Customer Advocacy

A new support metric: Number of problems fixed

I’ve talked a bit about customer service folks being agents of change. However, if I’m going to be really honest with myself, most of the metrics I use to judge the success of our team are reactive. I love CSAT (customer satisfaction), first reply time, and the other usual suspects, but I haven’t quite captured the fact that our support team rallies troops to solve customer pain points. I hate to think of myself as an official “pesterer” but alas, I’m coming to terms with it.

Your support team may be friendly, sure, but when a customer has to contact you, you’ve already failed in a sense. There is SO much value in having conversations with people that use your product, but ideally, you want to make it so that certain non-productive emails NEVER HIT YOUR INBOX. Particular kinds of conversations (help me reset my password) offer zero value to your team and they are annoying for the customer. Aim to make them go away and free up your team to do better things.

First, you have to read this blog post from Intercom about having the right kinds of conversations with your customers. Scaling support is all about prioritization and to create an all-star experience, you need to get rid of “irritating contact” time sucks. These are the types of emails the customer hates asking (they shouldn’t have to email you), and that Support is tired of answering (why is this still a problem?!)

Eliminating dumb contacts - by Intercom
Eliminating dumb contacts – by Intercom
Actions per contact type - by Intercom
Actions per contact type – by Intercom

To be clear, I don’t really find any kind of contact “irritating” but I do believe that it is support’s duty to move beyond answering the same question over and over, and coordinate a fix for the root cause– or at least proudly say you tried. When you have answered the same point of confusion 50 times, it’s REALLY time to nip it in the bud, talk to product, marketing, operations, or whoever it takes to make that question go away.

pablo (2)

You may not be able to fix it yourself, or you would have done it ages ago, but as the official connector between clients and the rest of the team, you need to try, or at least understand why and how tradeoffs are made.

This quarter, we’ve decided to work backwards and list our top “irritating” topic types on a Google Doc. These are pain points throughout the whole experience, from going on our website, picking your size, placing the order, downloading our app, paring your hardware, to using the product as part of your gym routine. Some of the actual “product” pains are longer-term goals but a few pain points (sizing, shipping, packaging) can be easily remedied with better website copy, emails, and post-purchase communications.

Our Google Doc outlines the “irritating questions” with a clear owner and suggestions. Some ideas are more ambitious than others, but we’re tackling the low-hanging fruit this quarter, and some of the loftier ones for the end of year. Here is a peek at what this might look like:

“An “irritating” question is one that the customer hates asking, and that Support is tired of answering.

Let’s try and reduce the number of “irritating” questions we receive by updating our Help Center, website, and app to make the product as clear as possible. Below is a list of some of the top “irritating” questions we receive on a regular basis, as well as some suggestions for how to eliminate these questions.”

How should this fit? This feels tight; I want to size up!

Owner: Customer Advocacy Team is owner, but dependent on guidance from Apparel team

Ideas: New help center articles on what to do if stuck in between sizes, info on the “fit” and “breaking in” experience, suggestions on how to measure your body appropriately. What about adding a“fit info” footer on the website, or in the cart? See Skinz sizing guide for inspiration.

Do you ship internationally? Why don’t you ship internationally? Can you make an exception?

Owner: Customer Advocacy team but dependent on Marketing and Front End

Ideas: Add “shipping info” to site footer. Add banner to the top nav bar *if* we detect IP outside the U.S. Link to FAQ. What about a team blog post to explain the complexities of shipping abroad; can we be open, honest about the fact we’d love to but aren’t ready yet? Example of a really transparent reply to “why we don’t ship abroad” by Glossier.

These are just a few of our (least) favorite questions but they all lead to heavy ticket volume that we’d love to deflect.

Everyone would be better off if these were communicated up front so we can focus on those meaningful conversations. To keep it simple, we are aiming to get rid of 3 “irritating contacts” this quarter and eventually, I’d love to actually spearhead some customer-driven product changes.

Are any other support folks trying to eliminate the “root cause” of customer problems? How do you measure your success?

If you are a support leader and looking to get something like this rolling, build your list from your perspective but then get other non-support teammates involved in the ideation and prioritization process. None of your “irritating” issues are going to be fixed in a silo, or you would have done it already. Get all of your dependencies involved and make them feel part of the entire flow, eager, and on your side!

Outside of support? Get excited about the direction that team is headed and chat with them about the many changes you can make (some small, some major) but all working towards a happier, more loyal customer.

Digital Nomad-ism. I’m going remote for 3 months.

