Startup Customer Service — Some Lessons Learned

Posted On: March 8th, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

Back in June of 2008, at the conclusion of my Entrepreneurship and New Venture Formation class at Kellogg, our class group pitched the concept of Genlighten to a panel of VC/Entrepreneur judges. Our presentation was a success, but one of the judges warned us that the older demographic we were serving would have more customer service needs than we had budgeted for in our financial plan.

Now fast-forward to March 2010. At this point, given our small userbase, my wife has been able to deal quite effectively with the daily emails and occasional phone calls we’ve received. But over the last few weeks as our traffic has begun to pick up, we’ve seen the volume of customer service inquiries increase right along with it. Several of our experiences with concerned customers have proven quite challenging to deal with, and I like to think we’ve grown as a result. I thought I’d share a few of  the lessons we’ve learned.

Episode #1: Panic Mode

I recently created a new PowerPoint presentation for prospective providers called “Genealogy Lookups 101“. I uploaded it to Slideshare.net,  and posted a link to the slides on our Facebook Fan Page.  Later that night, my daughter sent me an agitated e-mail. Someone was posting on our Facebook wall that our site was a scam, that the records we offered weren’t free like we claimed they were, and that he’d learned that only after wasting $29.95. Since I knew these comments would potentially show up in all our fans’ newsfeeds, I went into panic mode. We don’t ever claim the lookups we offer are free, and we don’t charge subscription fees… nothing on our site is priced at $29.95. What was going on? Who had he mistaken us for?

Guilt By Association

bogus_genealogy_lookup_ad_v2I replied to the poster’s message, asking for details. After some research, it became clear what had happened. Slideshare.net is a little like YouTube. They host the slideshows you upload for free, they ask you to tag your presentations with keywords, and they display Google AdWords ads next to your slides corresponding to the keywords you choose. One of the ads that was being displayed next to my “Genealogy Lookups 101″ slides was for a site that appeared to offer free lookups. As it turns out, our Facebook fan had visited this site several months back, signed up for a $29.95 subscription, and found nothing useful at all — certainly not free genealogy lookups.

So when he saw that ad next to our presentation on our Slideshare.net page, he assumed that the ad was from us, and that we were the ones who’d previously disappointed him. It took some time, but I eventually convinced him that the ads he’d seen didn’t have anything to do with us. After a while, I quietly deleted our message thread from the Fan Page wall. But the damage had been done… a good number of our Fans unsubscribed from our page, presumably lost forever.

The lesson here was clear: wherever we put our content, we need to be conscious of the environment it’ll be placed in. People will associate Genlighten and our brand with the web company we keep. If we’d had a business account on Slideshare, for example, instead of an ad-supported free account, we might have avoided being associated with questionable ads.

Episode #2: Transaction Pending

As part of the checkout process on Genlighten, we reassure clients that their credit cards or PayPal accounts won’t be charged until their lookups are completed. Technically, the process includes these steps:

  • The customer clicks on the “Proceed to Checkout” and the “Complete Checkout” buttons
  • We submit an “authorization” to the customer’s credit-card issuer to verify that the card is valid and that the payment amount can be successfully charged. At this point the charge should show up on the customer’s credit card as “pending”
  • The lookup provider performs the lookup, completes it, and clicks on the “charge client” button
  • The earlier “authorization” on the customer’s card is “captured.” This is the moment at which the card is actually charged.

“It’s Deceitful”

Recently a client checked her bank balance and was told that a charge from Genlighten had come through on her debit card. She checked the site and noticed that the lookup was still in process. Perturbed because we had explicitly promised she would not be charged prior to lookup completion, the client called to complain. She liked the site, was pleased with the lookup provider’s efforts, but was NOT happy that we had “deceitful” language in our explanation of the charging process.

I listened, took responsibility for the “you won’t be charged until…” language (I had written it!) and explained that as I understood things, the charge should show as “pending” rather than “cleared.” I offered her a full refund if that wasn’t the case. She agreed to check again with her bank, and that’s how we left things as the call ended.

Welcome News

A few days later, the client e-mailed once more. She’d checked with her bank, and they had clarified what the automated teller had told her earlier: the Genlighten transaction was indeed “pending” rather than “cleared.” Her money was still in her account. She was relieved, and so we’re we. It felt like we’d regained her trust.

Two lessons this time. First: perception is reality. The client felt she’d been deceived, and only once she’d discovered the truth for herself was she convinced otherwise. By listening and offering to make her whole, I motivated her to check the situation out in more detail. If I’d come across defensive, I probably would have lost her for good.

Second: customers read the promises we make and will hold us to them with exactness. In this case, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add some language to the site that explains the possibility that their bank may show their transaction as “cleared” when it’s really still “pending.”

This is What We Signed Up For

When we chose to start a business, we simultaneously chose to face challenges like these. We knew we’d be small and face large well-established competitors. And we decided right from the start that we’d need to differentiate ourselves through our personalized customer service. We’re starting to understand just what we’ve signed up for in that regard.

We want to be like the Founder of Groupon, Andrew Mason. This is what he wrote in a recent blog post about his attitude towards customer service:

I don’t know if it’s some kind of weird complex, but the idea that there’s even one customer out there that is less than thrilled with Groupon horrifies me.

We know that feeling. When things don’t work the way we want on Genlighten and customers are unhappy, it’s hard for us not to take it very personally. Our customer service strategy is simple: keep listening to our customers and work to make Genlighten a little better every day.

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