Chasing unicorns: How the most successful startups handle CX

Fast-growing startups invested in their customer experience sooner and expanded it faster. Follow their lead with these CX tips for startups.

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

Published September 2, 2020
Last updated October 27, 2020

Every startup dreams of making it big, but even now with so many examples, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly gives a unicorn its horn, so to speak.

That’s why we decided to study startups, including some who went on to become unicorns. For our Startups CX Benchmark Report 2020, we examined over 4,000 startups to determine whether there was a connection between startup growth and customer experience (CX) investment.

Spoiler alert: there was. Read on to see what the most successful startups are doing differently.

Fast-growing startups (defined by employee growth and time between funding rounds) invested in CX earlier and expanded it faster compared to slower-growth startups. Meanwhile, unicorns showed an even greater likelihood of investing in CX solutions, such as omnichannel and self service.

Here are a few ways you can emulate them to help drive faster growth for your startup:

1. Find a platform that works for you—and your customers

Fast-growing startups in our Benchmark were 33 percent more likely to add a CX platform within the first year of founding. Vetting vendors can be a daunting task, especially when you're deciding how you want to interact with your customers. There's a lot at stake.

So what should you be thinking about when you choose a platform? Here's what startups had to say about their top considerations.

Price and ease of use were top priorities. But interestingly, many of the factors correlated with faster startup growth, such as investment in omnichannel support, were ranked lower.

These same features tend to be the most beneficial to customers. We know that customers want to connect with businesses on the channels they already use. If your startup can deliver omnichannel customer service, you can earn customers’ trust by being easy to reach when and where customers want to talk to you.

Further, the data suggests that putting customers’ needs first paid off. As a startup, you are probably worried about cash flow, and understandably so. You have limited resources and a lot you want to accomplish. But putting money into keeping those hard-earned early customers is worth it.

So before you pull the trigger based on price alone, think of your customers and do whatever you can to meet their needs.

2. Roll out self service within the first few months

The most successful startups in our Benchmark added self service early and grew their help centers faster. Unicorns were even quicker to build out online help centers, adopting self service 61 percent faster compared to other startups.

Also noteworthy, fast-growing startups added more new articles in their first 18 months compared to slower-growth companies.

How do you write a help center article? 📝

When building your self service help center, your customers should be your guide. Take note of which questions come up the most in your customer service inquiries and build articles around them.

When writing help center articles, try to mirror your customers’ language in your articles, using the same words they would be likely to use and search for.

Not sure where to start? Here are some basic article templates.

It makes sense that self service is among the first CX investments that startups make. Help centers allow customers to find answers on their own, thereby stemming the tide of incoming tickets. You can still provide your customers with practical help, meanwhile your team can focus their attention on the most urgent and high-priority issues.

There’s another important reality to consider here: People want to help themselves, and often even prefer it to other service methods. In fact, 76 percent of customers reported using online help centers more than phone support.

3. Turn on live channels

Fast-growing startups were 20 percent more likely to add live chat in their first two years. Live channels such as chat and phone can help you solve customer issues faster than asynchronous channels like email.

If you have limited resources, remember that you can walk before you run. Aim to add chat within the first year of raising funding, and then build out based on customers’ preferences.

But whichever channels you choose, you need to make it easy for your customers to talk to you, says Arjun Chopra, Partner at the venture capital firm Floodgate.

Companies who do not holistically serve their customers should prepare for a lot of customer churn.

"Companies need to have systems that continuously engage their customers across multiple channels, anticipate their needs as they relate to their product, and service those customers effectively," he says. "Companies who do not holistically serve their customers should prepare for a lot of customer churn."

It’s also worth noting that COVID-19 Benchmark data shows that home-bound customers are relying more on live channels, especially chat and social messaging. In this pandemic, we’re seeing the importance of having flexible solutions that can be customized to meet customers’ changing needs.

The lesson here is that when the world changes again (and you know it will), be ready to meet your customers where they are.

4. Work smarter, not harder

Early adoption of support software isn’t enough. The top-performing startups in our benchmark employed more tools to streamline operations. This includes collecting more customer data through ticket forms, developing views to prioritize incoming requests, and taking advantage of automated workflows.

Small, fast-growing startups added 2.8 times as many workflow tools, such as email automations, triggers, and templated responses, compared to their slower growth counterparts.

For those who may not be familiar, here is a quick tutorial on email workflows:

According to our benchmark, you should add at least two to three workflow tools per month and expect to have more than 60 workflows in place within two years of adding a support platform.

Fast-growing startups were also more likely to use public app integrations to give their agents easy access to important data. Favorites included Zendesk’s Knowledge Capture app, JIRA, and Slack.

5. Set your sights on speed

Interestingly, early stage startups had nearly identical wait times, whether they were fast-growing or not. But by two years, fast-growing companies were resolving customer issues twice as fast as their slower-growth companies. They also had shorter first reply times and requester wait times.

If you’re an early stage startup, you should aim to keep your reply times to around three hours for non-live channels (e.g. email) and have tickets resolved within one business day (8.4 hours) by your second year of adding a support platform.

But this doesn’t mean increasing headcount or setting ridiculously high expectations. Efficiency improvements, such as the workflow tools described above, can help agents tackle more tickets in the same amount of time.

As you look to the future, remember that speed is an important KPI for your support team, but it should never come at the expense of your customer experience or your agents’ wellbeing.

It’s not magic, it’s CX

Perhaps being a unicorn is less about magic and more about creating a magical customer experience. Meeting your customers on the channel they prefer, using data to personalize their experience, and optimizing your platform for faster service—these can all feel extraordinary to customers who are used to hassles and headaches.

When you're ready to develop a CX strategy for your startup, put your customers first and the magic will follow.

Find more tips in our Startups CX Benchmark Report 2020.