Founders wear many hats with responsibilities ranging from taking care of employees, overseeing product direction, and being responsible for areas as diverse as sales, marketing, and investor relations. But if you’re not already responding to customer emails, then get ready to add a new hat to your wardrobe! 

Answering emails may not seem glamorous, but investing the time and effort to read and respond to questions and complaints pays dividends.

As the company founder, handling customer emails, especially in the early stages, can help you be a better leader, grow the business, and stay ahead of problems that can negatively affect your company.

Here's why you need to start responding to emails today:

Reason #1: Turn Disgruntled Customers into Loyal Customers

When customers email a company (for any reason) they expect a quick and helpful response. Simple. And once customers realize someone with considerable influence is taking care of them, you’ve won them over (as long as you've handled it well!)

A few tips:

I’ve received really aggressive customer emails many times, but it always amazes me how quickly attitudes change when I respond courteously.

My company offers a 200-year, 100% money-back guarantee, and I always make sure that each customer who reports a problem knows this. The high level of support we offer, plus the personal attention, often surprises people.

More often than not, I get an email apologizing for the initial tone. It’s human nature to feel badly for speaking negatively to someone after they've remained calm and shown they're eager to please.

Reason #2: Drive the Product Development Roadmap in The Right Direction

If you delegate all your customer service tasks to another team member then you miss hearing objective feedback about your product from the people who matter most-- your customers.

Just imagine how you might lead your company in a different (translation: more successful) direction if only you had intercepted the 10+ emails mentioning the same issue over and over again.

Being the first person to receive customer complaints will have a huge impact on many of the key decisions you'll make. You'll have new insights and opinions when it comes to appropriation of funds, human resource allocation, product development road maps, and more.

An example? I received repeated customer feedback concerning the audio quality of our first release. This prompted me to add “audio quality” to the agenda of our next product development meeting. Had I not witnessed the slew of emails complaining about it, audio quality would not have made our agenda. 

Reason #3: Save Your Company's Money and Free Up Your Technical Employees

Startups don't have a lot of employees, so each one is extremely valuable. If you’re a tech company and are lucky enough to have a few seasoned engineers, then make sure they focus on technical issues, not customer service.

Non-technical founders can save valuable engineering time by being the buffer between the company and the customer. 

Engineers can do many of the things you do, but that's not what you pay them for. Don’t waste your company's money by putting your expensive engineers on the front lines.

Reason #4: Avoid Constructing an Ivory Tower Mentality

Have you ever left a large corporation because you didn’t agree with upper management’s mission or thought you could do things better on your own? [pullquote]Before you grow too big, make sure your company doesn’t develop an “ivory tower” mentality of its own.[/pullquote]

When the executives of a company are perceived as being out-of-touch with customers and ignoring frontline employees’ recommendations, this “ivory tower” mindset prevents product development and growth. Without these, the company is doomed.

Setting aside a certain amount of time each day or each week to answer incoming customer emails is the best way to prevent the “ivory tower” from ever being erected.

Think of your time as an inexpensive investment in the best type of market research-- unsolicited input and feedback from customers-- money can buy. 

How To Make it Happen

Now that we've discussed why a founder should personally read and respond to emails, let’s talk about how to make it happen.

You could open, read, and respond as the emails come in, but as anyone in a growing startup knows, it's not that simple or efficient. Some emails need to be answered immediately while others require team input before a response. But one thing is certain: you need a system in place to help you streamline and prioritize your attention to incoming emails.

How many emails should you send?

John Quelch, a Harvard Business School professor, recommends spending 10% of your time with customers, but it really depends on the size and type of business. As a rule of thumb, a founder should spend the most time performing the activities that will add the most value to the company. If much of the business is based on service and customer confidence, then the founder should lead the effort. That being said, you certainly can't be a ghost. 

Fortunately, there are tons of tools available to help any founder be more accessible to customers and efficient at responding to concerns:

SnapEngage: Face to Face

At TripLingo, we use SnapEngage for handling customer support via email and instant messenger. SnapEngage gives your customers the choice to email you or to have a live chat.

[caption id='attachment_13925' align='aligncenter' width='374']chatbox Chat Box from SnapEngage[/caption]

The live chats come through Skype, which works well in my routine and makes it simple and fast for me to answer questions. We have four team members on the front lines, so if I’m not able to catch the call, then someone else can answer it.

Basecamp: Working With Your Customers

Basecamp is a web-based project management service that has to-do lists, web-based text documents, milestone management, file sharing, time tracking, and a messaging system.

[caption id='attachment_13926' align='alignnone' width='801']basecamp Example Basecamp Dashboard[/caption]

Basecamp is useful because your customers can be part of the process, actively observing the work being done on their issues. This can reduce the amount of go-between, which ultimately saves you and your team time and effort.

Salesforce: Staying Organized

Salesforce bills itself as the world's #1 customer service app. This may or may not be true, but it can certainly help you out. Salesforce is a global cloud computing company best known for its customer relationship management (CRM) system. But it has recently branched into the social enterprise arena through acquisitions.

[caption id='attachment_14254' align='alignnone' width='602']Salesforce CRM Salesforce CRM[/caption]

Salesforce has a variety of different services and features, and it really shines in its ease of use and customizing options. Importing data from a wide array of sources is easy, and you don't need an advanced college degree to operate it. You can also keep track of your conversations (phone or email) with customers and set tasks and reminders related to a particular customer or issue.

Putting it All Together

At a certain point in time, it obviously wouldn't have made sense for Steve Jobs to run around handling Apple’s customer service issues. If he was responsible for frontline customer service 10 years after launch, he wouldn't have left the legacy he did.

But as you’re starting and growing your company, you need to stay connected to your customers. 

We launched TripLingo in 2011.  Since then we’ve interacted with hundreds of customers who have provided critical insight pertaining to bugs, glitches, and user interface hiccups.

As a result of investing my time and effort up front and in front of customers, TripLingo has gained quite a few dedicated fans.

And when you’re playing in a competitive industry, offering exceptional support is an easy and valuable way to set yourself apart.

Your Turn: As the owner of your business, do you respond to emails? Do you think it helps?What tools do you use to make it happen?