Customer Support for Solo Founders

Customer support is a hard and important gig. There is a reason startups have begun upgrading the title (customer success, customer happiness guru) and trying to attract higher quality talent to these positions. Good support is critical to onboarding and retaining paying customers.

When you have launched a minimum viable product (MVP) and it is getting traction and attracting paying customers, your biggest challenge will be balancing good support with further developing the product. If you did MVP correctly, your product is horrible and currently lacks a ton of features and has more than a few bugs. You will be getting a lot of bug reports, feature requests from at times frustrated and confused customers. If you did really well, the backlog will be more than you can reasonably handle.

If you are building a Micro-SaaS product like me, then you are likely handling the support load all on your own, on top of the rest of your duties as a solo founder. Navigating support as a solo founder can be a minefield and I it’s important to have a strategy before waiting into the queue of emails and tickets. Here are a few rules that have helped me build a SaaS app on my own with happy customers and a churn rate that hovers around 1%. In a follow on blog post I’ll talk a bit about my transition from a one-man team to our first support team member, which deserves a post unto itself.

Tools of the trade

First, let’s start with tools. Entrepreneurs and hackers love a good tool. This post would probably get 10x the traffic if it was titled “28 Tools to Help You Crush Customer Support.” But here’s what I think about support tools as a solo founder:

DON’T USE TOOLS FOR CUSTOMER SUPPORT

Seriously, I am always willing to spend money on apps that let me leverage my time and a good help desk app has always seemed like a logical addition to the nearly $1,000/mo I spend on various SaaS products to run Storemapper. But when you first start on MVP, I wouldn’t even bother.

For the maybe six months of the Storemapper MVP, I didn’t even bother to setup custom email addresses. The support button was just a link to email storemapperhelp (at) gmail.com. It worked fine for quite a while and later it was just a dedicated help@ address running on Google Apps.

I tested Zendesk, HelpScout and Desk.com and looked at several others but I ultimately found them way too complicated for a one-person support team. Here are a few very simple tools that worked great for me.

  1. TextExpander – I was repeating myself A LOT in the early days and TextExpander is a lifesaver. Is your on boarding so complicated it takes two paragraphs of text to explain the install? No problem. Just stash them in a TextExpander shortcut and blast through your email inbox.
  2. WordPress – Set up a simple WordPress install at help.yourapp.com and buy a “help desk” or “FAQ” theme for a few bucks. Here’s the one I use at the moment. Help desk pages (blog posts) are a great way to stash marked up screenshots (Use Skitch) and screencast walkthroughs (use Screenflow -> Youtube).

Save a 1-2 sentence explanation and a link to the relevant blog posts as a TextExpander snippet and you now have 95% of the value of a help desk app (for one person) without any of the overhead.

Later, I added Intercom, which is freaking amazing for a whole host of reasons allowing you to automate an onboarding email series, in-app chat and a doze other incredible features. Now that Storemapper has a small and growing team handling support, all chat and email inquiries go into the Intercom team inbox.

But enough about tools, let’s talk about the most important thing I have learned about customer support for solo founders.

The Guiding Principle: Every support ticket is an opportunity

It’s too easy to view support tickets in a negative light. It’s a long task list that you need to check off before getting back to work on product. It’s a stream of grumpy users who can’t even read the dang instructions you so clearly wrote out inside the app.

But this is completely the wrong mentality, because the reality is every support ticket is a huge opportunity. Your worst customer is not the one sending you a support email every day for two weeks, your worst customer is the one who signs up for you app, then cancels without ever giving you a word of feedback. In today’s One-Click-Install environment, users who try your app and then immediately go about Googling and signing up for all your competitors are not going to move your business forward. Customers who take the time and energy to write you a support email have now taken a vested interest in getting your app to work for them. It’s important to listen to them, ask follow-up questions and not just view the goal as getting the customer from A to B as quickly as possible.

The awesome apex of this principle is that customers who have an amazing support experience can become more loyal, and more likely to refer your app to others, than customers who are just happy with the app from the beginning. Some of Storemapper’s oldest and most loyal customers initially had some very frustrating experiences helping us uncover some glaring bugs and patiently waited for me to fix them.

Keeping that principle in mind, below are a few tactical suggestions I found through pretty hilarious trial and error.

Tactics and tricks for great support

Don’t use the Royal We

When I first started answering support requests on my product I used the Royal We: “We are working hard on that issue for you. Please bear with us…” But I’m not the Queen of England and there was only me working on things. Instead of trying to give the impression that you are a big company with a massive support team, I am of the opinion you should just use “I” and be exactly what you are. The feedback from customers has been explicitly positive on this note.

Seriously, it’s okay to be honest

Somewhere along the way I decided not only to just use “I” but to be completely honest about what kind of a product and company my customers were interacting with. I put a picture of my face and a little intro that I was the sole operator of the product and a traveling, independent entrepreneur. I started this blog.

At the time I thought it was risky but it has so far worked great. Many times I’ve had customers say they are going with Storemapper over some other solution because they prefer to support independent developers and entrepreneurs.

Storemapper Honesty Footer This is in the footer at all times inside the Storemapper app if you can believe it.

