyfully unleashed.  That energy is indifferent, of course, to joy or sorrow; it just wants to get out.  So when the present turns out to be terrible, that energy is directed into anger and outbursts.  By the simple act of giving a boy a shirt, you can unleash a huge amount of negative energy if you prime him with the certain false assumptions.

Customer’s Assumptions

So what does this have to do with customer service?  Just like kids at Christmas, customers come to companies with preconceived expectations. Even before we pick up the phone we have rehearsed our arguments and are primed to fly off the handle, demand to speak to a supervisor, and cry out against perceived injustice.

[pullquote align=”right”]Thank you and your team for the excellent customer service I received recently. I’m blown away…[/pullquote]

There is a real fear that we will be taken advantage of, or, worse, that someone more apt at arguing, someone more forceful, might not have been taken advantage of. We are full of potential energy aimed at negative emotions like fear and dread.  And just like the kid with expectations of a present, when our assumptions are shockingly wrong, we can unleash these emotions powerfully in the opposite direction.

By understanding that your customer is coming to you with negative assumptions, there is an amazing opportunity to turn that user into a loyal advocate.  It is easier to turn a customer with a complaint into an advocate than a customer who has never had an issue.  Customers with complaints are primed with energy, and when you are able to do an outstanding job of helping them, that energy is turned to praise and thanks.

People Buy Emotionally

Great customer service opens up the opportunity to engage and connect emotionally with customers.  Companies that ignore customer service miss the chance to bond powerfully with their customers and neglect a key emotional aspect of their product.

[pullquote align=”right”]Thank you for the wonderful service[/pullquote]Ultimately, great customer service is an important way for us at RentShare to energize our users and get them really excited about our service and our company.  Almost every customer service complaint I handle ends with an email thanking us for responding so quickly and letting me know how much they like and support what we are doing.  As a young start-up, we know early supporters are the ones who are going to make it possible to build this wonderful company–and it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that there is one more person in our corner.

For an insightful read on excellent customer service, see “Inside the Magic Kingdom,” by Tom Connellan.