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Customer Service, Thought Leadership

Eric Ries, About to Launch a Book Tour, Talks About Customer Service’s True Value

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Editor’s Note:

Eric Ries is the author of the popular blog, Startup Lessons Learned, where he first developed the ideas behind his new book,  The Lean Startup.

Eric is about to go on an intensive tour to promote the book. “We’ll officially launch the book at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. From there, the tour goes through Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, DC, and back to San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club on September 27. And that’s just round one – I’ll be back on the road in October, too.”

I had a few minutes on with Eric on Wednesday 8/31 to talk about how customer service and support fit into the concept of the lean startup:

ABS: I just read something you recommended—a Tim O’Reilly piece about how it’s not the money that matters, but the mission. That really resonated with me. It’s true that the thing I remember most is the excitement about our product in the voices of people I interview. Those conversations are so satisfying and rewarding.

ER: Yes, business is entirely about serving customers and making their lives easier. Not to get too philosophical, but the whole point of capitalism, the whole reason we use profit as a measurement for success, is the core belief that when both parties exchange value, both are better off. When you believe that, everything you do with a customer is an exchange of value. If you believe that this exchange of value leaves the pie bigger than before, that is literally saying that you have left the world a better place than when you came in. That’s how companies create value in a capitalist system.

ABS: How important is corporate culture in this system?

ER: Culture is an artifact — you can’t just want to change the culture. You have to change the behavior of the whole system. It’s like losing weight.  You can’t just wish it, you have to change behavior and measure results. With true accountability, there’s no instant gratification.

In good times, it’s easy to get people to sign on. But when things are difficult, you have to give clear guidance about what’s important. Are you holding them accountable to quarterly schedules and arbitrary benchmarks? If so, you’re apt to get the results we often see—products that get released before they are ready and have to be pulled. If you look deeply at this, the root cause turns out to be the accountability process. The culture has to have ways to support real accountability.

ABS: Our team believes that if we encourage companies to understand and appreciate the true value of customer support, it will help them succeed —and it’s not altruistic, because then we’ll succeed, too. Alex (Alex Bard, CEO of Assistly) wants us to be accountable to the metrics that drive our customers’ success.

ER: Exactly right, if you look at the most successful companies, they generate profits but that’s not their reason for existing. Profits are the exhaust of a well-run engine, not the engine itself. If you think about it, it’s difficult for anyone to get excited about a mission to make money. That’s not satisfying; it gives you no guidance. With that thinking, it would seem acceptable to build a Ponzi scheme instead of something real. I want to get people excited about money as a side effect to the mission.

ABS: How would you rate the role of customer service and support in the lean startup?

It’s very, very important, but it must be understood correctly. In larger companies customer service is seen as a cost center, a necessary evil, not related to the mission. Marketing and product development are outbound functions, and customer service is seen strictly as inbound. That’s extremely shortsighted because we’re really better off trying to have a deep understanding of the customer and their behaviors. Customer service is really a learning function.

We can do so much more to integrate support into product development to tighten that loop. It’s easy to say but hard to do. Most companies do not have a way to value this “validated learning.” At the end of the day you can have all your slogans, but what are you actually doing?  You need actionable data. That’s why I advocate the tenets of the lean startup—rapid experimentation, shorter development cycles, and measuring actual progress to learn what customers really want.



Discussion

Alyson Stone

Alyson Stone

Alyson is the content strategist at Nimble.com, moving to her new role after two years on the Marketing Team at Desk.com (and Assistly). She spent many years writing and editing at her own company, A Woman of Letters...

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