Michael Cheng is the CEO and founder of Snip.ly, a tool for generating traffic by sharing content. Snip.ly’s support team is 4 people strong and spread over Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Berlin. They handle about 50 questions every day through email, phone, Twitter, Facebook and live chat. We got in touch with Michael to talk about customer support at Snip.ly.
How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea of Snip.ly?
We were actually working on a video curation platform before Snip.ly. There are so many videos on the web and it’s a bit of a struggle navigating through them. We had some decent traction but not much luck with a viable business model.
One day, Brad Feld came along and he asked if our platform could allow him to curate startup videos. Basically, it would be a branded channel with a collection of his curated content.
We thought the idea of branding curated content was quite neat. We started to plan out how we would adapt our video curation platform to support this, but then we wondered why we should limit ourselves to video. This was the lightbulb moment and the beginning of Snip.ly.
Snip.ly’s support team is remote. All four of you are in different locations. How do you think this has impacted your support?
We’ve done both. Sometimes, we go remote, sometimes we’re all together. With regards to support, I don’t think there’s a huge impact. We can provide support all the same whether we’re together or remote.
We all do support actually! All of us are good at different things, and people ask all sorts of questions. For example, if a technical inquiry comes through, then our CTO is the one who’ll personally respond.
All of our customer interactions are on platforms that support multiple team members so, it’s easy for us to work together.
However, when it comes to product innovation and the birth of new ideas, being together is really important. Organic conversations tend to spawn the most brilliant ideas.
How important do you think customer support is to a company? How important do you think it should be?
I personally believe that customer support is an integral part of the user experience. Everyone knows the importance of UI and UX, but I actually think customer experience (CX) important too. UX is all about how users interact with your product. I think how users interact with the people behind the product is just as important.
I believe CX is much more than just “support”. It’s about optimizing customer experience. It’s not just about responding to help requests, but proactively reaching out, building relationships, and delivering value without anyone ever asking for you.
This definitely goes a long way for you and your business.
Take the case of startups that are sometimes forced to cut corners to account for feasibility. This is where you can make up for it with superior CX.
Do you think it’s important for the founder/CEO to be on support?
Being a CEO is all about having a vision for the future and doing support is the best way to see if your vision is lining up with reality.
You get to see the absolute truth – whether your vision is matching up to expectations or falling flat. Maybe your execution is off course or maybe someone else is doing the exact same thing. You understand all these things only from support. In a way, support is the splash of cold water that can wake you up from your dream. It is also the best way to gather data on how your vision fits into the market.
How has spending time on support as a founder helped you grow and improve your product?
I can think of nothing else I’d rather spend my time on. I believe that support is the single most important thing a founder can do.
In the earlier stages, there is nothing more important than support.
Feedback on our product comes through support. New feature ideas come through support. Bugs and fixes come through support. Heck, even leads and investors have come through support.
Being on support specifically has put me on the front line to see the comments and reactions from our users change over time.
As a founder on support, you really get to understand the business inside out. You are exposed to so many comments, perspectives, and viewpoints about all sorts of issues surrounding your space. Through support, I find inspirations for the next product feature, and sometimes even redefine the company vision as a whole.
I talk to everyone from the casual user to directors at fortune 500 companies. They all have a different take on Snip.ly. Ultimately it’s for us to decide which direction we’d like to take the company.
But the many data points I gather through support allows me to make informed decisions.
There are some cons…it’s extremely time-consuming. As you grow and scale, and as your support requests go from 50 to 5000 daily, founders find it harder to stay on support. So do it while you can! It’s a great way to build a solid foundation for your startup.
How does feedback from your customers trickle down to the rest of the company/your product in the long run?
We discuss customer feedback all the time. I categorize all feedback into different buckets based on what the feedback is about. We meet weekly to discuss how the week went and I always bring up customer feedback on the things we’re doing. Every new feature we build has its own feedback bucket and I can pull them up during our meetings to share how people feel about new features and what not.
