Welcome to Zappos, one of United States’ leading online shoe and clothes shop. Congratulations, you’ve just been hired as their next big thing! Maybe you’re a kickass designer. Maybe you code faster than you think. Or maybe you’re a really senior executive. As far as training, it doesn't matter what role you're in: you’re on your way to a full month of... customer support.
Freshbooks ups that to 2 months of customer service for every new hire. Olark has each and every one of its employees do a weekly 3-hour shift at customer support. Stripe gets everyone on a bi-weekly rotation.
What's the deal? Are these companies just short on customer service reps?
We can’t deny that customers today expect more and more from companies in terms of service. The demand for around-the-clock support and personalized assistance (that means no canned responses) are increasing the pressure on customer service departments.
This does push some companies to get everyone in their team to handle customer support. Basecamp, for example, got every employee to help on support one day per month when they were drowning in tickets. But they quickly found out this could have another meaning entirely.
Turns out though that Zappos, Amazon, Freshbook and all the others companies that share customer support duties throughout their whole teams don’t do it because it’s easier and more cost efficient. In most cases, it goes far beyond meeting demand. It’s about culture, commitment, and getting as close as possible to their customer.
When you’re hired in a new company, the odds are high that you actually don’t know that much about their business or about how their product works. Getting thrown right into the middle of customers’ requests actually pushes new employees to dive right in, researching features they don’t know about yet or deal with use cases they would have never thought of by themselves. Getting the new hires to play around with your product or service to answer customers’ questions will make them become experts in no time.
Mel Choyce is a designer that was hired by Automattic. Her first two weeks were… customer support! As she explains it “part of any new job is fumbling around, trying to figure out the ins-and-outs of your product or service. Only now, guess what — now you get to do it for someone else! And you’d damn well better do it right!”
You probably have a precise vision of your product and the way it should work. But do you and your team even use it everyday? And if you do, are you trying out all of its different use cases? There’s a good chance the answer to one of these questions is no.
The only way to actually know how your product works and what it’s used for is to talk to your customers. Being in direct contact with your customers through the different requests they have will help you understand the ins and outs of your product and help you shape it in the best possible way.
And if your entire team sees your product or service through your customers’ eyes, they’ll get new ideas of improvements, from how to design it better to how to sell it better.
If you’ve made a roadmap lately, you know how difficult it can be sometimes to prioritize feature developments and bug fixes. And sometimes even more difficult to convince your engineers to work on the small things instead of the big ones.
This is where “support driven development” comes in, as Kevin Hale, founder of Wufoo, puts it. At the online form-building company, every engineer gets a direct exposure to customer support at least every 6 weeks for a minimum of 2 hours. This helps the teams work on the right things and focus on solving the problems on their customers first, before going after any fancy feature.
Bonus side of this policy: the customer support demand at Wufoo didn’t grow nearly as much as their skyrocketing customer base. That's proof that fixing these little annoying bugs can be really profitable in the long term.
Being exposed to more feedback from the customers, good or bad, makes the team more aware of the state of the company and more engaged in the mission. Designers, engineers, product managers are no longer just building a product, they’re building a product for someone, and it’s someone they’ve actually talked to, emailed, or chatted with. It makes everyone feel a greater sense of responsibility.
That’s what Ranjith Kumaran, CEO and co-founder of YouSendIt, discovered when he offered his entire team to volunteer for a customer support shift. He had promised his customers 24-hour customer service, but his team covering the night shift in Mumbai was on national holiday. Engineers, operational team members, and product managers signed up to give a hand and loved the experience. They came back afterwards to ask more shifts to be in contact with the customer again. Today, Kumaran has implemented customer support for everyone in his new startup. Lesson learned.
Olark, the chatting software, went towards all-hands support when their one and only customer support rep employee had to leave, forcing the four co-founders to take turns handling the customers’ requests. Today, they’ve kept this habit, even as their team grew.
As Ben Congleton, co-founder of Olark, puts it: “An All-Hands Support team gives customers a responsive and effective experience”. Customers get really happy about exchanging directly with the engineer that has personally built the product they’re using or about talking directly to the CEO. They no longer have the feeling of dealing with just a company. They’re connecting with a team.
Here at Front, some of our most active users actually like to say hi to team members they’ve talked to before. You know you’ve created something special with your customers when you can read at the bottom of a feature request email, “PS: say hi to Mathilde for me!” ?
Getting everyone on customer support can be a nice concept but how do you really make it work for you and your team? How do you train people? How do you keep yourself organized? Here are several ways you can make it happen in your office today.
The key to having everyone do customer support, especially if this is something that you and your team are not accustomed with, is to plan ahead and let everyone know when they’ll be doing their shift. Get a Google Calendar going for people to sign up for the days they want, or make it something recurrent. At Stripe, every single engineer does support on a bi-weekly rotation, so it's easy to remember and ingrained in their workflows.
Another way to do it is to make replying customer support enquiries fun for everyone. At Kayak for example, they have a big red phone sitting in the middle of the product development office. The number for this phone randomly appears on the feedback page and the customers have the option of calling it instead of sending an email. That way, the engineers get some random calls every day and get to talk to customers on a daily basis.
When you get everyone to work on customer support, you might not be able to train them all thoroughly. To solve that, Basecamp assigns a customer support “buddy” to every other team member that will be doing support. That way, everyone has someone to refer to with any questions.
Staying organized is really important to make sure no one misses any conversations and all feedback is carefully tracked. At Front, we just use Front (that’s a surprise!). We’re still a small team but everyone gets to do support on a weekly basis after our company-wide All-hands meetings.
We just assign the right conversations to the best people to reply to it as they come in Front and exchange in the comments if there are any doubts about what to reply to the customer. And after each conversation, we track every feature request or bug fix with tags in Front and in a Trello board to make sure we don’t forget anything.
We’d love to hear if you manage your customer support with your whole team and if so, how you make it work for you. Drop us a comment or come chat with us on frontapp.com.