Customer Support is the Last Mile for SaaS Companies

Working as a Team Lead for one of the Happiness teams at Automattic has been a great opportunity for me to learn a lot about the Software as a Service ecosystem.

I’ve been thinking and talking about hospitality and its outsized value for software companies for a while now (here’s a talk I gave in 2014 on the topic) – there are a lot of ways that support is undervalued in a general way by software companies, but folks working in the SaaS sector especially are losing out on a ton of potential value by underutilizing their support staff.

There are lots of places where we as an industry could improve here, from recognizing the import of support in the classic Build – Measure – Learn cycle to admitting that UX research is essentially Hospitality 2.0.

I’ve made it pretty clear (I hope) that my position on software, and even really maybe all products everywhere, should Just Work. Having to contact support staff, or dig through documentation, or try to figure out which Stack Overflow commenter is the closest one to correct, isn’t something an end user should have to do. That’s really it. Full stop.

However, like you, I live in the real world, and I recognize that compromises have to be made – products have to do more than one thing, and deadlines and inefficiencies and sometimes simply economic necessity means that not everything we touch can be a perfectly tailored, intuitive non-interface.

Someday. Someday.

WordPress.com is a SaaS business. Our customers are largely non-technical, and our product is fairly complex, although powerful. There is certainly a learning curve, and while we provide some educational materials, a great many of our customers, especially new customers, lean on our support system to help them gain momentum in the right direction.

We’re not alone in this – many SaaS businesses, especially ones that offer many features and powerful suites of tools, share that learning curve. You can very likely think of two or three services that you use yourself that took some time to really figure out – imagine if someone less tech savvy than you were trying to figure out that product? Where would they head?

Note here that I’m talking specifically about SaaS companies who are by and large dealing with the public – B2B SaaS companies have their own tangled web of complicated issues that I am by and large unqualified to comment on.

For companies like WordPress.com, businesses that sell to the general public and have a not-insignificant learning curve, your support staff represents the last mile service for your company’s created value.

This idea of Last Mile service comes from (ugh) telecoms – Wikipedia Link , more context appropriate Investopedia explanation – the TLDR is that the last connection in the telecom chain tends to be disproportionately challenging and/or expensive, but it remains the crucial link between the end customer and the massive network of energy or information or water or whatever.

Imagine you were running a massive telecommunications company, and you had a geographically enormous physical network in place, fiber stretched coast to coast, fully prepared to bring high speed internet to the people. This is a massive, massive amount of value. Imagine that you are, for one reason or another, unable to connect that last mile, to make that switch between your vault of value and the customer who would absolutely love to buy it from you. That’s a last mile problem.

For many would-be customers of SaaS products, that final connection, that link between an enthusiastic customer and your stored value, is your support staff. When they are able to work effectively, a good support team can multiply the value of the product, because not only are they solving individual customer problems, they’re flipping the switch for that customer, creating that last mile connection that otherwise would never have existed, leaving a customer disconnected from the value that you can offer them.

Complicated, powerful products can bring value to customers in a way that punches way, way above their weight – folks who have never heard of HTML are building multi page responsive websites right now on WordPress.com. Think about that.

The issue is, if you’re selling to the public, some percent of them need a hand flipping that last mile switch – if you can’t or won’t provide that service for them, you’ll be missing out on a whole cohort of potential enthusiastic customers, because the fact is, so, so many companies today do not bother to invest in their support staff to the extent that maximizes the last mile service.

The insidious thing about this problem is that it can manifest itself in many different forms. It might be especially high first-day churn rates. It might be that a cohort of your customers massively underuse your product’s features (because they don’t really understand them, because the last mile isn’t connected), and as such they’re dissatisfied, and go dark. It might be that folks who DO contact support, but only once, tend to churn at a higher rate (that would indicate that your support staff may need to read closer, empathize rather than grind out emails as fast as possible.)

Only you can identify if your product’s learning curve is leaving people out in the cold, denying them access to the full value of your product.

If you think that’s a potential place for improvement (and it almost certainly is), you should take a long look at the way your customers are able to access support. Is it easy to find? Are operators thoughtful and thorough, rather than perfunctory and severe? Imagine you were deeply confused by a step in your signup and activation flow – can you get help right away?

Considering the metaphor of the last mile can be really helpful in improving your customers’ access to your company’s value – think about it, and get out there and flip some switches!

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