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When I was younger, my friends and I tested our athletic prowess by going up the “down” escalator. Sometimes I was successful. Other times, I got close before I lost all my progress and the escalator took me back to the bottom.
Customer service can feel like this sometimes—especially at a startup. Sometimes you have everything operating on all cylinders, and you can scale a quality customer experience. Other times, you think you have it figured out and then, boom, you are back to the bottom. Or at least it feels that way. It is how a company chooses to act in these moments that can define the experience it will deliver for its customers and gig workers moving forward.
Scaling a customer service experience in any startup is challenging. Scaling customer service in an on-demand company is like “Texas-sizing” the challenge.
According to a recent article in Sage Business Researcher, an estimated one third of the American workforce is engaged in contract or on-demand work and more than 280 companies now provide on-demand goods and services across 16 industries, up from 76 companies in six industries offering such services in 2014. This enormous jump in demand for these services indicates this business and commercial model is here to stay.
Whether companies succeed or fail in the on-demand space depends on whether they can build and adjust to deliver a great customer-service experience. Here are the top five challenges/opportunities a startup might face and some ideas for solving them.
One of the largest challenges is how fast these on-demand companies grow. Some grow 10% per week, others double week over week, and some grow even faster. With such growth inevitably comes a high volume of customer requests, and some companies take weeks to respond to their customers. This is especially frustrating when a customer orders something to be delivered within an hour. When it comes to growth, you have three main levers to better handle customer requests in a timely way:
Demand – Companies often take the drug of “grow at all costs.” This is a dangerous approach, as immediately you risk your customer experience and your ability to ensure a consistent and high-quality customer engagement. If you have the ability to throttle or manage your growth to a more sustainable rate, you will have a better opportunity to deliver a meaningful experience to each of your customers every time.
Supply – It’s very important to deliver a great experience each time you have people, AI tech, or other supply mechanisms supporting your customers. The more supply you have and the better you map that supply to your demand, the better chance you’ll have of delivering a consistent, high-quality experience. On-demand companies approach solving this opportunity with internal team members, vendors, AI tech, or independent contractors. Each have risks, so a healthy mix of all four may be the right fit to scale while keeping a focus on quality of experience and mitigating cost risks.
Incident Rate – How often do your customers contact you? If you can identify this rate per 1,000 customers, you have your incident rate. Once you baseline this, you can work with your product teams to drive down your incident rate, or decrease the number of customer requests your service teams receive. This will take important investments from your product team to understand why customers are contacting you and also prioritize operational product improvements against new product releases. This one is notoriously hard for scaling startups.
Speed, Resolution, and Human Engagement
On-demand companies often choose between three crucial elements: speed, resolution, or human engagement. According to Maria Lebed, who regularly writes and blogs about customer service, “If the above three factors receive the necessary attention, a boost in your customer satisfaction rates is guaranteed.” In the on-demand space, balancing the three—not overly sacrificing one over the other—will be vital to your success. Often times, you get “one moment” to satisfy a customer and convince them your service is the best one for them. Balancing these three top satisfiers will help you show up in that moment and win the hearts of your customers for a lifetime.
In a fast-paced on-demand environment, it is super critical to quickly identify what your customer actually needs. This will enable you to effectively respond and drive to the quickest resolution. Here are three ways to consider accomplishing this:
Online FAQ or KB – Helping your customers serve themselves is a really effective way to identify what they need. In my experience, a well-written knowledge base or FAQ can serve up to ~40% of your customers, allowing them to self-select the topic they need help with and, in many cases, get their issue resolved.
Technology/Automation – Usually, once a customer selects to submit a ticket after reviewing your online FAQ/KB, it is helpful to give them a guided tour to better identify their issue or question. Some companies use a more proactive AI bot to do this, and others use a more traditional decision-tree approach. Most all CRMs have the capability to provide both. Two great CRMs I have used to help identify customer need in this way are Zendesk, Helpshift, Directly, and Salesforce. I dream about the day when Alexa or Google Home will do this for me for all my products!
Queue and Team Structure – When you are smaller, it will make sense to structure your support team into one queue. As you grow, you may choose to specialize teams. Specializing will ensure you can more quickly solve your customer issue, funnel precise feedback to your product teams, and also improve the speed and human-engagement factors of customer satisfaction. Whether you use phone, email, or chat, I highly recommend specializing as you scale to ensure you best understand your customer need and resolve it in a timely fashion and with a great human-engagement and resolution approach.
Connected Customer Experience
Startups usually do a wonderful job of understanding how everything is connected together. At a small company, the product, engineering, support, and marketing teams work in the same pod. As you grow and specialize your company, you will naturally lose this connected customer-experience perspective. Employees will start to focus on their specific jobs and, over time, will do their jobs really well. However, doing a good job in all segments of the connected customer experience does not always demonstrate value to your end customer. Making the connected experience of the customer a priority across their entire lifecycle will be a game changer for your company and heavily impact how many customers you are able to retain today and for their lifetime.
Iterative Communication and Dialogue
Years ago, most customers would pick up their phones and call for support. Today, we see many different ways to contact support in a company. In an on-demand company, finding the right magical connection with your customers will be crucial. Many mobile companies have found that in-app support is a super effective way to chat and have a meaningful dialogue with their customers. Sometimes it will be immediate and other times asynchronous. Many mobile customers prefer this iterative and very engaging method of dialogue to a long telephone call or email. What is most important is that you find what your customers prefer and be simple and consistent with their preferred engagement method.
Scaling is hard work. It takes incredible resources and operational acumen. Every founder starts out with a vision of how they want their customers treated, what voice they want their customers spoken to in, and how to best listen to and retain their customers. My advice above all else is to stay true to the original founder’s customer engagement passion and principles.
If you can stay true to how you believe a customer should be treated, scale your business, and consistently deliver amazing engagements every day, you will win at scaling and keeping customers for a lifetime. And like my friends of yesteryear, you will be the first at the top of the “down” escalator!
Jerry Leisure is a CX thought leader who believes the heart of every company is its customer and that a CS marketplace will become the lifeblood of best-in-class CX teams. He can be reached via LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.