What this CEO Learned from a Day on the Help Desk

I like to say: "Startups are hard. Scaling a startup is even harder."

Scaling equals more people. More people equals more complexity. More complexity equals more communication challenges, and when it comes to communication, nobody has figured out how to invent the Borg collective yet (but the folks over at Google are trying).

A side effect of all this scaling is that processes break down. When the process is broken, you have to break the process.

One of those critical processes is customer support.

Handling requests. Responding timely and accurately. Communicating with empathy. Fixing bugs. Building features that customers are screaming for (and yes, I include building features that customers are screaming for in the customer support category).

From my vantage point as CEO, FullContact had started slipping a bit in our focus on customers. I didn't have any quantifiable data to back this assertion up, it was just gut feel.

Let me be perfectly clear:  I believe that our Mean Time to Respond was quite good. Our support team is very good about responding quickly.

However, it felt that our Mean Time to Repair was not good. Sure, we'd close the ticket, but did the user actually get the core issue resolved and feel great about the experience? And what did that process look like? The handoff between Support, QA, Product, and Engineering created interminable delays in actually 'delighting the customer.'

I wanted to get a first hand look at how the process worked to see if there were any improvements we could make. So I informed Ben Deda, who heads up our Customer Experience team, that I was going to sit on the Help Desk for a day - the 23rd of December - to find out for myself.

But first, a little background.

The Good Old Days

In the early days of FullContact, it was just me, Travis and Dan in a basement. If we received a customer support ticket, all three of us saw it and all three of us would figure out how to get it fixed.

I vividly remember handling a particular support ticket early in our history.

A few years ago, we  released an 'auto-merge' feature for 'shared contacts' in our proof of concept application, Rainmaker. But the algorithm had a bug in it and it took an angry support ticket from a paying customer in the United Kingdom to let us know about the bug. This bug had caused us to inadvertently merge any contacts that contained the same URL into one.   So if the user had several contacts with "http://acme.com" in the URL field, they would all become one!


I was attending a friend's wedding in Telluride at the time. I saw the angry customer support message come across my email and I immediately got on the phone, called the customer up in the UK, and spoke with him patiently.  It took about 30 minutes for him to calm down. It humored my friends. It mildly annoyed my wife, but she is the most patient woman in the world.

After I hung up, I immediately called Travis and Dan. With their help over the next 48 hours, we were able to restore the user's address book to its original state. We had to extract the contact data and re-assemble it in a spreadsheet. Manually.

Not fun.

After that, we immediately implemented an 'auto backup' feature so we could always restore a user's contacts in a pinch.

That was over three years ago when it was just three co-founders.

We were responsive to customers. We would fix bugs immediately. We had a personal connection with these people. Their problems were our problems.

There were no lines between customer support, product, engineering and executive functions. All three of us operated in each function.

Now, as we've grown, we're at over forty employees and counting.

  • We have a dedicated customer experience team.
  • We have dedicated product management.
  • We have dedicated engineering teams for products - and sometimes even features within products!
  • We have dedicated quality assurance engineers.
  • We just acquired a company in Latvia.
  • We have lots and lots and lots of users and paying customers.
  • And yes, we still have a few bugs in our software. Contact management is a really, really hard problem.

So things have changed, and I wanted to understand it first hand. I was looking forward to getting on the Help Desk.

"The Desk"

I wanted to get an early jump on things, so I actually started working on tickets Sunday evening. We use UserVoice for customer support, so starting to work tickets was a breeze. I logged in, and started down the list of tickets:

  • "How do I upload my excel files to FullContact?"
  • "My CSV file import didn't pull the photos.  How do I get it to do this?"
  • "If I downgrade, will I lose all my contacts?"
  • "I can't tell if my contacts have been fully synced or not."
  • "Contact search needs an auto-completer"
  • "You're not handling the name 'Di Costanzo' properly"
  • "I couldn't import this Outlook 2013 CSV File"

I am an expert at getting to inbox zero, so I immediately jumped right in on the first ticket.

My first response went something like this:

Hi there,

Currently we don't support uploading excel files to FullContact.  We do, however, support CSV files.

See: http://support.fullcontact.com/knowledgebase/articles/192864-which-csv-formats-do-you-currently-support-



And I continued on, banging out tickets, just as I would emails.  If you've ever emailed with me, you know that I get to the point quickly.

