I hear the same thing from two groups: customer service is just about supporting the product.

The product or management team says: customer service is supposed to keep the customers off our ass.

Customer service says: I’m supposed to help people deal with product problems.

I think both groups are wrong.

As highlighted in the UserConf 2012 keynote, The #1 reason people quit a product or service is bad customer service.

So we just need to be nicer, right? Sure. But suggesting “customer service” is just about responding to customer emails is foolish. Yes, some folks just need questions answered. But we all know that a large majority of people contact customer support because of a frustrating or broken product. Expecting that nice customer service responses can solve this is wrong. It’s like writing a great paper in college but not proofreading it at all, and then expecting you can simply apologize to your teacher and upgrade that C to an A-.

A lot of customer service folks protest when product improvements come up in conversation. “Making the product better isn’t our job! It’s the product department’s job.” This is passing the buck, guys. You have an incredible amount of contact with customers and their issues. You hear about common frustrations. You discover unclear error messages. You watch people quit over the need for a feature that doesn’t exist. If you’re not passing these stories on, you’re contributing to creating a sub-par product. Hell, I’ll go even farther: you’re making your product bad.

If you’re being the fortification between a bad product and frustrated customers, eventually you’ll fail. You become Ben, keeping the lawsuits at bay without making a real difference until you finally can’t take it anymore.

If we are truly building companies that are going to make customers happy, retain them, and reap the benefits then we’re going to need to make sure that improving the product is as much a part of customer service as dealing with issues. Here’s the nifty part: if we do, there’ll be fewer issues to deal with, so we can focus more on improving the product.

hands together in a circleCustomer service folks – you need to stand up and start talking to your product teams. Talk loud. Tell them what’s wrong with the product. Tell them how it’s affecting people. Tell them they need to fix things. (Sound scary? We interviewed product managers and got the skinny on how best to surface feedback to them, just for you.)

Product managers – you need to listen. You need to put ego away and remember that these are the people talking to customers all day, and they know a thing or two. Take their frustrations to heart (and then put your incredible talents to work solving them).

CEOs and founders – you need to make all of this a priority. If you see your teams failing at the above, you need to lay down the law.

Does this mean customer service should tell the product team what to do? Of course not: you’re just providing them with information. Does this mean you’ll build everything your customers want? No, but you’ll build more of it. Does this mean you turn the vision of the company over to the customers? No. But it means you make their needs a key part of that vision.

No more excuses. No more feuding departments or bad communication. Go forth and make your product better.

Finger-pointing photo courtesy of jetheriot.
All-for-one photo courtesy of Nontrivial Matt.