I had two bad customer service experiences recently. One was in person at a local food-and-drink emporium. The other was online retail. The reasons that the experiences were bad were completely different, but equally common and avoidable.

We tend to direct our bad experience ire at the person directly in front of us. And, yes, they do bear some responsibility, given it’s their job. But arguably even greater responsibility belongs to whoever did the hiring or training.

The focus by many companies on “growth” at the expense of customer relations is another issue, but that’s a whole other ball game.

Companies need to sort out how they’re going to manage customer relations before they have much of a customer base. Proactive support, culture, strategy, and policies will benefit the entire company, compared to reactive crisis control when something has already gone horribly wrong.

But how are you supposed to know what future customers (or your company) will need? By hiring people who’ve done this before. The assumption that the employee who checks the info@ inbox is taking care of customers isn’t going to cut it. Remember, these people are the main public face and impression for your company.

Getting people to become customers requires a certain leap of faith on their part, and you’ll be doing much better if people have built some trust and your company has built a good reputation before that happens.

Making sure your company is easy to get a hold of and that people can painlessly get the answers they seek are two important and fairly easy ways of establishing this.

And no, your startup is not a unique snowflake. Every aspect of building a business has some standard principles and requirements. Customer relations are no different.

Once you get the standard operating procedure in place, you’ll be able to see what’s common – and how it can be dealt with to save time and resources – and what’s an edge case requiring special handling.

For support, companies need to be able to manage things like bug reports, feature requests, tech support, contact management, security, privacy, and documentation. Ideally, you’ll take care of this before the bloated, locally saved spreadsheet containing the details of your entire customer base gets corrupted.

This will also sound kind of dumb, but it’s also a good idea for the other staff at your company to know who’s in charge of supporting customers and prospects. When you ask half a dozen people at a 50-person company (that is shipping product) who is responsible for managing support, and not a single one of them knows, it does not develop trust or confidence in a company’s maturity (true story).

People who are good at supporting customers require a very particular set of skills and a certain type of personality. The employee who turns out to be great at it may surprise you. Spoiler alert: It may not be that sweet person who is nice to everyone at the office and brings in cookies. But if you can get Liam Neeson, I say hire him …

Even though it might seem like corporate suicide to let them anywhere near customers, your ideal customer support person could be someone who swears like a sailor, deftly employs the blackest of gallows humour (offline), and eats that last cookie without regret.

How do they handle insults, endless complaints, incommunicado developers, patchy documentation, major system outages, and providing installation instructions for someone who doesn’t speak the same language and who seems to be using a Commodore 64?

In finding the right people for your current and future customers, you do have to trust your gut to a point. A resume isn’t likely to give you the full story. Ideally you want to talk to the people with whom your prospective employee has worked. But don’t focus on what their co-workers and management think. What did previous customers think?

How customer relations are woven into your company culture is also very important, and often done wrong. It’s very common for support to be the Pit of Despair, the place where people start before (hopefully) being “rewarded” out with a promotion into a better role and better salary. What message is this sending?

You want to hire people who do support on purpose, and you need to respect and value that role and department within the company accordingly.

Providing great customer experience also requires good training. This is not as easy as having someone who has been around a while telling stuff to the new kids. Sure, you can give people an overview of how your systems work, tutorials on the software you use, point them to the documentation, etc.

But you can’t train service or truly grokking customer experience by reading online tutorials or modules. Have you ever seen a slide deck about culture that didn’t come off as totally cheese-tastic? Again, it’s part of imparting and growing your company culture.

And just because someone is excellent at support and customer experience doesn’t mean they’ll be excellent at either training or managing others to do it. (Or that they want to.) Do all great developers make great managers? No? Same issue.

Those handling support and those who are responsible for customer experience also need the agency to do their jobs and truly represent your company. Beyond tools and policies, they need critical thinking skills and to be trusted to make decisions and take action. A lot of the time, someone asking to “speak to a manager” means your support organization has failed.

Every company will have a customer service fail. The size and visibility will vary. Even if you’re, oh, United Airlines, remember that the internet, particularly, has a painfully short attention span. You’ll live to serve another day. Probably.

Photo: Help, by Lydia, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.