Non-US timezone bootstrappers, how do you handle US customer support?

Hello, bootstrappers!

I live in Europe, while the majority of my clients live in the US. We have 6-9 hours ahead of US timezones here. Going to bed at 1-2 a.m. isn’t a problem for me so my working hours are synced with US time. Basically I work when my clients also work. In case of a support request, we can exchange several emails during the day with the requester, instead of literally 1-2 if we worked in completely different times of a day. I think customer support is a time-sensitive thing by its nature, so in general, fast answers & solutions make more happy customers.

From the other point, some researchers say that being a night owl perhaps is not good for health: link1, link2 plus I’m unable to spend enough time with my family in the evenings as I’m always busy at that time.

So my question for those bootstrappers who have significant timezone difference between them and their clients: how do you handle this? Do you prefer to shift your lifestyle to be in sync with the majority of your clients or just sticking to your timezone and accepting that 1-2 emails per day are normal for your support workflow?

Hiring a support person who lives in their timezone probably is a wise move for a decent company, but what to do if you’re a one-man army?

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Supporting US customers from Europe is nothing. Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong are tricky. There were times when I woke up at 4am, saw that there’s an email, got up to answer it. Fortunatelly not that often. Customer’s emails are always priority and I tend to answer immediately, but sometimes you can’t. That’s not the only area where our small business is not perfect, but nothing in life is.

Also, this probably depends on type of urgency. If you’re running a SAAS, and server crashes, you better get to it asap. For standalone, desktop/server software, it’s usually not that urgent.

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Have you clearly set expectations for your customers for how long it will take for you to respond to support requests? If not, start there. Consider that rapid support is a value you are providing and adjust your price accordingly. We provide 1-hour response times to customers only in our highest tier, whereas we commit to 24-hour response times for our low price customers.

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Assuming your thing is not business critical and you’ve set expectations appropriately then the bar for whats considered ‘good, quick customer support’ is soooo low that they will generally be delighted if you get back to them within 24 hours with an answer that actually addresses their question rather than some random auto-responder!

I try to do a quick clearance of important customer support emails first thing in the morning (you might get back to people in OZ before they leave for the day) and last thing in the evening (for the US side) and it works pretty well.

Put up a SUPPORT page on your website your support side listing (in addition to usual self help stuff)

  • Your response times (e.g. Aim to respond to all enquiries in 24 hours)
  • Where you are based and the current time there (using JavaScript / world clock etc) so people can immediately see - oh yeah, its 11pm there, not going to get this until tomorrow

Also if you’ve got a ticketing system with a “we’ve got your email, we will get back to you soon” auto reply you can repeat all this on that.

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The local time clock is a good idea! Thanks!

I have customers from all over the world, and I have lived in various timezones as well. I decided not to worry about this too much. I treat customer E-mails as the most important task and part of the value proposition, so I respond to them immediately, as fast as I can. But I don’t wake up in the middle of the night and check my E-mail. If I am at my computer and I see a customer E-mail, I will respond, and if not, the customer will have to wait.

This is not a problem at all if you do not delay answering E-mails — in the worst case, the reply will be in 12h, which is still way better than most companies. From what I hear from customers, they are pleasantly surprised at how quickly they get responses.

I think hiring a “support person” is not a good idea if you are bootstrapping. You learn a lot from customer feedback, and customers appreciate getting precise and to-the-point answers.

Amusingly, when I moved from Europe to the US for a while, I had some customers ask me if I ever sleep, because I shifted hours and started responding to their E-mails sent in the middle of the (European) night :slight_smile:

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My TZ difference for most of my cusomters is in 2…11 hours range. I solved it like this and this works for almost 20 years for me:

  1. First of all, make sure there are few (none) support tickets that require immediate action by support team. This includes: improve product usability, good user manual, self-service for customers like retrieve download links, keys, whatever. And easy way to find those tools, user manual articles should be easily accessible from where they are needed etc.
  2. SLA is: most tickets are answered within 48 hours, some can take even more. This makes time zone problem a no problem :slight_smile:
  3. Do not go into chat mode with customers. One answer per day is enough for most cases. This is important if you stay at night answering tickets, they can keep you awake all night easily.
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Thank you very much for all your answers! Your experience is encouraging, it makes me feel that stress-free customer support is still possible. :slightly_smiling_face:

@aeden

Have you clearly set expectations for your customers for how long it will take for you to respond to support requests?

@Rhino

  • Your response times (e.g. Aim to respond to all enquiries in 24 hours)
  • Where you are based and the current time there (using JavaScript / world clock etc) so people can immediately see - oh yeah, its 11pm there, not going to get this until tomorrow

@Dmitry

SLA is: most tickets are answered within 48 hours, some can take even more. This makes time zone problem a no problem

I agree I should definitely add this. I don’t have this information on my support page as I’m still trying to copy a “reputable company” behavior that has a 24/7 support team so I always thought that providing clear support hours makes my potential clients think I’m too small or unreliable for their businesses. But as time goes I think it is probably a mistake, as setting clear expectations will help the customers worry less about my responses and it will prevent me from repeatedly receiving the same request when I’m not able to answer. So I should try to define my SLA: clearly state my working hours on the support page plus duplicate this information in a ticket confirmation email.

@jwr

I think hiring a “support person” is not a good idea if you are bootstrapping. You learn a lot from customer feedback, and customers appreciate getting precise and to-the-point answers.

It’s exactly the point I always think about. Providing customer support by myself gives me a lot of feedback which I use for improving my software. I’m not sure I would have this stream of feedback if I outsource my tickets.

Training support staff is not an easy task, especially when you do it for the first time - you may end up supporting your support staff for prolonged period of time, if training is not done properly. I have a document called “support guidelines” it’s like 100+ pages or so, and it only covers around 30% of what customers ask.

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When I tried did this before I found that the tickets a 1st level support person could handle were generally the really easy ones that I already had canned responses setup (and were of course already in an FAQ etc) and I could have answered in seconds anyway - but the difficult ones that take the time always ended up with me anyway. Classic 80:20.

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@freyfogle answers this question comprehensively at the beginning of Bootstrapped #134.

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Thanks so much for discussing this in the episode!

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