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We prioritize support over sales in our business

news  Paul Jarvis · Jun 2, 2021

Fathom is a small full-time team, just Jack and myself. Neither of us is a customer support expert, and both of us are pretty busy building and running the company.

That said, we put significant effort into customer support: not just answering emails quickly and respectfully, but making sure we understand the problem to either solve it or figure out how we can do better in the future (building more features, better documentation, etc.).

Our approach has always been to prioritize existing customers over hyper-growth. In other words, retention trumps acquisition (we know this is not the norm in tech).

Doing well with customer support leads to more customers, creates advocates of products and obviously, should increase retention. Our customers are also our only investors (since we’ve never taken outside investment). So, we feel accountable to them to ensure they’re treated well and the concerns are alleviated.

A recent Harris Interactive survey showed that nine out of ten Americans were willing to spend more with companies that exhibited excellent customer service. The same study showed that 79 percent of people bailed on a transaction or did not buy what they intended to because of a poor customer service experience. A study done by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs found that loyal customers, on average, were worth up to ten times as much as their first purchase.

There’s also the hidden cost of negative experiences—Ruby Newell-Legner, a twenty-five-year expert of customer happiness, found that only 4 percent of customers voice their dissatisfaction to a business: a whopping 91 percent of dissatisfied customers simply don’t ever return. And with online reviews and social media, bad customer service tends to be talked about much more than praise for good customer service —the internet loves to turn into a mob against companies that don’t help or wrong their customers.

With these stats in mind, it’s puzzling that some growth-centric companies care more about new customer acquisition than retention or customer happiness.

Apart from all of that, treating everyone with empathy and respect is just how we fundamentally want to do business as human beings. It’s not always about profits; it’s about shaping Fathom into a company that we can be proud of and enjoy doing well into the future.

Customer support without a customer support team

Most smaller, independent companies, like Fathom, don’t have customer service folks on staff. Even though it’s just the two of us, we value helping the folks who pay us money (customers) in the most humane, timely, and best way possible as our job. Yes, Jack is a programmer/hype man, and I’m a designer/writer, but customer service is also our job. But still, we believe it's possible to take care of customers; it just requires prioritizing and planning well—even if there are thousands of customers per founder.

We split support tasks into what each of us can do the best: more technical or legal things go to Jack (he excels at both), and general questions, issues, concerns, bug reports go to me. As a result, Jack ends up with fewer tickets, but each is more time-consuming, and I end up with more tickets, but each takes less time to resolve.

We currently use Help Scout for organizing our customer support, so Jack and I can add notes to each ticket and assign them to each other. So we both regularly check in on the primary inbox (where all support tickets go first) and keep a handle on the assigned tickets.

Our “everyone works as a customer support person” approach is both necessary and a choice. We also feel that Jack and I are the best folks (at least right now) to provide support: we fully understand our product because we built it, and believe that in helping our customers, we can best learn about them, their needs, and how they use our software too. So it’s a win-win.

No live chats, no phone calls

Even though customer service is a priority, we’ve always had a pretty firm stance against using phone calls or chatbots. Firstly, it’s impossible for us to build Fathom and be on chat/phone calls all day, every day. And secondly, because most live chats suck. Like, they really suck. The widgets are annoying, they’re mostly unhelpful bots, and they feel pretty impersonal (both Jack and I sign all customer support emails with our titles, “Cofounder” when we're the ones replying).

We also do not talk or schedule phone calls—as they are time-consuming (this includes demos). If someone wants a demo of Fathom, they can watch our video demo or click around in the live demo. Phone calls take up too much time, especially sales calls, so we’ve just always said no to them. Instead of chatbots or calls, we work to respond as quickly as possible to support emails without about 8–10 hours. Typically much faster if it’s during our workday, and by sticking to email, we can get to the most support requests as quickly as possible.

People want a real connection to a human, not a bot giving bad advice, or a “Please press 1, then 2, then 5, then 8… your call is important to us. The next available representative will be with you in approximately 48 minutes.” So instead, we answer emails personally, empathetically and quickly.

We’ve become detectives

The question we ask the most in support is, “What are you trying to achieve?”

We ask this because it’s not enough to hear a problem; we want to understand why the problem happened and what the person was trying to do when the problem occurred. This isn’t just useful to better understand building new features; it’s also helpful to know where existing features can be refined more or documented better.

