Delivering Wow Customer Service: An Interview with Valerie Liberty from Balsamiq

Valerie Liberty is the COO Wow division of Balsamiq. Started in June 2008, Balsamiq Mockups help software designers and developers build great software by letting them easily sketch out their ideas, then quickly collaborate and iterate over them. Balsamiq Mockups has netted over $2,000,000 in sales in first 18 months of business and is gathering rave reviews. In Balsamiq, Valerie handles everything from presales, support , invoice and payment tracking. With customers from over 56 countries she is definitely doing a superhuman job and it was a great pleasure talking to her.

The Balsamiq Team

P: Hi Valerie, Prateek here. How are you? Thanks a lot for making time for this call.

V: Hi Prateek, Hey, thanks for picking me to speak with you. I want to say right up front that I love the idea of your spotlighting customer service. We are extremely proud of the positive and fun comments we get from customers. Peldi calls that sort of customer-generated feedback Pieces of the Golden Puzzle. We thrive on it.

P: I ve read a lot about you guys in Hacker News and have followed Balsamiq right from the days of its launch. It has been a great inspiration for me and I am sure it is for many others too that are starting-up.

V: It s been such an overwhelming surprise! When Peldi started this little adventure two years ago, he was driven by the idea that life s too short for bad software. We really believe that, and we hope that we are helping folks get a small piece of ideation done quickly and easily.

This unexpected success is just unbelievable. When we video chat, we still want to pinch ourselves through the monitor. Peldi started Balsamiq on nights and weekends, and now it s supporting half a dozen families. We were lucky to able to learn so much in our former jobs at Macromedia and Adobe. If he hadn t had the courage to leave, if the stars hadn t aligned just right

P: You are very right . For people who can t imagine quitting jobs to follow their calling, Balsamiq is a positive assurance. More so because you are bootstrapped and not obsessed with funding or Exit strategy.

V: Exit Strategy. Those are two funny little words. We all love our jobs so much, we can t imagine leaving. Peldi is such a great manager, so encouraging and supportive. He says that the only way we can leave Balsamiq is for a better job, which, of course doesn t exist. He told balsamiqMarco that he can t quit unless he becomes the mayor of Bologna. We joke about Peldi being like a boss but he took to heart some great advice from Joel Spolsky: Peldi s job is to come in every morning and ask us one single question: "What do you need?"

We say Love your problem. If you love your problem, you don t want to end that affair. You want to prolong it, reinvent it, see it stay interesting.

P: That s definitely a different take on Exit Strategy and your product seems to have a great future even without it! And I also agree with you on loving what you do. And it wouldn t be a stretch to say, when you love what you do, you tend to be great at it. And that is exactly the reason behind talking to you. You are great at what you are doing which is handling people and Support for Balsamiq. And since this is going to be a focused blog on Customer Service, publishing your experience can be a great first post.

V. We work really hard at offering support to our customers. It s something that we value so much. We really wanted to hit a home run in that area. And I m very excited about your idea behind the blog.

One thing people love about us is that we answer the phone. That s a big differentiator! Natalie answers the line when it s daytime in Italy, and I grab it during the day in the Bay Area. We are like Customer Service bookends.

P: So if Customer Service is one of your differentiators, you will have to be exceptionally good at it. How do you manage that?

V: Peldi and I came up in the software world. We love this stuff. We enjoy checking out new technology, connecting with people in new and different ways. We are digitally-connected people, and Peldi has built a team of people who are just like us. As such, it is not so much a challenge for us to stay in touch with each other and our customers. On some levels, it s like a game. Even our engineers are people people. I love to talk to customers, to hear how they are using Mockups. For me, it s fun to unravel these complex, muli-layered problems folks bring in support calls.

And customers are instantly in a good mood when they call us and the phone rings, and a nice human answer. We don t make you push 1 for this or 2 for that. It s me: talk to me about sales or tech support or cross-grading to a different version Mockups. My tech support calls usually involve laughing about something or learning about something. It is my way of keeping the entire Internet economy human.

P: It is a great assurance for a customer to know that he or she is being heard. I am sure at your scale you have tons of requests coming in. How do you keep up? Do you use any kind of s/w to assist you?

