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 (https://macaskill.smugmug.com/Conferences/SupConf-2016/)
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.