How to scale your customer service (without losing the personal touch)

Authored by Michelle Nickolaisen

Published on April 8, 2015

As your business grows, you have to walk a fine line. You want to maintain the high level of customer service that’s gained you loyal customers along the way. But you also need to be practical about running your business. You need to make sure you aren’t overworking your employees, or spending so much time per customer that customers overall are having to wait longer for responses.

Automating everything isn’t the answer, because that often means a lower quality of service for customers. So what does it take to scale customer service without alienating customers?

Shifting from one on one to community

After a successful round of radio advertising, Grasshopper found their number of new customers growing much faster than usual. One of the things they did to help keep their customers happy was create a customer community using Influitive, letting customers engage not only with Grasshopper employees, but with other customers. Plans for making it fully self-service are in the works, but in the meantime, customers have been using it to talk with the Grasshopper team about the product and the content that’s being published at the blog.

When your customer base is growing, adding a community like this can help create a tight-knit, high-touch feel, if it’s done correctly. Customers can bond with team members and with other customers, talking about the things they have in common and how they’ve used your product to make a difference in their life or business.

Dropbox is another example of a fast-growing startup that takes advantage of customer forums, using them for self-service. Their forums are more straight-up self-service, with less customers engaging for the sake of engaging or creating a community amongst themselves.

Of course, forums aren’t a “set it up once and forget it” venture. And assuming that you can set it up and then it’ll run itself can actually lower customer satisfaction levels. This article at MyCustomer goes over some of the mistakes that businesses make when they try to implement customer communities. The main one? Underestimating the amount of moderation and support that can go into creating and maintaining a customer community. You need to factor in for the time that you’ll spend scouring the forums and escalating customer issues to individual tickets when need be, and the time you’ll spend marketing the forum so that your customers know it exists.

That said, if done correctly, creating a community for your customers can not only help scale your customer service, but create a value-add for users. It especially makes sense when your customers are united by something other than using your products—a specific mindset or lifestyle that they typically have in common and can talk to each other about. For example, new moms, or business owners in their first year of business, always have a lot to talk to each other about.

Building communities: Resources

– Speaking of creating a value-add for customers, this HBR article goes over four companies that are doing just that, from Amazon featuring top reviewers to Eloqua creating industry awards for outstanding work. It’s a great place to start as you’re brainstorming how your customer community can give back to the customers.

– Brick by Brick is a free guide to building awesome communities that covers everything from moderation to creating engagement and more. It’s not focused on creating self-service communities for customers, but it still has valuable insights that apply.

– The This is Product Management podcast’s second episode was on community. It’s a quick listen, but still has useful information as you get started building your own community.

– Over at Inc: 4 Ways to Build a Thriving Customer Community for Your Business

– The live class is done, but you can still watch the replay of this Platzi course on building and growing online communities, from a member of Product Hunt’s founding team.

Perfect your processes

As Pronto Marketing has grown from zero customers to over 1,000 active customers, they’ve had to create processes to keep up with their customers. At one point, they were using email, Word attachments, sticky notes, and a white board to organize their customer service team—but it wasn’t enough. In an effort to provide a better customer service experience, while still maintaining a high quality of customer service, they turned to creating internal systems and processes.

Many business owners are hesitant to implement things like this, worrying that creating too strict of an internal process will make all communication feel stiff and robotic. At Pronto, they have specific safeguards in place to ensure that the service customers get still feels friendly, even while being efficient. And for sensitive situations or cases that require a more personal touch, they’ve actually reverse engineered processes to force their agents to customize their response or action. For example, this is their macro template for when a customer reports a mistake that the Pronto team has made:

Hi ,

[[ Thank the client for bringing mistake to our attention ]]

[[ Take the blame – either Pronto or you ]]

[[ Apologize for mistake and damages made ]]

[[ Explain why mistake happened ]]

[[ Explain how it is fixed, or will be fixed ]]

[[ List steps you’ve taken to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again ]]


To keep those processes not just working, but improving over time, they keep a close eye on their metrics. The two most important metrics they look at are customer satisfaction (currently at 99%) and their Net Promoter Score. Every time a ticket is solved, the client gets a chance to rate the solution good or bad,  an optional comment. This daily feedback lets Pronto’s customer service team fix problems and spot agents that consistently receive great feedback.

The Net Promoter Score helps uncover broader issues and trends. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the NPS is the result of a customer survey that asks your customers how likely they’d be to refer others to you, and then gives them additional room to comment. Customer respond with a likelihood from zero to ten, and then are categorized as Promoters, Passives, or Detractors based on the number they chose. The Net Promoter Score number comes from taking the percentage of customers who are Promoters, and subtracting the percentage who are Detractors.

At Pronto, they send out NPS surveys every 3-6 months. After each round of surveys, they have a team review where everyone looks at how their overall score has changed and reads through specific feedback from clients. Depending on the feedback they receive, it can serve as either validation that their customer service is moving in the right direction (and their processes are working), or point out areas that could be streamlined, changed, or improved.

