Michael Kansky of LiveHelpNow: “Curiosity, empathy, and lots of coffee”

I wish someone told me how important a customer success branch is for the company. What I mean by that is that it’s crucial to have people who create relationships with your customers to stay in touch on the weekly or monthly basis and get constant feedback. Not only do you decrease if not eliminate […]

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I wish someone told me how important a customer success branch is for the company. What I mean by that is that it’s crucial to have people who create relationships with your customers to stay in touch on the weekly or monthly basis and get constant feedback. Not only do you decrease if not eliminate churn, but also shape your services or products for the users.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Kansky of LiveHelpNow.

Michael immigrated to the United States in 1997 from Ukraine as a refugee. He had only two years of unfinished college education and an extensive interest in IT.

After a few years of working as an IT consultant, Michael started his first customer service software company in 2005. In his work as a consultant he saw a lack of good customer service across many industries and he wanted to make a difference and change that.

Michael’s new one-man basement-operated business offered free live chat software to companies to install on their websites and bring customer service to the next level. Then, in 2009, he took a leap of faith and made the decision to start charging for his software, which he no longer could offer for free as the clientele base has grown. To his own surprise, most of his clients were willing to pay for what they got for free for years. That is how LiveHelpNow was born.

Today LiveHelpNow, together with its sister company HelpSquad, services over 8,000 small businesses and organizations, helping them connect with their customers and provide excellent virtual customer service.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Information technology has always been my passion. In 1997 I immigrated to the United States from Ukraine as a refugee. I had two years of unfinished college education and an extensive interest in IT.

Upon my arrival, I began working as an IT consultant. From 1998 until 2006 I consulted about two dozen different companies as a system architect and computer engineer. Jumping between companies gave me an opportunity to gain experience in different industries. The companies I worked with varied from manufacturing to gaming to pharmaceutical industries and everything in between.

In my work as an IT consultant for various companies, I saw inadequate customer service everywhere I went. Customers were consistently not treated well, kept on hold for hours, and just generally disrespected. I witnessed call centers that worked very inefficiently.

I wanted to change that. I wanted to give companies the means to really connect with their customers and serve them in an efficient and helpful way. With my IT background, I knew I could create software that could help small businesses and their clients.

So in my after-work coding sessions, I came up with the idea that could help businesses improve their customer service. I started writing customer service software in 2005. In 2007, I started offering it for free to various companies to install on their websites and serve their customers. It was just a one-man basement operation. The software became very popular from the get-go. And that is how my first company that would eventually become LiveHelpNow was born.

Then, in 2009, I realized that my client base has grown so much, I could no longer offer the software for free. It became too expensive to support with my own funds and efforts and it required additional infrastructure. So I introduced a pricing model. I was afraid that everyone would just jump the ship.

But they didn’t.

People were more than happy to pay for the software because they have seen it in action and liked it a lot. I hardly lost any customers and the majority of users stayed on the platform. Overnight, LiveHelpNow became a profitable company.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Just for fun, back in the 90s, I designed a dating website. I created a chat feature to allow the users of the site to communicate with one another. The “aha” moment came when I realized that the users might want to talk to me, the owner of the site, for tech support as well. From that idea came the notion that, perhaps, other websites and businesses would want to connect with their customers via live chat.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I started the company before I quit my full-time job as an IT consultant. I would come home from work and then work on my company for another six to eight hours. The hardship was that I spent all of my time working, with very little sleep and no time for anything else. It was a lot of hard work. For two years, I was constantly exhausted. But I believed in what I was doing, so that faith I had in my company kept me going.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going well today. I wouldn’t say I have grit and resilience. Those are not the things that contributed to my success. For me it’s curiosity, open mindedness, and empathy to the end user. I get curious about people’s needs and try to find a way to fulfil that need.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes us stand out is that our users are not Account ID #6 and Account ID #24. Our users are Maria and John. We create relationships with our users; they become like a family to us. We learn about their problems and the pain points in their business. We find out what they are dealing with and we help them solve these challenges. That is what the difference is.

