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Alert Signals That You Have a Scaling Challenge

Does your support operation have a scaling challenge? Are response times getting slow? Are customers complaining that their requests aren’t being answered adequately? Is your support reps’ hair on fire?

Technology startups that experience any kind of significant growth will get to a point where their customer support operations as they’ve known them will suddenly hit a wall.  At that point the way things have worked will no longer be effective, and you will need to look at people, process and technology solutions that allow you to not only keep up but excel with your customers.

That is the point where you will have a scaling challenge on your hands, which of course you will need to solve efficiently and cost-effectively.

This is the first in a two-part series about scaling your customer support services. In this article, we’re going to discuss eight alert signals that indicate you might be at the point where you need to do that.

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to actually scale your support operations. A word of caution though: scaling support doesn’t necessarily mean throwing more people at the problem. It’s also about optimizing and leveraging technology and processes to do more with less.

So how do you know you have a scaling problem?

1. Your backlog

backlog

If you’ve been coasting along for the past two or three years with a backlog of between 20 to 50 issues, and then suddenly that explodes to a queue of 400, you might have a scaling problem.

And you’ll only know that if you’re actually tracking these volumes, which is not always the case. When you’re not tracking what issues are coming in and getting resolved, or how a product launch or product release may impact your volumes and your reps’ workload until it does, then you will hit a brick wall pretty quickly and unexpectedly.

A growing backlog of issues means you’re getting an increasing volume of requests which are not getting served, and that will not get better just by working harder.  This all seems obvious, but in my experience it takes a while for many support teams to realize what is going on.  Many times, this increasing backlog is a result of success and is actually a good problem to have, so you need to scale your operation. Maybe your people aren’t able to cope with the higher volume, which calls for a larger team or increasing automation, or your team can’t resolve certain types of issues, which may call for additional training or a clear escalation process to more experienced team members.

Whatever the cause, a growing backlog is the first alert signal.

Q&A2. Quality

Is the quality of your responses suffering or taking a back seat to the priority of just getting them out?

By quality I mean preciseness, completeness, thoroughness, tone of voice or reply, follow up.

If your team is spending all their time on the urgent issues, but lower priority issues such as product feature questions or product roadmap queries are getting ignored.  If any or all of this is happening, then that is a signal that you might have a scaling challenge.  People don’t want to write incomplete answers to requests or ignore them, many times that is only the result of an increased overload.

A rapidly increasing volume of support requests has you focusing on the “urgent” while giving short-shrift to the “important.”

And while you are handling the queries that are screaming the loudest, not answering the tier 2 or 3 questions can have a negative impact on your customer experience, your CSAT scores and eventually on customer retention and revenue.

If you measure NPS, your detractors might start to overtake your promoters, because they might start rating you low on the quality of service.

3. Deteriorating numbers

If your reporting is showing longer response times, higher volumes, or higher resolution times, then you might have a scaling problem.  That is the importance of reporting and doing it with a cadence.

What are your reports telling you about the health of your support operation?  If you don’t produce and review reports or a metrics dashboard on a regular basis or have no health indicators, that is an alert signal in itself.  Unless your volumes are very low, you absolutely need to “scale” the robustness of your customer support technology.  There are many cloud-based platform options out there -Zendesk, Talkdesk, Kustomer, Freshdesk, to name just a few- so make sure you evaluate and select one.

Assuming that you do have indicators and metrics, the negative signals mentioned above, reflected in your numbers, could lead to rushed or incomplete responses, mistakes and angry customers.

Response times going from 30 minutes one month to 2 hours the next month is something to watch and probably be concerned about, so make sure you at least report on basic measures, such as volumes, response times and open issues, and pay attention to the signals!

Customer Journey Support Checklist

4. Internal Stress

If your support team is feeling stressed, you might have a scaling problem.

Your team’s stress may or may not affect your customers, but when they have more work than they can handle, as is many times the case with support teams, that can pretty reliably result in internal stress.

They’re stressed out about the fact that they can’t keep up the volumes. They’re stressed out about the fact that they’re escalating to level 2, and level 2 is not responding. They’re even stressed that they’re not meeting their own SLAs or goals or their collective SLAs.