But don’t overshare

Honesty can be taken too far into the realm of oversharing. I used to give very detailed responses to customers about why things weren’t working a certain way. Unless you are an API business and your customers are 100% developers themselves, detailed technical responses to customer inquiries can be time-consuming to write and often more confusing than helpful.

Apologize often and empathetically

It easy to get sucked in to viewing support inquiries as an onslaught of attacks. If this sounds absurd to you then you’ve never woken up to dozens of angry ALL CAPS customer emails about stuff that you totally explained in the FAQ. It’s important to stay zen and apologize a lot. Even if you don’t mean it. Even if you’re on the 15th email with a customer about stuff that is completely obvious. Say you’re sorry and repeat back to them how it is frustrating for them. A little empathy goes a long way.

Do it, don’t show it; Show it, don’t tell it

Email is an imperfect medium for explanations. The most important feature to build after an MVP is a admin login feature that lets you log in on behalf of your users. If they are having trouble finding a setting, log in for them and change it (do it) and then also explain how to do in the future. Use Skitch to show with marked up screenshots or better use Screenflow to make a quick screencast showing how to do certain tasks. These have the benefit of being more explanatory and more readily re-usable than a typed out email. Sometimes you still need to use text of course, but it should be a last resort.

Ping customers even when you have nothing to say

Let’s say you get a bunch of customer emails about roughly the same issue. You look into and discover there is a pretty tricky bug that might take you a day or two to really fix and push live. My first reaction is that I just want to get right to work on the fix, then come back to the customers triumphantly explaining that the fix is live. This is fine but customers really really don’t like silence on the other end of the line when they submit a support ticket. A better approach is to immediately email all of the customers to let them know you received their email and are working on a fix and will let them know when it’s ready. If a day goes by and you still haven’t fixed everything; send another round of emails letting them know you haven’t forgotten about them and a fix is still en route.

This kind of little thing is the difference between adequate support that will retain most customers and excellent support that will turn them into champions of your product.

Final Tips for staying sane

Customer support is hard work. It’s very easy to end up frazzled and exhausted just getting through the day’s support tickets, much less having energy in the tank to switch modes and work on the product. Here are a few tricks I’ve developed for staying sane and productive while handling all your own support tickets.

Last In Last Answered

Answer the most recent customer questions first. The main reason for this is that customers will often fire off a support question and then, given time, figure out the answer themselves. It’s much rarer that they follow up the initial ticket to let you know everything is okay.

Remember you can only do your best

Answering a deluge of support questions can feel overwhelming and discouraging but remember it’s actually a pretty good sign. It means:

  • Lots of customers are interested in your product
  • You’re probably doing things right in terms of MVP, building just enough to keep growing customers and iterating on product.

This means that if you are doing things really well on product and MVP, you will almost certainly generate a support request queue that you can’t possibly satisfy entirely. I had to constantly keep reminding myself, and in some cases explicitly to customers that I’m just one person and I’m doing the absolute best that I can.

Set a time cap, then get back to product work

Great customer support is important, but if you are building micro-SaaS or any early stage product, then product work is more important. It is critical not to wake up, spend 16 hours on support emails and then cry yourself to sleep. You have to have time and energy to work on product to keep the business moving forward. Set a maximum daily time cap on support. Block off certain days. Work on product first thing and don’t start on support until the afternoon. Be proactive with product work first, not just reactive with support work.

Hey thanks for reading this. I hope it was helpful. We (yes I can use the “non-royal We” now) are still a tiny team at Storemapper and I’d love to hear your best tips for customer support.

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  • Hey Tyler,

    Great post, and I can see myself having much of the same experiences over the past few years.. switching from using “we” to “I” had the same effect for me. Not only did I feel more honest, but people seem to be more supportive, and reviews (which are an important part of my growth) come in more easily! Have been having a tough time recently finding the time/energy for project work.. Doing it in the afternoon instead is a great idea!

    A couple of minor issues I found in the post that you might want to clean up.

    1. The link on the “Micro-Sass Product” doesn’t work. Seems to be going to: http://tylertringas.com/customer-support-for-solo-founders/tylertringas.com/micro-saas-ebook/

    Instead of:
    http://tylertringas.com/micro-saas-ebook/ (looking forward to reading it)

    2. The screenshot of your personal footer message is broken. Looks like it needs to change from: https://107.170.24.28/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Screenshot-2015-09-14-11-08-47.png

    To be:
    http://tylertringas.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Screenshot-2015-09-14-11-08-47.png

    Thanks again, and have a good one!
    Bjorn

    Chief Eternal Optimist
    http://www.forsbergplustwo.com
    Twitter: @FORSBERGtwo

    • Hey thanks Bjorn! Recently migrated the blog to a new WordPress install and looks like there’s some cleanup. Fixed!

      There’s a draft of the Micro-SaaS ebook available at that link if you get a chance to read it.

      Cheers,
      T

      • No worries at all Tyler 🙂 I read the book draft, and it’s excellent.. looking forward to seeing the final version. I filled out the feedback form at the end, hopefully there’s something useful there for you.

        Cheers,
        Bjorn

  • Great Post btw.

    I know this post is as old as the Bible, but
    “Last In Last Answered
    Answer the most recent customer questions first.”
    Did you perhaps mean “Last In, First Answered”?