V: We don t use any particular customer service software. We respond to customers in the same way the contact us. We get a lot of email and phone calls, and since Natalie joined in July, it s been much easier for us to stay on top of things. She works in our Bologna office, so over my morning coffee, I go through my inbox and relive her day. This prepares me for situations we may have in a build, issues on our web site, or administrivia.

Like most high-tech companies with distributed teams, we use technology to stay connected. Our watercooler chat is done using Gabble. It s just like an internal chat room that is always open. We post there all day long. We post every time we get a phone call, and why the customer called. Mike uses this to spot trends where information isn t clear on our web site. We each post our daily agenda or goals. Of course, it s also where we put personal news or interesting announcements we want to share.

P: Can you let us know about your process? How exactly do you go about it?

V: Well, Prateek, when we first talked in the summer, things were different. Since then, we have added some staff and spread the expanding load out a bit. Here s how customer support works on our team today: Our favorite way to get customer feedback on features and bugs is through the GetSatisfaction forum Mike, Peldi and folks in our community discuss feature requests and work flow there. It s hugely valuable. It really helps us to see it through a fresh, new set of eyes!

Most of the standard questions and answers are already there. There are also discussions about workflow and feature requests. People post there and others can comment and vote. It helps us pace new feature ideas. The ironic downside to having so much great reference information available is that sometimes I feel like a parrot, repeating and answer but not taking the time to recreate the error myself. I was getting frustrated because I wasn t working enough in our app. Since I do sales support and back office tasks, it became a luxury to play in Mockups.

So, what did Peldi do? He hired me a Mockups tutor. We have an awesome QA person named Louanne who has been helping us with a complex new feature, and Peldi suggested she and I spend an hour a couple of times a week doing scenario testing/bug hunting/edge cases. I call it Lou U. It s vital that I keep my hands in the product, and we ve turned it into a double win: We are doing product documentation and at the same time, I become a Mockups Super User. When I graduate from Lou U, I want to get a cape with a little Balsamiq logo on it.

P: What happens when a request comes in? You don t exactly assign to different people in the team?

V: We divide things by how they come in: phone, email, tweet, post on Get Satisfaction and then again by what who is best suited to answer the question. If I get stuck, the rest of the team will be online within a few hours. Customers understand. If I don t know the answer, I am honest. I tell folks what I don t know, and where I looked. This way, they learn about our resources. Sometimes it s enough for customers to simply learn about Get Satisfaction.

Here s a wonderful development: we are starting to see that customers are beginning to answer each other! It s an organic little community growing up around getting rid of bad software. To us, that s the real win. It makes me shriek with glee.

P: Five Star restaurant That is how Peldi also describes it in his Mixergy interview with Andrew Warner. Getting the community members to help each other is a great way to scale. Since all this sounds rosy, I want to ask you if there has been any incident of a difficult customer.

V: One of our favorite things is to turn a hater into a lover. Sometimes, someone tweets an off-handed complaint about Comic Sans or the look and feel of Mockups. We know that the output isn t a button-down look. The point is to start a discussion, with a look no one is afraid to criticize. But sometimes, when people are difficult or complain, it s for a very good reason, and we need to be able to take it on the chin and respond coolly.

Currently, anyone can download a fully-functioning trial version of Balsamiq Mockups to use for 7 days.

That s because of customer feedback. We used to give users five minutes of uninterrupted editing time. After that, and every five minutes after that, we broke in with a nag screen asking if you wanted to buy a license. It was easy to dismiss the nag screen, and it was a first attempt to let folks test drive the app. Turned out, people hated that nag screen. In hindsight, it was completely annoying to interrupt someone trying to work every five minutes.

P: Every business that charges is torn between the decision of giving some basic features free for lifetime or offer a limited trial period with all the features. And definitely having a strong support team helps in handling the transition better. You guys put in a lot of effort to bring the human element into your service. And that is exactly what we plan to achieve with the Interaction tool we are developing. Balsamiq has been a great inspiration and it was great talking to you. Thanks for spending almost an hour on the call when in-fact it was supposed to be for just 20 mts.

V: Prateek, it was really fun to talk with you about some of my favorite things: support and customer service.



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Nithya Rajaram
Nithya Rajaram