We Really Like You! FreshBooks’ Customer Service

August 24, 2010

Warning: What you are about to read can be easily dismissed as a schmaltzy feel-good spin. But I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time talking with the crew from FreshBooks, the Canadian-based invoicing company that boasts hundreds of thousands of customers all around the world.

I’ve always been impressed with just how friendly this crew is. I’d have assumed that as the company grew bigger, its uncharacteristic friendliness and personal service would have declined, but somehow FreshBooks has managed to buck this trend. Talking to them continues to feel like just like a conversation one would have with the friendly convenience store owner down the road.

I’ve also spent quite a lot of time (and several dinners) with Sunir Shah, the company’s chief handshaker (yes, that’s his real job title) and Mike McDerment, its founder and CEO. And I can say the niceness and, well, wholesome goodness you are about to experience is genuine. And its from authentic friendliness that authentic customer service and longstanding customer happiness can come.


Sunir Shah is Freshbooks' chief handshaker.

Here’s more from Shah on what makes FreshBooks and its customer service in particular, tick.

Q. Everyone says they’re a customer-focused business, whether or not they mean it. How do you think an organization can ensure that its genuinely customer focused? What does this look like for FreshBooks?

A. A lot of companies seem to think being customer-focused means they should be focused on getting more customers!

Being customer focused means spending your day trying to improve the life of your customers. We love our customers at FreshBooks. We treat customers like we expect to be treated. And then we do something amazing for them on top of that. For instance, we often just do nice things for our customers, like when we bought flowers for a customer of ours who was stood up on a blind date.

It takes so little to do the extra thing to treat your customers like some of the most important people in your life. They are. So treat them like it. We call that “Execute on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday.”

Q. Many people have talked about friendliness in relation to customer service. What do you think about the balance between friendliness and professionalism? How does FreshBooks remain “fresh,” but still professional? You’re dealing with money after all!

A. We just stick to small town, small business values. Do your job seriously and well because people are relying on you. But don’t forget that we’re all human beings too.

We are managing people’s money, so we work very hard to make sure we do the right thing for our customers. On the occasions we screw up, such as when we have unexpected down time, we are immediately transparent and honest about it because people’s businesses depend on us.

On the other hand, when people call in for support, we don’t just work hard to get the right answer for them; we often ask them about themselves and how their day is going. We travel around the country taking our customers out to dinner just because we want to get to know them better.

And we only charge $20 a month. When was the last time your phone company took you out for dinner?

Q. How does one ensure that customer support staff are genuine with their customers? What can you do to keep them fresh?

A. Our customer support is genuine! Everyone at FreshBooks does customer support. We all spend our first month on support and thereafter, we all rotate through support. When the phones ring, anyone can pick up the phone. You might get the CEO one day or the developer who will fix your bug the next day. We do this because we want everyone at the company to stay close to the customers.

To keep us geared up, our Customer Support Rockstars spend most of their energy supporting the company culture. If you put your whole company in front of customers, you have to treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers. For instance, after people’s one month in support is up, the support team throws them a raucous support graduation.

Q. The customer is always right, but there are times when they’re simply wrong. At which point does your duty to be reverent to your staff overcome the duty to be reverent to your customers? How do you deal with this seeming conflict? Any customer service nightmare stories to tell?

A.  It’s just a business relationship. If a customer is not treating us professionally, we will end the relationship and ask the customer to find an alternative solution. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, including our staff and our customers. Just like our customers can fire us, our staff is empowered to fire customers. However, we’ve only had a couple unfortunate interactions.

Q. What place do tools have in delivering great customer service? My contention is that good systems and tools take drag out of the system and make it easier to give customers exceptional experiences. Do you agree, and do you have any specific examples in your case?

A. We have a lot of customers. Only by investing a lot in our tools could we keep up with our load [and have the] energy to create extraordinary experiences for our customers and have time to fly around the country to take them out for dinner.

Q. Final thoughts on the FreshBooks approach?

A. The most important question in every deal we make with partners and every feature we put into the product and every customer support interaction we have with customers is simple: Are we truly making the experience of our customers’ lives better? It’s my observation that when you make this your absolute single focus, your customers will want you to succeed so much, they will actively help you. It’s pretty much impossible at that point to fail. And Monday mornings are a lot more fun for me because I know every day we’re putting a smile on so many people’s faces.

And in case you are curious as to what constitutes a customer support graduation at FreshBooks, check this out:

Tim Lee’s Support Graduation from FreshBooks on Vimeo.