Startup Life/Opinion/

Why your startup’s customer support team shouldn’t be an island

And... how customer experience and product teams should work together.

By Ashley Sachs

Customer support is often the first thing to be outsourced at startups. The customer journey is never perfect — customers have questions and pain points that a product-focused team may not think of — and plenty of startups think they don’t have the team or the time to reply to their every message. 

When you’re starting out, outsourcing can often be the most sensible option, as it keeps team sizes low while still giving you the insight you need to just get on with developing the product. You can’t do everything at once, so spending the time on getting the tech right is a natural first step. 

The general feedback and anonymised stats you get from an outsourced partner will also be able to give you a lot more insight than someone who has been tasked with it as a side project in-house, which often happens in startups.

But there will come a point where that just isn’t enough any more — and it might even be hindering the growth of your company. 

At that stage you need to start really listening to your customer, and put them (and your customer support team) at the heart of everything you build.

Here’s how.

Embed the customer

At Whereby, we have product teams that oversee certain parts of the product and customer journey. For example, we have a team that focuses solely on the video meeting room experience, while another team is dedicated to the signup and onboarding part of the user journey. 

Similar to the Spotify Squad Model, each of these teams has a product manager, a set of developers, and a designer that works on sprint cadence — as well as a support liaison. The support representative attends planning meetings and is an active part in the product team’s communication channel as a customer advocate. They report on any trending bugs or pain points associated within the product team’s ownership and are able to tell a better story of what users are saying that goes beyond numbers and data. Similarly, the support team member gets updates on development, feature releases, and more importantly, context.

That means our support team is better equipped when talking to users about feature requests and can set better expectations. It also means support teams can engage in product discussion, influence change based directly off user feedback, and prepare fully for product releases. 

Product teams, meanwhile, can use the feedback from the support team to create an even better product. 

Cross-functional as a practice

By setting teams up in this structure from the start, you are able to pull together a range of talent and expertise which would normally never come together.

“It’s one thing to be aware of other teams, but it’s another thing to be considerate of how your work affects other teams.” 

But working cross-functionally takes practice. As our chief of staff says: “It’s one thing to be aware of other teams, but it’s another thing to be considerate of how your work affects other teams.” 

Every product change can impact the customer support team’s workflow, help documentation and how they advise customers. 

To help our whole team understand how what they do affects other, we’ve adopted a couple of new habits: 

1. Regular team updates in Slack. Each product manager and team director will post quick digestible updates every two weeks in a Slack channel specifically for team updates. These updates are focused on what they are working on during the sprint, what’s been shipped, and any big wins. For support this includes a two week update of our relevant KPIs (customer satisfaction, volume, etc). The updates are focused and high level to keep Slack noise contained. 

2. Investing heavily in our internal documentation. Our support team has tailored sections of our Notion pages to share information on how we work and what we’re working on, making them easier to locate and understand from the perspective of a marketer, engineer or product manager.

It takes more than a joint meeting on a regular basis to reach the level of cross-functional paradise that a lot of startups strive for. Is Whereby there yet? Well no, we still have a lot to learn. But being able to embed the support as a customer advocate in product meetings; investing in intentional skills and talent through our hiring process; and adopting small team inclusive habits has helped us steer the ship in the right direction. 

The simple act of listening to customers has, and always will be, imperative for growing businesses. However there is a big difference between listening and hearing. Hearing requires a level of translation and context, that is only possible when these two teams work seamlessly together. 

Businesses that are able to do this will quickly turn customer feedback into actionable product updates that authentically impact the end-user, while proving that you were, in fact, listening in the first place. 

Ashley Sachs is director of support and success at video communication startup Whereby.

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