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Customer Service is overrated

There’s this theory that good customer service goes a long way towards compensating for a mediocre product.

I used to believe this. In fact, I used to work for a startup that advocates for “Helpful Marketing.” The idea was: Prioritize helping your customers over selling your product. Build a relationship with them. A relationship that is more partnership and friendship, than a customer-provider relationship. As a result, the theory goes, customers trust you. And they buy from you by virtue of you providing it, even in the face of superior products from your competitors.

I no longer believe this works. There are many reasons that startup did not work out, but I believe a big one is that we just were not able build a good product. By “good product”, I mean one that, at a minimum, satisfies the customer’s needs.

As a strategy for “buying time” while you improve your product, it’s excellent. It works especially well at the early stages. Customers are more patient and forgiving. Besides, they have few or no alternatives.

But this “relationship-based advantage” as a long term strategy? I believe not. The danger is when one completely buys into it, overinvests in the service, and underinvests in the product. For example, accepting a chronically buggy product because at least there’s always someone who immediately helps the customer every time something goes wrong.

An effective analogy might be a very-kind-but-unreliable person, as compared to the just-nice-but-competent one. At first, you prefer the very-kind-but-unreliable person. After all, he’s so nice. He messes up, but apologizes. He is forgiven. He messes up again. And again, apologizes. Over time, you get tired of this behavior and give up on him. Better to go with the nice-enough-but-competent person.