Distributed Happiness

Last Fri­day I spoke at User­Conf about how we run dis­trib­uted sup­port teams at Automat­tic. The talk was about 30 min­utes and I’ve writ­ten it up, with slides included, as a blog post below. You can also down­load the full slide deck. The video is now online, too.

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Howdy every­one. I’m going to talk a bit today about how fan­tas­tic dis­trib­uted sup­port teams are for you as the peo­ple pro­vid­ing cus­tomer ser­vice and for your customers.

You can find me on Twit­ter or fol­low me on this blog. I tend to use both for shar­ing and post­ing links to inter­est­ing bits I read elsewhere.

I’ve worked in cus­tomer ser­vice for about 11 years now. My first job was at 14 years old where I worked in a taco stand at Yosemite National Park. In many ways work­ing with tourists in a National Park is a crash course in cus­tomer ser­vice. The man­ager had me work the cash reg­is­ter because he was con­vinced a 14-year-old would bring in more tips. It actu­ally worked!

From there I’ve worked in tourism, helped start, and close, a small tech com­pany, and now work at Automat­tic.

At Automat­tic we make var­i­ous tools for democ­ra­tiz­ing pub­lish­ing. Blogs, secu­rity and back­ups, videos, and more. The cen­ter­piece of what we do is WordPress.com and that’s pri­mar­ily what my team pro­vides sup­port for.

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That’s most of the team I work with. The photo’s from our meetup in May and since then we’ve grown by 16 more Hap­pi­ness Engi­neers. We span from Budapest all the way to Japan and every­where in between. Across Automat­tic there are about 50 Hap­pi­ness Engi­neers and 8 of them are here at UserConf.

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One of the first things I want to point out is that small, dis­trib­uted teams can have a huge impact. Those are some stats from a reg­u­lar day over the sum­mer for us. In our pri­mary sup­port queue for WordPress.com we see about 35 tick­ets cre­ated every hour in addi­tion to about 35 replies sent.

So while we might all be indi­vid­u­als work­ing from home offices and co-working spaces we can still have a huge col­lec­tive impact on a plat­form that helps to power 20% of the web.

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Any­way, so on to the core of the talk. I real­ize User­Conf is in San Fran­cisco but I wanted to not assume too much tech knowl­edge for this talk. So, with that, what do I mean when I say Automat­tic runs a dis­trib­uted sup­port team?

What I don’t mean is that you have a cen­tral team work­ing in the office with a sub­con­trac­tor work­ing remotely. That’s not dis­trib­uted. I also don’t mean where the team works in an office and there’s that one guy who works from home 3 days a week because he’s been at the com­pany for 25 years and that’s the arrange­ment he has. That’s also not distributed.

What being a dis­trib­uted team means for us at Automat­tic looks like this:

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Those are the rough loca­tions of the team we work with spread out on a map. From Japan to Sri Lanka to Hun­gary, Los Ange­les, and more. At its core being dis­trib­uted means being location-agnostic.

When we hire peo­ple we don’t look at where they live. We don’t require them to move. We just look for the best peo­ple and trust that they’re happy wher­ever they’re liv­ing. We believe that the best cus­tomer sup­port peo­ple in the world aren’t found in any one loca­tion, except for maybe this room, right now. The best peo­ple are found all over.

How does it save us?
So how does this set up save us? After all, we’re the ones who work in this envi­ron­ment every day, it wouldn’t be much good to stand up here and give a talk know­ing we all secretly hate this dis­trib­uted thing. Spoiler: We love it. :)

Hav­ing a dis­trib­uted sup­port teams saves us in a few ways. I’m going to focus on cou­ple par­tic­u­lars here.

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Dis­trib­uted sup­port opti­mizes for per­sonal hap­pi­ness.
That notion rests on 2 key val­ues that I believe to be true. They help guide some of how we build the team.

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The first is that auton­omy improves self-discipline.

I think that the more con­trol you have over your own work envi­ron­ment the more likely you are to excel. When you’re trusted to deter­mine your sched­ule and find the solu­tions to cus­tomer prob­lems you’re going to build the right habits. Work­ing when you’re happy and pro­duc­tive, liv­ing wher­ever is best for you, research­ing solu­tions instead of mem­o­riz­ing scripts, these are all things that lead to a healthy work envi­ron­ment and happy cus­tomers. In sup­port our goal is to help solve cus­tomer prob­lems and cre­ate knowl­edge that allows them to be more self-sufficient and suc­cess­ful. There’s no rea­son we shouldn’t take the same approach inter­nally as a team.

