Business > Merchant Voice

The evolution of my customer service team

I love the book “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos. It is mainly about the culture of customer service that Zappos became famous for.

One of the throwaway anecdotes in the book had a big impact on me. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it. Thus I may have a few details incorrect.

But here’s the anecdote. Tony Hsieh is obsessed with customer service. (I am obsessed with strength.) In the book, Hsieh explains that one night he was out late in Las Vegas with a friend. Hsieh described to his friend about how exemplary Zappos’s service was.

I love the book “Delivering Happiness”…

The friend was not having it. So Hsieh tells the friend to call Zappos’s customer service personnel and ask them to order him a pizza, delivered to his hotel room, for free. Hsieh bets his friend that he’ll get a free pizza from Zappos. The friend didn’t believe him.

But he made the call, and soon enough, he and Hsieh enjoyed a pizza.

It’s a great story.

No free pizzas

I love FringeSport’s customers. They deserve the best customer service.

But I don’t feel we should order free pizzas for them. I do think that our customer service reps should help our shoppers improve their lives through strength. That’s our “why” — the company’s entire reason for existing.

What this means is that our customer service people certainly help customers with shipping snafus and the occasional warranty claims.

But they also help with customers’ strength journey. Do customers need direction in how to train? We can help. Need a recommendation on diet? We’ll be there. Want to buy a barbell? We’ll help with that too.

But having a dedicated customer support team didn’t happen overnight.

When Fringe started, all employees, including me, worked in customer service. When the phone rang, we all jumped to answer it.

We didn’t even have personal email addresses until shockingly late in our business life. We all just worked out of the shared team at Gmail inbox.

Eventually, we had to specialize, and we hired dedicated customer service reps.

And as we grew, we had to decide where in the organizational chart to put them.

Which department?

We initially placed the customer service reps in sales. They answered all the emails and spoke on the phone with the customers and prospects. So we decided to align them with sales.

This functioned for a while. But then we realized that the skills of an effective salesperson and an effective customer-service person were different.

We then moved customer service to the operations department. We were growing the business. We needed these interactions with customers to scale, too.

After a few years, the wear and tear started to show here, as well. Our operations staff wants process, procedure, and predictability. And customers need empathy. We started to lose that empathy in favor of rules.

After a few years, the wear and tear started to show…

So we switched the customer service team to the marketing department. After all, our customer-service reps were talking with customers every day. They could easily report feedback and interactions directly to marketing personnel.

This worked. But revenue from our customer service reps went down. And when we were short-handed, we would have sales reps jump into chat to help customers. And our sales reps often closed deals in chat, while our customer service reps do not, at least not as frequently.

So we are iterating again.

Getting it right

We have kept customer service reporting through marketing, but we rolled their sales through our sales department. That department has a sales quota for our customer service reps, and our sales department coaches our customer service department on selling.

I’ve talked with my entrepreneur friends about how to use customer service personnel. There are many different options.

A popular method is to hire customer service employees in the Philippines. We’ve tried this. While there are many advantages, I don’t think we would ever shift the entire department there.

Another option is to outsource customer service to a company — in the U.S. or overseas.

Again, this option would not work for us, at least not the entire team. How can we really help our customers if our reps are not true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Fringers?

A final option is hiring remote personnel in the U.S. that work from home.

I love this idea.

A priority for us is to help people build amazing garage gyms. So if our customer service team worked from their homes — or their gyms — it would be amazing. But we’re not there yet.

I love customer service. Someday I may write a book on our process. Once we perfect it.

Peter Keller
Peter Keller
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