(This essay is part of a collaborative blogging experiment to answer the question, 'What's the greatest startup hack you've seen?')
We've made many decisions at WooThemes that have had a major impact on our business, but this is the one I'd call the greatest startup hack ever: we gave our customers EXACTLY what they wanted. Even though, ironically, it didn't really solve any kind of problem.
In the middle of 2012, we found ourselves really struggling to cope with the sheer amount of support requests that we were receiving from customers. At the time, we were using a custom forum-based system that only "acted" like a support ticket helpdesk (all conversations were public to the whole community, but only the original ticket requester & Woo staff could interact on a thread).
So we made the decision to focus on internal improvements to address this need:
The latter immediately helped internal efficiency, but our customers absolutely hated the fact that we had done away with the forum. They complained (by hijacking every blog post we wrote) about not being able to "learn from each other's problems" or to help each other (something which they weren't able to do before, but still complained about).
Initially we decided to rubbish these complaints, because we knew that the vast majority of our customers only wanted their support requests resolved as quickly as possible. So we made massive improvements to our response times, yet the complaints didn't go away.
Then a couple months later - after we got too frustrated with the complaints - we switched to using Zendesk, which included a community forum. We, as a team, figured that it didn't compromise our needs too much, so we might as well give our customers exactly what they had been asking for: a forum.
In reality though, this was a very superficial change, since we didn't moderate the forums. It was a 100% community effort. If you wanted to interact with other WooThemes customers and help each other, you could use the forum.
What's funny is: they rarely helped each other. :)
We had split support tickets & the forum, so 99% of the problems being solved were still a private conversation between ourselves and the customer that had the problem.
But the complaints went away completely!
Since we moved to Zendesk and implemented the community, we quashed all the negative things that were being said about our support, without really solving the need to "learn from each other's problems".
The point I'm making here is that it is really difficult to solve some of your customers' problems, because sometimes the solution becomes a problem for your company.
In the above example, we found much greater efficiency (and thus cost savings) when we switched to a proper, centralized helpdesk. But our customers hated it. We could've developed something custom (at great cost), but instead tried to find middle ground by going with a out-of-box solution instead.
The choice we made probably required 10% compromise from our side, but it was a 100% benefit from our customers' perspective. Doing this, allowed us to put this 6-month long, crappy situation behind us and we could thus focus on other, more proactive endeavours.
Sometimes giving your customers exactly what they ask for (regardless of your cost), is your best option.