Get Satisfaction Makes Customer Support Less Robotic-And More Strategic

11/29/11Follow @wroush

Get Satisfaction, the San Francisco-based builder of freemium online customer support communities, has one of those longest-overnight-success-ever stories. Founded in 2007 by Thor Muller, Amy Muller, and Lane Becker, the company has had at least a couple of brushes with death on its way to finding thousands of customers and $21 million in venture capital. The way it escaped from the first one says a lot about how the company works today.

Josh Felser, the co-founder of Freestyle Capital and an investor in the company, relates the story: “They were out of money. They didn’t have any clear path to raising capital. They were nervous about having to shutter the company. So I was talking to Thor and said, ‘What if you just did a salon at your home, invited friends who had capital to invest, made dinner for everyone, and casually gave them the pitch? If you are nervous, no one is going to invest in you. If you are comfortable and casual and you feed people, that seems to work.’ They did, and they raised their capital.”

Not only that, but they also managed to get one of the angel investors at the dinner—former Siebel executive Wendy Lea—so interested in the company that she would eventually join as CEO. Becker, who’s now an advisor to Freestyle, writes that Felser’s dinner idea was “the best piece of advice we ever got” and that it “pretty much saved the company.”

Today, Felser’s bit of coaching advice about being comfortable, casual, and intimate pervades Get Satisfaction’s customer support technology, which is used by companies as small as Eventbrite and as large as Coca-Cola. More than just an online support forum, a Get Satisfaction site is like a company’s front porch. Customers who gather there are as likely to share praise and ideas as they are to complain. Get Satisfaction encourages its clients’ employees—not just their customer-support reps, but their line-of-business people—to mix with visitors, answer their questions, and listen to their suggestions.

Transparency is the rule, and the goal is to resolve most customer problems in public, so that other customers can see the solutions. In fact, Get Satisfaction has drawn up a customer-company pact that calls on customer-facing enterprises to “be human,” “be personal,” “be accountable,” and “be earnest,” among other goals.

Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea

Lea herself embodies the company’s human approach. With roots in the South, and an accent to prove it, she’s as unpretentious a technology executive as you’re likely to find in the Bay Area. By way of background, she refers to herself as a “Siebel girl” and a “sales and marketing chick;” she has a deep interest in comparative religion and Feng Shui, and she spent a couple of years after leaving Siebel as one of the founding mentors at the TechStars startup accelerator in Boulder, CO. The day I met her, she was about to jet off to Aspen to lead a self-development seminar.

Lea says she “fell in love with Lane and Thor” after that first dinner—and especially with the new socially engaged approach to customer support that the Get Satisfaction platform exemplifies. “I come from the CRM [customer relationship management] world, which is inside-out—a company taking products out to customers and the automated software you buy to communicate about that,” Lea explains. “So it wasn’t the technology itself that caught my attention, it was the philosophy about open, transparent relationships and communication. This is right up my alley. I would never be able to be a good leader for a software or service asset that didn’t have a strong philosophical underpinning.”

Back in September 2010, just after Get Satisfaction had collected $6 million in Series A financing from Azure Capital Partners, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, and First Round Capital, I wrote about the startup’s founding, its concept for helping customers help each other, and its unusual formula of giving users a single online identity that they carry with them to every Get Satisfaction support site. All those ingredients make a Get Satisfaction site feel less like a complaint department and more like a shared, neutral space for conversations about a company and its products—Muller has called it a “a Switzerland for customer service.”

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to dig further into the world of Web-based customer communities, profiling companies like Assistly, Lithium Technologies, PowerReviews, and Zendesk and getting to know their founders. My sense is that the old ways companies related to customers—faceless online FAQs, impenetrable phone trees, long waits to speak with a human representative—are coming to be seen as an embarrassing relic. There’s been a slow-motion shift over the past few years in the … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

    The opportunity, as you put it, of great customer service (as opposed to reactive customer service) is incredibly powerful. It makes me incredibly happy anytime I see one of our customers say that they don’t like our tool, they love the results it’s allowing them to get, by focusing on customers rather than support costs.

    It’s a strategy that will define who succeeds and who fails in the startup world in the next decade. A big hurrah for all the companies that are joining us in this focus!

    -Evan Hamilton
    Community Manager, UserVoice