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How to Build a Startup with Fabulous Customer Support

March 1, 2014

10:00 am

Before we launched our startup, my brother Gary and I were musicians who also bussed tables, waited on customers, and tended bar. You might say we paid our dues.

Today, he and I are CEO and Chief of Culture of Mad Mimi, a company with about forty employees and 175,000 customers. In the early days, our restaurant experience helped us see our business from a customer-service perspective much more than from a spreadsheet perspective.

While there’s a lot to be said for knowing the ins and outs of term sheets, I feel grateful to have those getting-by-on-tips years under my belt. Why? Building a better mousetrap is meaningless without customer satisfaction.

No startup can thrive without showing love for their customers, so here are my tips as inspired by Mad Mimi’s brilliant customers.

Realize that Idiot-Proof is a Stupid Goal

Let’s start with this: your customers are not idiots!

You absolutely must work with your customers as equals. As a startup, your early adopters are an immensely valuable resource. If you make yourself accessible to them, listen to them, and take action based on their advice, you’ll keep them as customers all the way to your IPO.

So, instead of building a web app that’s 100 percent idiot-proof, go ahead and build in some subtlety if that will make a better product. If you’re open to feedback, you’ll learn which features need to be made more obvious, what could be removed entirely, and what should be left as-is.

Instead of trying to be idiot-proof, we built our app the way we thought it should be. At the same time, we’re available 24 hours a day to hear what our customers think, and we make sure to acknowledge and adjust accordingly. I’m always amazed by the different (and valid) perspectives of our customers.

The best way to both improve your app consistently and win the hearts and minds of your customers is to think about ownership, customer support, and development as the same thing.

Don’t Complicate Customer Support

I often chat with other businesses about how we manage our customer support. Most of their questions revolve around which ticket system we use and whether we prefer Zendesk or SupportBee.

The fact is, I like them both but use neither.

We stick with plain ol’ Google apps and have a culture of support where everyone chips in. We have a big, group inbox, and everyone helps out as a team with no ticketing system. The result? Our average email response time is ten minutes.

By avoiding out-of-the-box customer support tools and project management software, we’ve kept things simple with little room for procrastination. In fact, it’s easier to handle things right away than it is to delay.

Doing customer support at Mad Mimi is no different than checking our email. It’s simply part of our routine, and I think that’s what makes us excel in this area.

Provide C-level Customer Support

Customer support is often thought of as a bottom-up system: support is the lowest level, and difficult queries get kicked up the ladder.

Until your growth prevents it, you should offer top-down support. The founders, lead developers, and owners are the right people to handle support because nobody knows the product like they do. Nobody will be as passionate or as empowered to provide resolutions.

Here at Mad Mimi, support is still my main focus, while Gary reviews every cancellation and responds to feedback daily. We’re as involved with our customers as anyone else, and it’s created a culture of pride amongst the support team. It’s also allowed our amazing customers to keep us in check—and that’s a good thing.

As a startup, don’t hire anyone for your support team until you’ve mastered it yourself.

Find Tools that Help You Communicate

I’m not saying you need an expensive ticket system or CRM. Simply be resourceful about using technology in your customer support efforts. For instance, use Skype to call international clients or Skitch to share images unique to your customers’ accounts. Record personalized videos for customers with Jing. Whatever helps you answer your customers’ questions better and faster.

On any given day, we use Screencast, Jing, Skitch, Photoshop, Skype, Gchat, Facebook, Twitter, ColorSnapper, Gimp, Snagit,, Google Translate, and others. All just to connect to customers in a way that makes sense to them.

Think of Customer Support as Sales

Most startups don’t have a budget for a sales team. That’s okay! We still don’t have a sales team.

At Mad Mimi, rather than doing “sales,” we do great support. It’s a far better investment in your customers and in yourself.

Make sure that you and your support team are super familiar with your service’s obvious and not-so-obvious potential. When your support team members are confident in themselves and know that the C-level folks trust them implicitly, they can double as “Sales” any time.

Make Customer Support a Priority for Your Startup

You know what sucks? Non-responsive companies suck!

Every day, customer support should be a priority. Your customers are your livelihood, and while sure, your service is awesome, your customers are the best people on Earth. They’re the people supporting you, trusting you, and relying on you. As a startup, you owe them love and appreciation, and it should show in every interaction.

It’s easy, though. Simply ask yourself everyday:

Am I communicating with my customers in a way that will surprise them? Would receiving this response make me feel valued?

If the answer is yes, then you’re going to be big!

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Born and raised on a 30-acre farm in Knoppieslaagte near Johannesburg, South Africa, Dean Levitt moved to the US in 1999 with his brother Gary Levitt (Mad Mimi's CEO) to pursue a career in music. While trying to promote their music production company, the Levitt brothers had an idea that would become Mad Mimi, a powerful email marketing service with more than 180K customers. Since Mad Mimi's inception, Dean has nurtured its culture, changing customers into fans for organic, viral growth. Dean lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.