July 29, 2011

What I’ve learned from a natural expert in customer crisis management

by with 8 comments

In light of current events such as the AirBNB situation, I’ve now recognized how fortunate I am having a cofounder who truly understands how to have conversations with customers, especially in the most trying moments.

When the first customers started using version 1.0 of SpiderOak in 2007, inevitably some people ran into serious limitations with the software. In the first version of our Sync product, I recall a particular incident about SpiderOak mishandling deletions of the old Windows/MSDOC 8.3 “short file aliases” and how they expanded to long filenames that literally had a grown man in tears when it seemed like all his years of pictures were gone [1]. People are naturally very concerned about their data, and as a backup company, relieving that concern is our primary job.

Thankfully, right from the beginning Ethan intuitively understood things about these situations that I needed to learn, fast.. “It’s not about the problem. It’s about how you handle it.” Here’s what Ethan always made sure happened:

  • Greet everyone who contacts you warmly, regardless of their reason or their original tone. “First, Thank you for your email and your interest in SpiderOak. As it pertains to your XYZ….”
  • Respond as soon as possible to the customer, with or without a solution. The first response needs to communicate that we care and are working on resolving the problem.
  • Make it very clear, somehow, in the response that we actually gave individual attention to this specific customer and did not send a canned or copy-and-paste reply. This is about perception, not reality. A simple, minimal, formula for this might be, “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with THEIR OWN WORDS DESCRIBING THE PROBLEM,” but of course you can do better. Find small ways to make your own thoughtfulness blatantly apparent.
  • “Customer service is about pride-swallowing.” For example, if for some reason you can’t respond promptly (it happens), don’t make an excuse and explain how other important things kept you away. Just apologize. “Sorry for the delay in sending this reply” is sufficient. It doesn’t matter how the problem happened [2].
  • Just admit it when you’re stuck. Some obscure problems maybe extraordinarily difficult or impossible to solve. At scale, all the bizarre edge cases find expression. You’re not going to be able to solve everything. Here’s the essence of what we tell a customer if we have tried hard and failed to resolve their problem: I want you to know this is one of the harder problems I’ve encountered lately. I very much appreciate your patience in working with us to try to solve it. At the moment I’m scratching my head and out of ideas. If you’d like a refund we can do that today. If you’re agreeable, I’d like to keep trying; we’ll suspend your billing until we get it figured out, and I suggest we proceed just by trying to simplify your configuration until we find a base that works…”
  • Occasionally, extraordinary circumstances warrant extraordinary response. It does not need to be a policy, but just use regular human judgement and do the right thing by the customer. I remember one time a SpiderOak customer had forgotten her password and was very emotional about the prospect of not being able to decrypt her backup data [3]. Ethan called her and sat on the phone being cool, smooth, and sympathetic while guiding her through conversational memory retrieval techniques to help her remember the password she had set. In a few minutes, all was well. No one could have handled it better.
  • Say something pleasant/encouraging/uplifting/funny at the close of almost every conversation. If you’re not this type of person naturally it might seem meaningless at first, or perhaps even be difficult to think of unique responses all day that don’t sound canned, but practice makes it easy. It’s just one last demonstration of simple thoughtfulness.

In those early days, Ethan answered all our customers himself, and continued doing so for as long as any one person could, and still answers quite a few today. Now Laura and several others have joined our customer relations team, and each has brought their own unique style. I’ve learned something new from all of them, and will of course continue learning the most from our many wonderful customers.


  1. This story eventually had a happy ending because of SpiderOak’s design choice to always fully backup files before deleting/overwriting them during a sync, so that any previous state can always be recovered.
  2. Maybe when your audience consists of engineers it matters, but I recommend setting that explanation apart from the rest of the conversation about the things you know the customer cares about. “If you happen to be interested in the engineering details …”
  3. Our ‘Zero-Knowledge’ encryption policy means that our customer data is only readable by our customers, not by us. Not the filenames, foldernames, or anything. If the password is forgotten, the data is not readable. During signup, instead of agreeing to an EULA, customers agree to a password policy that says that they understand their data is readable only with their password.
  1. Alan, why are you revealing all of our super secret support techniques?? PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT SUPPORT WORKER BEHIND THE CURTAIN!

  2. I agree entirely that we try to give a personal touch to every response. Even my introduction is typed every time. If I were to start to cut-n-paste my responses, I know I'll start to get too detached from the situation the customer is dealing with.

    And yes, we are sometimes defeated with a problem. Rarely. I take these as personal failures, and try _very hard_ to find root cause in all issues, and not only solve the individual's issue at hand, but use it as a springboard in improving our overall product. Behind the scenes is a whole other system of tickets, bugtracks, roadmaps, and development tasks that most customers don't know about.

  3. If anything I feel it is best to make sure that our users get a warm and efficient response. Just continue to respond in an understanding manner. It is very important to understand where our users are coming from and make sure that they are taken care of.

  4. Constant communication is my motto! In the past I've convinced myself that I don't need to email a customer if I don't have any new information to provide. However, over the years I've learned that a simple email or call can really go a long way, even if there isn't a resolution yet. In the long-run I believe customers respect that approach much more than silence.

  5. Thanks for bringing these techniques together… hadn't seen them explicitly discussed this way before… appreciated!


  6. The customer is always right! The many years I spent working in retail have etched this motto in my sole for life… Without the customer, where would SpiderOak be? :-)

  7. Excellent post. I wish more companies would understand the need for a prompt response to an inquiry, as you said "with or without a solution".

  8. It's amazing how many companies make the mistake of simply delaying response if a solution is not readily available.