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This article is part of The Survival Stage section of 📕 Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business.
When you are running a bootstrapped business, you have to do everything. Building the product, dealing with financials, marketing your solution.
And then there is customer service. People are reaching out with questions. Sometimes they are frustrated because they have a deadline. Sometimes they want to chat. In any case, it will eat up your time if you don’t find a way of dealing with your customers.
Luckily, there are tools and methods to deal with this, even at scale. At FeedbackPanda, I was solely responsible for supporting over five thousand customers. And I still had time to develop software. I will share the systems we set up to get our customers the most value while spending as little time as possible. I’ll also talk about pricing pitfalls, privacy considerations, which tools are worth it, and why.
The Expectations are Real(-Time)
It’s not emails and tickets anymore. In the past, it used to be the reality for customers of most businesses to send a plea for help and maybe, within a day or two, someone would tell them that they are working on it. A few days or weeks later, someone would resolve their issue or tell them that this was not considered a problem.
Customer service is different today. Solving problems has become a real-time activity as customers expect to receive immediate solutions. They expect there to be a conversation whenever they want to initiate one. Even in enterprise B2B SaaS, where email reigns supreme, people expect immediacy more and more.
As Metha, Steinman, and Murphy say in Customer Success: “customers expect you to make them wildly successful”. Every single one of them.
That can easily be an insurmountable resource problem for a bootstrapped founder. You don’t have time to talk to your customers all day, every day.
The good news is that there is a crucial distinction. Customers may expect help immediately. But that does not mean they want to talk to a human. They want to have their problem solved. And we humans like our agency. If they can solve their problem themselves and learn how to do it in the future, they will be happier than if someone does the job while they have to wait.
Customers also don’t like to be told that they didn’t understand the product. Allow them to learn from a variety of materials. Some people like to read, and some want to watch videos.
All of these methods allow for automation and self-serve solutions. Only in rare cases do you need to engage the customer in an actual conversation. If they fail to solve their problem from the self-serve solution, you can still go back to the old “we’ll get back to you as soon as we can” or turn the conversation into a real-time, operator-based chat.
At FeedbackPanda, we used Intercom for our customer service. They allow for all three primary modes of customer service: synchronous, asynchronous, and self-help. Tools like Intercom have great integrations into many parts of the tech stack, and you can leverage that to be both reactive to incoming questions and be proactive when you need to reach out to the customer before they even know that there’s a problem. You can integrate these tools into the frontend and backend of your SaaS applications, and there are also options for native and hybrid apps on mobile devices and tablets. All these communication paths end up in the Intercom platform, so you can help people wherever they are.
Here is how we have set it our customer support systems.
Synchronous Customer Support
Real-time communication with customers is a beautiful thing. Being able to help them right when they need help allows the customer service agent to be empathetic to the pain the customer feels and give them a sense of importance: “A real person is here to help you”. For people who are not confident in their ability to solve their problems, this is an enormous relief.
We use the Intercom chat widget in all of our products where our customers can log in. It is integrated into our landing page, the main application, and our mobile applications too. We initialize the widget with information about the customer, so we can immediately see to whom we are talking. When you have some unique identifier, you can also use the Intercom addon system to create deep links directly into your admin interface or link up their Stripe accounts directly in the Intercom platform. That makes it very easy for the person helping the customer to get to the places from which they can help quickly.
This kind of chat makes the customer service experience personal, both for the customer and the agent. If you are in the early stages of your business, you, as a founder, will be the person dealing with customer support. This channel gives you direct and unfiltered access to your customers and their issues.
You can extract insane amounts of data from just a single conversation by asking your struggling customers about their goals and motivations. Then, use it to fix the issues they are having. We have done this multiple times. There is no greater joy than seeing customers’ reactions to a new feature or fix that was released within an hour of them having a problem. People don’t expect to have any impact on the tools they use, and when you surprise them, you can be sure they will tell their peers about it.
Asynchronous Customer Support
The great thing about having a real-time chat widget is that it can also serve as a delayed messaging system. You can reach out to your customers just as much as they can start a conversation with you. Used correctly, this can be an incredibly useful source of building trust and helping the customer. Used excessively, it turns into spam and a source of annoyance. People are usually okay with marketing emails, but having a message pop up while they are working inside your application will always be a disruption. It should be rare and meaningful to their lives every single time.
Having Intercom integrated into our backend system, we would use their Messaging API to send transactional messages to our customers. Only urgent messages would be in-app notifications; the rest of them would go to their email. For critical messages such as account terminations, we would send them as both in-app and email messages.