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The sec­ond prin­ci­ple I hold to be true is that happy peo­ple are most inclined to share and spread that happiness.

We’re Hap­pi­ness Engi­neers, right? We don’t want to cre­ate a cul­ture of sad­ness. That’s not going to help our users. If we can ori­ent deci­sions toward increas­ing our hap­pi­ness then it will also inevitably increase our users’ happiness.

A new type of team
This foun­da­tion means that, in many senses, we can build a new type of team. We can build a world-class sup­port team that doesn’t limit our­selves to any sin­gle geo­graphic loca­tion. Instead we can build a team based from a view that looks more world­wide. So that we can end up with a team spread out like:

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We can step back from the pres­sure, trends, and iso­la­tion of any par­tic­u­lar geo­graphic area. There isn’t a cen­tral, geo­graphic ide­ol­ogy that’s pre­dom­i­nant. The lan­guages, val­ues, ideas, and lifestyles of our team are dis­trib­uted around the world, just like our users.

That built-in geo­graphic dis­tri­b­u­tion, what I ear­lier called being location-agnostic, means we can say No to a lot of things. A lot of things peo­ple assume to be required of a cus­tomer sup­port gig we don’t need to worry about. In our day-to-day work we have:

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We have no set shifts. We pre­scribe no par­tic­u­lar sched­ule. And we ensure that no one pulls a grave­yard shift.

I mean, seri­ously, would you rather get help from some­one work­ing at 9:00 in the morn­ing from the farm he lives on in Swe­den or from a guy chug­ging Red Bulls to stay awake through the 4am clos­ing time of his shift? Pretty sure one of those sit­u­a­tions is going to pro­vide for a lot bet­ter cus­tomer experience.

By say­ing No to these things, though, we had to build tools and habits that help us opti­mize for the per­sonal hap­pi­ness I men­tioned ear­lier. When we’re spread around the world we can’t rely upon the same office habits that get things done in per­son. I’m going to talk about 3 aspects of these habits that we built.

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First, we aim to doc­u­ment everything.

How many peo­ple would love it if their com­pany had bet­ter inter­nal tools and doc­u­men­ta­tion? How many times are you stuck walk­ing down the hall to find Jack because he’s the guy who built this tool 4 years ago that no one else really knows how to use but you know it fixes this one bug that hap­pens every six months?

The way we’ve fixed that in a dis­trib­uted team is that we doc­u­ment every­thing. The goal is to remove silos. No one per­son should be the gate­keeper to knowl­edge about how to help our cus­tomers and help each other.

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Sec­ond, we don’t use email.

It’s not that we all have inboxes total­ing in the thou­sands because we choose never to look at it. It’s that we actu­ally don’t use it. Some­thing like 3% of our entire com­pany com­mu­ni­ca­tion hap­pens through email and much of that is to exter­nal sources.

On a sup­port team, email can cre­ate a com­plete stum­bling block for find­ing infor­ma­tion. How much of your own work relies upon instruc­tions, infor­ma­tion, or ref­er­ences that were sent to you via email? What hap­pens when some­one new joins the team? How can they access that insti­tu­tional knowledge?

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To solve some of those ques­tions and to replace how most teams use email we built this inter­nal Word­Press theme code­named O2. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is oxy­gen, after all.

This theme updates in real-time, is ori­ented to con­ver­sa­tions, and is pub­lic to every­one in the com­pany. We have about 150 inter­nal blogs like this. Each team, project, or inter­est has one.

There’s noth­ing about this tool that is lim­ited to being used by dis­trib­uted teams. How­ever, when you’re in an office together it becomes much more dif­fi­cult to build habits beyond the con­ve­nience of walk­ing over to someone’s desk and ask­ing them a ques­tion ver­bally. Remove that option and you sud­denly have much more scal­able default habits.

Here’s the part that really saves our san­ity about them: they’re pub­lic to every­one. From the moment you join Automat­tic you can access every site in the entire com­pany and find the archives going back years before you joined. So it’s not that every per­son will solve every ques­tion. It’s that every one of us should have the tools and infor­ma­tion we need to do so. Some­times we’ll still use IRC or Skype to ping and ask for help. More often than not, though, the answer lies on an O2.