What needs to be a process, and what should just be automated? For Cory Brown, a co-founder at Pronto, it’s about what works best for the customer:

“You need to examine each scenario and determine what the optimal experience for the customer is.

For example, if a client submits a request that they don’t know their password, that should be automated. They want to log in as soon as possible, and forcing human interaction is only going to slow that down.

For most things, though, we codify a process for our team. After all, we’re a service business, and our clients rely on us to solve problems and do real work for them.”

Creating and maintaining processes has come up with Grasshopper, too. They still do handwritten notes to customers that have engaged with them publicly, whether that’s on social media or via the forums, but they’ve had to get a little more organized about it. At the end of every day, the marketing team all works together to write a few notes each, and they’ve created a spreadsheet for tracking when the note was sent and what happened because of it. It’s simple, yes, but it works, allowing them to track interactions and easily keep up with their best advocates.

Processes: Resources

– Read this post over at Conversocial for a breakdown on creating a social customer service process. It’s targeted towards social service, but many of the tips apply to email and chat service, as well.

– For a longer read, the Referral Engine by John Jantsch goes into great detail about creating processes that help increase referrals. It’s full of actionable insight on creating a better customer experience.

– The team behind the Fizzle business community recently did their first Net Promoter Score survey, and they broke down their entire process in this podcast, including how they created actionable insights from the survey. There’s also a text post about the process here.

– Similarly, Groove has a behind the scenes breakdown of how they did their first NPS survey, and how they worked to improve the score.

Give your CSRs autonomy

TicketCity operates in a rapidly growing space and as their list of competitors grew longer and longer, it became obvious they needed to go the extra mile to differentiate themselves. Customer service is the main way they do that. As their team (and their number of customers) has grown, they’ve found that giving their customer service team more leeway as individuals has kept things efficient while still providing top-notch service.

The customer service team has a rule that states:

When deciding how to handle a situation, ask yourself the following:


– Is it good for the customer?

– Is it good for the company?

– Would you mind reading about it on the news tomorrow?

If the CSR can answer all of those questions, they’re good to go. The CEO of TicketCity implemented this after learning it from Sam Goodner, the founder/former CEO of Catapult Systems and a member of the TicketCity board. Ashley Kubiszyn, the Marketing and Communications Director, noted that there’s been more than one benefit of this policy:

“Giving our CSR’s autonomy not only frees up management time, but it makes for a much better experience for the customer. Instead of getting transferred around, or put on hold, or given the dreaded “we’ll call you back” line, they can almost always get their call resolved with the first person who picks up the phone.”

Giving your employees more autonomy might sound like a fluffy feel-good practice, but there’s science to back it up. In a Cornell University study cited in Drive, a book about motivation by Daniel Pink, 320 small businesses were observed. Half of them demonstrated command and control oriented management practices, while the other half put a focus on giving their employees as much autonomy as reasonably possible. The autonomy group of businesses grew four times faster than the other group, and experienced only 1/3 of the turnover.

There are other benefits, too. Typically, employees that are given more autonomy feel more responsibility for their job and take much more pride in their work. They’re also generally happier and more productive. All in all, it’s a great idea, although it still needs to be done in a way that makes sense for your team, company, and industry. Creating a framework like the above three questions is a great place to start.

Employee Autonomy: Resources

– HBR has an article on employee empowerment that breaks it down into a four step process.

– At Inc: Five Ways to Create More Autonomy at Work

– If you want to dig more into autonomy and what motivates employees (and people) in general, you can check out the book I referenced above: Drive, by Dan Pink.

Get more efficient: Use apps to scale

It’s no secret that apps can help scale effort; we’ve even talked about it before, with our list of 10 tools to help you stay efficient in 2015. But it always helps to see use cases of how other business owners and teams are using specific apps. With that in mind, here are some businesses making their customer service better with the help of technology.

Better onboarding means happier customers

Not only does better user onboarding often create more customers (as in this case study), it can help keep your customers happy. When your user onboarding process works, you’ll have less customer support tickets, because they’ll understand how to use the tool from the get go. That frees up your support team to stay on top of other, more complicated queries.

This is where using apps can come in. For example, FormAssembly uses Pendo to create more effective onboarding processes. Pendo lets them add in-app messages based on user behavior. It feels a little more personal than your average automated message, as well, because each message has a picture of a team member, their name, and their signature on it. They’ve specifically used Pendo to target new users, inviting them to and reminding them of their onboarding webinars, where the team can guide users through specific features and let the customers ask questions. This has increased their webinar attendance by 733%, which in turn lets more customers understand the ins and outs of the product and be more successful in their use of it.

Keeping social personal, fun, and fast

At Grasshopper, they use SproutSocial and Tweetdeck to manage their social media accounts. But the whole marketing team engages with customers on Twitter via their personal accounts—connecting customers with each other, so that they can talk about Grasshopper candidly without the team having to resort to in-your-face promotion. It creates more genuine interaction and interesting conversations; here’s one example of what that looks like in practice.

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