Today, I met a customer face to face

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Websites are inherently anonymous. I don’t mean unknowable in the absolute sense of the word, but rather that when your first interaction with a customer is through email you can lose sight of that person’s humanity. When you talk to them on the phone things become a bit more real. And when you meet with them in person, you see them both as a customer and as a person. 

In the words of Paul Graham, we need to do things that don’t scale. It doesn’t make any sense to talk to a single customer at scale. Except that the lessons you learn from any conversation do scale, and can be applied to your business. When things are starting, almost any customer is the most precious resource in the world. You can’t learn about their frustration, their success, and their failures until you talk to them and see the ways in which they react.

Today I met with a customer and we shared time over coffee. He learned a little bit more about the business I’m building and I learned more about his business. We both became a bit more human and continued building a relationship that started when I tried to fix a problem that happened with his order. I thought I knew a lot about his problem, and I learned new things about the solution and the problem when I spoke with him today.

Meeting a customer totally changed my day today. I left our meeting with great new ideas and a renewed sense that helping people can really matter. Whether the effort is small or large, think about the person on the other end of the conversation. When you’re sending an email, thinking about a feature, or just wondering: “what would make the customer have a good day?” you can use that experience as a guide for your next face to face customer meeting.

How to Scale Customer Service to Reach the Mass Market


When you serve your first customer, you get to spend as much time as possible to make that relationship right. When that first customer becomes one of many, you need a way to take that same energy and focus that you delivered to the first customer and make it available to the next one (however many next ones there are).

There is a repeatable set of steps that can help you from your first fan through to your 1Mth “True Fan” to reach mass market adoption. Those steps use People, Process and Tools to magnify and repeat the ideas you had at customer #1 and make them applicable at scale.

Scaling Customer Success Starts With People

You need to start by hiring for the attitude and aptitude. You can teach someone how to use new technology tools. It’s difficult to teach them to be resilient, to learn how to learn and to treat people well if they don’t already know those skills. And you need those skills for customer #1 and for customer #1,000,000.

What does a successful person look like who can help you scale?

They are probably a lifelong learner. They are probably interested and empathetic when hearing and speaking to new people. And they can probably make small talk with anyone. They also do a great job. And they are interested in taking on new roles and in teaching other people what they can do.

Building a Systematic Process to Delight Your Fans

When you find the right people to build the team that can scale, you also need to give them a framework – guidelines, really – that will help them make daily choices to provide great service for customers even when new situations occur that aren’t explicitly described.

The Incident Command System is a great example of such a system. This system, developed by the US Forest Service, has the following tenets at its core:

1. The system must be organizationally flexible to meet the needs of incidents of any kind and size.

2. Agencies must be able to use the system on a day-to-day basis for routine situations as well as for major emergencies.

3. The system must be sufficiently standard to allow personnel from a variety of agencies and diverse geographic locations to rapidly meld into a common management structure.

4. The system must be cost effective.

Delighting the customer results when the experience exceeds expectations, so how can you better understand the expectations? You can start by asking yourself how you would feel if you were in the customer’s shoes. And if you can exceed those expectations and remove the root cause of the issue at the same time, that would be awesome.

So that leads to another set of questions. How can you exceed customer expectations while removing root causes at the same time? Using a process like the Incident Command System can be an answer – and you should know that there’s no silver bullet in systems, technology, or process. But you can put steps in place that make what you do repeatable and better.

What Tools Do You Need To Scale Customer Support?

At the beginning, you really don’t need much. A simple VOIP tool might suffice for phone, and a shared Gmail inbox for inbound questions. And you will quickly need a bit more. As you grow you need to build systems that solve the present need of the business and can scale as well.

An example is case management – at the beginning you might need a relatively simple tool like UserVoice or or Zendesk or Helpscout to manage cases. As you need more people to handle cases, as you take on additional channels (apps, social media, etc), you may find that you have a more complex workflow.

Scaling is a constant exercise in balancing the tools you know against the switching cost of changing the configuration and adding risk to bring the benefit of new capability. My advice here – make the system as simple as possible, and be open to the possibility that you might have to consider new ideas from time to time.

The Customer Service Formula

It starts with the best people who are lifelong learners and who can adapt to the changing form of the business. To find the best process and tools, you need to identify the business drivers that matter to the business. Build the system that you need to meet the goals you know about – identifying the people that you need, the process they will learn and adapt to make change, and the tools that will get you there.

Worry about the current customers in the present. If you can please them, and you can do that for most of your customers (and over time, almost all of them), you’ll get to scale.

If you want to start today, here are 50 Small Things You can Do to Improve Customer Service that I came up with to help you delight your customers.

This post originally appeared on Clarity’s Blog

Image Courtesy of GlobalPost

Can you build great customer service at scale?

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How do you scale Customer Service?
Ultimately, you have to embrace the idea of Commander’s Intent (e.g.

