RV IT: Toronto’s Freshbooks spreads the word

Achieving great customer service is the goal of most businesses, but there aren’t that many willing to take to an RV and journey across the south to connect to their customers.

This is what Toronto-based invoicing and timekeeping software vendor FreshBooks did recently to get closer to its clients, most of whom purchased the company’s wares through the Web with a credit card and hadn’t had much interaction with the company or its staff due to the business’ monthly subscription revenue model

“We really believe that we’re a service, not a technology,” said Mike McDerment, CEO and co-founder. “We want to deliver a great experience, not software. If we want to be about service, we want to break down those barriers at every opportunity we get.”

FreshBooks had RSVPed to two conferences—Future of Web Apps in Miami, and the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin—and were initially going to fly down to the two locales. Said McDerment: “We thought, ‘Why not fly down there and then rent an RV and travel between the two and have some fun with it?’”

Under the banner of “over-servicing” its customers, McDerment set off with a few associates to bond with the clientele in the southern states by taking groups of half-a-dozen people out for meals. There, they could chat about the products and conduct informal market research. He denied that there was any overt sales pitch, but wasn’t above checking in about the customer’s future subscription plans with FreshBooks.

FreshBooks managed to hit over 100 customers over 10 cities in the south in almost a week, including stops in Miami, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Mobile (in Alabama), New Orleans, Houston, and Austin.

This resulted in plenty of client interaction for the company, including a few off-the-beaten-path adventures. “In Tallahassee, we were taken geocaching, which is pretty geeky, like a treasurehunt using GPS,” said McDerment.

The team also experienced Brazilian barbeque in Miami, walking through a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged grocery store that had been abandoned, and a visit to the southern Florida Burt Reynolds museum.

By posting YouTube content and updating a blog about the team’s journey, Freshbooks was able to generate thousands of hits for its Web site (including some from people who aren’t even customers). “The biggest thing that Web 2.0 has done for us is to build our audience,” he said. “It can be hard to get the ROI from these things, but it gets us closer to our customers.”

The company maintains its Web 2.0 presence through a Twitter feed about the office goings-on, online videos (FreshBooks recently posted a hiring-related video), and a bustling customer forum. McDerment said this that the Web 2.0 trend keeps the company connected to its clientele more easily than through the more traditional—and expensive—hands-off media formats like television and print advertising.

And there’s even a pay-off for the internal employees, too. Said McDerment: “It’s a wonderfully creative outlet for them…It falls into the perks category.”