This just in: Startups will stumble with customer service. Get over it

By Michael Carney , written on November 12, 2013

From The News Desk

Consumer Internet startups are constantly striving to build passionate, highly engaged customer bases. But when things go wrong in the customer experience, as they inevitably will, this passion can just as easily work against these companies.

It’s something that we see all the time at PandoDaily, the most recent example being Little Black Bag’s (LBB) merger with Pose. This combination of two highly popular, consumer facing, fashion oriented companies should have been received as fantastic news by both company’s customers. But instead, the comments section of our article on the merger filled up with dozens of irate LBB customers who complained of late shipments, missing merchandise, and overall poor customer service. That customers would be upset about such incidents is not news, but it is unusual that they would take to a business and technology blog – whose demographic hardly overlaps that of LBB – to vent their frustrations.

Little Black Bag is not unique in this regard. Companies big and small regularly face a public backlash from consumers on social media when things go wrong. But the issue here is less about Little Black Bag specifically, than it is about the realities of doing business with startups in general. That is, consumers seem to lack any understanding that they are doing business with small, relatively unstable companies, many of which have less than 10 employees and, wild tech press headlines notwithstanding, typically have less cash than they need to deliver a flawless customer experience.

This is not to say that consumer should expect anything less than good customer service from startups – in fact, that's often their biggest differentiator from large incumbent companies. But consumers should also realize that things will inevitably will go wrong. Inevitably. As in, in all cases. (Yes, in your case too.) That’s the price for the privilege of getting early access to innovative and disruptive products and services, as well as, discounts to the prices charged by more mature companies.

In the final analysis, it is up to the startup to communicate effectively and resolve these issues promptly and to the satisfaction of the consumer wherever possible. But, at the same time, consumers should set proper expectations at the outset of doing business with startups and react proportionately when things go wrong.

Little Black Bag has acknowledged the above-referenced customer experience problems directly with these consumers, both publicly and privately, according to founder and CEO Dan Murillo. Murillo tells PandoDaily that the issues have been the result of a recent warehouse change and the associated transition period. While this is a less than ideal situation, it’s hardly a unique one among ecommerce startups

We’ve seen similar blowups across the Web when companies receive otherwise positive press around funding announcements, new product launches, or other news that are, at best, is only tangentially related to the customer experience issues at question. In most cases, these venting fans can appropriately be described as the “vocal minority” – those few people who choose the “squeaky wheel” method in an effort to publicly shame companies into resolving their issues.

While this may prove to be an effective strategy for the venting consumer, it’s hardly a proportionate response to the original issue affecting their customer experience. What’s more, these dissatisfied customers can have a disproportionate impact on the public perception of a company or brand.

Another scenario that comes mind is when a subscription business shuts down and customers lose prepaid fees in the process. It’s not that consumers shouldn’t be disappointed by the loss or frustrated, if the situation is not communicated effectively. But it’s less understandable when such an outcome is a possibility they had never considered when entering into a business relationship with a startup. I mean, wake up!

So here’s a public service announcement of sorts: Even the most popular, most highly-funded startup is just months away from going out of business at any point in time. Further, your favorite startup likely has less staff and less resources than it needs to effectively deliver the service they promise, and yet, they’ll likely find a way to delight their customers, more often than not, despite these limitations. Whenever this happens, take a moment to appreciate that fact. Startups regularly move mountains and their customers rarely notice.

In short, startups make mistakes. Prepare for it, because to do otherwise is simply naive. The best companies will rebound from these stumbles with grace and empathy. Those that are less than great will face more difficulty holding course when the wheels leave the tracks.

Consumer early adopters who enjoy having access to the latest and greatest products and services need simply to set proper expectations for their relationships with these companies and to roll with the punches when things go poorly. Embrace the unexpected and the uncertainty that comes as par for the course when doing business with startups.

[Image via AjaxUnion]