All-Hands Support: Why, No Exceptions, Everyone At Our Company Talks To Customers
As we approach our third anniversary of launching StatusPage.io, we’ve started to reflect on the fundamental things that make us who we are.
One of them has to do with how we handle customer support. And I think it’s no coincidence that it’s something we’ve never given up on. If we had given up on it, I’m not sure I’d be here writing this.
I’m talking about all-hands customer support. It’s one of my favorite parts of our culture here at StatusPage.io and I think it is responsible for a lot of our success. In fact, it’s the number one piece of advice I give to new SaaS founders looking for tips.
If you’re not familiar with all-hands support, here’s an excellent summary from Wistia Founder Chris Savage:
“It means that everyone in the company takes shifts on managing the chat widget, answering the phone, and calling to check in on customers.”
I’ll go into greater detail on the benefits of all-hands support in later this post. But to start, here’s a summary. If you have 30 seconds to pitch someone the value of all-hands support, here are the two main points:
- Everyone on the team interacts with customers and their problems, thus better understanding the user's experience. They then build a better product and prevent future problems before they start.
- Users are more likely to get support from someone who can fix problems right away, thus giving them a remarkable experience. They then become long-time satisfied customers and passionate evangelists for your company.
We’ve written about how it helps us support 1,650 customers with just one support rep, but I wanted to talk more about the bigger picture behind that strategy: why it works, how we pull it off, what tools we use.
Why We Do All-Hands Support
We see a ton of benefits from doing all-hands support. But they all come back around to one person: the customer.
It Helps Keep The Customer At The Center Of Everything We Do
Sounds cheesy, but keeping the customer at the center of everything we do has been a great North Star for us as a company when tough decisions come up. What would the customer want? What gives the customer the best experience? What can we do to better understand and empathize with the customer?
When you launch a product, the connection between what you do every day and the people who use and buy that thing is pretty immediate. As companies grow, it’s easy for that connection to get fuzzy. All-hands support keeps everyone grounded, and ensures none of us become so wrapped up in our activities that we forget there are real people on the other end of this thing we’re working on.
Engineers Create Better Products When Exposed To Customers
One thing that can kill a good product is too many degrees of separation between the makers and the users.
Remember playing telephone in school? That’s the game where everyone relays a short message across the room by whispering it person to person. By the end the message is usually totally different than how it started.
Information is getting screwed up in the handoff. That’s what’s happening with your customer feedback.
Sure, automatic ticketing systems can alleviate some of this — specific bugs and simple problems are getting delegated just fine. But when it comes to big picture product mapping inspiration, a lot of great user feedback turns into noise the more it’s passed around.
In other words, spending time directly with the people using your product pays off.
Jared Spool, who is Founder at User Interface Engineering, has seen this first-hand. He calls it “Exposure Hours.”
“The number of hours each team member is exposed directly to real users interacting with the team's designs or the team's competitor's designs. There is a direct correlation between this exposure and the improvements we see in the designs that team produces.”
As Spool puts it, distributing feedback to the team through one source simply isn’t enough.
“Each team member has to be exposed directly to the users themselves. Teams that have dedicated user research professionals, who watch the users, then in turn, report the results through documents or videos, don't deliver the same benefits. It's from the direct exposure to the users that we see the improvements in the design.”
Hosting all-hands support means there’s never more than one degree of separation between your product/engineering team and your customers.
Seize Opportunities To Provide “Remarkable” Support
A zebra doesn’t survive by fighting a lion with its teeth, it survives by running. A bird avoids ground predators by flying, not fighting.
My point is, as a startup you’re probably competing with some big, well-funded, top-of-the-food-chain companies. Try taking them on with brute strength and you’re certain to loose. You have to your use unique advantages or you don’t stand a chance.
Remarkable customer service is one of those advantages.
When a customer reports a bug and a developer on the other end says, “OK I’m fixing that right now,” it’s a remarkable experience.
When someone writes in with a feature request and discusses the use case and some possible design options with the UI designer, it’s a remarkable experience.
When a potential customer whose considering the product but wants to know more about the roadmap chats with the founder about how she thinks about the future of the company, it’s a remarkable experience.
All-hands support creates opportunities for these types of interactions with the customer — none of which would be possible if a support team member was handling the ticket.
These “remarkable” support moments will increase NPS, and ultimately, your bottom line.
