How Customer.io Built a Whole Company Support Culture

Paul Jun | April 23, 2015

Stories about startups and support always seem to begin the same way: the founders and early hires do what they can until they can’t.

As the first support hire for Customer.io—a company that helps web and mobile apps communicate smarter—Diana Potter was tasked with taming the queue. With a decade of support experience, she was hired to make an impact and to build a team that resonated with the company’s values.

Her mission? To turn the inbox into a linchpin for the company.

From the beginning, she knew that the inbox was an underutilized resource for customer and product insight. Even more inspiring, she spread the philosophy of whole company support from the start.

In her time thus far with Customer.io, Diana has developed unique strategies for teaching new hires, being proactive with support, and engaging everyone in the queue.

Luckily for us, she was delighted to share her methodology on how Help Scout has helped the team’s mission.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” In our talk, Diana was eager to discuss the idea of whole company support—so in the pursuit of greatness, let’s start there.

The Principles of Whole Company Support

When everyone feels the customer’s pain, everyone on the team can empathize and contribute ideas on how to fix the problem. Creativity rarely thrives on loneliness; it thrives on the convergence of the community.

“It’s just a really big thing for our company,” said Diana. “Every single person gives our customers at least an hour a week of direct support. As we grow we might scale that back, maybe it will be an hour a month. It’s not so much for them to help with support. It's so that they talk to customers.”

An hour a week is a walk in the park, but it is this hour of speaking to customers that enriches our current understanding of the problems that customers face and how the product must evolve. Like free time, it’s better to have some than none.

This early practice of whole company support has set the tone for Customer.io—not just in how they handle support, but also in how they communicate amongst one another.

“Beyond the fact that we have a fairly small team, we have a fairly close team,” said Diana. “It’s a pretty easy conversation. It’s like, ‘Hey. I've heard this two times this week. Let’s fix the problem!’ We have a really open communication like that.”

This sense of unity fuels the feedback process and, in turn, the implementation of improvements in the product. It’s felt and understood by everyone on the team, instead of just one team member. “I think the fact that everyone is talking to our customers every single week really keeps them up to speed about what our customers need.”

Teaching Commitment to New Teammates

The teaching of customer support isn’t a rote list of dos and don’ts—in fact, it’s way more contextual (and human) than that.

“I generally think there are two things that are really, really difficult with support,” said Diana. “The first one is figuring out the product. The other is figuring out how to communicate that with the customer.”

Learning a new product can feel like learning a new language; beginnings are always fraught with risk and self-doubt. To alleviate this, Diana doesn’t teach technique but instead exercises her commitment in helping everyone on the team learn the product, whether it’s a new hire or someone on the marketing team entering the queue.

How? Her principles are invaluable, nurturing, and effective:

Accountability
Diana mentioned that for the first few weeks with non-support teammates, they’re on Google Hangouts answering emails together. “For the next couple of weeks, they save everything as a draft and we work through the replies together.” This coaching calms the nerves and helps everyone on the team move from basic questions to difficult ones.

Homework assignments
“When everyone’s kicked to support, I have a ten-day set of e-mails that I send through our own product, because that's what we do. Each one is a little homework exercise. I also have everyone using the product as much as possible on a day-to-day basis, too. Generally, they can go in and get familiar with the product. Also, one thing we’re starting to do is they have to write a doc in their first couple of weeks.”

That last tactic—writing a doc—is helpful because the company can use that new user perspective. Perspective always provides insight, and writing to understand what you’re learning is a worthy exercise.

Happiness reports and graduation
Diana’s team utilizes the happiness reports as a way to garner feedback and learn from negative ratings. “I tell any new person on my team or someone in another role for whole company support that there are three things that you have to do to graduate from being new. One of them is getting a negative rating—an unjust negative rating. One of them is getting a justified negative rating. One of them is accidentally sending a reply when you meant to leave a note. Once you've done those three things, and recovered from them, you've graduated from being new.”
Happiness Ratings as seen in Help Scout

Expectations and personality
Diana champions autonomy and understands that personality shouldn’t be muted. “I talk to people about the best way to do things. There is a formula to it, which is being really open and transparent but also empathetic, however that’s put into practice—everyone is going to have to do things differently, because they’re different people.”

While she employs guidelines and not scripts, she values the human touch in support. “If everyone has their own personality in their replies, then it comes across to a customer that this is an actual person that I'm talking to. You can have your little tricks of saying like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s really horrible.” To one customer, that's going to be, “Oh, you know, I’m talking to a human.”

All of this meticulous training bolsters Customer.io’s support efforts, allowing the inbox to be a catalyst not only for insight, but also for stronger connections with the customer.

The Art of Proactive Support

“I’m completely and totally enthusiastic about trying to have support be proactive instead of just reactive,” said Diana. “I don’t think a customer should only ever hear from you when they contact you.”

If only every company understood how valuable that is for customers…sigh.

Instead of just putting out fires, the team understands that you can prevent them. “We’ll see that this person hasn’t logged in in the last 10 days or they’re not creating campaigns or they just seem to be running into issues. We’ll get in touch. The balance is always keeping from seeming like a ‘big brother’.”

This behavior is reflective of great customer support ethos: it shows they care and that they’re attentive. “My big thing is just trying appear psychic and just know that people are having issues. If you’re tracking bugs, you can fix the issue and then just send someone an e-mail saying, ‘Hey. You know what? I noticed there was this bug. One of your e-mails was experiencing an error and I went ahead and just fixed that for you.’ People love that.”

Thank you to Diana and the team at Customer.io for sharing this invaluable insight and for leading by example in great customer support.


About the author: Paul Jun is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.