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 technologies available to help companies be more responsive and proactive, while shifting to the communications channels that are most comfortable for customers. Just as important, companies have begun to see their support communities as key forums for marketing, evangelism, and even focus-group-style product research. And Bay Area startups like Get Satisfaction seem to be at the epicenter of this change.

My interview with Lea this fall confirmed all these impressions. “We are bringing in conversations and making them actionable for both the consumer and the company,” she says. Lea argues that Get Satisfaction helps “to reduce service and support costs, improve the service experience, extend brand advocacy through Facebook and other marketing channels, and get feedback and requirements for products or marketing campaigns.” On the strength of that vision, Lea was able to rope in an additional $10 million in venture financing this August, in a Series B round led by new investor InterWest Partners. Its network now includes more than 60,000 communities—though fewer than 3,000 of them are run by paying customers (more on that in a minute).

The recent growth at “GetSat,” as many people refer to the startup, was a long time coming. Muller, the company’s chief technology officer, told me last year that 2008 and 2009—as recession-dazed companies looked for ways to shed services, not add them, and as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels were still just entering the mainstream—were “trial by fire” years for the company. When Lea joined as CEO in March 2009, the company had only four paying customers, and was leasing out part of its office as a co-working space to raise money. “We had eight people and $500,000 in the bank and we were making more money off renting our desks” than they were selling the product, Lea says.

One of the fundamental insights behind what you might call the “customer support 2.0″ movement is that when a customer who shows up at a support forum with a question or complaint, it shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but as an opportunity—a chance to fix a problem, convert an irate critic into an evangelist, or tap a customer’s own insights. Muller and Lea say Get Satisfaction survived its lean years by focusing on technology that would help companies discover this value.

Mint.com's Get Satisfaction community site

The signature feature of a Get Satisfaction community on the Web (or, as of this fall, on a mobile device) is series of tabs that invite customers to “Ask a question,” “Share an idea,” “Report a problem,” or “Give praise.” That setup amounts to an announcement that the company sponsoring the community is interested in gathering customers’ feedback, and even in having a genuine conversation. “We aren’t ‘social’ because it’s cool to be,” says Lea. To Muller and Becker, “social just meant consumer-friendly, open, and honest. The user interface is all designed to make it easy for you to get a quick answer, to get your ideas expressed in a way that is visible to others, and to get a problem solved.”

As a nice side effect, the tab system helps companies organize incoming customer feedback and respond to problems faster. Get Satisfaction is set up to work with a number of other Web-based systems, such as Assistly, Zendesk, Salesforce.com, and Pivotal Tracker, so companies can import posts from the “Report a problem” tab directly into their trouble ticket tracking systems, or route posts from the “Share an idea” tab into their project management systems. In Muller’s words, the system “creates new opportunities for the marriage of social data about what people are doing and what they care about back into the worldview of the company, which is making decisions about how to invest their time or marketing or product development dollars.”

Setting up a Get Satisfaction community is free—and in fact, many of the company’s 60,000 communities were started by fans of companies, rather than by the companies themselves. The startup’s biggest challenge these days is getting more of its free users to sign up for one of its paid plans, which range from $19 per month for small companies to $599 per month or more for enterprises. “The truth of the matter is that we had three or four customers when I first got here, and now we have 2,300, so I am very proud,” says Lea. But “we have more work to do,” she says. “If you are freemium, you are supposed to have free customers. You are also supposed to bring value to them so that they convert.”

Sometimes, it’s the customers themselves who lead companies into a relationship with Get Satisfaction. “I love the story of how Mint.com came to us,” says Lea. “They didn’t want to use GetSat because they didn’t think we were serious enough. They already had Salesforce.com and all this stuff. All of a sudden Aaron Patzer [Mint's founder] and Stephen Mann [its customer advocacy director] started noticing that their customers had started a Mint community within our network, and were talking to each other inside Get Satisfaction. They asked ‘How can that be?’ and we said ‘Because your customers want to help each other and talk to each other.’ Eventually they came to us and said ‘We think we are ready to integrate.’”

In Mint’s case, that simply meant becoming a sponsor of the existing Get Satisfaction community, linking to it from Mint’s own pages, and hooking it up with Salesforce.com’s tracking tools. Today, Patzer—who oversees product innovation at Mint’s parent company, Intuit—is one of Get Satisfaction’s most public supporters. Within 90 days of integrating GetSat, Mint says, the number of support tickets coming to its customer-service reps dropped from 6,500 per week to 1,500 per week. On top of that, Mint’s GetSat community is great search-engine fodder: 50 percent of the community’s visitors arrive directly from Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Like all organic search traffic, this amounts to free advertising for Mint, and it further reduces workloads as customer find the answers they need by reviewing conversations about past problems.

“I think Wendy has done a phenomenal job,” says Bruce Cleveland, the partner at InterWest who led the firm’s recent investment in Get Satisfaction. “For such a small company, they have an enormous brand presence. Literally every day I look at companies coming in, presenting about the software-as-a-service landscape, and GetSat is on the map.”

Cleveland says he invested because he thinks Get Satisfaction can capitalize on a larger technological shift toward what he calls revenue performance management—that is, using Web-based tools to automate the collection and analysis of customer data and turn it into forecasts. (Cleveland invested in Marketo, a marketing-automation company I profiled earlier this month, based on the same thesis.) “If you could mine Get Satisfaction’s data you might be able to begin to predict churn rates, upsell opportunities, and customer satisfaction issues,” Cleveland says. “You can build models of different types of consumers, and use that to provide more of a one-to-one approach.”

But while Get Satisfaction communities can be a source of data for other business analytics tools, the startup isn’t focusing yet on this kind of automation. For now, it’s all about making it easier for companies to add a human touch to their service and support process. “Since I was 28 years old, when I was working in a sales training company, I’ve been basically helping big companies be more effective with their customers, and to me, Get Satisfaction is just a very new, current, relevant technology platform that allows companies to build stronger relationships,” says Lea. “It’s an obvious next step for businesses to want to engage in this way.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. 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