I celebrated my 1 year anniversary with Athos in February and around that time, I worked up the courage to ask for something I’ve been dreaming of, a break from the Silicon Valley bubble. I set a date in my calendar to pitch a “work from home” arrangement. I tried to make excuses when the date approached, shutting myself down before even attempting, but in the end, I promised myself TO JUST ASK.  pabloI came with a simple proposal and plan:

Responsibilities: My goal is still to meet all of my current responsibilities on the Customer Advocacy team. Most of my work (~85%) is easily done over email like Zendesk tickets, live chat, and social media replies.

What I will need from my team

– Getting dialed into meetings & calls.
– “Onsite buddy” to loop me into relevant meetings.

• Full availability on Slack, email, and the usual channels to get in touch during the work day. Happy to stick to PST or whatever you all prefer.
• Strong wifi for Zendesk, phone calls, Google Hangouts, etc.
• I have also found a nearby co-working space (if I need a quite place for calls), and a local Crossfit box to stay on top of testing the app regularly.
• Will continue regular reporting.

Besides being hit by the wanderlust bug, there is a big personal piece to this. I want to spend some quality time with my dad, who I haven’t gotten to see more than a few days at a time for a major portion of my life. My mom is a huge part of my identity, and I’d like to have that same bond with my dad as I grow older. Face-to-face is a big part of this for me and I don’t want to let the chance pass me by.

I’m happy to say, asking for what I wanted paid off and I’m leaving for Medellín, Colombia this Memorial Day weekend. I’ll be sticking to the same ol’ 9-5, so it’s no vacation, but I’m excited to explore a new area for a nice chunk of time. Slow traveling appeals to me as moving city-to-city is not only a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t give you a chance to make deep connections nor get too immersed in day-to-day life of the region. I have my eyes set on joining a local Crossfit box, eating like the locals do, and traveling to the sights on weekends.

See you in September, California. I can’t wait to document my Medellín living!

Talk to the team closest to the “customer experience”

The other week, I ran into this Medium post about how all those sucky startup customer service jobs are moving out of Silicon Valley. You can read it for yourself, but to summarize, companies like Lyft and Yelp are moving their customer service teams to cheaper places. I have been on this boat before– promised this cool startup gig was a great career stepping stone, to find out it was naiive at best, and a total lie at worst. The idea that some jobs can suck (startup or not) is 100% valid. One line specifically struck me though:

Why can't support can't be forever thing!?
Why can’t support can’t be forever thing!?

That simple statement got me riled up. I do support. I see it as a career. What am I missing? Am I not a valuable asset? The thing is… we’re still in the dark ages, seeing support a cost center, rather than an opportunity to know our customer and even add value via increased loyalty and retention:

This can be true if you work in an organization that just doesn’t “get” or respect customer service and the massive value it can provide — insights on what product should be building, data (ideas, kuddos, improvements), and mainly relationship building. They are the front line reps shaping what your customers think of your brand as a whole, and people will be loyal to a company who treats them nicely, no b.s. scripts but refreshing transparency.

You can make support a forever thing when you stop seeing it as a “ticket center” or “call center” and start thinking of it as a customer advocacy department, customer champion center. Whatever you call it, the agents need to be empowered and they must have a seat at the table. They should be deeply immersed in the product feedback cycle. That is the difference between a “nowhere” gig where you are overworked on little pay, and a place you want to grow with. If you are isolated, lack autonomy, or are treated like a “lesser” part of the team, start looking for the companies that understand that support has far evolved. They are few but they exist.

I see it as a permanent thing. I deliberately moved into support and find it rewarding, mostly because most people do it badly. I have a shot at being the best of the best, and my company “gets” it.

 After writing this, I have spent more time thinking about the exciting direction our industry is going. While the #1 trait I look for in a customer service hire is still empathy, I have only recently realized how important it is to push, push, push and be an agent of change.

By nature, support people are generally nice and they enjoy getting to know the person on the other side of the screen, phone, or live chat. But the exciting direction we are going has to do more with “voice of the customer,” surfacing bugs, feature requests, kudos, and the hard, not-so-nice constructive feedback too.

It takes someone willing to walk over to as many people as they need to until they see action being taken. Sometimes, this means being stern and maybe even feeling like you are “pestering,” and you have to be okay with it.

The product team can always prioritize and keep customer service in check too, but we need to speak up for the customer. If the front line people don’t, no one will, and this data is valuable stuff!

Your customer service team knows why people aren’t using your app, they get mad (for the customer) when the experience isn’t up to their high standards. Just remember, you all want the same thing (a happy customer and a product people love). If you are on the front lines, stop seeing your job as just reactive. Think about what you can do to make things better and don’t settle.

If you are NOT on the support team and you are having meetings about your product roadmap, tests you can run on the website to increase sales, etc., now you know why you should invite your customer service team. Times are changing and this team knows your customer experience intimately.

Waiting in line: Make waits better for your customers.