Boosts morale and sense of Fulfillment
All-hands support doesn’t isn’t just good for customers and the business’s bottom line. It’s good for the well-being of your entire team.
When everyone’s doing support, everyone gets a chance to be helpful. And helping people makes you feel good. From the Huffington Post:
“Giving back has an effect on your body. Studies show that when people donated to charity, the mesolimbic system, the portion of the brain responsible for feelings of reward,was triggered. The brain also releases feel-good chemicals and spurs you to perform more kind acts -- something psychologists call "helper's high."
In a jobs ecosystem where competition for smart, capable employees has never been higher, employee happiness is key.
How Other Companies Do Whole Team Support
I wish we could take credit for coming up with all-hands support. Really we’re just taking cues from a long line of inspiring companies who have been championing all-hands support for years. Here are a few examples:
- Everyone in the company takes shifts operating the chat widget, answering the phone, and calling to check in on customers.
“Every member of our team does a rotation on support. I think the key issue is to make sure that 1) everyone in the company knows why they have a job [hint: it's the customers], and 2) An engineer with full commit access rarely needs to escalate anything (so quicker service).”
— Founder and CEO Chris Savage
- Every engineer does support on a bi-weekly rotation. Even the founders take shifts. Support happens over an IRC channel, email, and through Stripe answers.
“I’ve found providing support to be one of the best ways to learn about the company, how everything works internally, and our customer’s needs. I’ve been writing a bunch of tools to automate some of the most common queries, like chargeback evidence, but at the end of the day we want to ensure that there’s always a human available.”
— Alex MacCaw, formerly of Stripe, currently Co-Founder at Clearbit
- Engineers take a weekly rotation doing tier 2 technical support while non-support, non-engineering staff do a half-day of support each week.
“Effective all hands support focuses on making life better for your customers. But it can also cause a shift in how you and your team think about and build your company.”
— Co-Founder and CEO Wade Foster
- Every member of the company, including the CEO, pitches in on support at least one day per month.
“Payroll isn’t typically something you usually think of as delightful, but our goal is to change that by providing customers with a delightful service experience.”
— CEO Josh Reeves
Note: You might know also Gusto from their prior name, Zenpayroll.
- After their first support hire left the company to go back to college, the Olark founders began taking turns talking with customers and responding to support emails. As the company grew, they kept at it and brought the new hires into the support rotation.
“The difference was night and day. Before we would have insight conveyed to us as tickets or Andrew's notes. Now we were seeing customer issues first hand, and moreover as the product team we were able to do something about it.”
— Co-Founder and CEO Ben Congleton
How We Do All-Hands Support
All-hands doesn’t really work if some people on your team are exempt. At StatusPage, we’ve got everyone pitching in on support, no exceptions.
You Need A Schedule
We have everyone on a round-robin schedule where one week is spent on a rotation. We call this “being on sweeper.”
This way, everyone knows about their sweeper rotation and can have it on their calendar well ahead of time.
Everyone takes turns spending a week on sweeper, answering inbound support tickets and live chats. This takes up about 50 percent of their time, the rest is spent on whatever else they’re doing.
I’ve heard of other companies doing a daily (or even hourly!) support rotation. That might have some upsides, but from what we see, some tickets are a struggle to get solved and wrapped up inside a single week. I can’t imagine moving on after one day.
But maybe that’s a side effect of how we do our sweeper rotation.
Don’t Pass Off Tickets After Your Rotation
When you’re forced to do something you don’t care about, you’re going to put in the minimal possible effort. And when the bell rings telling you it’s quitting time, you’re dropping everything and running for the door. Go to any elementary school at 3 p.m. the day before summer break and you’ll see what I mean.
That can be a big problem when you force employees to operate a support shift when they don’t give a damn about support. They’d rather do something else. So they dutifully answer tickets and show up on support. Then their rotation ends, and what happens? They bail. Half-answered tickets collect dust, customers that should have gotten a followup get ignored, things fall through the cracks.
I think it’s bad karma to pass off a ticket to someone else before the customer behind that ticket has everything they need. Put yourself in their shoes.
That’s why it’s important to build support into your culture. It’s not unusual for us to spend a little time the week after our sweeper week on things like following up with stray tickets.
This is the key: Start thinking of support as part of your job, not some one-off thing you do every once in a while.
When everyone on your team buys in to this approach is when all-hands support really starts to shine.
