What I Learned Managing Customer Support For My Passion Project
5 Lessons in Empathy
The beginnings of our sound wave art company
It’s Fall of 2014 and I’m at my then-boyfriend now-husband’s apartment. Tyler’s got his headphones on and he’s writing a song. Just a normal day in the life of a software engineer by day and house DJ by night. Ableton Live is open on his laptop and it probably looks a little something like this:
I kiss him goodnight and go to sleep. I wake up the next morning and he’s not next to me. The pillow looks like it hasn’t been slept on all night. I get up to find that he’s still in the same spot where I left him. Tyler has always been the type of guy who can stay up all night working through an idea and won’t settle until it’s complete. This was one of those nights. He’s been in one of his “grooves” writing a Tiesto Remix.
He played the song for me as we watched the sound waves move on the screen. We talked about how awesome it would be if we could hang the song up on our wall, almost like a visual representation of all of his work. We then did a quick Google search and found a couple of companies making sound wave art, but knew we could make something better.
Our crappy MVP launches
At the time both Tyler and I were working for startups, and felt like we needed to build something together to channel our creative side. With my marketing and design experience and his coding chops, we launched a really bad first version of SoundViz to see if it got any traction. We built it using mostly what our gut was telling us to do.
It was featured on Product Hunt in December of 2014 and we began to see consistent traffic and visitors increase month over month. People were actually buying from us and it was exciting!
My love affair with Intercom begins
As more people were discovering the site, more people were having difficulty using it. On top of this, we weren’t offering our users a way to efficiently communicate with us. There was a lot of buzz around Intercom at the time, a customer messaging platform, so we gave it a try.
I know the exact day and time that I fell in love with Intercom. It was October 7th, 2015. How do I know? Well, I wrote a love-tweet to Intercom that day. They didn’t reply back to me, but I know they’re a busy bunch!
It was then that I learned I didn’t just love some product, but I loved the lessons in empathy my customers were teaching me. When they gave us praise I felt elated, but when they complained I felt stabbed in the heart. It was helping me to better connect with my users, and in turn I was designing better solutions for them.
Lessons in user experience while managing customer support
Every day since late 2014 I have managed customer support for SoundViz while also having a day job. Intercom gives me the flexibility to communicate with our customers when it’s convenient for me, which has been crucial for our little 2-man team.
What has this taught me? A LOT. More then I could ever learn by just reading a book. I learned first-hand what it means to truly care about my users and the experiences they have with SoundViz.
1. Your customers will blame themselves for your bad design, that’s when you should listen
When you design something that your customers don’t “get,” you know as a designer you have failed. The good news is, these conversations give you the opportunity to understand where they’re getting stuck. These types of conversations were like mini usability tests and I took them as an opportunity to improve certain features that were causing confusion.
When your users don’t understand something, there is an opportunity for you to listen and build something better.
2. When you sound like a human it’s easier for people to trust you
Talking to your customers as if you can relate to them is the essence of empathy and builds trust. This trust can blossom into a relationship with your customer. These relationships could be a simple exchange of “thank you” or they can turn into painfully beautiful stories.
We had a few conversations back and forth and then I got this message.
This lady trusted me with a permanent tattoo on her body! There is no greater feeling than your product bringing true joy to your users.
Being a helpful human being will build trust with your users and might even make them comfortable enough to share a personal story.
3. Listening to questions can help prioritize your product roadmap
When your customers ask a question, take note because they’re often times letting you know what would be useful to them. I‘ve always kept a log about what features they were asking for and after awhile, it became obvious what was most popular. By far the most common request I received was the ability to make a custom color palette.
In a lot of cases, users will tell you what they want but it’s not always what they need. In this case, our features weren’t living up to our mission of “enabling people to easily tell their stories through audio and visual media.” By pre-determining colors for them we weren’t letting them tell their story. It made sense both for the user and our business to build this feature.
The user doesn’t always know what they need, but often times they give you an idea on how your business can better live up to its mission.
4. A really bad customer experience can propel your business forward
Experiences can just go terribly wrong sometimes and there’s no way around it. Sometimes it’s our fault and other times it’s not. I often times will put myself in the shoes of my customer during these times and ask “how would I feel in this position?” It sounds obvious but it really helps me when I write out my replies.
In this example, I had to swallow my pride, admit it was our mistake (even though it was the shipping provider) and move on with an unhappy customer. There was only one option at this point — to learn from it and improve. This very incident made me switch our shipping provider and we’ve not had one complaint since. Our NPS score is only going up now.
Often times a really bad customer experience can be a catalyst for change and also a great opportunity to turn a bad experience into a positive one.
5. Have a little empathy for other companies, too
Since managing customer support, I’ve had a lot more compassion for other support teams I do business with. Some times things are just out of our control like a storm slowing down the postal service or Amazon Web Services breaking the Internet. We’re all humans behind these little websites, doing the best we can, please treat us like it.
Sh!t happens, have a little empathy for other companies you do business with. We’re all human and make mistakes sometimes.
Successful startups are built with some gut, a little bit of luck and a lot of empathy
We built SoundViz using learnings from our previous jobs but mostly our gut. That worked for us for awhile, but the real sweet spot was when we implemented customer support which allowed us to be closer to our customers. The conversations I had with them made me more empathetic which naturally led us to build a better product.
Everyone should be an advocate for good customer support
To those designers who have been in the industry for awhile, I’m sure these lessons aren’t of any surprise to you. Everything you consume about design preaches this stuff. The thing is, I didn’t really “get it” until I was on the receiving end of these conversations for so long.
So today, I challenge you to find a better way to communicate with your users. Be an advocate for customer support within your organization and I guarantee your employees will have no greater lesson in empathy. I’m proof.
Say hi if you‘d like to chat! I’m looking for new opportunities right now.