Interview with Joe Kraus of JotSpot

Joe Kraus is the co-founder and CEO of JotSpot, the application wiki company. In addition to JotSpot, he is also an angel investor and has invested in numerous Internet startups. Before JotSpot, Joe Kraus was the co-founder and the first president of Excite@Home.

In the interview, Joe and I discuss customer service, wikis, community building, and more.

Service Untitled: You’ve been involved with a lot of Internet companies, either as an investor or as an executive. Do you think customer service is something that can either seriously help or seriously hurt Internet companies?

Joe Kraus: Absolutely. I think that customer service is both the most under appreciated and sometimes most under leveraged asset a company has. There is a concept in psychology called positive transference. Malcom Gladwell writes about it in either Tipping Point or Blink – I can’t remember which one.

The concept is that is illustrated by example of the blind taste test. The specific example was low end brandy, E&J, versus Christina Brothers. Christian Brothers had kind of owned the market for 40 years and E&J suddenly started taking market share away and Christian Brothers couldn’t figure out why. Blind taste tests revealed that Christian Brothers tasted better, but if they poured the brandy out of a bottle whatever came out of the E&J bottle, whether it was Christian Brothers or actually E&J started coming up in rank. People were positively transferring their feelings about the bottle into the taste of the brandy. They weren’t saying “I like the bottle better, therefore the brandy tastes better.” The brandy actually tasted better, but at a subconscious level what was going on was they liked the way the bottle looked and therefore thought the brandy tasted better.

I think customer support and service is the greatest way you can positive transference in business, particularly Internet businesses. You have let’s say, a buggy product, but you have amazing customer service, people will think your product is better because they positively transfer the feelings that they have about great customer service onto the product and that to me is why customer service is so important. It is one of what I think are two elements (the other is visual design) that positively transfer benefits from one thing, customer service, onto something else, your product and that is why I think customer service is so important.

Service Untitled: I agree with you. Good customer service can really make a bad experience, if it is handled well, can make it an acceptable or even great experience.

Joe Kraus: Sure. I mean that I think it is at two levels. One is with every crisis comes an opportunity. So, if there is something bad that happens, how you respond is actually much more important than what actually happened. The second is in a more subtle way, the fact that people are willing to tolerate a lot more bugs if the customer service is good because they feel like they are listened to. That is another Gladwell-ism where he talks about why do doctors get sued. The doctors who get sued don’t actually make more mistakes, they spend less time with their patients. People positively transfer their positive feelings towards the doctor around “I’ve been listened to” to the actual quality, which is unrelated, to the performance of the doctor.

Service Untitled: What type of customer service did Excite offer?

Joe Kraus: To our users, we offered standard email support, knowledge bases, and fax. To advertising customers, we offered more human-orientated approach of account management and account representatives that were there to answer questions.

Service Untitled: And how did the customer service Excite offered compare with its competition?

Joe Kraus: I think it was about the same. I don’t think there were substantive differences between us or Yahoo, or InfoSeek, or Lycos at the time. It wasn’t ac competitive differentiator for any of those companies.

Service Untitled: Do you think if you concentrated more on customer service, would it have helped Excite be more successful?

Joe Kraus: I think it would have contributed to greater success, but I think in the end, Excite’s demise had not much to do with customer service and much more to do with anything from technical scalability to cost models to the fact that we were part of a very strategic war between cable companies much larger than us. I think it would have made some difference, but not the difference.

Service Untitled: What about JotSpot, what type of customer service does it offer?

Joe Kraus: We try to do something much different at JotSpot. We have the standard knowledge bases and facts, but we try to make sure that we respond personally to people as opposed to pointing them to just knowledge base articles. My view when we started JotSpot was we wanted customer service and support to be a differentiator. I’m not saying that 100% we’re succeeding in it, but it was a strategic goal in mind that people didn’t get the Yahoo like customer support experience – send an email in and 48 hours you get a reply that seems like nobody read your email and they just point you to a knowledge base article that really wasn’t even relevant to what you asked, and then you have to spend another cycle and try to convince Yahoo that, no, that didn’t actually answer your question. We really encourage the notion that people want to feel like there are people at the other end. We also do live some live support stuff that wasn’t available during the Excite days. Live support is click this button and go to an IM discussion with a support representative. For our higher end customers, we offer phone support as well.

Service Untitled: And how does the support that JotSpot offers compare to its competition?

Joe Kraus: I certainly like to think that it is better and more personalized. I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience in pushing on and testing out the support of our competitors.

Service Untitled: Companies that make powerful software have concentrated a lot on training. How does JotSpot’s training to other companies that provide products of a similar scale?

Joe Kraus: Well, the first thing is, we actually hope that nobody needs training because we want to make a product that can be used without having to train anybody. For those who want to go into the more advanced capabilities of JotSpot, mainly the ability to make applications on top if it, so getting into the programming element, wE offer self-service training through a portal for developers that includes things like documentation, tutorials, videos, example code, etc. all the way up to customized training programs that we deliver through a series of partners.

I don’t know on the competition side and I think that for other companies at a similar scale, we do at least as much, if not more. Obviously if you are Oracle, you do a ton more than we do. If you are another startup of 26 people serving a customer base the size of ours, I think we are in the top end.

Service Untitled: Has JotSpot’s training program been successful?

Joe Kraus: Little too early to tell. Our self-service stuff has been pretty successful. We also do some events for developers, getting to know our head of developer relations for people who want more advanced training obviously and it is a little too early to tell for partner delivered training.