If your customer does not react to an in-app notification, you can always send them an email later. Some customers may take a vacation from their job or be too busy to check your application, so for things that threaten their ability to use their accounts, I recommend always reaching out using both methods.
We also use Intercom for our marketing and onboarding emails. Doing this plays well with having all our customers on their platform already. The onboarding campaign, in particular, can be used to measure conversion rates and engagement profiles. For newsletters and product announcements, the email system will allow your customers to respond immediately, and it will show up as a customer service conversation, with all your added customer data present to help them out.
Self-Help Customer Support
One of the most time-saving tools we have ever used at FeedbackPanda was the Intercom knowledge base feature. Most customers would reach out to us with very similar questions. FeedbackPanda is a tool that does one job well, so for most problems, there is an optimal way to solve them. After communicating that solution to the customer, we would turn the customer service conversation into a knowledge base article immediately. Whenever a future customer would ask the same question or search for the keywords, they would get presented with the article, from which they could then solve their problem themselves. We did this for a few hundred questions whenever customers would first ask about a topic. We ended up with answers to almost all questions people would routinely ask. The number of tickets that require human intervention plummeted and left us the breathing room to run and grow the business.
Video and screenshots are always a good idea when creating knowledge base content. Some people are great readers, but others are very visual or need a narrative to understand a solution. We tried to provide both versions in the same article, and it has been quite well-received.
Another Intercom feature we used to help customers help themselves was AnswerBot. This machine-learning-based feature allows you to have Intercom automatically respond with pre-written answers to specific questions. We would use this for critical problems like “I forgot my login credentials. How do I log in?” or “How can I update my credit card so I can get back into my account?”. AnswerBot would pick up these questions and reply with a clear step-by-step solution, sometimes even a video. We also linked deep into our product to the very screen they would need to visit. Being able to help people immediately and automatically allowed us to sleep soundly at night.
Things to Consider
With all these wonderful integrations, you will still have to be aware of a few things. It’s not email. It’s not just between you and your customers. With Intercom, there is another company in the mix, and your data rests on their servers. That makes it a data-protection and privacy concern. Intercom is compliant with regulations and likely has a larger security and privacy team than your business ever will have employees. This more a question of being aware of what kind of information is absolutely required for your customer service agents to do their work efficiently. It’s perfectly fine to give Intercom the unique customer ID so you can create links to your admin interface. Still, you should not share social security numbers or any other personally identifiable information you have on your customers.
Price is always a concern for the bootstrapped entrepreneur. Depending on how customer service SaaS tools scale their pricing, you can be perfectly fine or way in over your head. It truly depends. Most subscription-based SaaS businesses will be fine with Intercom as they scale pricing on how many “Active Users” you have. If most of your users are paying customers, that will be alright. If you offer a freemium plan, you will get in trouble if you can’t offset the cost of your non-paying users. If you’re already struggling with making money with a freemium product, this will hurt your finances even more.
The proliferation of AdBlockers caught some customer service tools by surprise. Depending on how spammy they were perceived, some chat widgets made it onto the blacklists used by AdBlockers. Having your whole customer service built on a system that some people might not be able to see when using certain AdBlockers is a business risk. Customer service tools will likely do their best to stay off those lists, but it could still lead to availability problems from time to time.
As a consequence of the fact that your customer service data is hosted on a third-party platform, which could be impacted by availability problems at any time, I heavily recommend investing time and effort into setting up backups and a migration path. Have the critical information about how you can reach your customers (such as their email address) saved in your account database, as well.
Make regular backups of the data that is held in your customer service system and understand how to access it. There might be a day when you need to migrate from one system to another. It might happen either for business reasons or because of new regulations. Having a reliable backup strategy and the means to move the customer service integrations to another provider will help you to be compliant and avoid being locked in.
Even with all kinds of automation, Customer Support can easily take over your day-to-day operations and cause anxiety. I wrote about Scaling Your SaaS without Scaling Your Anxiety which includes a number of strategies on how to deal with growing customer needs.
The Ultimate Goal of Customer Support
Finally, be aware of why you put all of these systems in place: you want to help your customers reach their goals. Focus your energy and ingenuity on building an enormous treasure trove of information for them to solve their problems themselves, jump in when you’re needed, and make it a human, relatable experience for your customers.
Excellent customer support is rare. When people encounter a great experience with a customer support agent, they will talk about it. It’s a great way to build your reputation as a brand that cares.
And I bet you do care.