I also share the important ones on Slack and we have a dedicated customer feedback channel. This way everyone can be on the same page with an understanding of how people respond to the things we build and change on a daily basis.
Would you say that being the founder has made it easier for you to fix major problems?
It was a lot easier back in the day when our product was much simpler. Nowadays, we have to consider consequences for everything we do. One user may consider something to be a problem while another user may see it as a great feature. Of course—if everyone agrees it’s a major problem, it gets resolved right away. We’re pretty good at handling emergencies. Our phones are all plugged into the system and server statuses. If anything goes wrong or breaks for any reason, we all know about it right away whether we’re eating dinner or on vacation and it gets fixed right away.
Wow. Being on call all the time can’t be an easy thing. How do you manage taking time off from work?
We travel a lot as a team. These aren’t particularly vacations because we go to different cities and work there. Working in a new city can be very refreshing. We’re in Berlin right now with tickets booked through the year for Copenhagen, Helsinki, Budapest, Barcelona, and more. We live and work as we move around, picking up interesting things and people along the way.
Tell us about your team. What do you look for in your support reps? How do you test for these traits?
I think it’s important for support reps to be warm, friendly, and charismatic.
People don’t like talking to robots. I think it’s important to communicate with users as if they were your friends.
There’s no need for a company-client barrier to make things awkward and uncomfortable. I think everyone is actually capable of this. I don’t believe people are cold and robotic to their friends and family.
It’s all about building a company culture that encourages the notion that users are people and not just stats on a ticketing dashboard.
We couldn’t agree more. So, how do you get your new hires up to speed?
There is no prescribed training method because we insist on everyone being natural and interacting with customers like they’re talking to their friends. This is actually much easier than training someone to be a certain way. It’s much harder to memorize a script and adopt a fabricated persona than to just be you. I generally ask people to just read my messages and observe my interactions with our customers. Maybe, sit in on a phone call and listen to the tone. Since I’m usually just acting natural and there are no scripts to learn, it’s never too difficult to pick up how we do things here. It’s more of a monkey see, monkey do approach.
Everyone we hire has understood our way with things, so this has worked out great so far.
What’s the most important metric you think a support rep should aim for?
It’s difficult to measure, but I think the most important metric is user happiness. There are many metrics people measure, like the time it takes to respond, the number of interactions before a ticket is closed, a survey that makes users rank their experience from 1-5, etc.
I think a support rep should aim for customer happiness over these relatively robotic metrics.
What I care about is how the users feel. Are they happy talking to a support rep? Is it an enjoyable experience? Are they using exclamation marks (in a good way) and smiley faces?
I don’t think support should feel like submitting a ticket and waiting for a resolution. It should be like asking your friendly neighbor for a can opener.
At Snip.ly, there is no agent tone or CEO tone. It’s all just a natural tone. We try to talk to our customers as we would our friends. They’re reaching out for help, and we help them as if we would help our friends.
We don’t use the most “professional” tone, and I think that’s a good thing. Too many customers are frustrated with robotic call centers where they’re treated as a number on a ticket. We try to initiate in real and human conversations. Even if it’s about boring stuff like the weather or asking about what it’s like to live in their part of the world. We focus on having conversations rather than the stereotypical form of “support”.
How do you measure customer happiness?
Admittedly, we don’t have a scientific way of measuring customer happiness. I personally go through (almost) every interaction that happens and have an intuitive understanding of how our customers feel when interacting with us.
It may be difficult to measure this at scale, but we’re a startup. Scale comes later.
Tell us about your social media support strategy.
We don’t do any auto-responders or anything like that. I believe support happens wherever the user wants it to be, that’s why we make ourselves available on all fronts. So, when people write on our Facebook wall or tweet at us, they always get a personalized response.
These social media messages are wired through our helpdesk, so each Facebook message or tweet is converted into a ticket, which we then handle on our end.