There’s a the­ory called Jevon’s Para­dox. When loosely applied to com­mu­ni­ca­tion it means that as we acquire more effi­cient means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing we spend more, not less, time com­mu­ni­cat­ing. That’s how O2s work for us. They are so ori­ented toward con­ver­sa­tion and infor­ma­tion retrieval that we pour so much of our inter­nal data in to them. So while we aren’t all in a cen­tral office together we end up spend­ing more time, not less, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other.

It’s not all work and doc­u­men­ta­tion, though. Some­thing I didn’t appre­ci­ate when I joined 4 years ago was that these inter­nal blogs also give every­one access to the company’s in-jokes. There’s very lit­tle of that “Oh, you should have been there…” sentiment.

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You want to know why we own youreffortstodaydisappoint.me? Well, it’s there. Com­plete with the meme-based thread from the day the sup­port team went a bit loopy.

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Maybe some­one ref­er­ences the giant fuck off bear that dis­tracts you from your cre­ative moments? Well that joke and video is right there too. Any time you want you can get a crash course in com­pany cul­ture, jokes, his­tory, and personalities.

Work envi­ron­ment
So a dis­trib­uted sup­port team allows us to build habits of doc­u­men­ta­tion and avoid the walled gar­dens of an email inbox.

Both things that save us. The final thing I want to men­tion about how dis­trib­uted sup­port saves us is about our work environments.

Some­one on the team phrased it this way, “It’s eas­ier to relate to users as indi­vid­u­als when you’re a sin­gle per­son sur­rounded by your own envi­ron­ment than when you’re stuck in an office.” That’s what it’s all about right? We all chase that ideal of per­sonal, car­ing sup­port that flows from human to human. We’re not a script, a com­pany, or a ticket num­ber. We’re people.

We can all have great desk setups but there’s some­thing about your home envi­ron­ment that’s dif­fi­cult to repli­cate. The food’s what you love, the tem­per­a­ture is how you like it, the lighting’s what you want. Every­thing is set in a way that’s mean­ing­ful and per­sonal to you. With that back­ground it’s expo­nen­tially eas­ier to let per­son­al­ity, hap­pi­ness, and warmth flow in to your replies.

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Since we don’t have sched­ules, shifts, or pre­scribed loca­tions we can work any­where. And our work setups mir­ror that. This is someone’s tem­po­rary desk at her sister’s place. She’s always on road trips with their fam­ily and sur­round them­selves with just what they need while dri­ving around the US. I’m pretty sure she never actu­ally works from home.

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Or, maybe you’re a for­mer librar­ian who appre­ci­ates the use a good set of ency­clo­pe­dias can be put to…as a mon­i­tor stand.

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Or, maybe you’re me and all you want is a clean, electrically-adjustable desk that has a sin­gle screen on it. Either way it’s my set up for work, not the typ­i­cal one.

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And, what tech pre­sen­ta­tion would be com­plete with­out a cat pic­ture. I mean, seri­ously, how could you not want to make users happy when you have those two guys hang­ing out with you all day? I don’t know what their typ­ing skills are like but I’ll give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt.

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So that’s how dis­trib­uted sup­port saves us.

It saves our time in that we can work when we feel most able to work pro­duc­tively and happily.

It saves our san­ity by cre­at­ing habits of doc­u­men­ta­tion and remov­ing the bur­den of a clogged email inbox.

And it saves our hap­pi­ness by keep­ing our work envi­ron­ments per­sonal and meaningful.

How does it save our users?
Now, how does this team set up save our users? After all, they’re the ones that we do this for. There are three things I’ll high­light here

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First, it saves our users by allow­ing for faster response times.

The team’s all over the world. So that means that if you’re liv­ing in Budapest and notice some­thing breaks or if you need an urgent fix you’re not wait­ing for the US to wake up. You have a Hap­pi­ness Engi­neer liv­ing in Budapest who’s just fin­ish­ing his morn­ing cof­fee and start­ing the day. He’ll help you fast!

There aren’t really sil­ver bul­lets in sup­port, but I think faster response times is as close as we’ll get to one. The same answer deliv­ered 6 hours faster is inher­ently better.

In our pri­mary ticket queue here’s what our incom­ing vol­ume looks like:

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That’s our incom­ing ticket vol­ume over the course of a fairly typ­i­cal day. The time­stamps are UTC so the big swell you see is basi­cally the United States wak­ing up and want­ing to blog. It’s a 10x dif­fer­ence between the low­est hour on the graph and the highest.

While WordPress.com is used all over the world our users are still pre­dom­i­nantly based in the United States. Since part of what we look for in hir­ing is com­mu­nity involve­ment our team dis­tri­b­u­tion also gen­er­ally mir­rors that.


