Phone Support as the Entrepreneur’s Millenium Falcon

We’ve spent the last month surveying startups in depth about their customer support efforts, leading us to a surprising conclusion: the telephone might act for a growing young startup in the same way the Millenium Falcon did for Han Solo – as a key vehicle for facilitating your change in direction or escape. Cheesy analogy – yes. But if you’re like me, your natural inclination may not be to spend a ton of time on the phone but to focus more on “building your business”.

Our survey’s initial goal was to understand how startups think about customer support – with a specific eye towards the idea that customer support is really just another channel of customer communication. From our currently small (but growing) sample, we’ve seen the following surprising results:

  • 60% of startups surveyed had phone support – and those startups are twice as likely as others to also have chat support.
  • Meanwhile, the 40% without phone support are 2.5 times as likely to have an online help manual and an FAQ.

The Sample

Our initial sample includes 30 startups with monthly subscription models, most with 5-20 employees. Our key next step is building this sample – please email me ( or post in the comments what you’re doing.

Two Models for Customer Support on the Web

Based on our interviews and the survey data, we’ve seen two models of customer support on the web:

  • The Minimizing Model: For these companies, customer support is a feature – and not an exciting one – that has to be there but isn’t core to the business. These companies focused on how they’d provide support at scale (i.e. once they had 1000 customers, what were the help resources they’d need) and how to reduce the time spent on support. For the most part, these companies fall into the “we’ll build a help manual, FAQ and a forum” bucket.
  • The Customer Development Model: The second set of startups viewed customer support differently – as a way to get to talk to customers to understand what they loved and hated and to build an ongoing relationship with them. Customer support, far from just being the result of a poorly designed website, was a way to inform product development, marketing and the core value proposition of the business. This was the group that valued any chance to talk to a customer – especially when that customer had proactively reached out to them.

Customer Support as Customer Development

For too long, customer support has been something of a bad word – evoking visions of call centers and unending waiting. On the web, this leads to the view that the need for customer support only arises because a website is poorly designed.

We propose a different strategy – that customer support is actually a key way to drive the business forward. Via support, you help customers accomplish something and they give you ideas for how to make your business better. Your success and your users’ happiness are closely tied – so you’d better learn from them.

A Framework for Online Customer Support

To this end, we propose three steps for startups:

  1. Encourage customer conversations: Don’t be afraid to put a phone number or chat tool on your website. Make reaching out easy and natural. We use Grasshopper for our number.
  2. Focus on Accomplishment: Your goal as a company is to add value to someone else – and in return they’ll add value to you. Your website and customer support should focus on this above all else. Just keep in mind that sometimes you aren’t adding value because of design or usability; instead, it might be that you are trying to solve the problem in the wrong way, or you are actually solving the wrong problem.
  3. Be Organized: Track your customer conversations and usage patterns and use them to inform your product and business strategy. Companies like Apple have sophisticated systems for tracking every customer touch point and filtering that information to the top of the organization. With a bit of thought, you can mimic this without it becoming a time suck.
The Conclusion
The key missing things we’re missing in our research are more data points and a way to prove a direct link to startup success (i.e. can we actually prove that the customer development model is better in regards to outcomes). As we talk to more companies, we’ll continue to supplement our data and refine our approach – suggestions are welcome.

For now, the key lesson is that entrepreneurs should consider customer support as a primary pathway for learning more about their customers and their business.  The more customer conversations you have, the more likely you are to build the right business in the right way. After all, Han Solo did some great things without the Millenium Falcon … but there’s a good chance the Death Star wouldn’t have been destroyed.


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