It’s crucial for the experience to feel natural.
We don’t want someone tweeting at us and getting an email as a response. If they tweet, we tweet back. If they email, we email back.
How do you keep the Snip.ly community interesting and engaging for people around the world?
I think Snip.ly itself is quite interesting. It’s a new concept and we’ve always taken the position that it’s a tool of creative freedom. We built the technology, but we’ve left it up to our users to find ways to use it. The community tends to rally around discussions of how Snip.ly can be used, and people do get quite creative!
There have been at least 200 blog posts about Snip.ly written by users sharing their own tips and tricks for using Snip.ly. Adding call-to-actions to pages is the most standard way of using Snip.ly, but probably the most boring way too. Using what we’ve built, I’ve seen users add live-chat widgets so they can talk to users in real-time while they’re visiting curated content. Some of our users attach retargeting pixels to their shared links so they can build custom audiences for their remarketing ads. There have really been all sorts of crazy things that our team could’ve never imagined when we set out.
The sharing of these strategies forms the foundation of the Snip.ly community around the world.
How do you motivate yourself (and your team) day in and day out?
A lot of our motivation comes from happy users.
We pretty much spend our entire time improving the product, building new features, fixing bugs, etc. So the greatest source of motivation is when our work is appreciated. It really lifts us up when users thank us for our work, or write about how valuable our tool is to their business, or simply just use the product every day.
We also make sure that we do our best to share these with everyone on the team. Whether it’s a quote from an email or an excerpt from an article, we try to share this stuff with the whole team to make sure all of us can enjoy the high.
What’s the best thing about working at Snip.ly?
I think the best thing is that we, as a team, are not really driven by money. I mean sure, we’d love to be rich, but all the founders here value the beauty of innovation over money. We love innovation, we love experimentation because of which, admittedly, we take stupid risks sometimes. I think that’s the best thing about working at Snip.ly. We never sit around and discuss how to siphon dollars and cents out of our users. We’re always trying to do seemingly silly things with the goal of proving that there’s something better than the status quo.
For example, when we started our famous Name Your Own Price approach, people thought we were crazy! We’ve been running that pricing strategy since the early days, and it’s really worked out wonderfully. The requests we receive are almost always reasonable, always honorable, and always results in a win-win.
As someone who has founded several companies over the years, what is the one aspect of customer support you make sure is a part of every company?
I always push for the idea that customer support needs to feel natural. No scripts, no auto-responders, no robotic languages. The experience needs to feel natural, comfortable, and friendly.
By the end of the interaction, the customer should feel comfortable enough with you to ask you what color they should wear for their dinner party.
If you treat them as a ticket, they’ll treat you as an agent. If you treat them as a friend, they’ll respond accordingly. This is something I’ve always stood by.
What’s your most memorable customer interaction?
I remember one user who really, really, really hated our product. As we always do, we talked to them as a friend. Not the typical, “We apologize for your inconvenience. Please fill out this survey”, but more like, “I spend 7 days a week working on making this product the best it can be… and I’d love to know how you think I can make it better!”
The conversation continued and it turns out that his friend was just diagnosed with cancer, his paycheck came late and his whole computer went haywire after he just installed Windows 10. A few days later, he came back and said there was actually nothing wrong with Snip.ly and he was just having a bad day!
We all have bad days and nobody wants to fill out a survey when they’re down. I followed up with him several times just to see how his friend was doing; whether his paycheck had arrived yet; and also sent him links to solve issues with his Windows 10.
Sometime later he upgraded to one of our premium plans and he’s now an active beta tester for many of our new features as well.
I love to reach out to a person in need of emotional support too, which I think is way more important than mere customer satisfaction ratings.
What’s your biggest challenge in providing great support?
Off late, the biggest challenge has been dealing with the different time zones. As we grow into an international user base, I’ve had to schedule calls at odd hours and different countries get faster response times than others. We might look at time-zone specific support teams soon!