The Right Tools For the Job
We wouldn’t be able to handle this kind of a support without the help of some awesome tools.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we use for support shifts and how they work for us.
Front: Front is where we manage all our shared inboxes and where 90 percent of our support requests come in to. We can assign conversations to other members of the team and have private internal conversations around a support thread to help each other answer questions.
Olark: We use Olark to place a live chat widget on our home page. Not a lot of requests come in through live chat, but those that do need to be handled quickly. It’s important for the person on sweeper to keep an eye on it, and someone is usually happy to pitch in when the sweeper needs to step out.
Salesforce: Most people know Salesforce strictly as a sales CRM tool. While that’s what we mostly use it for, it also integrates nicely with our support stack. We’re able to connect Front with our accounts in Salesforce. When a ticket comes into Front, we can push a button to cross-reference the sender’s data and see if they’re one of our leads in Salesforce. We then get helpful contextual info on what kind of subscription they have, where they are in the sales funnel, who’s been assigned to their account, and any recent communications.
What Changes As We Scale The Company
We saw some pretty awesome growth last year. We grew the company from 5 people to 11. We got a lot of great new customers. Here’s a look at some of our plans for 2016, and what they’ll mean for our all-hands support strategy.
We’re bringing in our first dedicated support hire this month. For a lot of companies, this would be the time everyone can throw up their hands and cheer: “Woo hoo! We don’t have to do support anymore!”
If you ask me, that sucks. Because that means we all hate doing support right now. If we hate doing support, we’re probably doing a bad job of it.
And as for all the benefits of all hand support I’ve been talking about. We’d be throwing all that out the window.
That’s why we’re not getting rid of all-hands support and we’re keeping our sweeper schedule in tact. Our new support hire will help out with sweeper related things, and have time to champion enterprise level support for our bigger accounts.
All-hands Support Engineer?
File this under the half-baked ideas column. Not sure if this is something we’ll be able to implement or find a solution for this year, but it’s definitely on our mind.
One problem with all-hands support occurs when our non-technical team members are fielding technical tickets. They have to escalate the ticket to an engineer, but it’s never super clear who exactly that should go to. Our dev team might be heads-down working on some other project.
We’ve toyed with the idea of having an “engineering sweeper” rotation of sorts. Basically this would be an engineer who is scheduled to field sweeper requests if they come up. Not sure how this will work or how we could set it up in a way that works for everyone. If you have any ideas, send me an email. Really.
I know what some of you are thinking.
“Sure, that works for you guys. But it could never work at my company.”
I’ll admit, there are probably cases where all-hands support doesn’t make sense. If your company makes medical supplies, I don’t want your graphic designer on the phone, adjusting my dose.
But most of the hesitation we see amounts to making excuses. Let’s examine the common ones.
1. Engineering time could be better spent engineering
I get it, developer time is precious and costly. Isn’t it fair to think that time should be spent developing?
In the short term, yes. But look at the big picture. How much more valuable would that team be if they were more aligned with customer needs and problems?
2. Founders are busy Enough already
“Too busy” is just another way of saying you don’t have your priorities straight. Ask yourself, what’s a bigger priority than connecting and building relationships with customers? Or as Ben at Olark put it:
“We've built real relationships with visitors to our website. I've chatted with the press, made coffee dates, found new employees, and closed sales on our website during my chat shifts.”
3. But We Don’t Talk So good
First off, why are you hiring bad communicators in the first place? That’s a bigger problem here. But I get it, it can be scary to take someone with less-than-advanced people skills and plop them in front of your heard-earned customers. We had the same concern, but in practice it’s rarely a problem. Remember, you’re not asking your employees to make small talk about the ball game here. These are products and problems they work on every day, they should be comfortable talking about them.
If you’re really worried about this, try building a style guide that documents the voice and tone of your company along with some common responses. If you need inspiration, the MailChimp style guide is, by far, the best I’ve seen.
I’ll say it again, all-hands support isn’t for everyone. Coca-Cola probably doesn’t need every last one of its employees taking turns answering tickets. Even for small tech startups, there are probably cases where it won’t make sense.
But it’s worked for us and it’s a big part of our culture here. It helps us to not forget that everything we do comes back around to the customers. I know, that’s the kind of corny thing that's easy to say but pretty hard to live out in a practical application sort of way.
And that’s exactly why everyone here takes turns on support.