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By Nickelled Team

On 2018-09-11

The Growth Dilemma: Support vs Success

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We hated our inboxes.

A few months back, it felt like we were drowning – and not even for the right reasons.

Sometimes, your inbox fills up with nice stuff – order confirmations, notes from your other half, guilty-pleasure celebrity newsletters (hello, Popbitch!), that kind of stuff.

This wasn't that.

This was support request after support request – a deluge of requests for help from our expanding customer base, which was in serious danger of turning into a flood.

We've spent a lot of the time between now and then optimizing our processes for dealing with this (more on this later), but our support troubles highlight a reality that every successful business will eventually need to confront.

Support scales with success.

Even if you run a low-touch model, as we do, a percentage of your customers will require some interaction, clarification or troubleshooting along their journey with your product.

In the early stages, this is fine. When 10 percent of your customers reach out and you're only signing up one new customer a week, the support load is manageable.

But if you take no action, 10 percent of ten new customers a day (say, 50 a week) becomes more sizeable. You've got a new support case daily.

At one hundred new customers a day, that's ten new cases daily, and the system starts to creak.

Until this point, most businesses are so focused on growth that they may not have considered what a burden support can be. But trust us, it can. And even more so as growth brings new characteristics to your user base.

For example, changes to the composition of your customers can result in that 10 percent increasing even further, which compounds the problem more. Any of these transformations sound familiar?

  • New sign-ups are from a new/unexpected part of the organization
  • New sign-ups are being directed to use the software by somebody else within the business
  • New sign-ups have a level of knowledge which is different from expected
  • New sign-ups are from a country/linguistic region you haven't previously targeted
  • New sign-ups represent a different organization size from the one you're used to
  • New sign-ups are arriving through different procurement pathways (for example, if you're used to making credit card sales, but larger customers want to pay on invoice)
  • New sign-ups are arriving through different channels (for example, if you're used to a self-service free trial model but a reseller is making direct sales to would-be customers)

All of the above are expected inflection points in the SaaS business model. All add to the support burden a company faces.

How to mitigate scaled support issues

Realistically, providing support is part of running a SaaS business – it should have been on the roadmap from the beginning.

That said, smaller businesses can find themselves drowning in customer support requests if success comes too early or too fast – and there are some things that can help.

Idea 1: Engineer great support from the start

It's no secret that many developers aren't great at predicting user behavior, especially when the users are less technical than they are.

For this reason, work hard to ensure that the support workflow is considered throughout your app from the beginning.

Live chat tools such as Intercom have made adding contextual support channels a piece of cake, but go further than this if you have to. Small changes quickly add up when volume increases, so small tweaks such as connecting contact pages directly to help request forms or adding frequently asked questions links to email signatures really can make a difference in reducing the overall number of tickets.

Idea 2: Invest in support processes early

As early users of Intercom, we were better-placed than many to handle an uptick in support queries – the entire team knew how our shared inbox worked and the dynamics of assigning tickets, we had canned responses ready to go for the most common queries, our help desk was up-to-date and already synced with our team inbox and we had people in several different time zones, ready to answer questions as they arrived so that we could avoid really serious pile-ups.

Investing in these kinds of processes does pay off if you get to them early enough, although there was one huge mistake we made that we wouldn’t repeat next time:

We waited far too long before we hired a customer success manager to support us in talking to clients. We thought we could cope.

In reality, having someone available to pitch in and handle a request makes a huge difference to the attitude of the whole team, because there's suddenly somebody who's willing to take ownership. At the point where support is getting one or more of the team down, you should be exploring ways to fix the problem. Don’t make the mistake that we did by waiting for a negative feeling to develop among the teammates, which is probably sensed by customers and would-be customers.

Idea 3: Template and automate

I referenced this above, but it’s hard to overstate what a time-saver canned responses have been for the business. There’s a maxim that says that if you do something three times or more in technology, you should look for ways to automate it, and in support that bar could arguably be lower. In an ideal world, we’ll evolve our process to add canned responses for any query that comes in that *could* affect another client, even if it doesn’t at that moment.

This should go without saying, but if your helpdesk software doesn’t support canned responses... Stop using it. Right now.

I’d recommend using canned responses alongside a comprehensive helpdesk solution for maximum effect – the work that the guys at Intercom are doing to provide useful answers to client queries should be the benchmark for the industry. If you haven’t seen it, more here – fundamentally, they’re working to offer the best answer via a combination of FAQ and bot support, while also providing the opportunity for easy escalation to a human.

Check out our post on the customer support queries every business should have an answer to here, if you haven’t already – it’s full of copy-and-paste answers you can put in your helpdesk.

Finally, it may be worth considering how your help processes integrate with your sales processes, especially if you’re running a SaaS business offering free trials. We integrated Intercom with at an early stage, which helped us delineate which queries should be picked up by sales and which should be handled by customer success and support.

Idea 4: Pitch in

Transparency is a must for scaling an effective support operation, and allowing the team to share the burden of providing support has some obvious benefits alongside happier customers (product managers and engineers with first-hand knowledge of common gripes, for example).

When the work picks up, it’s important for the whole team to be pitching in.

Idea 5: Track success

There are a bunch of success/satisfaction/support metrics that can be tracked – whether or not your business needs any of them is another question.

From our experience, reporting on the general trend of tickets wasn’t that helpful, but noting the cause (broken down into general areas such as integration issue, training issue, feature request etc) helped us to triage and prioritise product development accordingly. We already had a robust product road mapping process in place, but knowing which parts of our users’ experience were REALLY painful allowed us to improve our product and bring down the number of support requests in parallel.

Idea 6: Consider different ways to mitigate

Support requests can often be a signal of deeper problems with user experience – we found that changing elements of our first-run process made a noticeable difference to the volume of tickets received.

For instance in the past year we’ve implemented the following changes at Nickelled, all of which smooth our users’ path to first value and have reduced the volume of support requests, particularly from new users:

  1. Removing the need to download a browser extension before creating a guide
  2. Producing a short explainer animation which plays as the site is loading key pages
  3. Populating a user’s accounts with example guides so that they’re not greeted with a blank screen on signup
  4. Building a checklist of the most common key activation events and putting them in a shared dashboard that can be accessed by customer success staff (to help them pinpoint what the customer needs to do next)
  5. Implementing a user tracking solution (Fullstory) and then asking customer success to proactively send an email when we’re notified that a user has seen an error or we’ve noticed that they’re having difficulties

There’s also a bunch of other stuff we’re keen to trial, based on how impressed we’ve been by other SaaS providers out there, for example:

  • Encouraging all new users to join support webinars after signing up (even forcing them to book something)
  • Offering one-on-one support sessions with our customer success manager after signup

Needless to say, guided tours (yeah… we make ‘em!) can play a role in helping to reduce support queries too, although they shouldn’t be used as a sticking plaster for a bad workflow. For both us and our clients, guided tours have been most useful when they’re paired with strong support processes, and can be used to better illustrate the path a user must take to resolve a query or complete a task. Take a look at our Zendesk integration for an example of how this can look (it allows guided tours to be easily attached to helpdesk answers).

Has your business hit the growth dilemma? What solutions have you implemented to handle support vs success?

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