Building Trust with Every Communication

Ellie Van Dyke

Ellie Van Dyke

When Beartooth, in Bozeman, Montana, announced it would begin accepting preorders for its first product, a hardware device that allows cellphone users to text, talk, and share locations while off the network, the inquiries rolled in hard and fast. Ellie Van Dyke carries responsibility for managing Beartooth’s communication with customers and potential customers and is tasked with building trust with every interaction.

Beartooth’s followers vary greatly in technical expertise, educational background, and intent to buy, she says. That can make parsing emails and comments on social media challenging. A very technical question may come across as a novice query if the customer writes carelessly, so it can be hard to interpret what he actually wants to know or the level of detail that’s appropriate. Someone exposed to the product for the first time may not know how to probe for the exact information she needs or wants. “We’re trying to communicate in a way that’s approachable by everyone,” Ellie says. And as communication progresses, it’s easier to gauge the level of detail the customer wants and values.


Because Beartooth’s product is highly technical, sometimes people make assumptions about how it works or what it can (and can’t) do and make negative comments based on their assumptions, which aren’t accurate. “The customer isn’t always right,” Ellie says, “but everyone deserves a polite and respectful and accurate answer.” This is especially important on social media channels. Because multiple people can see previous comments, multiple people can be educated by every response. Further, sometimes technical specifications shared in an email have ended up posted on another website, so Beartooth works on the premise that anything communicated could be shared anywhere.

To help herself respond accurately and promptly to deluges of emails and social media-based inquiries, Ellie first developed on her computer an answer bank of responses to commonly asked questions. This allowed her to tailor previously crafted explanations to each new inquiry while maintaining consistency. As Beartooth has grown—and engaged a crew of customer service people—her own notes became a Google Docs file that any employee can consult and use and adapt. Other tools that Beartooth has come to rely on are Zendesk, which allows a team of customer service workers to see any email and respond, with visibility to who’s working on what, and also allows a company to post an easily updateable FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the website. Ellie also likes Slack, an internal Instant Messaging system, which allows her team to collaborate on responding to “technically heavy” questions, and Sprout Social, which tracks in one newsfeed all the comments posted on any social media channel and allows Beartooth employees to respond. (Beartooth uses Twitter and Instagram, but most comments and inquiries come through Facebook.)


Many people now assume that company emails are handled by bots, algorithms that identify keywords and auto-generate standard replies to common questions. That can lead some to be rude when they contact a company because they suspect that no real person will read the communication. “It’s important to take a step back, pull out the important question they’re asking, and ignore the rest of the noise around it that might be negative,” she says. After receiving a polite and informative response, Ellie says, “It’s pretty common that the next response is ‘thank you so much for clarifying,’ ‘I misunderstood,’ ‘I really appreciate your getting back to me.’ Having that interaction is great for your company branding.”