In our latest edition of Seedcamp Firsts, our Head of Brand and Network, Natasha Lytton, speaks with one of our fantastic mentors, Rona Ruthen, about setting up customer support and operations in early-stage startups.
Rona is one of the best people to learn from on this topic following her experience scaling Fintech unicorn Monzo among other well-known startups, including Curve, a Seedcamp portfolio company.
“Exceptional customer service or customer experience in an early-stage startup should provide the customer with a feeling that whatever they need is either embedded in the product itself or is easily accessible to them.”
If you’re short on time, we’ve pulled some key learnings for you below, but we strongly recommend you to listen to the full conversation to learn how to first set up customer operations in your company.
5 Key Takeaways:
- Setting up customer operations is a strategic decision that every company needs to make and something to revisit at a different point in time.
- You can start a company and not optimise for customer operations or customer support, or customer experience. The first stage is actually deciding if it’s critical for you.
- Customer experience is critical for every product that we use and care about.
- The bottom line isn’t Support. The bottom line is: customers are trying out your product. You want them to engage with it and to make that whole experience easy, end to end.
- As you start scaling customer support, you need more consistency and standardisation in how you respond to customers and how you interact with them. Especially in FinTech or regulated industries where working within the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do is critical.
Key Questions to ask before you set up Customer Operations
- Are Customer Operations a USP for your company at this point?
- Is it easier to do customer support manually or automatically?
- What do you want the experience to be?
- What works better for you as a company if you’re optimizing for efficiency?
- What’s the right thing to do from a customer experience perspective?
- What is the current scale of the process or the manual work? What would it be in six or 12 months?
- Is the customer experience negatively impacted by the fact that it’s manual?
- What does exceptional customer experience look like?
Deep Dive Q & A with Rona & Natasha
Natasha Lytton: Why are seamless customer operations a prerequisite for the success of early-stage companies?
Rona Ruthen: I get asked this quite a lot, and I think it’s quite important to acknowledge that the answer isn’t necessary “it is critical at the early stage.” It’s a strategic decision that every company needs to make. And actually, something to revisit at a different point in time because you can start a company and not optimise for customer operations or customer support, or customer experience. Sometimes, whether it’s based on your own values whether it’s the type of product that you’re launching, it is critical for the success of the company.
Sometimes you can do without, and you can sort of scrape through it for a while until it’s the right time to create an exceptional experience. The first stage is deciding if it’s critical for you and not just letting it sort of hang around what you’re doing and making a conscious decision. We also live in a world where we know that customer experience is quite critical for every product that we use and that we care about. So the full customer experience is critical for most products these days, and there are multiple ways of doing it, especially when you’re a small startup.
It could be fully manual, no one has to know, and sometimes it’s even better because you can be very personalized about it when you only have a small number of customers, and sometimes it’s just easy to build the thing and automate it from day one.
So it really is about understanding, is this a USP for your company at this point? Is it easier to do it manually or not? What do you want the experience to be?
Natasha Lytton: On that point of manual versus automation, when do you suggest companies start to switch from manual to automated?
Rona Ruthen: There are two elements to this, and I have my own guiding principles for how I think about it. In terms of elements, there’s what you need, what works better for you as a company, whether you’re optimizing for efficiency, and what’s the right thing to do from a customer experience perspective.
And again, those change over time, the way I think about them, my guiding principles are around first: Is the process structured and mature enough? If you’re building a new product or a new feature, sometimes you just don’t know exactly what it looks like or how it works, or what it would look like six months from now because you’re still in that discovery phase. So that’s the first question. The second thing is, What is the current scale of the process or the manual work? And what would it be in six or 12 months? If it’s one or two people, then maybe it’s not even worth considering automating it. Then, ultimately Is the customer experience negatively impacted by the fact that it’s manual? Sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it is.
If it’s only one person doing the work and growing to three people, it’s a great customer experience for now, and it’s not a fully mature process. Keep it manual. Don’t even worry about it. But, if you’ve already got 10 people doing it, it’s going to grow to 20 people doing it – the customer experience could be negatively impacted by backlogs and longer wait times. Then you should be at least thinking about automating it, if not further ahead in the journey.
But it’s also a game of trade-offs, right? It’s not usually one process against the other. You have 10 of them, or 20, or sometimes a hundred, and the trade-offs are not just between the internal processes, it’s also against other product priorities and other resources across the company. Prioritize within customer support, customer operations, and customer experience. Then, you also need to figure out how to prioritize against what else is happening across the company.
If you think about the companies where focusing on that early is essential, What does exceptional customer experience look like?
Natasha Lytton: You have been at organizations where it is world-class. How did you go about defining that and what could other founders take away when they want to first start think about setting up customer service and operations and their businesses too?
That’s a really great question. Like most things, you start with the customer: What do they need, what do they want? What would make the feature or product work better for them? I think there’s a layer of experimentation. You never know until you try whether it’s the SLAs (service-level agreements) for customer support.
Intuitively, we all want quicker, better now. But actually, do you need that for all things? Probably not. And so that’s where you can sometimes push the boundaries and just figure out what is a great experience.
So I think exceptional customer service or customer experience in an early-stage startup should provide the customer with a feeling that whatever they need is either embedded in the product itself or is easily accessible to them. My ideal would be that every feature has intuitive and embedded contextual support or information within the feature itself. Then there’s a layer of easy self-service and then the right channels to contact support. Again, that is harder to build based on the product, and initially, in a small company, that could just be two-three channels that are very easy for customers to access with short SLAs and just providing the experience that it’s easy to use the product. The bottom line isn’t support. The bottom line is: customers are trying out your product. They want to engage with it as much as they need or as much as possible. You want them to engage with it. You want to make that whole experience easy, end to end. Support just needs to be a part of that, not something that you do on the side. If they’re contacting support, probably something didn’t work in the product, and you want to close the loop and make sure that the whole experience is great.