Soon enough, I received a Gmail Chat from David Fitzgerald, who leads Customer Experience:

David: Hey man, how's it going?
Bart: Good. Just cranking dude!
David: Cool. So I know your style is a bit different, 
and that's fine, but on that last ticket, you didn't apologize.
Bart: Apologize?
David: Yes. You didn't apologize. Always, always, always, always ALWAYS apologize. 
No matter what. Then close by thanking them and asking if you can do anything else.
Bart: Thanks! I'll definitely work on that. Anything else?
David: Not yet, but I'll let you know if I see anything!
Bart: Cool, thanks David.


First, I was really impressed with David in this situation. David reports to Ben, and Ben reports to me. Not only that, but he used to report to my wife Sarah at Name.com, who ran the entire Customer Experience department, and is a goddess when it comes to these things.

It takes courage to tell the CEO - 'you're fucking this up' and do it with candor and class.

I was ecstatic. David knows his shit and I couldn't wait to tell Sarah about that exchange (she always likes it when others put me in my place).

Second, David made me realize something very important -- It's not primarily about whether the solution I provided works or not, it's how you make the customer feel. It's about letting them know that you're there to help them through whatever problem they're having.

I didn't apologize, but I should have.

As my wife puts it: "You must apologize. Even if it's not your fault. If somebody breaks their arm, but it's not your fault, you still  say 'oh, I'm so sorry'"

So I continued working my tickets, with David's new instructions in my head.

  1. Apologize.
  2. Resolve the Issue.
  3. Ask if There's Anything Else You Can Do.
  4. Rinse and Repeat.

It may sound monotonous, but I absolutely had the time of my life. I LOVED helping our users directly. While it was painful to see obvious bugs that should have been fixed, it was awesome to receive praise from customers about how much they enjoy using our software.

The Results

So, how'd I do?  I was able to generate 32 ticket replies. My mean time to respond ended up at around 2 hours. I also actioned about 56 messages in Intercom.

Here is the breakdown of those 32 tickets:

I finished the day mentally drained, but oddly invigorated. That night, as I reflected on the experience, a few key things became apparent:

  • Our handoff between Customer Experience, Product, QA and Engineering was not smooth. We used a manual process to transfer tickets between UserVoice and Pivotal Tracker. That caused delays. Plus, re-keying information is just annoying.
  • The urgency of a support issue decreases every time it is passed along the chain. To the user experiencing a problem, it's super urgent. To the customer support person, it's urgent. If you add a product manager, then a QA person, then an engineer, then an executive, the urgency diminishes at each stage. It's just human nature. But when you're on the front lines trying to solve something for a user, it's super personal and urgent.
  • Customer support reps did not have a 360 degree view of the customer.  Key information, like the user's account type, activity history, support logs and account size were not readily available. I had to bounce between lots of different systems to help a customer or understand who they were. This was dreadfully inefficient and painful. This prevented me from providing the best service possible.

Takeaways and Changes

After my experience, I was determined to help improve the process. So this year, we are instituting the following changes that I hope will improve FullContact's customer support:

1) Every FullContact employee will spend a minimum of 2 days on the help desk each year.  Even me.  No exceptions.

It's just really important that employees communicate directly with users and customers. This is something I feel strongly about, and nothing can change my mind. We'll be starting with the entire executive team.

2) We're going to get serious about 'fixing bugs first'.

Recently, we just spent 4 weeks doing nothing but fixing bugs that had piled up. That's bad news. But the good news: Net Promoter Scores went way up and ticket count decreased drastically. From now on, we're going to work really hard to fix bugs immediately. And we're going to get serious about it.

3) We're going to renew focus on quality.

Quality assurance needs to be part of the entire software development life cycle. QA shouldn't be there to catch things. If you're a fan of six-sigma methodologies, (as I am) you know that quality assurance needs to be everywhere and not just at the end of the assembly line. To help with this, we're hiring another QA Automation Engineer and a QA Manager to add to our QA team - if you know of anyone amazing, please send them our way.

4) We're going to give our customer support people everything they need to resolve customer issues.

First, we'll dedicate entire development iterations to things that customer experience wants. Second, a customer experience agent can spend up to $50, no questions asked, to 'make things right' for an unhappy customer.  This can be a t-shirt, a refund or a bottle of whiskey - whatever.


At FullContact, we always keep improving. I'm confident that these changes will help. Please leave suggestions or feedback in the comments below. We'd love to hear them.

Images: Richard HurdAndreas Klinke Johannsen, Andrew Yee

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