And that’s what our response times look like. It’s a nice mir­ror image. The one spike, at 14:00 UTC, is from the US-based crew sign­ing on and clear­ing out a hand­ful of older threads.

No hour is higher than 12-hour aver­age response times and most are much, much lower. So when our ticket queues are the busiest our response times are the short­est. To users that’s a pretty clear win. How often do you get to say, “Oh, hey, we’re really busy right now so we’ll get back to you faster?”

Those response times also mean that users get really happy when we spot their prob­lem quickly. And since users are nice peo­ple they some­times want to send us a thank you in return.

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This was from a lady in Aus­tralia who was so aghast that we didn’t know what a Tim­Tam was that she shipped like 12 boxes of them. Pretty cool.

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The sec­ond way being dis­trib­uted saves our users is in terms of lan­guage. Hav­ing our team spread around the world means we get the built-in ben­e­fit of being able to help our users in any num­ber of languages.

The team speaks Japan­ese, Span­ish, French, Hebrew, Farsi, and more. It’s some­thing that’s use­ful for our users not just in how it can impact their sup­port inter­ac­tions but also how it impacts their broader local community.

When a blog­ging ser­vice in the Nether­lands was shut­ting down there were a few thou­sand Dutch blog­gers who were look­ing at los­ing their sites. Some­one on the team was liv­ing in Ams­ter­dam, though, and was able to reach out to the com­pany, get an export process in place, and ulti­mately help those blog­gers tran­si­tion their sites over to WordPress.com.

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That’s an entire oppor­tu­nity that we would have missed had we not had a close con­nec­tion to that lan­guage community.

And that brings me to the third way our dis­trib­uted team helps save our users. That’s through com­mu­nity. Ulti­mately our dis­trib­uted team means we can help peo­ple from our own locales.

We have Hap­pi­ness Engi­neers spread across 48 cities in 11 coun­tries. It gives us a great base from which we can help peo­ple locally, as well as globally.

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As part of that com­mu­nity we get to help put on events all over the world. Our users ben­e­fit by hav­ing true com­mu­nity events. Not just hav­ing con­fer­ences and events that the com­pany spon­sors, flies in to attend, and leaves.

Hav­ing some­one local puts a con­sis­tent face to your prod­uct. It becomes not just about your cus­tomers build­ing a rela­tion­ship with a Com­mu­nity Man­ager; it becomes about your cus­tomers build­ing a rela­tion­ship with Naoko. Our staff are invested in local com­mu­ni­ties right along­side our cus­tomers. Our cus­tomers end up get­ting help and orga­niz­ing events that are mean­ing­ful to them. They get to share their love of Word­Press with oth­ers and help oth­ers learn. Ulti­mately, there’s noth­ing more empow­er­ing than teach­ing some­how how to use a prod­uct that you love.

Path to employ­ment
Finally, a bonus ben­e­fit for our users is that our dis­trib­uted team gives power users a path to be some­thing more than just a power user if they want. That’s some­thing that helps us and helps our users. It means that some of our most con­sis­tent con­trib­u­tors can start doing the same work as work rather than squeez­ing it in as vol­un­teers. Addi­tion­ally it brings faces which are famil­iar to the com­mu­nity in to the team, fur­ther cement­ing the connection.

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So that’s what I call dis­trib­uted hap­pi­ness. It saves us as a sup­port team and it saves our users.

A lot of what I touched on can be done in an office set­ting too, the ques­tion is how hard is it going to be and how many built-in habits are you going to have to fight against? For a dis­trib­uted team things like local com­mu­nity con­nec­tions, mul­ti­lin­gual staff mem­bers, flex­i­ble sched­ules, and hordes of doc­u­men­ta­tion come as defaults. There are no habits to break because with­out those things your team flat out won’t be successful.

And while I don’t get to see my co-workers every day, a true upside to work­ing in a cen­tral office, I feel incred­i­bly lucky to work on a team that has the habits and tools we do. A dis­trib­uted setup is not for every team nor every com­pany but I’d argue you should give it a shot. For sup­port in par­tic­u­lar I think it’s a nat­ural fit. It allows peo­ple to be peo­ple. It makes it easy for your cus­tomers to real­ize they’re talk­ing with a per­son, not a script.

If you work on a dis­trib­uted team and want to share tips or are look­ing to build a dis­trib­uted team, let’s talk. And if you’d like to join us at Automat­tic, we’re hir­ing.