How do you deal with unreasonable, frustrated customers? Is there a tone guide that you consult?
I think it’s important to separate yourself from the product. The customer is not frustrated with you (usually), they’re just frustrated with the product. I usually talk to them with a user-to-user tone. I’m not just someone who works at Snip.ly, I’m also someone who uses Snip.ly and sometimes gets frustrated with it. We’re not so different after all, right?
Once we’re on the same page, we can start working towards a solution.
Both you and your frustrated customer must have a common goal: to solve the problem.
What do you do when you’ve had a rough customer call? How do you get back to your happy place?
It’s probably not a good thing, but I don’t get back into my happy place until I get the customer back to their happy place. As a founder I can’t just bring myself to ignore the well-being of my customers and go find my own happy place without solving their problem. In most cases, this is possible.
As a customer yourself as well as someone who handles customer support, what is one thing you wished customers understood about being on support?
I think it’s important to separate the product from the agent. You can lash out about the product, but you should never lash out at the agent.
In most cases, the agent is just an innocent employee trying to get through the day so they can get home and eat a nice meal with their family.
That’s also why I think it’s so important for agents to be natural and act like a human being rather than a support robot.
What do you find most rewarding about being on customer support? What makes everything worth it?
It’s not as glorious, but it’s kind of like being a musician and hearing the applause for your music. Customer support puts you in front of the crowd, and you stand right in front of the applause. The crowd going wild in appreciation of your work can be very rewarding. Of course—it can sometimes be boos, but you just have to keep trying.
What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to treat everyone in your company like family. This doesn’t mean just your partners and employees. This also includes your investors, your suppliers, your distributors, and most importantly, your customers!
Every piece is required for the whole product to work. Without employees, you have no product. Without investors, you have no funding. Without suppliers, you have no resources. Without customers, you have no company!
If you were advising someone who is building a new customer service team, what would you tell them?
Your support team should never be a completely separate department. It needs to be closely intertwined with your designers and engineers. Better yet, your designers and engineers should be doing support at some capacity. In customer service, you’re on the front lines soaking up all the data. By talking to people and solving their problems, you get an amazingly clear idea of where the product stands and where it needs to go.
Support is everyone’s duty.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at Snip.ly?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that you should never underestimate the potential of new ideas.
When we first started Snip.ly, it was just a bland overlay where you could write a few words. We figured maybe it could be a fun tool for some friends to add a comment to the sites they share, or maybe some influencers could use it to write a quick blurb about their thoughts on an article. Before you know it, we started to see Fortune 500 companies use our software as part of their marketing strategies! If we had dismissed the silly concept of overlaying messages on pages, there wouldn’t be the Snip.ly we know and love today.
What do you think is the secret sauce to customer happiness?
The secret sauce is the mentality. There are no policies, rules, or regulations more important than your mindset.
What is a customer to you? Are they numbers and graphs? Or do you acknowledge them as a real person just like you? Are they part of your quota or do you care about their wellbeing? There’s no way to fake your way to customer happiness. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you!
In terms of customer service, which company do you admire a lot?
I admire Buffer for their casual tone, transparent culture, and just overall being down-to-earth. They’ve done a great job with their image.
Editor’s note: We’ve already interviewed Carolyn Kopprasch from Buffer. Click here to check it out 🙂
A genie appears and you get three wishes. You can’t ask for more wishes or more genies. What would you wish for?
I would wish for him to go away! There’s real joy in working hard to achieve a goal. The process of making your own wishes come true is delightful. If a genie just came and granted me wishes, I’d be robbed of the beauty of the journey!
We started the Secret Sauce series to find out more about what makes the customer service of some great companies click. We get in touch with one awesome support representative and we pick their brains. We find out what a typical day is like for these support rockstars, their personal work-philosophy, support process and what inspires them to go above and beyond the call of duty to make their customers happy. Know a customer support rep you’d like to see featured here? Drop us a line in the comments or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.