Support – the forgotten venture function

james dyson

I’ve been on a bit of a buying spree lately and I’ve made a couple of goofs in my rush to enhance my audio system. So I’ve had to return a couple of items, which got me into dealing with a couple of companies customer support function. Sweetwater is a site that sells professional audio equipment and musical instruments. I had neglected to pay attention to their warning that there were no returns on special orders and went ahead and bought a German headphone amplifier. When it arrived as soon as I opened the carton I realized I had goofed – while it was a professional product with professional standard XLR connector on the back, the front used the typical consumer stereo phone jack. The was a deal breaker for me as I use headphones with an XLR connector and I had no interest in having to buy an accessory cable adapter and giving up the benefits of balanced audio output. So I decided to bite the bullet and return the amp to Sweetwater.

Customer support kindly reminded me that the headphone amp was a special order and therefore no returns were accepted. But when I pushed a bit the very gracious customer support rep said she would talk to “merchandising” and see what she could do. Hours later came the verdict. I could return it, but it would cost me a 15% restocking fee. Ouch! So I pushed yet again, saying the unit was still in its shrinkwrap and could easily resold as new, because it was. Long story short, the company took back the amp and gave me a full credit on my return.

This experience was in great contrast to another customer support event I had recently. I bought my wife a very expensive English teapot. While it doesn’t boil water any faster than any other teapot it looks elegant doing so or even just sitting there on the stove. But somehow we lost a part to the top of the pot. So  I called the manufacturer and asked to buy a replacement part. But no matter how hard I pushed and how upset I got they steadfastly refused to even admit that such a part existed, let alone that they would sell it to me! They not only created one very unhappy customer, I’m reminded of their terrible customer service every time I use or even see their product. Remind me to write to their CEO!

There’s a saying, “One satisfied customer may tell one person about their experience, but a dissatisfied customer will tell twenty people.” While I doubt the accuracy of this apocryphal saying, especially in our age of social media and the constant demand for “Likes” and ratings, the principle is sound.

These experiences and others like it reminded me how important customer support is to a technology company or retailer that sells tech products, that often change frequently and may have hidden gotchas. I thought back over the past 10 years of mentoring and realized I couldn’t think of a single startup that mentioned customer support in their presentations or their mentoring sessions. Probably because most of these early stage companies had no customers to support!

As so often happens when I’m thinking about a business issue one of the three newspapers I read (New York Times, Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal) has a relevant story.

Today it was the Journal with an article enticingly headlined as What Actively Managed Funds Can Learn From Vacuum Cleaners By Mike Cherney.

Dyson, which manufactures appliances including vacuum cleaners and hair dryers, would send replacement parts to customers who call about repairs, Mr. Formica said, adding that the company would call back to make sure it’s working.

Founders take careful note of the last sentence! I can’t remember ever having any manufacturer or retailer calling me back to check to see if I was satisfied. Dyson is actually a high tech company masquerading as a vacuum cleaner maker. Check out James Dyson when you have the time. He’s quite the inventor and entrepreneur!

Mr. Formica added: “No questions, no quibbles. That is client experience,” It’s not just the customer support result, as in my story about Sweetwater, it is about the customer experience. Companies need to realize that these days that is what they are selling, not product, not services but customer experience!

Cousin to customer support, which focuses on administrative tasks like handling returns is technical support, that is supposed to help customers who are having problems using their products. I’m sure you all have your horror stories about the failings and foibles of tech support, especially for computers, ancillaries, and smartphones. Quite a few years ago tech companies stopped providing phone tech support at all, leaving customers to wade through their voluminous help files unaided.  I’ve gotten so frustrated trying to find a phone number and then battling through voicemail phone trees that I’ve basically turned to Google for tech support. Searching Google is not only faster, it’s also often more up to date on how to fix or avoid problems with your products. So what is wrong with that? Well quite a lot! As traditional product companies have long known, customer support is part of sales, known as “the post-sales process.” It’s not only an opportunity to burnish the firm’s reputation it can also be an opportunity to learn what makes your customers tick and perhaps even to sell them an accessory or complementary product that they may not have known about.

So founders, pay attention to the customer lifecycle and customer retention! Customer support and tech support can help you please your customers, retain them, create positive and powerful word of mouth, and generate additional sales. You should budget for both customer and tech support and have both report in to sales. One story I heard, I think it was about Microsoft, was that software engineers were required to field tech support calls from customers! This turned out to have a significant impact on tech support calls, as software engineers had a strong incentive to avoid bugs and duty on the tech support hotline. What a great way to get your developers close to the customer! Consider doing this yourselves.

I hope I start seeing presentations and hearing discussions about support this year. Amazon has proven with their incredibly friendly  and efficient return policy and process that great customer support can help make a company great.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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