Alexandra Harris My thoughts, experiences and everything in between on startups, web and mobile products, being an entrepreneur and, of course, customer service and experience. A Customer Service Breakfast at the SEOMoz “MozPlex” Office in Seattle (sponsored by UserVoice)

This morning I attended a customer service breakfast organized by UserVoice and hosted at the SEOMoz Seattle office (big thanks to Christina Green who invited me! You can follow her on Twitter: @gueritaverde).  On top of a great host, Aaron Wheeler (Twitter: @aaron_wheeler), we had Starbucks coffee (being in Seattle how could we not?!) and pastries from Le Panier which, if you haven’t visited, is the best French bakery in Seattle… and I’d like to argue, the west coast.

The attendees were a smart group representing some really cool Seattle startups and the topic of the day was internal company communications.  Although only an hour (and a handful of minutes), I had a wonderful time and got some great insight into how other companies work, don’t work, and are aspiring to work in the future.  Based on our discussion, below are the solutions I took away as to how to best communicate internally:

Customer Service & Product Teams MUST Have Good Relations

The biggest trend I noticed when listening to other people’s experience was the disconnect that occurs between customer service and product/development.  On the one hand, customer service is constantly talking to the customer finding out what they like, don’t like, want and absolutely can’t live without.  And they’re trying to communicate this with the product team to deliver and keep the customers happy.  On the other hand, the product team has a roadmap, a set of product goals (new features, bug fixes, updates, etc.) that they have planned for the near future and far future.  These goals have been planned for a while based on input from the team and from customers and they need to stay on-task in order to meet those deadlines.  Thus, changes and distractions impede on their time to complete these tasks.  So what’s the solution?  To be honest, I don’t know but I think the recipe is a little give from customer service, a little give from product, a “no I in TEAM” mentality from both sides and a whole lot of patience.  This is something I’d really like to learn about more.

Customer Service Needs Their Time to Shine

One of the cooler things I learned about was that SEOMoz has a “Customer Service Digest” that goes out every week to all of the company’s employees.  In all honesty, it sounds like an opportunity for the customer service team to do a little bragging… and in all honesty, I love that.  Among other things, the SEOMoz’s digest includes the number of tickets that came in and were solved that week, the team’s satisfaction rating and the time to first response.

In my experience, customer service is often an overlooked team when it comes to praise simply because people are focused on numbers and there usually aren’t big numbers to quantify the customer service team’s or individual member’s success.  With sales teams it’s easy: how many sales did you close and for how much money.  Sales shows big numbers (hopefully) and this makes it easy to understand their value to the company.  Even product is easier to see than customer service: what features did you ship, what bugs did you fix, what updates did you make.  Not necessarily numbers-focused but still, easy to see the team’s contribution to the company’s success.  Customer service is different: how many customers did you talk down off the ledge, how many confused customers did you help, how many customers went away happy and loving the company.  Unless you have a secret sauce to getting detailed feedback from your customers (and if so, please share it!), it’s not easy to quantify the answers to these questions and thus, it’s harder to discern the value of customer service and the positive effects they have on the company.

Praise and Criticism Go a Long Way If Done Right

Another great suggestion I heard was calling out product managers or developers or sales executives that helped build a new feature, squash a particularly difficult bug, or keep a customer from churning.  Praise from the customer service team to co-workers is a wonderful way of keeping up good relations.  Additionally, you can almost always guarantee that a person will feel special and appreciated when they’re called out in front of the whole company for going above and beyond.

Conversely, criticism it turns out is equally powerful.  Making it apparent to the company that there is a bug that won’t be fixed or a feature that won’t be implemented can help change the decision to do so.  I don’t mean to imply that you should get the rest of your company to gang up on someone to change their mind (far from it), but I do suggest that getting other people involved might show that this bug really is a big deal or that this feature really does need to be implemented.  A good point here to remember: customer feedback is king.  The more customers you can record reporting the bug or asking for the feature, the more compelling your argument becomes.

Founders and Leaders Should Be Involved

One of the attendees said that her CPO (chief product officer) is bcc’ed on every customer service communication.  While I didn’t believe it either when I heard it, I guess if you’re not receiving thousands of emails every day this is definitely possible (it’s also possible if that CPO has a fantastic filter setup to triage those emails).  This certain CPO doesn’t read every email as it comes in but he does, at some point in the day, scroll through the emails to see what’s going on.  In theory, I think this is a wonderful idea that should, in reality, be divided up across the company’s founders and leaders.  Additionally, those leaders should be browsing through the emails not because they feel the product team needs a little nudge now and again but because they are actually interested in what customers are saying.  Keeping an eye on the needs of your customer will help direct your company in the right direction.

Being Friendly is Good, But Eventually We All Just Need to Do Our Jobs

I heard a lot about customer service people saying that to improve relations with other teams (sales, marketing, product, etc.) they would try to be better friends with people on those teams.  Makes sense to me.  But let’s be honest, friendship only goes so far.  Customer service members shouldn’t have to suck up to other teams just to get bugs fixed or features deployed.  At some point in time, everyone in your company needs to be professional and do their job.  Let me say that another way: do what you’re being paid to do.

The most successful company is the one that has no hiccups in the engine.  Everything runs smoothly, everyone does their job 100% perfectly, and customers love you all the way to the bank.  Reality: this will never happen, but that doesn’t mean your teams should just slack off.  Especially when it comes to startups, making people accountable for their work and responsible to the entire company (not just their team or their tickets or their bugs) will help you grow at a faster rate and keep your team cohesive and strong.