In today's fast-paced market, any thriving business needs to build and maintain a healthy relationship with its customers. This critical aspect will determine the sustainability and growth of a company, but there are many ways that this relationship can improve – or decline.
To avoid the latter and maximize the former, DesignRush reached out to Mathew Patterson, a veteran in customer service education at Help Scout.
In this interview, Mathew discusses Help Scout's journey and its commitment to customer relationships, offers some advice on key considerations for business growth, and explores how advancements in AI are shaping the future of customer engagement.
Mathew Patterson is a Customer Service Educator at Help Scout who joined the platform after a decade of growing a global customer service team for an email marketing SaaS application. Mathew frequently writes extensively on the topics of customer-centric business and delivering consistently high-quality online services.
DesignRush: Help Scout is a thought leader in customer engagement. What would you say is key when it comes to creating and maintaining customer relationships?
Mathew: Customer relationships are all about being connected in mutually beneficial ways. Our customer pays us money (or attention), and we provide them with a product or service they value.
Like all relationships, it takes effort to maintain that connection. Since the customer is paying, most of that effort rightly falls on the business. The good news is that the work of building a relationship can pay off, especially if your customer has many other options for similar services. The overall key to success is to treat your customer as a real person, not just a transaction.
Listen to them, be curious about them, and allow yourself and your staff to have some personality of their own in return. Try to anticipate their needs by using the information they share with you, and what you know about other customers.
Focus on giving your customer the most value for their money that you can. That too is helped by understanding what is most important to them. On the business side, use technology to augment your service staff to help them know and respond to your customers more quickly.
- Above all else, just pay attention
People will often tell you what they need, whether directly or indirectly, and then your job is just to figure out how to get it to them. You can build a business that makes that work easier, but that’s the main job.
What made you want to build a solution like Help Scout in 2011 when being customer-centric was not a major concern for most organizations?
In 2011, our Help Scout founders Nick Francis, Jared McDaniel, and Denny Swindle, were building websites and apps for clients. One of the apps they built took off unexpectedly, and their shared email inbox was soon overflowing with requests.
They had to quickly figure out how to do customer support, from scratch, but they couldn’t find a tool that could handle the volume of incoming emails the way they wanted to:
- By putting the customer first
All they found were help desks that turned customers into numbers, added a ton of friction to the process, and made it difficult to build a long-term relationship. They felt a strong pull to make a better solution, and Help Scout was born.
Today, Help Scout is used by customer-centric organizations around the world, from small businesses to high-growth startups to non-profits. They know that when their customers feel good, their business benefits.
How can businesses keep their customers at the core of their work as they expand?
When a company is small, everybody is close to the customer because they are all wearing multiple hats. As the team grows and roles specialize, staff who are not directly customer-facing can become detached from customer concerns.
That’s when developing a customer-centric culture matters. Find ways to continually re-center the customer across all your business departments. In practice, that might mean asking customer service staff to attend product and strategy meetings, to represent the voice of your customer.
Consider holding whole-team support days, where everyone chips in to work on the customer service queue. Build systems and processes so that customer insights are not stopped at the inbox, but are collected, categorized, and reported back to the rest of the business.
Ultimately, if the leaders of your company show that they are interested in their customers, and the people who serve them, then everybody else will be too. That starts with investing in customer service teams but extends right out to structuring the business so that customer concerns are part of every decision.
What was the first solution Help Scout developed and how did you prioritize different solutions as you expanded your offering in the past decade?
Our very first product was a tool to help you keep track of what needed to be done, who needed to be helped and to better understand your own customers. It was a real step up from the shared email inbox so many companies start with.
As more people began doing business online and technology developed, there were opportunities to add other channels and other tools for helping customers. Docs, our knowledge base software, was an early addition.
Helping customers to answer their own questions through clear, accessible documentation is a big win both for customers and for the company. The easier it is to write and manage those docs, the more likely you are to create them.
With those two core elements of self-service and human-powered help in place, Help Scout was able to spend a lot of time and thought on making better support available to customers and to customer service staff.
Increasing access to all forms of help and reducing customer effort was the driving force behind the development of Beacon, our embed-able help widget that acts as a knowledge base search tool, live chat widget and email contact form.
Our customers can choose which form of help to prioritize, which lets them customize the support experience they offer. Similarly, connecting social channels to your Help Scout inbox removes friction from the process of getting help for people who are already used to those tools.