Keep an eye on the stress levels of your team members.   It may tell you a lot about what’s really going on and what issues you need to pay attention to, whether that’s adding resources, resolving bottlenecks, escalating issues to your engineering team or all of the above.

5. A chaotic process.

Chaotic process

Got chaos in your operation? If things are chaotic, you might have a scaling problem.

Let’s define chaos for the purposes of this article: can’t quite track open issues well, your team is unable to get to the growing number of issues, the number of days or hours that pass between the request getting to you and your reply to the customer is growing, internal answers or direction are lacking or contradictory, it’s not clear who to escalate or they’re not even responding.

It’s hard to keep track of how many open issues you actually have or to identify the age of those issues, who’s doing what, did rep A respond to this request already or am I supposed to.  Are your tools not allowing facilitating the work, such as managing escalations, merging tickets, reporting or a thousand other things support teams need to do every day?

Who exactly is handling this little queue over here of urgent issues ?

That’s chaos and a clear signal that you need to scale the size of the team, your processes and perhaps your toolset.

6. Costly Work- arounds.

If you’re taking the easy way out resolving issues and not really resolving them (the end result is that you’ve just swept them under the carpet to be resolved later, resulting in higher costs), you might have a scaling issue.

Let’s look at a specific example: you don’t try to really work on whatever technical issue the product has, instead you might just exchange the product for the customer. That’s a costly workaround.

And that’s not sustainable for a company long-term.

Or you might be working around issues yet not really fixing them.

Your reps may be telling customers: “You know what, just go to such and such a setting, turn it off and that will make the problem go away…” for now.

These work-arounds are costly because you’re not really solving the real problem. That may be because you don’t have the time or resources to do anything else, or simply can’t get a fix from engineering.

No management or reactive management.7. No management or reactive management.

If you get to a point where you just don’t have time to manage what’s going on, you might have a scaling problem.

If you’re the manager, you’re constantly reacting. You become just another agent because you have so many issues and it’s all-hands-on-deck.

You’re in reaction mode. There’s no time to document things, no time to actually come up with real fixes or request them, or make better tools available to your team. You’re not producing adequate reports about your operation, etc.  You get the picture.

8. Inadequate tools

We have touched on this already, but if you’re managing your support issues in Outlook or Excel (God forbid), you might have a scaling problem.

And I know Outlook and Excel are extreme examples, but I’ve actually seen this!

Or maybe you’re using tools that aren’t built for support, such as tools really built for collaboration or bug trackers. Maybe you’re using something like Asana or your CRM, but these tools are inadequate because they can’t do the types of things you really need to do to manage a support operation well.

For example, you can’t really track the history of an issue. You can’t really tell what was the sequence of things that happened on a specific issue, who said what and who did what at what time. The metrics aren’t really there either to report on them.  And if you can’t track these things not only can you not really resolve issues easily, but you can’t really scale.

As the saying goes, what you can’t measure you can’t improve.

cta blueprint call

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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How Customer Support Can Spur Customer Discovery

Customer support provides a surprising benefit that can help product management, marketing, customer success, and your company’s overall growth. What is that benefit? It’s what we call customer discovery.

For too long support operations have been in the shadows of company growth, but no longer. With today’s complex AI-driven products, like smart home devices, security cameras and trackers, wearables, sleep tech, pet tech, and a host of others, customer support can make or break your operation through the valuable insights they discover.

Customer discovery is when your support professionals – who are in weekly, if not daily contact with your customers – discover new things about your product and your customers’ lives that can inform your strategy going forward.

As customer success consultant and thought leader Kristen Hayer recently said in an article on the InfoLink blog in reference to onboarding new customers:

“Part of an amazing onboarding experience includes some discovery. Why did the customer purchase your solution? What are they hoping to achieve with it? What will tell them that they made the right decision? The answers to these questions provide critical information you can use to refine your product and customer journey.”

Let’s break down in detail how customer discovery can help your firm.

Discover New Use Cases

Many marketing and product innovations come from discovering how customers are actually using your product, which may or may not be how you originally envisioned.  Product teams are very creative in visualizing their ideal persona and their particular use cases. But there’s nothing like a few real, surprise use cases that can spur new thinking.

