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I’ve been the one-person support team for both startups I’ve founded.

Some bootstrapped startups try to outsource customer service as soon as possible — perhaps hiring a part-time customer support person while prioritizing resources for other areas such as product development — but support is no less important than other areas.

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I’ve figured out a couple of ways to make great support viable — and even turn it into a competitive advantage.

5 customer service tips for startups

Every market you can enter today is competitive and probably already close to being saturated. The one thing that still routinely separates a successful business from a failing one, however, is the type of experience you craft for your customers.

Great customer experiences are what set companies apart in crowded marketplaces, because they create passionate and vocal customers. This competitive advantage is hard for another business to break down, because they have to battle that existing business-to-customer relationship first.

Crafting a great customer experience requires you to purposefully invest resources. Initially, that normally requires your time, because unless your startup is well-funded, you probably don’t have the budget to hire a dedicated customer support/service/success professional. And time isn’t the only challenge, because wearing multiple hats and context-switching throughout the day has a bigger cost on your focus.

To help you craft better support experiences as a one-person support team, solo founder, or a leader of a small team whose customers demand more time than your support team has, here are five tactics you can try.

1. Tell everyone who you are

Since my days at WooThemes, I’ve signed all my emails to customers and partners with something like “Adii Pienaar, Co-Founder.” I still do this with Conversio and regularly receive replies from customers like this:

Email response

I was recently on the other side of such an interaction when I signed up to try out ProfitWell. Patrick Campbell (CEO and Cofounder of Price Intelligently, who owns the product) runs a team of more than 30 people, yet he onboarded me himself. It wasn’t until we were about 90 percent through the process that he looped in a team member to help me with the last bit.

That’s a “wow” experience.

Most people understand that leaders have their hands full, so they’re more likely to be appreciative when those leaders make the time to help them out personally.

Including your title in an email may feel a tad arrogant, but this is your way of communicating your commitment to your customers: Your problem is important to me and I’m here to help, even though I have many other balls to juggle, too.

When you anonymously answer a customer conversation, the only gain from your time is that the conversation is closed. When you sign off as a founder or leader, you’re maximizing that gain by deepening the relationship with a customer who might go on and tell their friends about it (as I have done about my experience with Patrick and ProfitWell).

2. Answer the newest emails first

This was one of the more counterintuitive things I’ve learned over the years.

My instinct was formerly to address the oldest emails first, because those customers have been waiting the longest. When I go to the bank and have to stand in the queue, they darn better work through that queue in a first-in-first-out basis to prevent me from losing my cool.

But when the queue is only digital and not visible, there’s no requirement to take that approach.

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Let me sketch this scenario for you: There were 50 emails waiting in the support inbox this morning. The oldest is from about 12 hours ago and the newest came in 5 minutes ago. Assume that it will take me a hour or two to work through this inbox regardless of which order I take it on.

If the person that has waited 12 hours already needs to wait another hour or two, it doesn’t significantly impact their waiting time. As long as my first response to them is of high quality, they will likely be satisfied.

But if I reply to that customer who emailed 5 minutes ago right now, I have the opportunity to create a “wow” experience by resolving an issue within a couple minutes.

Again, you’re maximizing the time you invest, since you’re going to do support for an hour or two either way.

3. Shorten the line to escalated help

As a non-technical founder, I’ve always tried to shield my team from the things that don’t require their attention. I’ll compromise my own time to troubleshoot a tricky issue before involving an engineer, and if I can’t resolve it, I’ll get them all the information they may require before passing the customer onto them. This way I can keep their work as distraction-free as possible.

But once I’ve passed on that conversation, they’re responsible for crafting a great customer experience — based on our company’s customer-centric values like honesty, proactive communication and timely help — and the customer has a direct line to the person most likely to resolve their challenge. There’s less back-and-forth, because the customer is already at the place where they can get the help they need and deserve.

Give your customers the best possible chance to get help in the way they want by connecting them with the person who can do that as soon as possible in the process.

4. Find surprise moments of delight

I follow all the conversations about bots, AI, and other technological advancements, and I’m passionate about using some of these tools in our own business. Still, we must always remember that our customers are human and the best way to help them achieve their goals is with human connection .

I don’t think a bot can do that.

Last year during a trip to Berlin, I started missing my family and messaged KLM to see about getting an earlier flight home. Within a couple hours, they not only rebooked me, they upgraded me. Boom. Such an unexpected and totally great experience. This is why I still choose to fly KLM, even when I have slightly shorter or cheaper options available.

KLM response

Today at Conversio, we often try to do something similar whenever we’re interacting with a customer about anything. When we’re already logged into their account, we’ll look for and suggest ways in which they can maximize the value they get from using our product. It requires some additional time, but the benefit outweighs that time consideration.

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Looking for inspiration on fun, quirky and memorable ways to delight the people who keep you in business? 25 Ways to Thank Your Customers →

Many other companies use swag or thank-you notes to surprise their customers. In principle, the benefit is the same: You are surprising your customer and giving them a moment of delight, which definitely buys you some goodwill.

Leverage human connection to find moments to surprise and delight your customers.

5. Always be asking

Customer engagement is an uphill battle. So when a customer comes to you for help, that’s an opportunity — they’re already listening, so now’s your chance to talk to them.

Our approach is simple: We’ll help the customer with their issue and once we have that resolved, we’ll ask something from them. With happy customers, we might ask them to write a review of our product for the Shopify App Store, an important customer acquisition channel for us. For existing customers, we might offer to help them implement more of our tools. For prospective customers, we might make them an offer to become a paid customer.

In that moment, we have more of our customers’ attention. We can use that opportunity to not only provide a great customer service or support experience, but to make progress on other goals.

Every customer interaction is still a two-way conversation. Even if the initial agenda is set by the customer (“I need help with X”), it doesn’t mean you can’t augment that agenda in a helpful way.

Leverage what you have

In a startup’s early days, everything is challenging, and no one ever has enough time in the day to tackle all of those challenges.

The key to leveraging great customer experiences is to take a “cost plus something” mindset: Try to create a benefit that is beyond just your input. If time is your exclusive input, you will never have enough. If you can apply that time to creating more time in the long term, you will win.

So leverage what you have today — focus on the actions that give you the best return on your limited resources and maximize the value and outcome of every customer interaction.

Crafting a great customer experience could be your “unfair” advantage.

Adii Pienaar

About the author: After co-founding WooThemes, Adii founded Conversio, an ecommerce marketing dashboard. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.