One of our clients, a large university, came to us from another company. The university staff wanted to use a system that was designed for their needs and for their students’ needs. They felt that the company they used before ours would bounce them around from consultant to consultant, without actually listening to their needs. When they came to us, the first thing we asked was not how many licences and packages they wanted to purchase with what features included. We asked them what they were dealing with, what pains they were experiencing, and what problems they were trying to solve. At the end of the day that made all the difference and made the relationship between us work for the long term.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The funniest mistake came not from me, but from a third party. Once I decided to start charging my customers for the solution I created, I priced it at 9 dollars per month. I wanted to be fair as many of my clients were small businesses. I figured that if I were willing to pay 9 dollars for something like that then everyone else would, too. A company contacted me, back then it was called Top Ten Reviews, now it’s called Bussiness.com. The company reviewed software packages and expressed interest in reviewing mine. It rated LiveHelpNow as number one in the live chat category. But the reviewers made one mistake. It put the price for my software solution at 21 dollars instead of 9 dollars. At first, I was really angry. I started to type an email to the company, pointing out the mistake. Then I stopped myself and decided to leave it be and see what would happen. Noone complained and, as it turned out, people were willing to pay 21 dollars. That remains our monthly price to this day. The reviewers naturally helped me raise the price for the solution.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I don’t have any advice in my past that I wish I never followed. That is because I believe that even the bad advice that you follow shapes who you are. All the mistakes I made, they are not regrets, they are shapers of my character. I’m completely grateful for all of my mistakes. I have no regrets. All bad advice is good advice because everything we do makes us who we are today.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiocity, empathy, and lots of coffee.

From the very beginning, when I was 15 or 16, I would follow successful people. All my friends were older than me and I would always look up and surround myself with people who have accomplished something in life. I was always curious how they did it and I always asked them many questions.

That gave me multiple areas of interest where I at least had some knowledge. I was always curious about many different things and aspects of life and business — writing to the stock market, business, website optimization, science, advertising and everything in between. This curiosity made me a multifaceted person and gave me the ability in business to adopt and to create things that are attractive to multiple industries and users. Curiosity is an important factor of success.

Empathy goes hand in hand with that. Asking what people are dealing with gives me an opportunity to learn how to help them better and create a product that is useful and helpful. Empathy is really a key in business. If you let people talk about the problems that will relate to you and be very grateful, even if you cannot help them.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take vacations. Take at least four weeks of vacation time a year. Take vacations when you know you can disconnect. Schedule your vacations around the holidays when you’re less needed so you can truly disconnect from work. If you truly disconnect from work you not only recharge but you will also come back with new ideas you wouldn’t think of when you are in the midst of a busy work day.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen CEOs do is that they don’t test their products enough. They get funding and they dump a lot of time, money, and effort into something they didn’t test enough. I suggest CEOs work with a persona of a customer they are trying to help and test well.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The most important thing in running a company is people. People are the most important asset. I don’t think anybody underestimates that, but I think it’s important to have people who work for a company align with the overall strategy and goal. Employees must know what the company is doing it for and what the company is trying to accomplish. That is really the most important thing. Because once everyone is in that boat, rowing in the same direction to reach whatever it is the company is trying to accomplish, then everything falls into place. That’s the most important and the hardest to achieve.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. I wish someone told me how much actual work it is. But I would still do it anyway.
  2. I wish someone told me how much I would need to sacrifice. Freedom and peace of mind, especially. (Well, you probably never reach a peace of mind, but at least you get closer when you’re not running a company.)
  3. I wish someone told me how important general managers are. No matter how small the company is, you need a manager that alleviates your daily operations. As a leader of a company you must be able to allocate a part or even the full day to focus on what’s important for the company’s vision, goal, strategy, to be the visionary of the company that you want to be. Without the general manager that is just not possible. I wish someone told me how important the organizational chart is no matter how small the company is.
  4. I wish someone told me that when you start a company you shouldn’t make it a company that services all. Whatever it is, you can’t think that way. You should be laser-focused on one or maximum two customer personas for whom you want to tailor your product or service. I wish someone told me that. I think if I knew that my company would be a thousand times the size of what it is now.
  5. I wish someone told me how important a customer success branch is for the company. What I mean by that is that it’s crucial to have people who create relationships with your customers to stay in touch on the weekly or monthly basis and get constant feedback. Not only do you decrease if not eliminate churn, but also shape your services or products for the users.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start a movement in some kind of healthcare research. The coronavirus vaccine was developed in less than a year with some collaboration. That goes to show that if there were enough will from smart people who didn’t have to think about money, compensation, or patterns, great things could be accomplished. That kind of movement would be helpful to a lot of people. There are so many illnesses without cures, to some of which my family members fell victims. I’m sure that can be solved easily if there is a collaborative movement. But that’s very much a pipe dream that is not very feasible.

How can our readers further follow you online?

They can connect with me on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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