For example, we happen to work with a smart lock manufacturer, who among other critical use cases designed their for the pure convenience factor of unlocking the door remotely after you park your car in the driveway.

But one of our support agents discovered an interesting use case. A man was living at a house with a smart lock installed. His younger brother, who lived with him, would often come back home in the late hours of the night (doing what younger brothers do he would go out and stay out late with his buddies).

Instead of getting up in the middle of the night, the older brother would now just reach over to his nightstand, grab his phone, and unlock the door for his younger brother. He got to stay in bed, and the younger brother avoided sleeping on the front steps.

Discover Product Issues

Customer discovery is also a great way to discover product problems so you can incorporate improvements in upcoming releases.

But this isn’t limited to discovering product defects; you can also discover awkward user interface issues or design flaws that make your product difficult to use for a particular use case.

Discover Possible Partnerships

What other smart tech products have your customers purchased along with yours? Does your car-cam customer use a particular insurance company? Maybe you can forge a partnership with the insurer so that they offer the smart car-cam to their customers, or at least accept your data feeds as evidence of accidents.

Discover Customer Motivations

Why did your customers buy your product? Discovering reasons and motivations can be as surprising as discovering new use cases. If you can find out a new use case, such as opening the door remotely with your smart lock when the young’uns come home from a late night of partying, maybe you can tap into a whole new market of people who don’t care about the security aspects but have a house full of college students or teenagers?

Or maybe your customers bought something for a previously unknown reason (to you), but they’re finding it takes longer than they expected to work, or they find it hard to get value out of your product for their particular reason for purchasing.

Discovering new motivations can also help you improve your Customer Journey Support process to improve time-to-value and satisfaction for a new segment of buyers.

Establish a Continuous Feedback Loop

The benefits of customer discovery begs the question: how can we systematize customer discovery to benefit our product management and marketing processes? We recommend implementing a continuous feedback loop as part of your standard operating procedures.

Kristen Hayer again:

“Invest in a discovery feedback loop between your onboarding and product teams, and measure the impact on product-market fit and your retention rate.”

Setting up an established feedback loop is an operational decision, but you must back it up with technology. Make sure you invest in software that allows you to include stakeholders from various departments, including support, product and marketing, as power users. Set up the workflows so your continuous feedback loop becomes a central part of your management platform.

So where do you go from here? Adopt the mindset that puts customer support on an even playing field with product, marketing and operations. Realize that customer support personnel are the front lines in your company’s relationship with your customers.

I would even go so far as to say that they are probably the most important part of your market research efforts. Your customer service reps, if trained right, become your customers’ confidantes. Your customers open up to them. They share information candidly and without reservation because they feel safe with the nurturing and helpful nature of your front line support people.

Give them the position they deserve – because they can give you the intelligence you need.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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Growing Your IoT Startup Through Retention, Revenue Expansion, Referrals and Partnerships

For IoT companies to grow, they need to focus on more than just increasing their sales and marketing activity.

To really grow – in revenue, profits and influence – IoT companies must look to customer success and customer support.  Support, in particular, must go from being a cost center to a profit center.

In our work supporting the growing consumer IoT industry, we’ve found that service and support can be an important driver for IoT startup growth, if not the most important driver.

In fact we’ve identified four specific levers of growth for consumer IoT companies that support operations can impact.

Retention

The first and most important growth lever is retention. Retention is the goal of any serious customer support effort.  According to the Harvard Business Review, reducing customer churn (customers who leave a brand) by 5% can boost profits from 25% to 85%.

Everything you do in your support operation should be geared to making sure your customers stay with you.

But why is retention so important?retention

It’s all about the math. The more you reduce customer defections, the more profitable you’ll be.

Let’s take an important measure of customer value, Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). If a customer is valued at $100 a month, and stays with you for a year, their value to your company is $1,200. But if you convince them to stay with you three years, that customer will be worth $3,600, tripling their value to your company.

With IoT products the key to long-term customer satisfaction is a great customer experience, and that starts with how you “on-board” new users, especially since these products are so innovative  and technology-driven. Your customers need to understand the ins and outs of how to setup your product and everything they can do with it.

There are a number of ways you can excel at this initial step of the customer journey, which will impact your retention rates later: provide clear onboarding information via your website (how to set up the hardware, configure the mobile app, integrate with Alexa, describe most common use cases), or through an email series, or even an onboarding phone call with a support rep if that’s what it takes.