This means something like the following:

  1. Define the objective broadly, e.g. “Provide Amazing Customer Service.”
  2. Establish a command hierarchy and roles and responsibilities, e.g. “This person can engage on any topic”, “These people may engage on some topics”, and “these people may share canned messages and may not engage on any topic, but can acknowledge the customer and pass on their concern to a higher level in the organization”
  3. Set some guardrails, e.g. “NEVER do this. And if you have questions, ask these people.”

Beyond that, the devil is obviously in the details, but I believe that if these principles are upheld:

  • Delight the customer
  • Have fun
  • Try to do the right thing
  • When any of these things don’t apply, learn from the experience

You are going to be able to handle between 80-95% of the issues. There are a few things that demand high-level support, and they emerge so infrequently that most of the time, any employee you trust to talk to customers should be able to handle customer service.

Use All of the Resources At Your Command, Including Your Customers

To scale this idea, you need only follow the metaphor of commander’s intent and include resources outside of the organization.

This could include:

  • “community members” who answer on behalf of the company or product once vetted;
  • a “customer advisory board” that helps you on an ad-hoc or planned basis to discuss wacky and mundane issues;
  • and technology that helps you channel inbound inquiries from multiple channels into a central place where you can acknowledge, triage, answer questions and then close the loop with the customer.

How do you build service to scale?

I read @codybrown‘s excellent analysis of network growth and scaling with regards to MySpace, Facebook and Twitter this morning and got to wondering if the concepts he’s talking about can be applied to broader concepts in Customer Service. Brown presents the idea that services like MySpace have failed because they couldn’t channel their explosive growth into a system that worked not only for the core adopters but also for mainstream users. Later-arriving, “fast-follower” services with more focused missions are stealing the MySpace user ( for music, Facebook for social networking, etc.) because you don’t have to be an insider to figure out how to find the service useful. What does this mean for service concepts in general?

The recent purchase of Zappos by Amazon is a good example of a company with fanatical customer focus acquiring another company with fanatical customer focus. Both Zappos and Amazon have built service to scale — and, I believe, will be able to avoid the problem that @codybrown references — because they focus on three things: Customer Service above all else, Mass Customization, and Back-end services that lower the cost of transactions.

Both Zappos and Amazon practice fanatical devotion to Customers. Zappo’s motto, stated directly in its logo, is “Powered by Service”. states that “Customer Service is everything.” Amazon has similar focus, calling itself “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” There are many customer testimonials that might provide additional detail here — the point is that both of these companies have made it possible for customers to tell other customers whether a product or service is good or bad. By empowering the customer and by pledging to fix it when the customer’s expectations aren’t met, both Zappos and Amazon have created a situation where their best customers will shout the company’s name from the rooftops and their worst customers will have a strong process for recourse. Customer Service, and policies that reinforce that customer service, make it possible for both of these companies to build the rest of their brand around that service.

To deliver that service, both Amazon and Zappos practice what I call “mass customization” rather than making an individual web site, store, or product offering for one customer or set of customers. This may sound contradictory, because each customer does get an individual order, and that customer may have an individual concern that sounds different than another customers. But if you take the perspective of looking at groups of customers who buy shoes (in the Zappos world) and then you segment them so that they all buy shoes in roughly the same way (even if front-end design templates and brand segmentation make it seem different), and you fulfill these orders and return them in roughly the same way, then you’ve built the system to have a relatively constant cost per order, even though your product offerings may be myriad in their breadth.
Build once, deliver many different flavors with a common back-end system, and you’ll be able to satisfy the Customer Service needs of all of those different customers.

To deliver this vision of build once, deliver many flavors, both of these companies had to build back-end logistics, supply-chain, and fulfillment services that lowered the overall cost of doing transactions. For Amazon, this meant building software systems to manage inventory, present and build stores, make and fulfill orders, and then building a physical distribution system to implement this vision. For Zappos, the implementation was slightly different, but the effect was the same: build a system that as it scales provides learning curve improvements, opportunities to apply LEAN and greater efficiencies and profitability overall per order. Only now as their services are growing and growing do these investments look particularly shrewd, especially when new product lines (, e.g.) are introduced for the combined company to market. Amazon is leaving Zappos alone to operate as an autonomous unit. Good move — I think it will pay off for both companies.

What does this mean for Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other new product entries? Build your service to planet scale — at least in your head. If you don’t know how your service will function when it’s really really big, then you will miss the opportunity as MySpace did to shape the service and prevent fast-followers from cherry-picking the best parts of your model. Make your offering a defensible position — as both Zappos and Amazon have done — but focusing on a service offering your present and future competitors can’t easily duplicate. And finally, a paradoxical idea: you need to try many ideas and fail fast, but remain focused on the small goal that’s easy to explain to your most fanatical and dedicated customers, as well as the mainstream customers you don’t have yet. Keep it simple, please the customer, mass-customize by configuring your offering rather than building net new code for each segment, and build your systems and your ideas to scale.

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