Management & Finance

Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 8: Customer Service

Startups and seasoned merchants alike can run into hiccups with managing customer service. Is it better to do it in-house or to outsource? Should you hire someone from the start?

This is episode eight in my series on building an ecommerce business from the ground up. The previous installments are:

For this article, I spoke with Cody McLain, CEO of SupportNinja, a customer service provider. We discussed the realities of operating a company in the Philippines, tips for business owners looking to expand customer service functions, and more.

What follows is my entire audio conversation with McLain and a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about you and SupportNinja.

Cody McLain: I started my first business when I was 15. It was a web hosting company. I’ve had four web hosting companies since then. After my third or fourth, I outsourced customer support to India. I decided to take my Indian team of engineers and support reps and provide those services to other web hosting companies.

I saw a niche for providing support for startups, so I established SupportNinja in 2015. Now we have roughly 500 people. We work with companies such as HotelTonight, Checkr, Uber, RVshare, and many others. We provide their customer support from our office in the Philippines. We also have a small team based here in Austin, Texas.

Bandholz: I can’t imagine managing 500 employees. Is it wild?

McLain: It is. I never get used to my experiences in the Philippines. I see agents I’ve never met. Employees are nervous because I’m the big boss. Apparently, in most outsourcing companies, the boss never talks to a ground-level agent. I do that all the time across all levels of operations. Employees almost always think they’re in trouble.

Bandholz: How long does it take a typical employee to learn standard customer service?

McLain: In the Philippines, it’s not a problem because it used to be a U.S. territory. They’ve adopted a lot of our language, culture, and society. They like a lot of the same things. They all speak English very well, and many work in call centers.

The agents that we hire have a university degree. They’ve almost all had some level of experience at a large call center. We typically take those agents and then train them for the needs of a specific client.

Bandholz: When should an owner hire or outsource that first customer service person?

McLain: It comes back to how much time you have. When you’re first launching a business, you’re working almost all the time. If you do that forever, you’re likely to burn out. Eventually, you have to put a value on your time.

But it’s important to understand your own customer support needs. If an owner does it himself initially, he not only connects with customers, he also can see what areas of a business are problems, to fix. And it’s a good idea to start building the value and the knowledge within your own team to know how to solve most of the customer inquiries.

So I would not hire an outsource company at the beginning because you’re still learning your processes. But there are companies who come to us, and they have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to supporting their customers.

One area of customer service that’s underutilized is having FAQ responses that are indexed on Google. A lot of people type in their question or concern on Google. If your answer shows up in search results, it saves everyone time. However, it’s still tremendously important to have somebody who can answer the phone.

Bandholz: What support platform do most of your clients use?

McLain: Most use Zendesk. Freshdesk is close behind. You also have Desk.com by Salesforce. My favorite is Help Scout. It’s relatively simple, and yet it has most the features of the big players. It also focuses on having an FAQ knowledge base.

Millennials don’t want to call. They don’t want to chat. They might send a text message. So reducing the number of inquiries is a good practice.

Bandholz: In reality, most customers are probably not going to reach out. They’re going to find the information, or they’re going to leave. A merchant is lucky if somebody takes the time to reach out.

McLain: If that person calls you, it’s an opportunity to be more personal and provide a great experience.

Bandholz: An entrepreneur should go above and beyond what everyone else in the marketplace is doing.

McLain: You have to train your employees to do what it takes. It’s fluid. For example, they’re allowed to refund customers outside of the guarantee because at the end of the day it’s about improving the customer experience, not holding onto that one dollar because the customer filed a request too late.

That was a big learning point for me, training my agents to put the customer first and be proactive.

See the next installment, “Part 9: YouTube Strategy.”

Eric Bandholz

Eric Bandholz

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