Now the focus, as for much of the online world, is understanding the potential and the challenges of generative AI and large language models to enable new, cheaper, or faster forms of service experience.
Speaking of AI, Help Scout has recently begun exploring its perks with AI Assist. What made you decide it was the right time to venture into AI and how does it strengthen customer relationships?
When AI began popping up in products over the last decade, we didn’t immediately incorporate it into our products. We looked and experimented internally, but we found the customer experience just was not good enough.
More recently with the rise of generative AI and large language models (LLMs), we could see new possibilities and opportunities to use those tools to improve customer service and not just offer faster, cheaper, but decidedly mediocre support.
This time, our internal experiments yielded much better results. We leaned on our ultimate mission again to decide how best to use these new tools, and that’s why we started with two features that extend the abilities of human customer service staff.
With both AI summarize and AI assist, we’re using AI to take some of the burden off support staff and give them the capacity to better engage with and understand their customers.
AI tools that can make it faster to understand long, complex cases, and reduce the time between finding the right answer and writing it out for the customer can create the time to ask another question and dig into the answer.
That work is what makes the difference between a "fine" experience and a service interaction that improves the customer relationship.
Help Scout is a certified B-corp. Can you tell us about some of your initiatives to protect the natural world? What do you recommend to companies that are looking to make this step and don’t know where to start?
In 2019, we became a Certified B Corporation for a few reasons:
- As a company, we are aiming to leave the world better than we found it.
Our purpose goes beyond creating value for shareholders, and B Corp certification helps us understand how we impact all of our stakeholders, including our employees, community and the environment.
- Certification is a high standard that keeps us accountable.
It’s easy to say we care about important issues, but certification forces us to measure the ongoing impact. Every few years, we will re-certify to understand the opportunities we have to continue to increase our impact.
- We want our customers to know who they’re doing business with.
We often select vendors and partners based on a sense of shared values, so it’s important for people to know what we stand for.
We’d like to see more businesses in the world that balance profit and purpose.
In our experience, the best way to create wider change is to show your own change to others as an example. There is an active community of B Corps that share their experiences, and B Lab, the organization that conducts the certification process, has a lot of resources to learn from.
Even if you don’t think you’re ready for the full assessment, you can review the entire set of standards being used and pick one to start improving now. The best initiatives are ones that live alongside your business and aren’t siloed in a separate arm of the organization.
What are some recent trends you have noticed in customer engagement and what can companies do to keep up with these evolving dynamics?
Trends are not just technological; they can be social too.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen a technological shift towards more mobile computing, and messaging-based communication with customers. Those changes are created by new technologies becoming available, yes, but also through demographic change as the children who grew up online become primary consumers of goods and services.
As a B Corp, Help Scout has embedded certain values and beliefs into the company, and customers are increasingly looking to deal with businesses that match their values. Today, every company needs to understand who their customers are, how they prefer to work and live, and what they expect from the companies they deal with.
That can be done through market research, customer interviews and competitor analysis, but also through customer service teams listening carefully to customers as they provide help. We encourage every company to make sure their support team has an internal voice, and the training and capacity to collect and share what they are learning from your customers.
Can you tell us how you see customer engagement changing in the near future, and what is Help Scout doing to meet the demand?
This might be the most unpredictable moment in decades for businesses, thanks to the extraordinary growth of AI.
The arrival of the commercial internet was hugely disruptive for many markets and businesses, and this moment feels like it is on a similar scale, but at a higher speed.
How will customers select the businesses they work with, and how will they interact with those businesses in 5 or 10 years from now? Technologically it is very hard to see, except that we know that what was not previously possible or financially plausible might become suddenly feasible.
What we do know is that customer service as a differentiator will be more valuable than ever. If everyone has access to the same huge AI systems, then figuring out how those systems are used, when they are trusted, and when a personal touch is needed will be critical.
At Help Scout, we’re betting that our customers, people building and growing customer-centric businesses, will want to keep up to date with technology without losing the consistent, high-level service quality that has served them well so far.
Our role, both as software providers but also as providers of education and information, is to give them the capabilities and the confidence to respond to a rapidly changing business environment, even as we do the same thing.
If you enjoyed reading this, check out more of our interviews with industry experts!