A Healthy Customer Service Obsession: Paul English of Kayak

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'Why would you pay an engineer $150,000 to answer phones when you could pay someone in Arizona $8 an hour?' If you make the engineers answer e-mails and phone calls from the customers, the second or third time they get the same question, they'll actually stop what they're doing and fix the code. Then we don't have those questions anymore.

That's a quote from an interview with Paul English, co-founder of Kayak. At a time when most web companies hire outsourced support staff and make it hard to contact them, Paul English goes out of his way to make it as easy as possible for his customers to reach the very people who develop the Kayak website.

As a side project, English has also started a website called GetHuman which helps consumers get to a human on the other end of the line of any large corporation as quickly as possible. Paul's obsession with customer service doesn't just involve answering emails:

About a year ago, I bought a red telephone with a really loud ringer for the office. Whenever a customer calls the help number on our website, that phone rings. The engineers initially complained about it. They said, 'That's so friggin' annoying!' And I'd say, 'There's a really simple solution: Answer the friggin' phone and do whatever it takes to make that customer happy. Then hang up, unplug the phone, walk it down to the other end of the office, and plug it in down there.'

It's like hot potato. Except I take it seriously. When the phone rings, I literally jump over the desks just so I can get to the phone before anyone else.

English loves talking to customers, especially the ones who are most angry. He and his team learn how people actually use the features they create and how to make their site better from the people who are actually using it. There is no bureaucracy—it's one-on-one interaction with customers that drives the product. English goes as far as to give out his cell phone number to customers he speaks with; one in about 20 people actually calls him, but all of them are blown away that he gives it out.

English has a neat way to ensure that folks answering support requests are doing their best:

We have four monitors in the office where you can see real-time streaming information about the site—how many visitors, how many click throughs. It also displays the last customer e-mail that came in and the photo of the employee who answered it. So you're walking by and you see, 'Oh, Dan just answered a question.' One of the things it does is randomly select an employee response to a customer and send that response out to the entire company and to all of our investors each day. It keeps us on our toes.

All of these efforts help English design a product for the people who are actually using the product—he's putting the people into Design for people.

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It has 2 comments.

Joel Bernier (ZURB) says

Very interesting approach to a customer driven design. Had no idea Kayak was so into their customer service, never really needed to reach out and ask them anything. Wondering of all this customer service slows down the engineers and designers. After all there are so many hours in a day, if you spend half of your time answering support emails and calls you're not fixing enough bugs or developing enough new features. Nice post.

Dmitry (ZURB) says

@Joel - thanks for the shout. Great question, probably something everyone is asking themselves when reading through these quotes from English. The benefit of this approach is that it actually helps engineers and designers do their job better. They are working on something they just talked to the customer about.