Poor Customer Experience will kill your company. Build an immune system.


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As a YC Alumni I read a lot of Hackernews. Two headlines stuck out to me: Flightcar and Moveloot, both YC alumni, recently ceased operations. Both consumer startups, they were logistically intensive and known for their horrible customer service.

First, I want to be clear, I don’t know the founders of either Flightcar or Moveloot, but I imagine that these businesses were difficult to run with a lot of operational logistics to solve. As a fellow startup founder I can appreciate how complicated it must be to build these logistics systems from scratch. I can also appreciate how startup phase logistics can create huge headaches for your customers and your customer service team.

That said, I want to remind other founders of how important it is to stay connected to your customers and your team as you scale. Both companies were scaling operations rapidly. Flightcar raised 40M, Moveloot raised 21M; they had money to invest in customer experience.

In my opinion, the leadership became disconnected from their customer service teams. You can see this in both the glassdoor reviews (look at reviews from before they shut down the companies, since no one is happy when a company is shutting down) and the yelp reviews of their business. It’s easy for you as a leader to lose touch with your customers as you add layers of management and focus on making strategic decisions based on summarized data. This happened to me in the first company I founded, Netherweb, when just adding a dedicated customer service team pulled me from the frontlines.

As a startup founder, you own your customers’ experience. Your company exists to serve your customers. Your company exists to provide value to your customers, and any monetary return you get for yourself or your investors is a small portion of the value you are providing the world. As you raise money it’s easy to forget this.

Great companies are built by leaders who build systems to keep the customer at the center of their universe. Like Moveloot and Flightcar I lost this focus with my first company, and it killed it.

When we started Olark I knew that I alone as cofounder and CEO could not be responsible for keeping our customers at the center of our universe, so I set out to build a layered immune system to protect our focus on customers. Here’s how we keep our focus on our customers at Olark.

o All Hands Support – Every single person at Olark is trained on how to use our product to support our customers. Whether you are CEO, a DevOps engineer or our head of talent acquisition, you’ve spoken to our customers and helped them solve their problems. At Olark we each do support once a month, but there are many ways to bring your whole team into the customer service mindset. Remember you are not just training your team in customer service.You are building an entire organization of customer advocates.

o A mission and vision that creates value for our customers and the world. Your mission, vision, values, and unspoken culture defines you as a company. For Olark our mission is to help people create happy customers, to build a positive organization, and to share our lessons with the world. Your mission might be to organize all the world’s information, but keep in mind you are organizing that information for PEOPLE to consume. Your mission and your vision can help remind you WHY you are in business when you are optimizing unit economics.

o A strong set of human centered values (CHAMPS) – Our team created our values, and they are strongly oriented around communicating with people. We assume good faith, we practice empathy, we speak our minds, we help each other, we make it happen, and we chill out when needed. Our values help us frame how we should interact with each other and our customers, and remind us that we are helping people. Olark exists to help people, and we take this seriously in our hiring and our culture.

o As CEO I personally take responsibility and communicate honestly with our customers when we make mistakes. Our failures are mine, our successes are our teams. Taking the time to write heartfelt emails empathizing with what your customers are going through is a great tactic to stay close. Remember that you exist to serve your team and your customers. Check out Joel Spolsky’s flipped over org chart – it’s a constant inspiration for us.

Our immune system is constantly evolving, but these tactics have helped us to build a team that constantly inspires me with our passion for customer service. At the end of the day, your company is about the people who work with you and their passion for your customers. As a leader, it’s your job to create this passion.

Ben Congleton
Ben Congleton is the CEO and co-founder of Olark, a leading live chat and messaging company.


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