Customer service is the heartbeat of a growing company. Done poorly and it can clear out your customer base quicker than you’ve built it. Do it well and it can mean lifelong customer retention.
“Customer service can in many ways make or break how fast you can move as a startup,” says Sary Brunner, vice president in the office of the CEO at customer service platform Zendesk. “We’ve really seen the paradigm shift from it being a checkbox that you have to remember to reorganising your entire strategy around a CX focussed experience and a CX focussed business.”
A 2021 Zendesk report into customer trends found 75% of customers will spend more money to buy from a company that offers good CX — but for early-stage founders who need to set priorities and build out teams fast, it can be difficult to know when to invest.
Customer service can in many ways make or break how fast you can move as a startup.
So, when should you make your first CX hire? We turned to the experts to find out.
There’s no time like the present
According to Brunner, CX should be embedded in a startup from the very beginning — before other distractions take hold.
“You should be looking for someone to sit at your leadership table with that sole purpose of CX immediately,” she says. “They’re going to keep you honest. I think it’s very easy to say ‘oh we’re a CX minded company, we are customer focussed, we are customer-centric.’ In reality, it’s so much harder to do because, especially when you are moving fast, it’s very easy to lose sight of who you’re actually serving, which is your customers.”
Karpagam Narayanan, cofounder of customer support software startup Ascendo.ai, one of Zendesk’s clients, agrees and says CX is not only vital for retaining customers but is also important to share with product teams so they can focus on making the changes people actually want.
“The first CX hire should be in place as soon as there are a handful of customers using the product,” she says. “It should also be the milestone point to establish a feedback loop among product and CX teams.”
The first CX hire should be in place as soon as there are a handful of customers using the product.
Think about the workload
For Maranda Lujajohnson, head of CX at ‘smart drug’ startup Find My Formula, a Zendesk customer, a good rule of thumb for hiring someone dedicated to CX is when interactions with customers start to take up a significant amount of time.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
“It completely depends on the founder, but I believe you should start looking for your first CX hire once the correspondence is steady, and takes more than an hour or so to complete each day,” she says.
Lujajohnson adds this person can even be part-time at first — answering emails and responding to queries on social media — but should be ramped up to full-time when necessary.
Meg Palazzolo, head of member success at estate planning platform Trust & Will, another Zendesk customer, says she was brought in as employee number eight after the company was about a year old.
“They’ve done support since day one but it was handled by the head of legal and our CFO and their roles were getting stretched,” she says. “They said we need someone to really focus on this, really build a team.”
Hire someone who can wear multiple hats
In your startup’s early days, it’s unlikely you’ll have the budget to hire a full CX team, so your first employees will need to be versatile.
Palazzolo says a manager role can be a good starting point and will help with scaling down the line.
“I definitely think some type of manager role in the beginning, because that person is going to be wearing a lot of different hats,” she says. “They need to be able to forecast and understand what are those triggering moments when the team is at capacity, or I’m at capacity, and when we need to take on someone more junior.”
For Brunner, the ability for the hire to grow as the startup scales is also very important, as is competence with technology.
“You want to be looking at someone who has that strategic lens… who will partner really well with your team, with your product or your strategy as you get bigger. They should be able to filter the feedback into the organisation and set you up to scale,” she says. “At Zendesk, we are really focussing on our messaging experiences, that’s how customers are interacting day-to-day.”
You want to be looking at someone who has that strategic lens… who will partner really well with your team, with your product or your strategy as you get bigger.
Don’t forget people’s personalities
Brunner says hiring someone with an interest in your industry can go a long way, as they will naturally be more enthusiastic and empathetic with customers.
“Look to hire not only people who are amazing with customers but also have a core interest in the industry,” she says. “They will be inherently educated or interested in the industry you’re serving and the customers you’re serving and talk their language and understand what they are going through.”
Are you funny and personal? Great! Dry and professional? Fantastic. Whatever you decide, write it down and link to examples of your ideal.
According to Lujajohnson, one of the best things to do before building out a CX team is to think about what you want your startup’s voice to be.
“Are you funny and personal? Great! Dry and professional? Fantastic. Whatever you decide, write it down and link to examples of your ideal where you can,” she says. “This will inform your interview process, shape every macro and begin to build the culture of your brand.”
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