Somewhere in rural Caldwell County, Missouri, lies the small town of Hamilton. Out of a population of 1,800, 185 work at Missouri Star Quilt Company.
The genesis and the continuous success of Missouri Star Quilt Co. is something that reads out of a Disney story for entrepreneurs: the Doan family was hit hard by the market crash in 2008. Eager to ensure that their parents’ retirement was safe, Al and his sister, Sarah, bought a building two minutes away from their parents’ home and started a business selling quilting supplies and machines.
On a shoestring budget, they had to devise a way to grow the business in a tiny town that once had a thriving community of local businesses—dusty doorknobs and barren buildings represented the grim realities of fast economic changes.
Al invited his longtime friend, David Mifsud, to join the team. With Al’s technical background and David’s financial and marketing expertise, along with Sarah running the operations at the store, the foundation was ripe for growth.
Financial limitations and a burning desire to improve one’s situation summons creativity. Without much to spend on advertising, they looked at online platforms like YouTube, which was two or three years old at the time. They relied on Jenny—also known as “Momma Doan”—to teach her skills and share her mastery in quilting. With a home camera and a background in theatre, she became a star—the go-to person for quilting techniques and tips on YouTube.
Now, Missouri Star Quilt Co. owns 21 buildings in Hamilton, generates over 500,000 orders annually, and employs 185 people. Momma Doan doesn’t use the home camera anymore; she films her magic in a professional studio. Their YouTube channel has over 250,000 subscribers and over 50 million views, and they ship to customers from all over the world—some even come in by bus to visit the factories and stores (and to hug Momma Doan). They were recently recognized and honored with the Small Business People of the Year award by the Small Business Administration.
I had a wonderful chat with cofounder Al Doan and head of customer support Becky Bowen about how they use Help Scout to focus on delivering excellent support to their tribe of quilters.
Six Weeks of Quilting
Every company I’ve spoken with has unique ways of onboarding new hires. This onboarding grows empathy and an understanding for the product, team, and customers. Tuft and Needle puts every new employee in the factory to make boxes and watch how the mattresses are made. Customer.io creates homework assignments and provides meticulous coaching.
At Missouri Star Quilt Co., they put every new employee through six weeks of quilting.
“For six weeks, we don't expect you to know anything. Especially with quilting, it's kind of an unique experience; its not something most people have experience with before they come on board,” Becky said. “During that six week check-off process, we teach not only speaking terms, or how to sell, walking through making quilt blocks and things like that, but also about how to handle the customers and how to interact with them.”
“We always teach the philosophy that everybody who calls us is either our best friend or our grandma, and we need to treat everybody like that.”
With a customer base of 90% women and a volume of 12,000 calls and 18,000 emails a month, this prerequisite of making your own quilt fosters empathy for the customer, as well as mentally prepares new employees for the multitude of questions that come in.
And they accomplish all of this with a customer support team of 10.
The Family Mindset
To maintain the attitude of speaking to a friend or grandma, Becky and her team sit down once a week and take samples of their emails and phone calls. Because the team acts as a family, they depend on one another, learn with one another, and lean on one another.
“We also have a morning meeting every day, where we discuss and rehash what happened the day before,” Becky explained. “We keep the spirits up because customer service is one of those thankless jobs. Most of the time we have contact with our customers, they’re upset about something. Fortunately, we do get a lot of praise from them, but sometimes it takes ten praises to make up for one bad phone call.”
Indeed, recovering after a long day of complaints and harsh critics shouldn’t be a lonely endeavor. These are moments to learn and grow as a team, and sometimes that’s best done around food.
“We'll take 20 minutes and say, ‘Okay, let's not answer the phone for 20 minutes, let's sit down here to eat together, and we can all take that deep breath together and then go back into the trenches together. It kind of keeps us a tight-knit group so we all can lean on each other. I think it's important that we all feel like we're a family because we are. We spend a lot of time together, and we need to feel like we can lean on each other when needed and vent when needed. Nobody's judged for it, and we can say what we need to say and go onto the next call.”
At the end of six weeks, each new employee has his or her quilt hanging over the customer service area of the office—a beautiful reminder that everything is learnable.
Leading a Tribe of Quilters
"A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” said Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us. “For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
Missouri Star’s tribe of quilters from all over the world communicates and shares their passion on the company’s forums. The high level of activity within the forums is affirmation that they’re an incredible hub for quilting knowledge.
Indeed, between the forums, the blog, the YouTube channel, and the support inbox, leading customers by providing educational content is the lifeblood of this business.
“They [customers] lean on us for quilting support. We’re not just Missouri Star Quilt Company helping people place orders. We get every question, and if they are not successful in making a quilt, they know that they can come to us. We’re sort of a Genius Bar for quilt suppliers,” Al said.
What has coalesced since the inception of their business is no accident. A focus on the community, using content to help customers succeed, and having a support team that truly delivers exceptional guidance are all indispensable for Missouri Star Quilt Company.
A huge thank you and well-deserved congratulations to Al Doan and the entire team at Missouri Star Quilt Company.