Building a Healthy Hate for Your Customers

No business can survive without customers. As the business grows however, how you interact with them will be the difference between an unmanageable mess and profitability. The tactical approach here can vary wildly based on the business model. Most notably, a service versus product company.

At bird’s-eye view, all service companies want more customers. However, not all service companies can benefit from the empirical increase in the number of customers; since as the volume grows the level of service and profitability most certainly suffer.

It is a matter of fact that most service businesses are built around personal relationships and the deep domain knowledge of their founders. As the business grows, founders are typically forced into management and administrative duties. They struggle to keep up with the daily minutia and try to replicate themselves. The painful reality is that it is incredibly difficult to hire people who are as good to customers as the founders. Employees’ motivations are different from founders’.  Additionally, building a culture within an organization that creates loyalty and any kind of longevity is nearly impossible these days. A very small percentage of companies can create something that resembles the HP Way, for example – and even HP has not been able to maintain that in recent years.

Services are provided by people and with declining quality during scaling, all can be lost. Most local businesses are not able to scale because they are not consciously aware of this. A founder may claim lack of financial resources as an obstacle to growth. In reality, if money was no object, maintaining quality still would be.

On the other hand, today’s service businesses can benefit from instilling an idiot-proof process to minimize errors and communication technology to minimize overhead –essentially optimizing their workflow to do more work per human. Don’t take my word for it; manufacturing consistency down to the human movement level was one of the primary drivers of the industrial revolution. You can also witness the difference in flow between a Starbucks and an indie coffee shop. Although the coffee quality is usually the converse, the flow can mean an order of magnitude in productivity and profitability. On the communication front–if they paid attention–most people would be shocked by how much time they waste on phone calls and emails for routine updates and requests.

So what is building a “healthy hate” for your customers in a service business? It is designing a services workflow with the mission of minimizing needless, irritating and routine interactions with customers. Simply put, if you can remove the tedious back-and-forth communication, you can concentrate and provide a much higher level of service in areas where it matters – providing true knowledge and solutions.

In a product business the dynamic can be magnified. Customer service overhead usually shows itself in the form of product returns and higher-than-expected calls to the support center.  In the case of online software, users will not fully engage with the product or drop their subscription all together.

As a product designer, one of my primary goals and litmus tests is to create an interface that will minimize the need for support. An interface is supposed to be intuitive and transparent. If the user has to be taught how to use a product, I’ve failed.

In the context of software products, you want to track support burden as one of the key metrics of product quality. You want to build up a “healthy hate” for support tickets and “stupid questions”. Instead you want to get genuine feature enhancement requests and positive testimonials from customers. Imagine building a support team that gets nothing but inbound praise instead of complaints and how that can take both the product quality and customer relationship to the next level.

I define “building a healthy hate for your customers” as the process of designing a service workflow or product experience that will preempt any negative customer experiences.