This is a chapter from the book Starting & Sustaining which is a system to help you build and launch a web app with less pain and fewer mistakes. The entire book is free to read on the web.

You can also buy the book and additional resources which includes the digital version of the book, the audiobook, a playbook, and hundreds of dollars of discounts.

Develop empathy for customers

We’ve all been there. You contact customer service at a large company, and in no time at all, you’ve gone from being disappointed to utterly defeated–maybe even angry. It’s clear they don’t care, and no amount of effort on your part is going to change that.

In some cases, these are the consequences when a company is rotten to the core; in others, they’re simply overwhelmed and made a mistake. Regardless, now you’re building a business, you have an opportunity to handle things differently. But it’s way easier said than done.

First and foremost, learn to treat your customers like people, not numbers. Behind every customer support request is another human just trying to do their best, the same as you. On a related note, A/B testing is exactly the kind of tactic that trains you to see numbers rather than people. What’s worse is that in the early days, you likely won’t have enough numbers for any kind of statistical significance.

Instead, talk to your customers. If possible, talk to them in person. Watch them use your product. If that’s not possible, get on a video chat or a phone call. Find a way to talk to them. Don’t settle for email. Don’t avoid your customers thinking you need more time to build your product. If you aren’t talking to them regularly, it doesn’t matter how much time you have to build because you’ll build the wrong product.

By talking to them and treating them like real people rather than accounts, you’ll make a deeper investment and earn trust. Customers will be quicker to reach out to you with feedback and slower to jump ship just because an alternative product came along. This kind of work is difficult to sustain, but if you build it into your culture now, your business will have a better chance of surviving in the long run.

Always give people the benefit of the doubt, even though there will be customers who email you about things that are their mistakes. You’re going to get a lot further helping them than you are showing them it’s their fault or brushing them off to figure it out themselves. Take the blame and bend over backwards to help them. They’ll be blown away by the service, and you’ll be blown away at the results.

As a small business, you have a unique opportunity to really take care of people. Go out of your way and be surprisingly kind. Give people more than they deserve. From time to time, one of them will take advantage of you. Instead of being upset, brush it off and go back to focusing on the customers who don’t.

A great way to do this is through generously granting extra trial time. I never thought twice about extending people’s trials for Sifter. In eight years, there was only one case where somebody was even close to abusing that kindness. When the third trial extension request came around, and it was obvious they were using the account and getting value, I granted it and let them know that would be the last extension. After a few months, when the fourth trial request rolled around, I simply told them I couldn’t continue extending their trial. That was the end of it.

For the hundreds of other trial extensions, people really appreciated it, and it was never a problem. People may not notice these little things by themselves, but collectively, it adds up and matters.

I also went out of my way whenever someone’s credit card was stolen. In Sifter’s case, if somebody emailed me because their card had been stolen, or canceled because they lost their purse or wallet, I’d give them the next month free no questions asked. Instead of pestering them to hurry and update their card, I knew they were already dealing with enough inconvenience in their life. Again, this was a minor detail, but it’s one that people appreciated.

Balsamiq is another great example of a small business providing over-the-top customer service. Balsamiq manually rebuilds people’s files for them if something goes wrong and a customer loses the file and has only a PDF. Even if it’s the customer’s fault, Balsamiq just does it. This wins over the customer, and it gives the team a chance to see how customers are using the product, and ensure they’re spending time with their own products and walking a mile in their customers’ shoes. It takes time, and it doesn’t necessarily scale, but great service rarely scales directly.

Finally, avoid dark patterns. While the core definition of a dark pattern is an interface designed to trick customers into doing things, it goes deeper than that. If you let people sign up with one click but then require an email to customer support to cancel, that’s a dark pattern. In almost all cases, the effort that goes into implementing a dark pattern could just as easily be spent thinking of a creative way to help customers where everybody wins. Businesses exist to grow and make money, but unless customers win too, short-term thinking hurts everyone.

Another surprisingly effective tactic is to avoid policies, and instead try things that seem like they could be bad for business but good for customers. At some point, you may need tangible policies, but in the early days, empathy is greater than policies. Give refunds. Go a little above and beyond when helping a customer. Recommend some competitors for them to compare with your product. Do things for your customers with no regard for the impact to your business. Sometimes, you’ll learn it’s a really bad idea, but other times you’ll be surprised at the amount of trust you earn.

We’ve all had an experience when we were shocked at poor behavior from a business. Sometimes a business just looks out for itself. At other times, the business has sucked the life out of its employees, and they have no motivation to help. Regardless, empathy is one of your biggest opportunities for competitive advantage. When the next company is following a poorly thought out policy, you can make a judgment call and do more to help someone in a way most other companies couldn’t imagine. Walk a mile in your customers’ shoes, and then set out to make a difference to them. You’ll love the results.

Support Starting & Sustaining

This chapter is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. Starting & Sustaining is a complete system to help you build and launch a web application with less pain and fewer mistakes.

The Package

An illustration of the checklist, book, and spreadsheet.

The Audiobook

An illustration of Starting & Sustaining on a mobile device audio player.

The Book

An illustration of Starting & Sustaining on an iPad.
An illustration of an envelope with a wax seal.

Once-a-month emails Focused emails on SaaS topics like email, security, onboarding, pricing, and more.