I recently joined Fletcher Richman on his new Support Leaders podcast to talk about Automattic’s support team. The episode is live now. It’s a quick 38-minute listen where we talk about how I came to work in support, how we work at Automattic, and some of my favorite books.
The condo building I live in has a property management company. This makes sense. The building is 120+ units across 12 floors with retail and office space. What doesn’t make sense is this same company’s poor communication. They are consistently unclear and underwhelming, particularly when it comes to maintenance.
Today they were servicing the fire safety system. This also makes sense. Fire is an existential threat to a 12-floor building and maintaining that safety system is key. But during this maintenance the alarm system speaker in our unit continually blipped on and off. Imagine the sound of plugging headphones in-and-out, in-and-out. Just a little blip. But that blip emanates from a unit typically used to signal a fire alarm or emergency. So let’s call this a disconcerting blip.
You’d imagine that ahead of maintenance like this a property management company would notify homeowners, right? Wrong. You’d also imagine that after being alerted to this disconcerting blip that company would acknowledge the impact, right? Nope. And you’d imagine that, even though a vendor was performing the maintenance, the property management company would take ownership of the mishap, right? Not really.
In thinking about this snafu it solidified some ideas in my mind around support and maintenance. I think they apply to software systems and physical infrastructure alike.
It’s vital that you provide awareness for customers ahead of maintenance. Either passive awareness (like a status page they can check) or active awareness (like an email notification) can be successful. What counts is that you communicate somewhere, someway to your customers.
My property management company didn’t do this. At all. There was no email, letter in our mail, or notice on a bulletin board that this was happening. So when that disconcerting blip started I was just confused. That sucks. To resolve that confusion I went downstairs and talked to the on-site building manager (who is fantastic). He cleared things up instantly. But that’s not really his job.
When you don’t provide awareness for your customers you’re rolling the dice. Maybe everything goes well. If so, that’s great. But a single success does not signal a resilient process. Because when things don’t go well your failure to provide awareness amplifies your customers’ frustration. Now they’re angry at the impact of this maintenance and they’re angry at you. Best to avoid that.
I know the maintenance plan calls for your customers to be fine. The maintenance won’t impact them. But, well, it might. And when it does you have to acknowledge that impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to apologize. Things change. They don’t go according to plan. That’s life. Your customers will understand. Your first step has to be acknowledging that your work impacted their time.
My property management company didn’t do this. After talking to the on-site manager I sent the management team a short email explaining what happened and asking for a heads up next time there’s maintenance. A reasonable request, I think. Instead of any real acknowledgement, though, I got back this:
I spoke to Name (copied) and he said the speakers should not have sounded in your unit. There may be a problem in the system. He needs more information and will contact you to get this resolved.
That’s…factual? Nowhere in that do I hear an acknowledgement of impact. No, “Thank you for letting us know. This maintenance work wasn’t intended to impact homeowners and I’m sorry it did. We’ll improve our notification process going forward.” It’s nice to at least know the impact wasn’t intended. But when writing to your customers try and be a little less…cold. Acknowledge that, despite your best intentions, your work may have adversely impacted their day.
Maintenance can be tricky. Maybe you’re dealing with third-party vendors. Maybe your data center’s backup generator ran out of fuel. Maybe you just didn’t account for weird edge cases. But here’s the thing: it’s your maintenance and they are your customers. Own that.
My property management company, again, didn’t do this. After getting that coldly factual email I replied to say, essentially, “That’s nice but my point about proactive communication stands.” Had they followed the previous rule and acknowledged their impact then we wouldn’t have gotten to this step. Instead they said:
Sorry Andrew. We were assured by the testing vendors that no units would be affected and therefor did not send out a notice.
Well that’s nice. Didn’t end up meaning much, did it? Passing off the impact you have on customers to a third-party doesn’t divorce you of responsibility. When you avoid taking ownership you convey to customers that you’re not really invested in their success. You know you had an impact on their work. But you’re choosing to just sort of go, “Eh, but it wasn’t really our fault.” When you do this you offer no reassurance that this maintenance problem won’t happen again. And again.
When it comes to maintenance, communication is key. You need to keep your customers aware. You need to acknowledge when you have an unintended impact on their day. And you need to own your role in causing that. When you don’t do these things your customers are just pissed off. And worse, they’re doubting you. Because if you can’t communicate well around routine maintenance then why should they trust you to communicate well around more important matters? They shouldn’t.
One of our big goals at Automattic is to cover support 24/7. Our customers span the globe and we want to always be there for them. Since we’re distributed that means we also seek to hire great people from around the world.
Hiring like that helps us be around 24/7 without necessitating graveyard hours. And right now we’re keen to hire more team members throughout Asia-Pacific.
As part of that Deborah and Pam from our hiring team will be in Australia and New Zealand next week. If you’re interested in Automattic or if you just want to chat about how we handle support you can find them in a few places.
They’ll be in Sydney March 8th and 9th, including at the local WordPress meetup. Then they’ll be in Auckland, NZ from March 10th through 12th, including at the local WordCamp. And finally they’ll be in Melbourne March 13th and 14th where they’re hosting a local event.
And if you’re in Asia-Pacific and reading this, we’re hiring.
5QCX: Recruit & Retain The Best Talent. A few weeks back I did a short interview with the folks at Directly about our Happiness team at Automattic. We talked about how we hire for support and how the team operates.
How to Provide Great Customer Support. Solid podcast episode from Hiten Shah and Steli Efti about customer support. Filled with lots of practical tips and distinctions.
Contracts And Chaos: Inside Uber’s Customer Service Struggles. Crazy story about what working in support for Uber is like. This is what happens when you don’t treat support as a meaningful career.
I joined Chase, Carolyn, and Jeff on the Support Ops podcast yesterday afternoon. We talked about goals for 2016 and how to make the most of the new year.
With the Happiness team at Automattic we set some OKR-like goals for the second half of 2015 and made a lot more progress than we did in prior times. If that interests you I’d highly recommend this Google Ventures video about OKRs.
Being Customer Supportive. Great collection of practical customer support advice from Elizabeth Galle.
I’ve worked in customer support for almost 9 years. When I started it was just something I enjoyed doing. I liked tinkering with technology and figured, why not use my experience to help others? Pretty quickly I realized I would be very happy if I could find a way to do this for a long, long time. Customer support is my career.
That’s why I’m beyond thrilled to help Scott and others plan SupConf, a conference for folks who want to build a career in support.
I’ve written before about how customer support, when done well, is a career. SupConf is about how to make that happen.
The event is May 23rd and 24th. It’s two full days of well-considered talks that will impart lessons for you to take back to your day-to-day work. Plus, we’re designing the event with conversations and opportunities to meet others in mind. Speakers are important, but they aren’t the whole event.
It’s time we think about support as more than just an entry-level job. Support is a career, a craft, and something to be proud of.
I’ve always believed that the key to creating great software is to talk with those who use it, to understand what they need and want from your product. If you step away from support, your software will suffer.
You can, however, step away from bad customers.