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Article 5 min read

DonorsChoose shares tips for startups navigating uncertainty

They're helping teachers find classroom funding in the midst of a global pandemic. See what their CX team had to say about customer service in times of crisis.

Par Sarah Olson, Senior Associate, Content Marketing, @seolson5

Dernière mise à jour August 1, 2023

This year, teachers have been working harder than ever to support their students as they navigate distance learning in the midst of a global pandemic.

Meanwhile, the customer support team at DonorsChoose, a platform that connects teachers with funding for classroom projects, is supporting those teachers and learning on the fly as they navigate continued uncertainty around schools and reopening plans.

We chatted via Slack with Dan Blum, Director of Customer Support Analytics at DonorsChoose, about how a flexible approach to customer service has allowed them to focus on the most important requests during this difficult time.

Read on for the full conversation, and if you like what you learn, join our Startup Central Slack Community for more conversations like this.

Top highlights

Click to jump to the section you’re interested in, or view the full transcript below.

  1. Make your support software work for you. Take full advantage of ticket fields, tags, and workflows to make your process as smooth as possible. Research shows that successful startups use 2.8 times as many workflow tools compared to their counterparts.
  2. Balance current and future needs. Troubleshoot your most urgent problems today, but don’t neglect the future. You should still be thinking about long-term plans, even in a crisis.
  3. Prioritize the most important messages. New challenges can shift your priorities—and that’s OK. Understand who your most important customers are, what their needs are, and how you can help them.

Full Q&A with DonorsChoose

Greg (Zendesk): Tell us about DonorsChoose, what do you do, what does the team look like?

Dan (DonorsChoose): At DonorsChoose, our mission is to get teachers connected with the classroom materials they need for their students. We were founded 20 years ago by a teacher who was copying books page by page on a Xerox machine, because his classroom didn’t have enough copies of a book for every student to read. He thought that if more folks knew exactly how much teachers like him were going without, they’d be motivated to help.

Since the year 2000, we’ve brought more than a billion dollars of resources to teachers at three quarters of the nation’s public schools, rallying teachers to tell the world what they need, connecting them with companies, foundations, and individual donors who are compelled by those needs, and then shipping notebooks, pencils, laptops, and lab equipment straight to a teacher’s classroom door.

Greg (Zendesk): Walk me through your initial needs with Zendesk and some of the things you did, to set up for growth?

We were focused on scaling and looking for customer-focused software, and we wanted a company that was growing as we were growing.

Greg (Zendesk): At what point did you notice that it was time to start making some edits to your workflows?

Dan (DonorsChoose): As we’ve started to grow, we have had a few iterations of our customer support team. We used to be silo’d based on operational function, but now we’re consolidated into one team. Zendesk has been flexible enough to adapt to each of our models since we’ve used it.

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Greg (Zendesk): In terms of your workflows and overall set up, what would you have done differently or wished you’d known looking back at when you first implemented Zendesk?

Dan (DonorsChoose): I think we would have incorporated a tagging or taxonomy system immediately. Tags were used inconsistently by different teams so analytics were really challenging for years. Recently we revamped our customer issue taxonomy and incorporated it into Zendesk, so we have much stronger data now and moving forward.

Greg (Zendesk): Cut to 2020, COVID times, schools have been remote for so many months, talk me through the pivot that was made, as a business, to adapt to the changing landscape of education?

Dan Blum (DonorsChoose): It’s been a wild year, as it has for everyone. The moment when COVID hit and schools began to close, that threatened the fundamental value that we provide to our teachers. We ship materials to schools. It’s what we do, it’s what our site is built upon. And in this moment, learning wasn’t happening in schools anymore.

So, we did three things:

  1. We focused on the now, making fast changes to our operations to make sure no teacher was having a box of materials appear at a closed school.

  2. We focused on the future, scoping out the long-term adjustments to our model we’d need to take during months of uncertainty when some schools would be open and others closed, with potentially those changes happening rapidly and in a way that’s hard to predict.

  3. And finally, we focused on the next week.

Startup Central Slack Community 👋

Greg (Zendesk): What are some things you’ll keep, post-COVID?

Dan (DonorsChoose): Prioritization! The number of teachers using our site has understandably dropped this year. So we’ve been prioritizing inquiries from new teachers and teachers who are posting projects. That way we’re helping more teachers get through the funnel faster.

Thriving in uncertainty

With Zendesk for customer service, DonorsChoose was able to keep supporting teachers when schools shut down and the world changed forever.

Thriving in uncertainty requires investment, preparedness, and above all else, flexibility. No one knows what will happen next, but we do know that the world will keep changing.

Now is the time to listen, learn, and plan for the future:

  • How could you improve your workflows, given what we now know?

  • What needs to be in your roadmap that isn’t currently?

  • Who are your most important customers and what do they really need?

These are the types of conversations we’re having on Slack. Join our community of over 500 startup leaders.

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