CEOs Handling Customer Support

Leave the call centers empty and do it yourself.

What do Steven Brill, Mike Hudack, Babak Nivi and Chris Siragusa all have in common? They are all innovative founders who have all personally responded to my customer support requests.

Many of you know that Craig Newmark takes the prize in this department (his job title at the hugely popular Craigslist is “Customer Service Rep”), but every CEO should be fielding support requests at least occasionally. In the early days of any company, if founders are not seeing support requests they are missing what may be the most valuable data they’ll ever see after launch. For startups in particular almost every support request is customer feedback that can be used to shape strategy, improve products, reaffirm your brand and build relationships with your user base.

Many people expect requests and complaints made to almost any company will go to a room full of underpaid automatons. In a well run startup the odds are good that one of the founders is stepping away from a holiday dinner with their family so they can type on a cell phone to help you watch a movie, download an app or just read your vented frustrations.

When Steven Brill launched Content magazine I was still in college, the dot-com bulls were charging, and I was thrilled to have an email exchange with the founder and editor himself. In that brief exchange I suddenly realized the high value that all of us lowly customers had to the leaders of these new companies, that were much more agile and engaged than the old media stalwarts. While many magazine editors were still figuring out how to manage their email accounts, Brill was using those exchanges to get feedback, build loyalty and create a better product.

Likewise, in the early days of Blip.tv I saw Mike Hudack’s name on a lot of support emails, regardless of how early or late it was. Blip has gotten too big for Mike to spend time explaining the details of transcoding to random customers, but I’m certain that having a CEO in touch with user needs helped make the company a standout success in a crowded marketplace. Beyond the value of user feedback, personal attention from Mike and others at Blip also made many customers like me loyalists during a highly competitive time for the company.

The same is true for MaxDelivery. Founder Chris Siragusa immediately impressed me after I began using the local grocery delivery service and received personal customer support from him. Not only was the response helpful, but the way he handled it demonstrated an understanding of his products, web site and team. I certainly don’t expect him to reply to the thousands of customers they now have, but his support emails early on sent a clear message that he was a hands-on founder with an interest in the customers’ satisfaction.

More recently, Babak Nivi gave me a thoughtful response to an overly aggressive complaint I made about new features on AngelList. He not only took my feedback into consideration, but he handled my email rant quite graciously. That’s not always an easy task after working hard to roll out new features, but a positive and patient response to frustrated customers creates a positive association in place of a negative one.

I’m hardest on the people and companies I love most, so if you run a startup and see a hyper-critical email from me at 2am, it means I’m paying you a very high (albeit backhanded) compliment. I’m improving though. After all, if you ever need help with Dynamo, chances are that you’ll see my name attached to a lot of those support requests.

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One Response to CEOs Handling Customer Support

  1. Nivi says:

    Thanks for the kind words Rob. I’m sharing this with our team.

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