As small business owners build their businesses up, add new people and take on more responsibilities, it’s easy to become disconnected from the very folks spurring that growth – their customers. But customer needs and expectations change over time, just like small businesses do, which makes it critically important for the CEO of a growing company to find ways to stay in tune with the voice of the customer.
Girish Mathrubootham, CEO and founder of online customer support platform Freshdesk , came up with the idea of having CEOs dedicate some of their time playing the role of a customer support agent in order to help them stay within ear shot of what’s on the mind of their customers. He discusses what he calls CEO on Support, and the impact it can have on customer relationships.
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Small Business Trends: Before we jump in, can you give everybody a little bit of your personal background?
Girish Mathrubootham: Prior to starting Freshdesk, I worked for close to ten years as VP of Product Management at Zoho (another software-as-a-service company). In 2001, I joined them as a presales engineer and customer support person. Over the years, my career was built from being a customer support person to being a product marketer and then a product manager, and also having run customer support teams.
Small Business Trends: Talk a bit about Freshdesk and the role you play in helping your customer provide better support to their customers.
Girish Mathrubootham: Freshdesk is an online customer support software. We all know customer support software or helpdesk has been around for 20 or 30 years.
What we do differently at Freshdesk is integrate a lot of channels. We start with traditional channels. We also interlink social channels. If you have a mobile app, your users can even contact you via mobile app.
We integrate all these channels and bring those customer conversations to you, to be able to “respond” to your customers across these channels.
Small Business Trends: You have this really interesting new initiative you started called “CEO on Support” where the idea is for top executives to spend some time in the shoes of a support agent to really understand what’s going on. Talk to me a bit about why you started CEO on Support.
Girish Mathrubootham: I think when a CEO talks to customers, you get a sense of reality. When you’re able to match what you’re building with what customers really want, that’s when you start to have a successful business. When you talk to customers, you get insights into things you should be doing – they help validate whether you’re doing the right things or dreaming while your customers are actually suffering for lack of some basic software.
So I think every CEO needs to spend time on customer support just to have that reality check.
Small Business Trends: Share something that may have been a surprise that you learned as you went through this exercise yourself.
Girish Mathrubootham: In 2004, I was building a helpdesk for internal IT departments; we built a nice product, then we were sending it off for trials. We had an early version and found no customer was able to successfully trial it. People were looking for an easy way to get existing users or employees into the system, and we didn’t build an import to let them quickly do that. In those days, we didn’t know that was going to be a critical killer feature, so we invented everything, but didn’t make it easy for a customer to test it out.
So that was a lesson I learned when I first talked to customers.
Small Business Trends: You have put the challenge out to other CEOs to try this. Maybe you could talk a little about some of those CEOs.
Girish Mathrubootham: A few months ago, a lot of our customers seemed to be talking about simple small issues with email ticketing. I was able to focus on doing this, making it better, before taking on the big stuff.
This was what we were discussing last month with our marketing team when we saw this could be something most CEOs would relate to. For example, we’ve seen interest from the CEO of Buffer, a vocal proponent of CEOs being on support. Then we have the CEO of LaunchBit who’s expressed interest. And I think as we go on, we’re going to see more CEOs sharing their support stories.
Small Business Trends: What do you think CEOs should take away after going through this exercise?
Girish Mathrubootham: I think the broader takeaway for CEOs is customer support has fundamentally changed. It’s no longer about one-to-one colonization between the customer and the company. CEOs have to realize what we call customer support is the new marketing. Basically, it’s impacting a brand, so you better take care of your customers.
Small Business Trends: Do you expect CEOs that try this out this first time to start to look at this as something they should do on a regular basis?
Girish Mathrubootham: I definitely think that is going to happen, because this is valuable. I don’t expect every CEO to do it, of course, but I think a lot will find value.
Small Business Trends: I see there’s a hashtag, #CEOonSupport, but you also have a site. Is this where people will be able to hear the stories the CEOs are telling about their experiences?
Girish Mathrubootham: Yes. We created the hashtag because we’re trying to collect all the stories and put them together. We will have links to these interesting stories on CEOonSupport.com .
This interview on CEO on support is part of the One on One interview series  with thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This transcript has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the player above.