Natasha Lytton: How can companies think about what they should have in place for what they need for customer operations, be it in the alpha, the build stage, to launch, and then as you scale and grow much larger?
Rona Ruthen: Honestly, I think it starts by actually caring about the customer, which sounds basic, and every company would say that they do. It really makes a difference, especially when it comes from the top, and it’s embedded in every layer across the company.
I would make sure that that’s very clear within your values, your culture, and your org structure – everything that you need to make it really, really clear that the customer does come first. If you use that lens for most things, it’s easy to make a decision that is right for your customer.
Initially, in customer operations, we hired very independent thinkers, very hungry to do the right thing by customers and by the company. And that just meant they went beyond the call of duty in terms of doing the right thing for the company. And that was enabled by processes, by the right budget, by making sure that it is easy to go above and beyond for the customer. Over time, you want to build that into the right processes and to be able to scale that experience. And then obviously, it’s about talking to the customers and listening to the feedback, whether that’s directly doing user research, surveys, whatever helps you get feedback from the customer, but also, just reviewing what works from the data qualitative and quantitative that you get from what customers are using and what you’re seeing.
If they contact us on calls more than chats, then maybe that’s an indication that we should be mindful of. Or if calls take way too long, then maybe we’re not that good at solving things on the phone, and we can direct them to a better channel for them. So it really is about understanding what they’re telling us in multiple different ways and making sure that we do something about it.
Natasha Lytton: How do you recommend startups think about making sure everybody is interfacing with what’s actually going on?
Rona Ruthen: It’s super tricky. I think initially, in early-stage startups, it feels really easy because everyone can jump on tickets and everyone can engage with customers, but quite quickly – as everyone has a day job, so they’re quite busy doing what they’re supposed to be doing – pulling people in to engage with customers gets more complicated.
Also, your processes get more complicated. You don’t want everyone to jump on support unless they know what they’re saying to customers. Especially CEOs and founders can be very disruptive. Over time, you want to create and enable other people in the company to engage with customers. By the end of my time at Monzo, we had Friday sessions where we would jump on tickets. But we did that by shadowing one of our customer service operators and making sure that whoever wanted to do the same had the ability to shadow someone and look at any process or customer supports tickets as they wanted to.
But it was structured, and it was sort of handholding rather than, you can just jump on the system. You need to ensure it’s easy and that it’s accompanied by the right people who know what they’re doing. And also, again, reinforcing the importance of it.
It’s important to just be very clear and mindful of what you’re optimizing for. Initially, in an early-stage startup, you’re usually optimizing for flexibility. You don’t know exactly what you need, what the process is, and what the customer experience is going to be.
You need people who can just flow with that ambiguity and help you build it out as you go. So you usually need people who are a bit more experienced than your standard customer support profile. You need them to be willing to take a bit of risk to go a bit beyond the just, I’m going to respond to the question I’m being asked by the customer right now.
You want them to be able to engage with different types of people and roles across the company because, more often than not, in the early days, if you wanna solve a problem, you have to go to the engineer that built the thing because you don’t know what the problem is. You need people who can just work around these things quite flexibly.
As you start scaling customer support, you need more consistency and more standardization in how you respond to customers, and how you interact with them. Especially if we’re talking about FinTech or regulated industries, where working within the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do is critical. So that’s probably the point where you start writing down some of the processes, making sure it’s documented, making sure it’s clear what to do and what not to do. And at that point, you probably need and want a slightly different profile of customer support or customer operations agent, which is probably a bit more entry-level and willing to do quite repetitive work for a while, but with a bit of flexibility.
You also need to be mindful that this is positive but challenging when you’re managing customer support, a lot of people think of it as an entry job, but really, really quickly, they want to move on to the next thing, which I think is amazing, but you also need people to actually do the work for a while. Balancing that out is tricky but important when you’re building out a team.
As you start scaling, you have more people coming in at the entry-level, and not everyone is going to be able to move up or move sideways at the same rate. And so, setting expectations when people come in is critical.
Natasha Lytton: Any mistakes or things you wish you had perhaps done differently in the early stages?
Rona Ruthen: So many to choose from! I think if I was doing the very early stage again, I would probably have planned a few different scenarios, aligned with company growth scenarios, and figured out what I would need at different points along those journeys for, let’s say, six or 12 months, and then tried to optimize for something in the middle and from some level of flexibility. Sounds obvious, but I think more often than not, especially on the operations side, it’s a lot more reactive than proactive. I would try to be more proactive in terms of planning and understanding the potential scenarios that might happen and how I could ideally be one step ahead of most of them.
That’s the other thing that I know now that maybe I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Hiring one extra person, or I call this sort of rounding up, at the very stages it’s definitely not going to be the downfall of your financial bottom line as a startup, but it can make all the difference in terms of providing a great customer experience and just having fewer burning fires and long, long nights and incidents.
Understanding a few potential scenarios and rounding up in terms of the size of the team would be one of my reflections. And just embracing change. We all joined startups thinking that we’re gonna love the fast pace, the ever-changing environment, not knowing what’s gonna happen day to day, but most people like at least the good balance of some consistency and structure with some change and bringing people along that journey. No day will look like what you had in mind that morning or the beginning of the week, and definitely not the beginning of the month. It’s quite hard. And so, how do you communicate around that? How do you create that transparency?
How do you create some level of consistency that allows you to actually embrace the change in a good way? It takes a lot of effort, but that’s critical.
Stay tuned for Part II, where Rona will join us to go much deeper into everything around scaling, where change is the only constant. We’ll be delving much more into how you can bring teams on the journey with you and how to embrace change as you scale.