Once you’ve ensured they can use the product and understand what the product can do and bow to use it, they’ll have questions, challenges and issues along the way. Your customer support team needs to be there to answer those questions and get your customers unstuck so they can continue to have a great experience.

To this end, meet your customers where they are. Cover all the channels they might expect to receive support through: email, chat, and phone especially. And make sure no calls or requests fall through the cracks – answer any support tickets as quickly as possible, within seconds for phone calls and chat, and within a couple of hours for e-mails.

The bottom line is, excellent support is table stakes for any company today, especially for consumer IoT and consumer electronics companies. The bar has been set higher for service, so the better you service your customers, the more likely they are to stick around.

Revenue Expansion

Revenue Expansion is the second and newest growth lever, and it should be a key growth driver for IoT companies.

Once you have a customer that has purchased a $300 product from you, what should you do so that they not only stick around longer, but buy more?

IoT products have a built-in advantage here. They’re constantly evolving: adding new features and functionalities, attaching subscriptions to their products (such as for storing data or providing advanced analytics), releasing new versions, introducing complementary new products.

You need to find a way to keep offering your customers additional value, as their use cases evolve.

This isn’t just retention, this is expansion.

revenue expansion

And your customer support reps are in the best position to do this cross-selling and upselling. They frequently know your customers the best, their home environment, home office or small business.   They are uniquely suited to identify opportunities to present customers with options to upgrade or complement what they already have.

Theirs is a consultative sale, because they know that due to some life event or use case the customer would be better served with the new accessory that integrates with the latest version of the product.  This is not about pushing product.  It’s about delivering value, and helping your customers through a buying experience that makes sense to them and responds to their needs.

Let’s take another look at the Lifetime Customer Value calculation we used earlier. Say we can increase retention to three years, and the customer’s value to your company goes from $1,200 to $3,600.

If you can expand your relationship with that customer and get them to expand what they get with you, you could boost the $100 a month relationship into a $150 or $200 a month. The CLV of those customers could go to $7,200!

Referrals

The third growth lever for IoT companies is referrals. Happy customers make great salespeople. It’s not just you saying great stuff about your products (prospects are always suspicious of self-promotion), these are happy customers talking wonders about you.

This is gold.

Customers who recommend you to their friends, family and colleagues become an inexpensive sales channel for your organization, especially when compared to advertising, content marketing, PR blitzes and other types of paid promotion.

To make referrals more consistent there are simple programs you can institute, programs that reward customers who refer new business to you. You can give them points, deliver coupons, or give discounts for their next purchase.

Find a great way to kick-off a referral process early on in your company’s existence.

Partnerships

Partnerships, the fourth lever, are a little different from the previous three levers, and not necessarily tied to your support operations. The nature of IoT products makes partnerships a logical source of new business, since the IoT ecosystem provides a ready cadre of partners.

Smart homes are becoming a hodge-podge of brands – often competing brands – that make up the whole. All products must work together, providing built-in opportunities to create referral partnerships.  Your customer success and support team can provide unique insights on this, since they’re the ones on the trenches dealing directly with customers.

What kind of co-marketing program can you forge with other manufacturers in your ecosystem? Can a smart lock manufacturer form an alliance with a smart tracker manufacturer and a smart lamp vendor for mutual referrals?

Keep an open mind to what could be a potential competitor and think about how to turn them into a collaborator.

This isn’t a strict IoT example per se, but I was at Best Buy recently where I saw a complete Amazon showroom. Best buy used to be Amazon’s mortal enemy! But they have now become one of Amazon’s channel partners.

Which competitor can you forge a mutually beneficial referral relationship with?

Conclusion

Sales and marketing plays a huge role in getting the word out about your IoT brand. But look at your market growth strategy as more of a “land and expand” strategy than your prime growth strategy.

Sales and marketing gets your foot in the door by “landing” an initial client. Then customer success and support take over to retain, expand and facilitate referrals.   Lastly, think about partnerships as yet another way of  “expanding” your footprint within the market.

The sooner you can shift your thinking to see support and service as your most important growth lever, the sooner you can become a market leader.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.