Service Untitled: You recently partnered with eBay. They have traditionally valued community and heavy involvement in their community based. Is JotSpot following that approach?

Joe Kraus: With eBay, again what we did there was ask how do you have the community help itself in terms of learning and sharing skills? So, anything from how do I sell internationally to how do I avoid negative feedback and a lot of what JotSpot offers is support for some of the community members to comment on and add to the support documentation. So if you look in knowledge bases there are commentary abilities on any of the knowledge base articles to either prove them or change them or add additional information to them.

Service Untitled: Are the wikis JotSpot offers ever used by a company to help their customer service departments?

Joe Kraus: Oh sure. People use both the wiki capability as well as our forum and knowledge base applications and often offer that to end-users. Usage ranges from the traditional to the less traditional. For example, a small family law firm that basically uses JotSpot to allow its clients to log in and get legal advice, download legal forms, and basically help themselves.

Service Untitled: JotSpot offers wikis that are customized for tasks like bug reporting, knowledge bases, call managers, and more, are there are any plans for a helpdesk or ticket management wiki?

Joe Kraus: Interesting you should mention that. We are looking and taking our bug tracking application which is really a generalized issue tracker and morphing that into a lightweight helpdesk or ticket tracker for small businesses. That should be done by the end of year.

Service Untitled: It seems that many of the wikis JotSpot offers could be combined to make a fairly powerful CRM. Does JotSpot have any plans to do that?

Joe Kraus: We are looking at that market on the low end. We are just not sure it will ever be a real core strength of ours.

Service Untitled: What do you think are some other possible uses of wikis in customer service and customer satisfaction?

Joe Kraus: Well, I think wikis are all about community and getting into not just having a monologue on the web, but a dialog with your community. I believe that whether it specifically targeted at customer support as questions and answers with your customers, or on a broader level, customer support treated as the notion of creating a more solid and unified community.

I think wikis stand in that whole spectrum. I think they are particularly good at the latter portion of that, which is community development and whether it is something like what is being done with eBay where that community is enabled to talk to one another or what is done with Intel, where they use JotSpot as a wiki to allow developers to share tips and tricks and ideas with one another. Whether or not you call those customer support or service, or community building, really they serve same effect – which is customers getting answers and whether they get answers from the community or support representatives. My belief is that ultimately the community helping itself is beneficial to both the company because it lowers support costs and drives greater loyalty because there is a sense of other people participating. I see wikis playing both of those fronts.

Service Untitled: Do you think new Internet startups, especially many Web 2.0 companies, are embracing customer service?

Joe Kraus: I don’t know. I don’t have a broad enough perspective, quite honestly. I’d love to give you an answer, but I don’t have one.

I thought of another story, though where customer service made a huge difference for me. I was looking at email programs for my Treo. There were three that were available. All of the reviews said the software is a little cutting edge and has some bugs in it, but what is amazing is that the developer responds within like 12 hours or 24 hours and is amazingly accessible. I chose that one because of this notion that there was a person there that was there to help if I needed help.

Service Untitled: Do you ask startups about what they intend to do with their customer service before investing?

Joe Kraus: No, but I definitely focus on pushing on this issue for those that I invest in. I focus on that notion of design and customer supports are two areas of differentiation. The sad state is that if you look at Google’s tagline “don’t be evil”. What is really weird to be is that is actually really low bar. Not being evil is a lot easier than being good and yet we all view it as a novel, amazing, and incredible that a company would say don’t be evil. The truth is that there is a sad state of affairs on the Internet around customer service. The fact is that good customer service which should be something normal is instead viewed as something extraordinary. The reason that it is a differentiator is amazing. It means that the state of affairs is so bad that by being somewhat good at a customer service, you can actually be successful. It’s both a sad comment and an area of opportunity.

Service Untitled: Anything to add?

Joe Kraus: I don’t think so. That was a good range of questions so thanks.

4 Responses to “Interview with Joe Kraus of JotSpot”

  1. Meikah said:

    Jul 18, 06 at 4:51 am

    Very good interview, Doug and Joe, thank you! Learned a lot of points there: how you handle complaints gives a more lasting impression, personalized customer service is a lot better, and the fact that excellent customer service gives you the edge just goes to show that service is so bad in this planet.

  2. Service Untitled » Customer Service & Bloggers said:

    Jul 27, 06 at 4:52 pm

    […] Community and Customer Service In his interview with Service Untitled, Joe Kraus ( discussed community and its relation to customer service. As a blogger, you need to build a relationship with your customers (readers) and let the relationship continue to build. The community your blog has around it will be what eventually sets you apart from the other blogs. […]

  3. Service Untitled » Happy Halloween! (and more) said:

    Oct 31, 06 at 12:56 pm

    […] On another note, congratulations to Joe Kraus (who was interviewed on Service Untitled) and Jotspot, which was acquired by Google today. « To be honest with you.   […]

  4. - The Carnival of Entrepreneurs Unleashed! said:

    Dec 22, 06 at 12:31 pm

    […] Sagar Satapathy presents The 10 Best (and 10 Worst) Companies for Customer Service at CRM Lowdown. Most of the companies listed are big ones, but there’s still a good lesson in there for entrepreneurs and startups. Check out this interview with Joe Kraus of JotSpot (now of Google) where he highlights the importance of customer service for startup companies. […]