No, support is not something “anyone” can do

The customer service team is sometimes pushed to the basement, or even worse, shun to some creepy metaphorical dungeon; the task at hand, solve tickets quickly and don’t make too much of a ruckus.

Why would we ever treat a specific department at our company “lesser” than the rest? Maybe we haven’t yet shaken that image of a support as cost center work that “anyone could do,” and because most of us still deal with terrible support in our day-to-day experience as consumers. 

In the real world, especially at tech startups, customer service actually has to have mad skills to be successful: 

customer service skills of today
Support: Not something “just anyone” can do.

Even my most well intentioned co-workers have told me “oh….I could never do support,” with a look of disgust. I’ve wondered, is this because the image of what I actually do is still this terrible support dungeon, which no one talented voluntarily walks into? Or is it because, this work is challenging and no, not just anyone can pick it up?

Luckily, I’ve also had the pleasure of working in some amazing environments, where we see great service as a key differentiator, where our team is part of the crew like everyone else, included in key decisions, and even praised company-wide when it’s due. We see service as our place to shine, a branding opportunity, a retention and advocacy tool, and a way to gather feedback and keep iterating on our product. 

Our support conversations create value.
I dare you to tell me this is not creating value.

Recognize your support team is talented and they do work that most people on your team would not only dislike, but they would be terrible at. You wouldn’t ask me to push production code; why do you think a developer can jump in and do support’s job without the proper training, skills, and desire? Now, with those things, yes, they can do it too and I admire companies that have made “all hands support” work for them!  

If your support team is not-so-talented, because you hired a queue monkey to close cases at an un-livable wage, then it’s time to re-think not only your customer strategy but your company values. Bad service you can build a robot for; the “valuable” kind of service takes a “valuable” employee too. 

My first week as a remote worker

Bello, Antioquia

It’s Friday! I completed my first week of remote work, here in Bello, Antioquia, Colombia and it flew by in the blink of an eye. I’m visiting my father who retired here just over one year ago. I jotted down some of the really awesome things about working from the comfort of my temporary home.

(+) The Pros

  1. I can eat whenever I want. Fatties unite! It’s more about having the kitchen right here, since I love to cook, and this way, I can keep it 100 and healthy.
  2. Along those lines, I can stick to my Paleo lifestyle diet better, no office cakes or bagels to avoid! Yes, I’m complaining about free food at the regular office; I’m Silicon Valley startup spoiled.
  3. I am getting so much work done, I can’t believe it! Apart from meetings, most “support” work can technically be done on your own time. I’ve enjoyed getting a few hours head start before my PST peers are up. Then, after I clear my emails, I can make a nice breakfast and be back online by the time my California friends are getting into work.
  4. It’s easy to pick my clothes out in the morning and stay organized. This really has to do with minimalism. I packed only one “backpacker” bag and the limited outfit choice is liberating.

(-) The cons

  1. I’m in a small town and I don’t know what to do with myself on a Friday night. I’ve already read two books and I just got here less than a week ago. While, so far, so good, I think this lifestyle could get lonely, especially so far out of the “main town.” I’m about 1 hour away, which isn’t realistic on evenings. We’ll see how I do during my first weekend, starting tomorrow!
  2. I’ve already been hit with WiFi connectivity issues. Luckily, things went smoothly over email and Slack, which we use to chat, but it wasn’t strong enough for my many video calls. I’ll have to come up with a backup plan, like a second internet service, or even my ridiculously expensive hotspot from AT&T. Think of alternatives if you can. Sadly for me, I don’t have the luxury of running over to a cafe since I’m technically not even in Medellín proper. No public WiFi here!
  3. My workout routine is suffering. It pains me to think I’m going on over a week of no exercise. Being a crossfit girl, the idea of doing “body weight stuff” at home, sounds boring. I know it’s better than nothing, but I’m going to look into alternatives like swimming very soon. If it comes to looking like a fool at the local kid’s park, so be it.
  4. Any new experience is scary. Even going for a run seems risky. New paths, new country; I might get lost. On the plus side, speaking the language will help me on this front.

Loving the flexibility of this life so far and  hopefully, I will learn as I go!

SupConf- For People Making a Career Out of Support

Last week, I attended the inaugural SupConf, a conference for support pros who want to make a career out of support. This conference was different in that I knew a whole bunch of the attendees on the interwebs via the Support Driven community. This group is a “meta” support group; it’s support for support people and we chat daily on Slack. We are hundreds of people who care deeply about support and we support each other along the way. With that said, I had never met anyone in real life, except the organizer, Scott, so it was quite different to meet in real life.

Photo credit: SupConf 2016 - Ben and Kim MacAskill (
Photo credit: SupConf 2016 – Ben and Kim MacAskill 

There were a few themes over the course of two days (like Scaling support, Owning your career and Changing the conversation around support, for example), and we took many “breakout sessions” to chat with our peers and learn from one another’s expertise.

Being part of a scrappier startup, there was no budget to send me to a conference like SupConf, but another amazing thing about this event is that they offered several scholarship tickets, one which I got!

If you are curious about some other folk’s wrap up blog posts, you can find them here, here, and even one from an organizer’s perspective, here.

