Making customer support sustainable with a small team based on a tiny island

No matter what service you offer or product you sell, a good chunk of any business is customer support. But unlike many other aspects of running a business, how companies handle customer support can vary widely, even among companies in the same industry.

In our little corner of the Internet, the domain industry, we have a couple of unique challenges. First, domain registration is a comparatively low margin business, so to keep our business afloat, we rely on the support of a lot of customers. Tens of thousands, with 150,000+ domains under management. And no matter how stable your platform, when you’re dealing with that many moving parts, any flaw, bug, or confusing process will be uncovered very quickly.

The second challenge is the clock. Most of the iwantmyname team is in New Zealand, but what happens when it’s 10pm, and someone has an issue in London, where it’s only 11am? Is it acceptable to pass on the expectation that people need sleep? It’s an honest question, and a concern for many small companies that can’t afford to have 24-hour call centers or offices all around the world.

The Web is an instant answer world without any face-to-face dialogue, which strips a lot of the humanity out of the process. And we all fall into it—if my website breaks, I expect instant answers, but if my car breaks, I know I have to set an appointment during business hours. It’s all about setting expectations, and that’s one of the hardest things for businesses to do.

To handle the support load, companies can go a few different directions. As I stated before, they can stock up a support team or outsource all the support to a third party, but that’s expensive, impersonal, and honestly, a little underwhelming in the experience department. Sure, there are a lot of quick Q&A type issues that can be handled quickly by anyone with basic knowledge of the domain industry, but if you have a real problem, you want real solutions. Nothing is more aggravating than dealing with a support layer that clearly won’t be able to solve your problem.

Another issue with stocking up a support team is our rather unique salary structure. We’ve written about it before, but our philosophy from the start has been to pay everyone on the team a flat wage. On the customer side, it may be frustrating to not see us hire 20 low-wage support specialists, but we strongly believe in companies providing livable wages to their employees. As Lenz, one of our co-founders, has said in the past, the wellbeing of the team is just as important as the well-being of the company. People are important, and as they grow, the company grows.

So after years of dual roles and unsustainable hours, it was clear that a distributed support team was a must. We needed a better way to support the Americas on Fridays (which are Saturdays in NZ), and we needed a way to cover the middle of the world during normal business hours.

First, we hired Melle (last year), who in eastern Canada could take on American business hours—and what a difference it made. With her in Canada and the rest of the dual-role supporters in NZ, we could roughly cover 17 hours of the day, Tuesday-Friday, with people working a typical 8am-5pm day, then nine hours on NZ Mondays and Saturdays (Fridays in Canada). But still, if someone had an issue in London on Monday at 9am, it would be in the wee early morning for Melle, and well past dinner for the New Zealanders. Life was certainly better, but there were still support gaps—and our brave co-founder Paul was still sometimes working seven days a week to make sure the support load never got out of hand.

Growth is a tricky thing with a small, bootstrapped team, but our trajectory for 2015 and beyond led us to two very important decisions. To create the best possible experience for our customers, we’d need:

  • a UI designer to help build a solid interface (which, through organization and clear instructions, will hopefully cut down our future support load quite a bit)
  • a second supporter in Europe to cover our gaps.

Today, Kevin, who was hired a few months back, has been hard at work on new interface ideas. And our newest iwantmynamer, Steffi, is working through support cases from her house in Germany (and she’s quite awesome at it).

So now, with three support “teams” scattered around the planet, we’re roughly covering 23 hours of the day, Tuesday-Friday, then 15 hours on Saturday, all without stretching any of our work schedules beyond a reasonable amount. New Zealand Sundays are still a hole for us, so we typically only cover urgent cases then, but as long as we set the right expectations, our email-based support system is perfect for getting everything worked out in a timely manner.

We often get asked why we don’t offer a phone service or an instant-on online chat, and the answer is simple—instant communication is inefficient, and often leads to answers that aren’t fully thought out or articulated well. Quite a few things have to happen to answer a support question successfully. We have to get the problem, understand the problem, find the problem, take the steps to fix it, and then break down an easily actionable solution. Sometimes it’s as easy as sending a link, but other times issues need to be handled by multiple people in multiple places (registries, platforms, etc.), which aren’t always under our control. And that takes time—especially when there are questions in the queue coming in from all over the world.

With our email-only support, we can get to each question as fast as humanly possible without wasting our customers’ valuable time sitting on hold or finding their way through strange automated systems. And with our support answers all in written form, we can easily build a knowledge base full of quick answers to common questions. It’s been working well for us so far (96% love it!), and hopefully it’ll only get better as our interface becomes easier and easier to use and navigate.