/ Customer Stories

On the beauty and value of customers: A Case Study with SchoolAuction.net

Most great businesses come about when people solve an issue they’re having themselves. That’s what happened with elevio (fixing clunky support), and it’s for the exact same reason that SchoolAuction.net exists. The founders built a company around solving a problem – streamlining the running of a charity auction into one efficient app.

They’ve learnt a lot along the way, including how to look after customers, pay attention to the very first users, and the value of giving to grow a company. Roger, partner and marketing director at SchoolAuction.net, shares lots of gold in here, so keep reading.

How did SchoolAuction.net come about?

The founders are all software-industry vets with kids about the same age – when they were in elementary school, we were also all active parent volunteers who got roped into helping on the auctions – and we decided that software could make teams like ours a lot more efficient. We didn’t like the options that were available at the time, and so we wrote our own. Later on, we were asked by a local preschool if they could use it, then by the local ballet company. At that point we decided to take a stab at turning it into a business.

How do you find organizations to work with and how do they find you?

They find us mostly through word of mouth. I’m the marketing guy, and supposed to be brilliant at hunting down these volunteer auction chairs, but I’ve been humbled by how much more powerful happy customers are at selling our software to other schools and non-profit groups.

(Pay-per-click advertising and review sites like Capterra help a lot, too.)

What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since using Elevio?

We’re more efficient at delivering support and documentation to our customers. Which is important, since we are a small company in a seasonal industry, that absolutely lives-or-dies by how scalable our processes are.

Our customer support team can grow at a measured pace – we can hire in the summer when business is slower, and we can train them, and then we can count on them to be able to handle whatever load comes their way in the busy months.

**What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to people who are about to start a SaaS/online business? **

The right first customers are worth their weight in gold – target 10 organizations that are well-positioned to teach you what they need, and give them a sweetheart deal – then do everything you can to listen to them. You don’t have to do everything they want you to do – but listen and figure out what is motivating them to ask for it. And give them better customer service than you think you can afford – you’re wrong about that.

How relevant is website support to your business compared to other practical business needs?

For us, it is more important than office space, desks, or a company credit card. I know because we implemented our first website support system years before we acquired any of those things. 

And when we found Elevio (which we realized was much better than the tools we had been using), we made it an immediate priority to switch – despite the fact that we also had a major product revision underway that had to be altered to accommodate the change in support system.

Who were the first people to use your service/product? What have you learnt from each other?

After the groups mentioned above, we hit the jackpot – we “sold” (really, gave away – it was a frighteningly low price) 10 licenses to a professional auctioneering team, who gave them to some of their smaller customers who couldn’t otherwise afford software. We have renewed 7 of the 10 every year since, and one of the other three went away for a while, then came back.

What we learned from them is priceless – we learned how they worked when planning and managing an auction. And they each did things differently – which was its own lesson.

What have they learned from us? I’d venture to say that they learned the value in being willing to work with a young company that is still figuring things out – all of these early customers are small community organizations without a whole lot of name recognition to the general public, but we wouldn’t have a company without their help, and we treat them like it.

How do you make sure your customers are happy? How do you define customer happiness and how can you measure it creatively?

Don’t overthink this – call them, take them to lunch, and listen.

And when you mess up, apologize – in person or at least with a phone call from a founder or executive. And if at all possible, try to actually be one of your own customers. Use your own product – and find out what it is like to depend on it. Each of the last 10 years, I’ve wound up chairing a fundraising auction – most years, I will chair two of them (which officially makes me crazy, at least in my friends’ eyes). Think about how you feel when the product works well, when you can’t figure out how to make it do what you want it to do, and how you feel when you find its limits. Then use that knowledge to empathize with your customers.

Customer happiness can be sussed out in many ways; but one of my favorites is to simply ask them to review us online, or talk to potential customers. They’ll let you know if you are asking the wrong person to help you promote your company.

I also do a weekly live and interactive web demo for new prospective customers – but I always let existing customers know that they can join those anytime they want to catch up on what’s new. And most of the time there’s a moment in the demo when a prospect asks about support, or why we think they should use our product rather than one of the competitors – and the existing customers stop me so they can answer. It’s a beautiful thing.

What’s does your perfect office break look like?

A surprise visit from my 18-year old son to take me out for coffee. Even though I’m probably buying.

Thanks Roger! We’d love to hear what lessons you’re taking away from this and how you’re planning to implement them. Share in the comments below.