Notes from UserConf

Last Friday I was in San Francisco for the first ever UserConf. It was a fantastic day filled with great speakers and fun conversations. Like I mentioned on Twitter, it was the best conference I’ve been to in a long time.

The wifi was sketchy during the day so I just kept my notebook, the paper kind, handy for jotting down ideas from the talks.

Richard White, co-founder and CEO of UserVoice, opened the day by talking about the current state of customer service and what motivated UserVoice and CoSupport to put on UserConf. He characterized businesses as defined by two types of support: the traditional model and the web-native model.

The traditional model of support is that which grew up with older businesses. It’s massive call centers, phone trees, and a world where only 29% of companies reply within a day and only 20% reply across multiple mediums. It’s a world defined by ITIL and other arcane acronyms.

The new, web-native mode of support is what grew up alongside the internet. It’s fast-paced, multi-medium, and focused on opportunities. 83% of companies reply in under a day, 89% reply across multiple channels, and 87% reply on Twitter. This model of support is one that gets back to business basics and is an integral feature of your product.

Richard also set down the guide for the rest of the day’s talks. As he put it, no one goes to school for customer service but everyone at UserConf knows it’s vital to their businesses. For that reason the day was going to focus on the how of support, not the why. It wasn’t going to be a day about arguing why you should reply to customers over Twitter. Instead it would focus on how you can craft kick-ass experiences for all of your customers, every day. If you can keep your customers happy you can keep your customers.

Jessica Semaan, from Airbnb, was the next to speak. She talked about how Airbnb was able to scale its customer support team from 3 to more than 200 people. Jessica described it all through a metaphor relating customer service to a love relationship.

At Airbnb they started with all support running through the founder’s cell phone. That didn’t scale so well. As they grew the team they wanted to find a way to help more people more quickly while still having the high level of service and trust.

To get started they set trust as their defining goal. As part of that they hired people from within the community, those who were already hosts or had frequently stayed with hosts. They spent 6 months consolidating data from Zendesk, Contactual, and other services they were using. As Jessica phrased it, they need information not data. They want to be able to track contacts per transaction, top issues with each product and team, and cost per support interaction.

Jessica also talked a lot about what phone support is like at Airbnb. Multilingual phone support costs six times what offering multilingual email support does. Once you offer phone support you then need to offer it in many timezones. Each of those timezones need someone for each language you support. Suddenly your 2 person support team becomes 12.

Later in the day Kevin Hale, co-founder of Wufoo, who talked about how they designed software that people loved using. He opened by describing Wufoo as “Microsoft Access as designed by Fisher Price.” Pretty awesome.

From Kevin’s talk, everything about Wufoo seems extremely well-crafted and focused on providing a stellar experience. They keep response times to around 12 minutes, which is phenomenal. The “Help” tab within the interface goes directly to the relevant documentation.

One of the best tips Kevin mentioned was how they include an “Emotional state” choice in the support contact form. 76% percent of their users filled it out versus the 78% who filled out what browser version they were using. Customers also didn’t game the system by always marking “frustrated” or “angry.” On the whole they used it honestly.

Later in the day Kevin posted the full slides from his talk over on Speaker Deck. Check them out, there’s some great stuff in there.

Chase Clemons also talked about support at 37signals. His talk was filled with lots of tips, tricks, and words of advice. One of the first things he mentioned is that every product on the web should have redirect to support docs. 1

He also talked about how 37signals, while not providing phone support on a regular basis, still uses it for certain cases. Chase’s guideline is that if something takes more than 3 replies with the customer he’ll work out a time to chat with them over video and/or screenshare. was mentioned as a tool for doing this. It lets you spin up on-demand video meetings.

37signals has also started experimenting with live, online classes. They do two, 30-minute classes a week; one is about becoming a Basecamp pro and the other is a general Q&A. Over the last 8 months they’ve helped more than 10,000 people this way. Pretty amazing when you think about it.

They also did the first ever Basecamp Delivered event last month in Austin. That was an all-day, in-person help session for anyone in Austin who had questions they needed answered with Basecamp. They had two rooms with 30-minute time slots in each where people could come by themselves or with their entire team and learn more about Basecamp. I love that idea.

Most of the speakers at UserConf were from relatively small web companies. Doug Turnure was not. He’s a Visual Studio Program Manager at Microsoft where his team has 100 million users. At that scale, as he said, support becomes all about having the right conversations with the right people at the right time. One of the things they’ve done with Visual Studio is to add in-app recording and annotating so that bug reports come in with more detail. Doug’s talk was fascinating. Learning how a 4,000 person product team develops and supports something as big as Visual Studio is mind-blowing.

There’s also a recap post up on the CoSupport blog with more notes and links to everyone’s slides.

Overall, UserConf was fantastic. The best conference I’ve been to in a long, long while. They’re planning on holding another one in the Spring of 2013. If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post then you should be at the next one.


  1. I’m happy to say does this. 🙂