Sophie’s Voice: Scaling the Personal Touch in Customer Service

2/8/11

WePay recently surveyed a handful of active users to find out how likely they are to recommend our service to their friends (WePay makes it easy to collect money online). Although we didn’t ask about it, roughly half of survey respondents surprised us by mentioning WePay’s customer service as one of the things they like. Many of them mentioned Sophie, our community manager, by name.

Customer Service as a Sales and Marketing Channel

Actually, this wasn’t a total surprise. We learned pretty early that WePay users who have interacted at least once with a WePay representative are happier with the service, transact more, and are more likely to refer friends than users who haven’t. This is true regardless of the medium (phone, e-mail, chat, Twitter, etc.) or the reason for the interaction (question, problem, sales call, responding to a newsletter, etc.).

Therefore, we want people to call, e-mail, or chat with us. When you register for WePay, you don’t get an e-mail from “no-reply@WePay.com,” you get an e-mail from “sophie@wepay.com.” If you reply, it goes directly to her, and she responds. We prominently display our phone number on our homepage, and offer live chat all day.

Sophie was originally charged with managing customer support. We recently changed her title to “community manager.” Why? Customer support is an expense (where less is more), and it’s passive. Community is a good thing. It’s active. It means engaging customers and potential customers. A community manager tries to increase his or her reach, connections, and interactions. We want to actively serve customers, rather than passively support them.

There’s this great story in Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. One night, Tony decided to call Zappos to see if he could convince a service representative to order him pizza. It worked.

That’s an irrationally high level of customer service. Every company says that they value great customer service, but only a few actually deliver it. That’s partly because providing good service is more expensive and less scalable than providing bad service. Few companies would value great service more than they would value their bottom line (even in the short term).

Zappos makes sacrifices to provide such exceptional service. If you call Zappos customer service before you buy something, Zappos loses money on that sale. Zappos counts customer service a marketing expense rather than an operational one.

Scaling the “Personal Touch”

If you sign up for WePay, you’ll receive a welcome message from Sophie. If you call, you can ask for her by name, and she’ll probably remember you. This is by design. Our hypothesis is that a “personal touch” will pay off in the long run by generating more, happier, and more highly engaged customers. Our second hypothesis is that we can scale our “personal touch” with clever use of technology, intelligent processes, and strategic hiring decisions.

We’ve hit on the perfect customer support person, and as a company that prides itself on customer support above all else, we have to figure out how to scale her as we grow.

How do we plan to scale “Sophie”?

1) Automated messaging, but “real” interactions

Every new user gets a welcome e-mail from Sophie. Although these e-mails are sent automatically, all replies are sent directly to Sophie, and she replies manually to each one. We would love it if everybody responded to these e-mails, but only a small percentage actually do. Those that do, get to know Sophie and rely on her for ongoing support. They actually like her. People feel like they “know somebody at WePay,” and they often ask for her by name.

This is surprisingly scalable. Next month, you may receive an automated email from tom@wepay.com, and if you respond, your message will go directly to him. Adding a personal touch to automated messages and routing the responses appropriately is low hanging fruit.

2) You just need to personalize the “mouth of the funnel”

When it comes to fixing problems, or answering complex questions, actual customer interaction is pretty minimal.

While Sophie (or Tom) communicates directly with the customer, usually questions are answered and problems are fixed behind the scenes. At this point, we rarely get “new” questions, so Sophie uses Zendesk Macros to answer the meat of the question, and then just personalizes the response on the margins. If a customer is trying to change something with their account or report a bug, Sophie is rarely the employee who actually makes the changes. Whoever does will usually respond to Sophie with an e-mail, which she will personalize and deliver to the customer.

3) Synchronous, semi-synchronous, and asynchronous customer service

Contrary to popular belief, most people hate calling customer service lines. But if that’s the case, why do people get enraged when they can’t find your phone number on your website?

When people have a problem, they want it fixed immediately. When they have a question, they want it answered right away. Until recently, a phone call was the only real solution. More and more sites (including WePay) have turned to live chat as an alternative. We use Olark to allow WePay users and visitors to instantly message WePay customer service. Most users prefer live chat to a phone call because it’s faster and easier. But for WePay, it’s semi-synchronous: a good rep can effectively talk to half a dozen people at once.

Live chat also gets customers accustomed to communicating online rather than over the phone. Once Sophie has engaged somebody on live chat, she finds out if they need (or want) their problem resolved or question answered immediately, or if she can “get back to them” via e-mail. E-mail is the most scalable solution because it is completely asynchronous, and canned responses provide the base of most answers. Our customers have become increasingly comfortable with asynchronous communication because we have built a rapport, and they are confident that they will receive a timely response.

4) Hire for personality

One of the ways Zappos has scaled great customer service is by hiring great people, and giving them freedom to make decisions. If you trust your service reps, and they truly care about your customers, they will take it upon themselves to keep users happy and coming back. Empathy is probably the most important personality trait. If your customers have a problem, then your customer service reps should be fighting with you, not with your customers. They should empathize with the customer. If they do, they will be incredibly efficient when it comes to solving their problems.

Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

We are lucky that one of our main competitors has a reputation for providing bad customer service.

Even though WePay raised money from the founder of PayPal, the comparison between the two companies was not made until PayPal decided to freeze the account of the Flux foundation—a non-profit arts organization—just a few days before the Flux Crew headed to the Black Rock Desert to build their famous Temple for Burning Man. The Flux Foundation and a ton of other people collecting donations for various projects and causes ended up turning to WePay in protest (and in desperation). That’s when people started comparing us to PayPal.

WePay was painted as the “friendly” PayPal alternative. CNN actually referred to us as the anti-PayPal. The comparison isn’t completely accurate, because WePay is focused on helping normal people collect money from others in their social circles, whereas PayPal is focused on helping merchants sell goods or services online. But it was great for us in terms of press and branding, so we embraced it: “Yeah, we are kind of like PayPal, but we love our customers, have great customer service, and try really hard not to freeze your accounts.”

For WePay, good customer service is a competitive advantage. It is one of our “killer features,” and the reason people increasingly recommend WePay when they hear somebody complaining about PayPal.

Rich Aberman is the founder of WePay.com. Follow @

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