Customer service and transparency for internet companies

There Are Extraordinary Benefits to Being Public on the Internet

What does it take to achieve a level of customer service that will truly surprise and delight? We sat down with Help Scout CEO Nick Francis as he talked about his experiences in helping companies to make the best of their customer relationships. Help Scout is a customer relationship management tool that focuses on an email inbox that is shared among a team. With customers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Timbuk2 and KISSmetrics, the company processes over six million emails each month, and it has definitely made a name for itself.

Looking for more insight on building great products? Check out our interviews with Andrew Warner of Mixergy and Wade Foster of Zapier in the FullContact Halftime Archives.

Video Transcript: Help Scout CEO Nick Francis on Building Customer Relationships

Brad: We’re back again this week. It is the FullContact Halftime. I am Brad from FullContact and I am joined this week by Nick Francis of Help Scout, a fellow Techstars graduate from, what was it Nick, 2011?

Nick: 2011, Boston, yeah.

Brad: Yeah. Actually, Nick was kind of a local guy to me. We lived within about 10 minutes of one another, and now, braving the winter wonderland that is Boston, MA. Nick, let’s talk about customer service. Give us the intro, what is Help Scout, what do you guys do?

Nick: Essentially, Help Scout’s a simple help desk, for teams of anywhere from 2 to 102, to share an inbox and manage customer service together. Something that makes Help Scout different from any other help desk is the fact that it’s completely invisible to the customer. To the customer, it’s a personal email conversation but we provide you all the scale in terms of your team and your business and being able to run that at scale.

Brad: Very cool. You kind of hit upon a word that I keep hearing more and more often when I’m talking to companies who are doing CRM which is “simple”. That focus on simplicity seems to be everybody’s thing right now because it seems to me, in what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing that the jumping off point and the failure point of CRM is typically you can’t get people to use it. How does that relate to what you guys have found?

Nick: Well, I think that small business software in general and, probably not enterprise level software, but when you’re helping small businesses, I think your job is to save the customer time and then get out of the way.

Brad: OK.

Nick: To be honest, you’re not going to be successful unless you can create that kind of value for a small business owner or team member and then just get out of the way. So that’s what “simple” is all about, is getting out of the way. What David Cohen of Techstars told me early on in the Techstars process was, “Be the best in the world at one thing”, and that’s something that really stuck with me. That’s what a lot of companies I think have come around to understanding and that’s how you can be helpful to a small business. A small business is going to use 5, 6, 7 different tools to manage everything that’s going on, and for you to own one of those things and help them productive and then save them some time, then get out of the way, that’s one way to stay one of their tools for a long time.

Brad: Let’s talk about the social aspect of stuff. I cheated a little bit, I interviewed a Full Contact customer, and you guys pull in Full Contact people . . .

Nick: An early one! I think we were one of the first 10 or 15.

Brad: Yeah, you guys have been around for quite a while, so thank you for that. Thank you for partially paying my paycheck every month. I really appreciate that. So why have you been a Full Contact customer for that long? What benefit do you see to pulling in that kind of extra data to complete pictures?

Nick: The big thing with customer service and providing a great experience for somebody that you actually don’t know and that you’re not looking at right in the eyes, is context. When it’s email, it’s already a little bit cold in terms of the relationship, so any way you can warm that relationship up in terms of context–if I know where the person lives, maybe what the age range is without betting creepy, what some of their social profiles might be, anything that gives me context into who they are as a person and how I can be helpful to them–that’s a win for both sides. I met Bart really early on when they were going through Techstars and it just felt like a really good fit, because that’s instant context that we can provide to our customers and then hopefully be able to help them answer inquiries faster.

Brad: You hit on another really interesting point that I think has been in a constant state of fluctuation, and that’s the creepy factor. Five years ago, I probably never would have used–well, maybe five years ago. Maybe not 10 years ago would I have used my full, real name on the internet. It just would have been unheard of, I would have gone by some screen name. There are still people who do that, they’re a fairly popular thing with internet anonymity, so to speak. How have you seen the line change as far as from a customer service perspective? The answer to “where is the creepy line” is different for every individual person, but what kind of stuff are people wanting customer service people and sales people to be able to understand and to know about them these days?

Nick: Yeah, that’s kind of an individual thing, but one thing that I’ve noticed is that everyone is a little bit hesitant to make any sort of details about themselves public. It’s just not something that we’re wired to do, but I think most people have come around to the fact that there’s extraordinary benefits involved with having a public profile that may give a little bit of information about you, whether it’s Instagram or Twitter, Facebook. I think that in exchange for giving up a few details about who you are and what you’re about, there are extraordinary benefits that come along with that in terms of the value that different services can add to your day to day life. That’s what we’re trying to do. If you want to give a little bit of that data up, we’re not going to abuse it, not Full Contact and nobody else is just throwing out emails, it’s really just trying to create context in a relationship. By way of you giving up a little bit of that data and making it public, we can better help you, and to me that’s really what it’s all about. I think we’ve all come around to a relative–well, privacy’s kind of a relative term now.

Brad: Yeah, very much so.

Nick: So I think it’s just evolving as the web does, we’re all there trying to make the most of it without being creepy, like you said. We’re doing our best.

Brad: It’s interesting, I was having a talk with Bart a few weeks ago, and he brought up something that actually his wife brought up, because she deals very heavily in customer service, especially in the hospitality industry. Something that we “normal people” are just now starting to experience is something that celebrities have experienced for years, which is, they give up a little piece of their privacy, and tell facilities–especially hospitality industries–a little bit about themselves in order to get a higher level of customer service. I think that it’s interesting that as cutting edge as technology people like to think that we are, we’re actually just following in the footsteps of celebrities–in a little bit of a different fashion, obviously. Maybe there are celebrities who are using Help Scout, who knows? At the end of the day, everybody likes that feeling of getting a treatment that feels a little bit like something special, like they’re definitely important to whatever business that they’re interacting with.