I’m more of a “soak it all in” type person and find note-taking distracting, but I got into “jot this down mode” during one talk in particular by Jeremy DuVall, “Hi. I hate your Product.” I’m sure any support professional can relate, no matter how great your product is!

Hi! I hate your product. SupConf 2016. Photo credit Lance Conzett.
Hi! I hate your product. SupConf 2016.
Photo credit Lance Conzett.

If you are still stuck thinking as support as reactive, some of these points may be surprising. Jeremy shared how at Automattic, makers of WordPress when a major update is released, they actually go as far as  rehearsing objections people might have and tackling them. Think about this…. they are preemptively using empathy skills to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, dream up rude but totally fair objections, to prepare the team to best handle communications.  They are working through difficult situations before they happen. Just wow. We’re making big strides on my own team, but at times, I’m lucky if I know all features coming out, and when they are slated for. Trust me, we’re working on that.

My chicken scratch on "Hi, I hate your product."
My chicken scratch on “Hi, I hate your product.”

When a new feature or major change is on the horizon….

Rehearse objections

“this new design is terrible,” “I can’t read this tiny font,” “this new pricing is unfair to your early customers.”

  • Tackle the negativity. What are you going to say back as a team?
  • Discuss rationale. If some of these objections are really fair and important, are you sure you are making the right call? Make sure of it by bringing your concerns to product or engineering.
  • Once you are feeling solid that pushing this release is the right thing to do, rehearse team communications. Consistency is key. You DO NOT want support agents relaying totally different messages. A customer should hear about the same thing (writing style will vary, but the key message remains) no matter which agent you get.

Don’t drown in suck. Stay happy

Even the most thoughtful agents get mean emails. I have gotten some terribly vulgar, abusive messages when I specialized in fraud. Sometimes, the “suck” can last weeks too, say after a really bad bug or new pricing model. To keep your spirits high,  just remember, you probably have a ridiculous amount of support “love” notes around from folks that think you are the most helpful, amazing, understanding person around. There are few things you can do to keep these warm fuzzies top of mind when you are feeling down.

  1. Keep a “happy file” for yourself! I used to keep a folder of screenshots of really sweet emails from customers. I’m about to start this back up again because it’s a great reminder that this job is rough, and I’m good at it. I’ll recommend my team do the same! Early in your career, this can also be a wonderful supplement to “prove” to hiring managers how amazing you are in action.
  2. Peer Reviews. Go through the Good and the Bad. Something like 3 Good to 1 Bad is a nice ratio, but it doesn’t matter too much. Just do more Good than Bad because only discussing what you did wrong is soul crushing. Also, don’t give generic, “this sucked” feedback. Be specific. Be helpful.
  3. Spartan Kudos. Keep a team-wide happy file. This is a compilation to remind you how kickass the entire support team is.
  4. Sharing #hugs. This is a compilation of the flattering, loving tweets, customer posts, or general company or product love. Personally, I am guilty of sharing too much negativity but I love the idea of making a company-wide Slack channel to share the good as well.

Is it permanent? No.

Is it pervasive? No.

Is it personal? No, it is about a thing not about me.

The alternative to permanent, pervasive, and personal is temporary, specific, and external.

Remember, the “suck” is not about you; it’s about a product. When in doubt, just think, “I am the person that is going to turn around any suck they are feeling.” That’s what I do 🙂

Major industry themes

I did not take awesome notes the rest of the event, but there were definite themes that came up again and again.

Use the right language

Talk like a boss Photo credit: Lance Conzett.
Communicate like a boss
Photo credit: Lance Conzett.

Often times, Support says it “feels” problem X is super annoying. Use the right language to appeal to the person you are trying to convince. If you are talking with finance, use money or other metrics, if product, perhaps frame it in terms of WAU or MAU or retention. The point is, think about your aligned interests and frame it their way. After all, you are the communication expert.

Language is also important to growing your support career. I personally took away huge value from Nykki Yeager’s talk on “communicating like a boss.” My action item from this will be to stop saying “sorry” for things I didn’t do and stop ending my statements with questions, “I think this is really bothering customers, maybe this would be a good idea?….just a suggestion” is not boss language.

Support as a Career

Stop the bleeding. Photo credit: Lance Conzett.
Stop the bleeding.
Photo credit: Lance Conzett.

The fact that support is moving from “cost center” and “reactive” to “brand-building” and “proactive” shows this trend. We need to be proud sharing that we work in customer service and that we think about this differently. Even I am somewhat embarrassed saying, “uhh I work in support….” worrying that people will think I work at a horrific call center. I will use this as a chance to explain what it is I really do.

As managers, we also need to embrace the “slash.” There are a lot of “slash support” type things people may gravitate to: bug reporting, content creation, help center, social support, support engineering. We need to provide career paths for our people, so they feel there is a way to progress at the company without moving to another department or company.

One thing I plan to implement is “sharpen the saw” which I learned about here! It’s official time totally “out of the support queue” off email and Slack to work on development skills of the agent’s choosing, whether that be reading industry content or taking a coding class.

Me deep in talks. Wow, I'm a sloucher. Photo credit: Ben and Kim MacAskill
Me deep in talks. Wow, I’m a sloucher.
Photo credit: Ben and Kim MacAskill

Be proud Support friends. We can change the way the industry is perceived.

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.

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