No one likes the thought of waiting in line, but some waits are more frustrating than others. My heart and adrenaline soar through the roof when someone cuts me in line. I vividly remember waiting in line, to clear immigrations, when I landed in the U.S. after my 2-week vacation in Vietnam. Why? Because the line was god-awful long and I waited over an hour. Finally, the time came; I was next! Then some jerk decided to skip over everyone and cut. I was not going to let that happen. I aggressively put myself right back in front of him.


Why did I get so mad? It would have been a few extra minutes of my life at worst. Well, for one thing, I would never “cut” anyone intentionally. That’s just rude. Second, lines should be fair, first-in-first-out. Otherwise, it feels infuriating.

Last year, working the front lines of customer service, I spent a lot of time answering “when is my gear shipping” type emails. In a sense, all of these pre-order customers were waiting in a giant line.

Now, when a pre-order company emails you, telling you the wait has been extended, what’s the difference between getting really upset, and thinking, “no worries; that’s cool, thanks for the update”?

I quite enjoy citing academic research whenever I need to prove a point. In this case, I wanted to make a case for being proactive and honest about why we were behind, rather than hoping customers would just forget or leave us alone.

Queue the findings from The Psychology of Waiting Lines (Maister, 2005). Long story short: researchers examined how different people perceived wait times; not all waits are created equal. There are actually some research-backed tips for improving the customer waiting experience, whether you are late on your pre-order date, or working on any aspect of the service industry:

Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time:

This makes sense. Waiting in the lady’s line at a bar is terrible. Waiting in the lady’s line at the bar, surrounded by old newspaper clippings….not so bad! When I take cab/Lyft/Uber, I normally can’t wait to get from Point A to Point B. That one time I had a driver with Mortal Combat, the video game, in the back seat, I was basically kicked out because I was distracted and having fun before I realized I arrived. Try to add some entertainment or a distraction so time passes more quickly.

People Want to Get Started:

To prove this point, researchers specifically call out the hostess at a restaurant. Even though your table might not be ready right away, when someone greets you at the door and even hands you a menu to browse at, there is a sense that you are noticed and officially kicking off your dining experience. Even a simple greeting or email “we got your order” helps!

Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer:

We touched on the fact that customers worry about being forgotten. This brings me back to the many office appointments I have had when no one checked me in immediately. I worried….

Do they know I am here? Should I ring the bell AGAIN?


Apart from the fear of being forgotten, other things can creep in too. Ever hear of Erma
Bombeck’s Law? It’s the reason why you always pick the wrong line at the grocery store. That lady came 5 minutes after you and she’s already at the register!!

Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and preemptively address issues that might be causing unnecessary stress. It may be small, but during the holiday times, we took about 2-3 days to reply to support tickets. At the same time, questions were rolling in about sales that were just a day long or shorter.

I added a quick little blurb to our auto-reply, saying we’d honor any support requests as if they were attended to immediately and it really helped with the “OMG, I need my discounts to work now” meltdowns.

Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits:

People will tend to wait patiently until their scheduled appointment time, and then they snap. Scheduling is a bit of a mixed bag because appointments provide a finite time (which is awesome; people want this), but you better stick to it. As the researchers state, “an appointment defines an expectation that must be met;” even the slightest delay will be met with increasing annoyance. And please, don’t be that person always saying, “it will just be a few more minutes.” Just be real.

Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits:

Good news for all your customer support pros out here, you were right all along! People appreciate your honesty and authenticity. If you explain what went wrong, people will listen and most reasonable folks will understand. They may even commend you for the refreshing approach.

Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits

This is why people swooping in front of you in line makes you mad. This is why you are so mad at that couple who got seated before you at brunch. YOU GOT THERE FIRST!! First-in-first-out seems fair to you, and when you don’t feel the wait is equitable, the wait feels even longer.

The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait

Last week, I attended a conference and we got a free ticket to a food truck. I waited for about 10 minutes before I hit the sandwich shop down the block. I thought about what I value my time at, and a free sandwich did not seem worth a line down the block. This makes total sense. I might wait longer for a revolutionary item, or to see a band I like.

Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits

This final one is fascinating because it doesn’t necessarily mean waiting with friends. You can be waiting with complete strangers and it just doesn’t seem like a big deal, because there is a whole “community” around this wait. Ever get pissed off waiting in line at Disneyland? I’d hope not, it’s part of the experience, and what kind of a person gets mad at the Happiest Place on Earth?

This one leaves a lot of room for creativity. Can you think of anything that might create a group sense of waiting? Maybe make a special room for it, or a “community wait table” if you are in dining :)?

Outstanding service has far evolved from replying to customer questions and complaints. You can actually get ahead of the game and be ready to address issues before the customer even knows about them. While other companies put this last, you have the power to uniquely differentiate yourself with these superpowers.

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