Nick: Yeah.

Brad: What are the big trends that you guys are seeing? What are the directions that customer service and CRM are pushing these days?

Nick: You know, I’m not sure it’s one of those industries that’s just got tons of hipster factor things happen. You know, there’s not any game changing consumer–it’s not going to have any sex appeal. It never has and it never will, but at the same time, that’s what I love about the business. I’m not a very sexy person myself, I guess. But when it comes down to it, a great experience is all that I’m asking for, and that’s all customers I think have ever wanted, and I think we’re just trying to go about creating that great experience as technology evolves. I’m very excited about that opportunity. As customers and what they want from an interaction with a company evolves, so does CRM, so I just think of it that way. The customer gets to decide how our business ends up evolving. This has been around forever though, some of the stuff you were just talking about. Airlines created it with their frequent flier miles, decades and decades ago. It’s always been about creating greater context, understanding that customer better not only so you can find more of them, but so that you can give them a better experience. I think that’s a win all the way around.

Brad: Sure. I find it interesting that–we’re in the software and service business, you guys obviously are as well, so what we see pretty often are distributed teams. Full Contact is based out of Denver, I work out of my office in Nashville, TN. I’m the only person who does that for Full Contact at the moment.

Nick: That’s surprising!

Brad: Yeah! I think it’s a testament to what I do. I focus on content and focus on the things that can really be done, not having to be in the office every day. I guess what the SaaS world is allowing all of us to do is do more distribution and to accomplish more with your people, and what have you. What kind of stuff are you guys using, what’s the secret sauce that makes you guys tick behind the scenes?

Nick: We have four people of our–well, we’re about to hire a fourth–of ten people that are going to be remote.

Brad: Oh wow!

Nick: A good amount of our team is distributed, and I’m actually trying to create 40%-50% of our team as we grow, I want to keep it remote. That’s just something that I think we can do very well. It’s in my DNA and my co-founder’s DNA, I think we can do that well. We think very intentionally about remote and distributed teams, I think that’s the future, at least for a lot of businesses. We actually just use a lot of tools to keep in synch. I mean, HipChat, everybody uses HipChat constantly so that we can do IM, or we can feel like we’re at the water cooler, even though we may not be physically. Another tool that we’ve really started using that’s been a hit is Evernote for business.

Brad: Oh really?

Nick: We all share a bunch of notebooks and notes. You really have to make an effort to be transparent with employees, and that’s something that I also feel very passionate about. In order for all sorts of information to be accessible by employees, Evernote’s a great place to put it. You can put anything in there. Whether you want to read up on some interviews we’ve been having with candidates for a position, all of that’s in Evernote for business, or you want to look at some design inspiration that we’ve had for some of the stuff we’re about to create in the product, you could easily go through that. Evernote’s really been able to allow us to take whatever things that we’re working and just make it public to the company. That’s been really good as well. There’s so many great collaboration tools out there that have really helped us out.

Brad: That’s interesting, because I’m a huge Evernote fan myself, I use it constantly, but we use Google Docs kind of in the same fashion. We use the Google Sites with wikis and things of that nature. So why the choice for Evernote for business as opposed to something that’s likely already integrated at some level with Google Surfaces with you guys?

Nick: We definitely use Google Docs for specs and stuff, and we may move more towards Evernote, but I think Google Docs is great. There’s a lot of tools that we use, but I think it just comes down to whatever you’re trying to accomplish, and the great thing about Evernote is you can literally put anything in there. You can just throw files in there, you can throw voice memos in there, you can throw whatever you have in terms of data, you can just throw it at Evernote and it’ll kind of eat it up and organize it for you. That’s one thing that I really like. I’ve always felt like Google services, like Docs is great, but connecting them with all the other services just feels a little bit disconnected to me. Evernote just feels a little bit more seamless and I just feel like, I like paying for products. Google apps, 50 bucks a year I guess we’re paying for it, but they’re not making any money on that. I like paying for product that I really love and supporting teams that really care about product. I think Evernote’s one of those kind of teams, so that’s what we’ve ended up using. But we use things like Trello, Basecamp, we could a whole spend a whole half hour talking about all the apps we use.

Brad: Yeah, we’re the same way. As a matter of fact, we’re actually in the process of trying to pare down all the different places that we’re doing things. Especially when it comes to measurements it’s really easy to get caught up in measuring way more metrics than you actually need.

Nick: Yeah, drowning in data.

Brad: Yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing here lately on the marketing side of the house, is cleaning up that side of things and trying to figure out–these numbers are great to know, what kind of numbers do we actually need to base more decisions off of. I definitely feel the drowning in data problem. We’re trying to clean things up that way. Nick, that pretty much does it for me. I really appreciate your time.

Nick: Pleasure being with you, Brad.

Brad: Thanks for chatting with me, early–well, I guess it’s not so early morning for you, you’re an hour ahead of me.

Nick: Not bad.

Brad: So not too bad. It is Nick Francis, CEO of Help Scout, and my dog in the background who has decided to join us for this.

Nick: There you go! He’s signing off!

Brad: Thanks a lot Nick, I appreciate your time, and check out Help Scout, it is, it’s incredibly simple customer service CRM based in your inbox. You’ll love it. Thanks a lot for your time Nick, I appreciate it.

Nick: Thanks Brad!

Brad: All right, chat soon!

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