Deliver Value with No Strings Attached

September 28, 2016

“Create value for the customer and a lot of other things will take care of themselves,” says Nick Francis, co-founder and CEO of Help Scout. The company’s aim is to make every customer support interaction more human and helpful. It’s not just what their product does, it’s how they operate as a business. It’s refreshing because it’s authentic and true.

We all want to be true. And truth is all about consistency. You can’t claim a standard and then behave in a way that is inconsistent with that standard. That is false. No one wants to be false.

This applies to everything, including building a software company. Inconsistency breeds doubt about your claims and turns users away. What if HubSpot was terrible at marketing? Would you buy their marketing software? What if New Relic’s product had lots of latency and performance issues? What if Salesforce couldn’t sell? What if Intuit failed an IRS audit? You get the point.

Help Scout is supposed to be helpful. It says so in their name. So what would you think if they had spammy advertising, pushy salespeople or a product that was frustratingly hard to use? That would be inconsistent and false.

Help Scout practices what it preaches. “Everything we do comes back to creating value before asking for anything in return,” Francis says. And he takes it one step further. “We’ve always seen revenue as a byproduct of building something awesome.” Customers first. Money later.

Help Scout is literally putting its money where its mouth is. Here’s how:

Solve a Problem that Bothers You

The consensus view is that customer support is a cost center. And costs should be minimized through automation. And when your cost cutting shows up on the P&L, your investors are happy. But what about the customers on the receiving end of this mechanized support engine?

“This is why I didn’t like the way that helpdesks worked. I felt like even the term ‘helpdesk’ was born in the enterprise with a focus on reducing costs,” Francis says. “I’m a small business entrepreneur myself, and I believe that customer support is your most important marketing investment. Great experiences are worth sharing, and that’s the core of word-of-mouth.”

This foundational point of view has huge implications for Help Scout’s product strategy. As Francis says, “If you see customer support as a business’s competitive advantage, rather than a cost to be controlled, it leads you to build a completely different product.”

Users are humans, not tickets.

Talk to People

In Help Scout’s early years, Francis personally called every single person who created an account. These weren’t sales calls, hoping that the founder’s touch would close the deal. It was user research.

“I was trying to identify and understand their pain on a very intimate level. Even saying that makes people uncomfortable,” Francis explains. “But if you can understand their challenges deeply, you can build a product that will actually help them.”

And people love helpful products. “I’m a product person, so what juices me is building something that people really love to use,” Francis says. “We still talk to a couple hundred customers every day because only they can determine whether or not the product is great.”

Many founders have studied Steve Jobs and taken his design philosophy as a personal license to fortify their myopic product ambitions. As Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It may work when you’re a bonafide genius inventing a new category, but it’s pretty arrogant when you’re setting out to solve a known problem.

Talking to users can cure arrogance and clear up a lot of design misconceptions.

Don’t Be Greedy

Network effects are magical and all good businesses have them, right? That’s what we’re all told. And it’s true that network effects are powerful. But you can alienate users by trying to manufacture a network effect. “Many products have a front-loaded onboarding process that makes users feel exploited,” Francis says. “It seems like they just want to get at my address book.”

Other companies have an exploitative sales process. In the onboarding process, a “Customer Success” title is quickly cheapened by overeager information gathering. As Francis says, “The questions are all targeted at sizing up my business so they can try to figure out how much money the deal will be worth after the upsell.” No one wants to be on the receiving end of a “land-and-expand” crusade.

Instead of making the onboarding process all about Help Scout’s priorities, Francis says they focus on creating value for the individual user. “In the end, time to value means not being self-serving in the first fifteen minutes of engagement with the customer. It’s about their success, not your own.”

“We’re not worried about adding users. We try to show customers what’s awesome about the product first. If we focus on helping and getting users to fall in love with Help Scout, network effects will happen naturally. Make a good product first, deliver value, and the rest is kind of gravy.”

No Strings Attached

A lot of content marketing is self-serving fuel for a demand gen engine. We’ve all seen our share of CTA-laden listicles. But the heart of content marketing is long-term influence, not direct response.

“We want to help the person who is struggling with support challenges even before we have any kind of transactional interaction with them. That’s why we’re all in on content marketing,” Francis says.

A high-quality content operation is expensive and may seem frivolous to someone in love with CAC ratios. But managing solely by SaaS metrics is like trying to drive a car while staring at Google Maps. It’s not the intended use.

“We’re playing long ball. As long as our content is helpful, it’s totally fine if the person doesn’t sign up for Help Scout immediately. We’re willing to wait.”

Human and Helpful

There is a movement toward humanizing the business of software. Help Scout is doing a hell of a good job at making customer support interactions more helpful and human. Their product and behavior both embody this mission in a consistent way.

Now, you shouldn’t try to sprinkle some humanity on your company because it’s working for Help Scout. That would be missing the point. Figure out who you are as a company, and go be that kind of company in an extremely true fashion.