There has been a lot of discussion around the increasingly important role of strong design at early stage startups, particularly for consumer facing companies. It seems like not long ago being a startup was a valid excuse for lackluster design. This is no longer the case. Now it’s rare to see a startup with poor design get much traction: good design has become table stakes. Obviously there are some massively popular services that buck this trend; I don’t think Twitter or Reddit are going to win any design or UI rewards. Despite their simple design — or perhaps, in part because of it — both have obviously amassed huge user bases. That being said, in general most new services are being released with a higher level of polish than ever before.
There is another equally important aspect of startups that doesn’t get the same fanfare – Customer Support. In fact, you could make the case that customer support is even more important than design and possibly even engineering in your earliest days. When you’re in the early stages your users are typically going to be your most fervent. The ones whose problem you’re most closely solving. Because of this, they’re going to be less demanding when it comes to your design and product, assuming the business model solves their core problem. However, what can be hugely beneficial to accelerating your growth is to turn these early users into evangelists. The best way to do this is to make them feel a sense of community with your product, and the foundation of your community is your customer support.
Later, as you start to grow outside of your core user base, strong customer support can help you stay in the good graces of users for whom your product doesn’t yet fully address their needs. This is not to say that they’ll stick around if your product looks and works like dog shit just because you’re quick to answer emails or available to chat over the phone. But if your product is a bit rough around the edges, strong customer support can help keep them patient while you work on improving design and product to more fully address their needs. It will also give them the sense that you have a committed team and give them confidence that the rest of the product will continue to improve. Additionally, by listening and acting on your customer’s feedback they’ll feel like they’re part of the team and feel a stronger connection to your product.
Keep in mind that you’ll rarely solve the problem you’re addressing in your first pass — which is part of why having the right design and product is less important as you’re going to be iterating quickly in your early days. Part of the way you’re going to figure out how to properly solve the problem is through customer support and learning from your users. That’s not to say customers have all the answers, but they can be helpful in identifying the pain points and gauging the direction your product should be heading. By having strong customer support you’ll be in a better position to learn from your users.
So if you’re thinking about starting a company, don’t think you can overlook customer support in the early days. Besides the reasons already listed, you don’t want the attitude that your customers don’t matter baked into your culture. Companies that put customers first tend to be the companies that ultimately win, and if you’re not in it to win it then you shouldn’t be starting a company to begin with.