Web Directions, 2015

I spoke at Web Directions on October 29th, 2015, at Luna Park in Sydney. My slides are below, followed by a somewhat abridged version of the talk.

My first car was a 1983 Ford Laser Hatchback. It had purple tinted windows and it was a weird burnt orange colour. It was like driving around in a giant Jaffa. 

In between that car and my current family wagon is a 20 year progression of increasingly more reliable and boring cars. All of them I’ve taken to Peter, my mechanic of choice. 

Every time I pick up my car from Peter’s shop we perform a ritual, a sort of dance in which he displays to me mysterious car pieces and speaks powerful words I don’t understand. My part in this dance is to nod when it seems appropriate, and pay the bill at the end. There are tons of mechanics, many closer to my house, but I’ve never gone anywhere else. 

Peter’s reliable, consistent, trustworthy service means I’ve never looked for another option. He could charge me twice the going rate and I’d pay it. He may well be doing that; I wouldn’t know! 

This is the power of customer service, to form a connection that goes beyond commercial reasoning, and it’s what my talk is about today. 

Here’s the outline: 

  • 3 things customer service is not
  • What customer service is
  • Why service is so bad.
  • How to create better service.

Customer service matter, and there are endless statistics to prove it

When you’re in a crowded market, great customer service is a differentiator that’s very hard to replicate. It can save you from having to compete purely on those ridiculous checklists. You know, where you put yourself with all the checks on the left and your competitors with a bunch of crosses on the right. 

And then you torturously word things to make it defensibly true. 

Who am I to tell you this?

I work at Campaign Monitor, an email service provider that helps marketers create beautiful, elegant emails. 

As the first customer service agent, I have helped build a customer service function that supports 150,000 customers all around the world. 

After each interaction with our customers is finished, we ask for their feedback, and over the last 5 years we’ve averaged 96% “great” ratings. 

Over the last 9 years we’ve learned a bunch, made some dumb mistakes and developed a philosophy of service that I want to share with you today. 

Customer service — what it is not

Customer service is not about headsets. It’s not ridiculously good looking people with pony tails and those weird aerobic competition smiles. 

That’s not a real thing, actual call centres do not look like that, and it’s not the kind of service I’m talking about. 

Customer service is not about happiness. It seems to be “a thing” for cool web apps to call their customer service teams happiness heroes or wow consultants or ecstasy stimulators (two of those are real). 

Happiness is a bad measure of customer service because you cannot be responsible for another person's mental state. Some people will be grumpy no matter what you do, and some will be happy. 

Plus it’s easy to make someone happy by giving them their money back or adding whatever dumb feature they asked for. That’s not great service in the long run. 

Customer service is not about heroes 

Heroics are sometimes necessary; if something is badly broken or has gone horribly wrong, you want your team to fly in to the rescue. But that cannot be your primary goal, it’s not sustainable. Even Superman needed his fortress of solitude. 

You need a system that works with normal, non-radiated, un-lycrad people. 

Customer service is helping customers kick ass

The clue is in the name. It’s not about being heroic, or making people happy, it’s serving customers. Service isn’t cool, and it’s not about you. 

One of our core values at Campaign Monitor is “if our customers kick ass, we will too”. And our customers do not come to us so they can kick ass at using Campaign Monitor. 

They don’t even come to kick ass at email marketing. They come to get the results they hope email marketing will bring; more customers or more donations or a sales spike or RSVPs or whatever it is. 

Kathy Sierra explores this idea in her book, Badass: Making Users Awesome

If we truly believe this, we will do service differently. Our email compliance team, for example, will have the tough conversation with a customer who is sending something we think might be flagged as spam. 

That conversation will rarely make them “happy”, but we do it because it’s important for their long term success, and for ours. 

Why is customer service so often so bad?

So, if customer service is so important, why is it so often so poor? Listen to Ryan Block try to cancel his Comcast service and consider the phrase “Comcast Cares”. 

Too many companies think of customer service as the team you send out as a reactive, defensive measure, and they treat their teams accordingly. 

At one extreme you have outsourced call centres with fake names and timed toilet breaks, but even at the other end in the progressive web companies, customer service can be a hard road. 

I asked 40~ customer service people (from various web app customer service teams) what they need to do a better job. The top few were: 

  • Authority to make decisions
  • Access to tools to fix things
  • Access to documentation and knowledgebase
  • Clarity on what to do, and why

I did some research on what makes people generally successful, engaged and happy at work. Here are three great books to read: 

What is it like to work in customer service?

