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FreshBooks CEO Mike McDerment

Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/rosa park The Globe and Mail

Visitors to FreshBooks, can feel the buzz. The staff is young and surprising upbeat for a company that essentially provides online invoicing and bookkeeping services for small businesses, freelancers and independent professionals.

The room is bright and airy with high ceilings and few walls. People are Tweeting, blogging, talking endlessly on the phone, bantering with each other. Desks are littered with personal photos, balloons and, in one case, a Japanese fighting fish named Dearg after a customer with a cool name. If a client has a problem, employees are empowered to use their own judgment to solve it on the spot. Mike McDerment, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Toronto-based company, says there's a lot of common sense in the room.

"If you get people who are excellent communicators, straightforward and empathetic, it's really easy to deliver great customer service," says Mike McDerment, who insists that FreshBooks is really about serving people and helping them solve their problems, not just accounting. "Everyone is responsible for making customers happy. Listening to people, letting them know you understand their pain, is a huge part of great customer service. Then there's the desire to do something special, whether it's sending flowers to people or doing some other little thing – that's a big part of our culture, too."

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Freshbooks CEO and co-founder Mike McDerment 'Everyone is responsible for making customers happy'

They're also fast at answering, claiming an average response time of two hours for e-mails and Twitter. If you call during business hours, they'll pick up.

"We all answer the phone," says Mr. McDerment, who says FreshBooks is on track to do more than $4-billion in invoicing for people this year, with clients scattered throughout 151 countries worldwide. "You speak to somebody. You don't go to an automated attendant. If you have a question, you want an answer."

Although FreshBooks is known for using social media to communicate and share its culture through contests, games and fun videos, Mr. McDerment strongly believes in establishing a relationship with customers offline as well as on. The company has been taking customers out for dinner nearly since the business began in 2003 (originally called 2ndSite, the company was rebranded as FreshBooks in 2006). When staffers travel, they often extend an invitation to customers to come dine with them.

"We invite them out and we buy dinner," says Mr. McDerment, who believes nothing is better than the human connection. "There's no Power Point presentation, no anything from us, other than we go around and meet people one by one. They speak to us, but they spend most of their time networking with the other businesses. That's the whole event."

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The turnout has been growing steadily, according to Mr. McDerment. For instance, the first dinner in San Francisco drew a handful of people, the next one brought 25, and 70 attended the last event.

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"I think there are a lot of people who feel they have a hand in shaping FreshBooks by giving us this feedback," says Mr. McDerment. "They know we're hearing them because they're sitting having dinner with the CEO or somebody on the customer service line. They feel like they're part of something bigger. Members of our team benefit too because it has a massive impact on making what we do real to us."

So what makes a great customer experience at FreshBooks?

"Sometimes when you're in a rush, it's just getting a speedy answer from somebody who's competent on the phone," says Mr. McDerment. "Or if you're uncomfortable with the medium, you may need to have somebody walk you through it. If you can understand what people need and deliver that to them, they're going to be willing to pay you."

And if a customer is unhappy?

"Listen to them," says Mr. McDerment. "It starts with listening. Make sure they feel understood."

One way FreshBooks differs from many other companies is that all customers are treated the same, whether they use the free version or the premium paid service. The result has been great word-of-mouth advertising.

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"The cheapest way to get new customers is when one of your customers tells someone else that they've got to sign up," says Mr. McDerment.

"A lot of companies look at customer service on their financial statement and don't see that, fundamentally, it's a gold mine. There's a disconnect with the numbers on the page. They look at it as a cost because it's not generating new sales directly and misunderstand that it does indirectly. In reality, it's pure interaction between your customer and your company."

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