In anything that isn’t a quick answer, we try to dive deep into what’s happening, why it happened, and if relevant, why a customer thought they could do something that didn’t end up working the way they assumed it would. Each time we do this, we learn how Fathom can be made better, and over the years we’ve approached support in this way, we’ve definitely been able to make Fathom a lot better for many more customers.

We’ve scaled support without scaling support staff

As a smaller company, we don’t want to grow a huge support team to manage support as our customer base grows. So instead, we work to make things as efficient as possible.

How do we make support efficient? Documentation, documentation, documentation. You know everyone’s (especially developers) favourite past-time. This is why we document things before we release them and are constantly adding more videos to help folks get a better understanding too.

But we also think about support and documentation when adding new features too. Support is part of how we feel about the actual building of our software. So with any new feature we are considering, the first thing we do is ask ourselves, “How will we have to support this feature?” and then “How can we create this feature in a way that doesn’t overload support?” as well as “Can this feature be documented and understood quickly and easily?”

If a feature is too complicated or isn’t intuitive, we don’t release it until it’s as simple and easy to use as possible, from start to finish—both for people using the feature for the first time and for customers who are using the feature daily too. We sweat the details and take time to build each small thing, so our customers don’t have to take a 68-lesson course to use our software.

Fathom is growing month-over-month and has been since launch day. So all of this is not to say we’ll never hire support staff; all I’m saying is that before we do, we will continue to make sure how we build Fathom and how we document our features is efficient, simple and smart.

No more roadmaps, ever

We’ve had a couple of tough lessons in saying a feature was coming out or being released on a specific date, and it not happening on the date we said it would. That’s because building software can be like pulling a string out of a massive ball of yarn: sometimes, the string is tiny and comes out quickly. Other times, the string is as long as the huge ball and is riddled with knots.

With our communications, we’re always radically honest. If we make a mistake, we own it. If we miss a deadline, we own it. If we have no intention of building a feature someone wants, we say so. When we make a mistake, we describe what happened, how we will fix, and lay out what’s changing on our end to prevent the same mistake from happening again.

Part of the new version of our software (v3) is that it’s our last major release, and the last time we will talk about new features that are not yet available. So our marketing and communications are changing from “here’s what’s coming” to “here’s what’s available.”

We believe this shift is best for our customers because there’ll never be promises made that aren’t 100% kept. A few times, we’ve had full intentions of building and releasing a feature, then realized well into building it that it’s not something we want to do or that the solution to the overall problem is best solved using a different feature instead.

And while we don't have a public roadmap, we do have a way for folks (customers and non customers alike) to signup to become notified when a new feature is released.

Not everything should scale

A company like ours has one massive advantage when it comes to customer service: it can be delivered in a way that doesn’t scale.

When the company is smaller, relationships can be built with regular and loyal customers, and those personal relationships can keep them loyal and happy.

As smaller and independent companies, we are very much in the people-serving business. We must listen to each of our customers and take full ownership in making sure they are pleased with our level of service. Customer service is a huge differentiating factor in why people choose the places where they want to spend their money.

Good customer service isn’t about simply achieving the norms of courtesy. Being prompt, answering questions, and treating customers with respect shouldn’t be rewarded — such service should be expected. However, companies like ours can thrive and stand out in exceeding those expectations through personal touches, building reciprocity, and treating customers like they’re essential (hint: they are).

Customer support is just how we do business

Incredibly, we’ve built a product that has thousands of customers. And every day, both Jack and I feel proud and excited to serve them with Fathom. That’s why we approach every single conversation with an open mind, ready for a learning opportunity.

We have the privilege of direct access to people who are willing to give us money every month. So why wouldn’t we take that opportunity to learn and grow Fathom to serve them in the best possible way?

This approach all comes down to how both Jack and myself want to be treated as customers of the products we support in our own lives. We talk about this internally a lot: if one of us has a bad or a great experience with customer service: What happened? How was it remedied? Could it have been solved faster or better? Were we happy or displeased at the end of things? Things can go wrong of course, and do. Companies aren't perfect. How a company chooses to respond to that is what’s more important. Obviously we don’t want to make mistakes, but when that happens, we do our best to make it right.

While we both started not as customer service folks, we’ve been doing our best to learn, adapt and deliver the best customer service for Fathom. We believe it’s a fantastic investment in the future of our company, but more importantly, it’s how we’d like to be taken care of if we were customers of Fathom too.

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

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