Customer service can be a difficult area to work in because of how it is perceived in other areas of the company. 

Common issues are: 

  • Little control over incoming work—if something broke overnight, you’ll have a ton of work!
  • Limited choice of tools and processes.
  • Little to no authority for decision-making—even when you know what the best thing to do is, you may not be allowed to do it.
  • Disconnection from the company and
    its goals and strategies.—Support can be an information silo, and is often physically separated too.
  • Unclear career paths for agents—the best people can leave in order to progress in their careers.

Those environmental factors matter; being polite and friendly is essential but insufficient to create great service. 

If we took the fantastic Campaign Monitor customer service team and dropped them whole into a telecomms company or an insurance company, they just won’t get the same great customer satisfaction numbers. 

They’ll have the same skills, the same great attitude, the same knowledge, but the environment won’t allow them to succeed. 

Growing a customer service team & culture

So how can you create a successful customer service culture? Too often people believe this: 

“If our customer service team do a good job, we’ll have good service. If they do a bad job, we’ll have bad service.” 

But the reality is that customer service is everybody’s job. Let’s explore the 4 layers of exceptional customer service from the inside out: 

The customer service team—hiring the right people at the right time.

Early on you’ll need broad-skilled people who can do a bit of everything, and who bring in more technical and troubleshooting skills. 

That’s because you probably don’t have lots of tools and knowledge written down yet. And you’ll be finding new issues all the time. 

Later on, you can bring in new skills, and train people up on what they need to know. 

For me, the key point was getting out of the day to day queue enough to identify the source of common questions. 

  • Which questions can we remove by fixing the product?
  • Which can we mitigate with documentation or other copy?
  • If we can’t stop certain questions, can we at least give customer service tools so they can answer those questions more quickly and easily?

You need enough slack time in your support organisation to allow for that sort of thinking. 

Rules & tools—adding the right amount of support structure as you grow.

Tiny teams don’t need formal rules and pre-made tools because the people who made the product and who make the calls are right there. 

When you’re bigger, new people need more guidance on what we do, and why we do it, and what not to do. 

It’s a constant dance between taking away too much authority and autonomy from the front line, and opening up too much risk of accidental damage. 

I like to think of the ideal as being an Arkham Knight style open world (where there are boundaries but you have many choices to make) instead of a Time Crisis rails shooter. 

Rails take away that autonomy and result in the stupid process-following-crappy-service we’ve all experienced. 

The product—how customer service teams can be insight generators for your product or service.

Nobody in your company knows more than customer service about who your customers are, what language they use to describe your product, what they like, where they get stuck, what they like about your competitors… 

That information very often gets stuck in the customer service team. How do you get it out to the product teams? 

  • Define: Tell customer service what you’d like to know
  • Provide: Give them the tools and skills to find that information (i.e sample questions, user interview training).
  • Create: Build an environment where taking time to find and collate that information is ok (i.e don’t just judge them on speed of resolution).

The company attitude of service—great service is everybody’s job.

As companies grow there is a natural tendency towards specialisations and silos, and that is toxic to customer service. 

The more isolated the customer service team are, the less informed they are, the worse job they can do for your customers. 

What does it look like at Campaign Monitor when customer service is everyone’s job? 

  • It’s the Operations team noticing customer service people struggling to get useful data they need, and building a new search tool for them.
  • It’s engineers working on an application feature and approaching support to see if they could use an internal tool to configure it for customers.
  • It’s the QA who notices a small behavioural change that isn’t documented, and shares that with customer service because it could be important.

But my favourite example is a designer who spent an hour with our support team talking through a big new feature. 

In the past, when features changed and customers were upset our friendly support team would be empathetic and kind and say “that sucks! I’m sorry, I’ll pass that on to our team and record your feedback”. 

Which is nice and polite, but not that helpful. 

This time our designer shared not only “what is this feature and how does it work”, but also: 

  • Why did we build this?
  • Why did we include these features and not these other ones?
  • What the long term plan for the feature is
  • Why it works the way it works

Armed with that information, our customer service team could give a much better answer: 

“That sucks, I can see it’s harder for you. The good news though is we’ve made that change to enable a whole bunch of future improvements which will give you much more flexibility to produce amazing emails. 

I can help you with the best option right now, but keep an eye out for some great new features coming soon”. 

That’s much better service, and it really comes from the designer and not the customer service team. 

So a final challenge: 

Is your company truly committed to providing exceptional customer service? 

No matter what your job is: What are you going to do that will improve your company’s customer service?