Start Making your Support Agents Your Sales Team! (Part 2 of 2)

When I wrote Monday’s post on what a bad idea it was to make your sales team your support team, I let you know that a second post was coming and that my thoughts weren’t complete. I saw a lot of great conversation on Twitter and Facebook, and Mike Lyons in particular nailed the problem:

When your focus, your priority, is sales and not support…you’re doing it wrong. When the insane metrics for success are based solely on sales, you’re setting yourself and your customers up for failure in the long term. Sometimes, sacrificing in the short term can pay off in a big way.

For me, a great example of this behavior is Hover. This is a referral link for them, because I genuinely think they’re amazing for the reasons outlined here. I used to use NameCheap for all of my domain names until my SRV records started breaking constantly. I wanted to use a new registrar, but also transferring domains is a pain. Then, I learned Hover has a white glove service where they’ll migrate all of your domains for you from any other registrar for no extra fee. They didn’t make extra profit from me, but I’m a hover customer for life and definitely a brand promoter.

Later on, I worked on a website for an elderly woman in my church who had no idea how to use a computer let alone manage a website or domain name (she made children’s music and wanted to sell it online). I asked her to register her own domain name so that she could retain full ownership. She was terrified of the prospect, but I knew that Hover would take care of her. She registered her domain name and set her DNS record up with them over the phone. She was delighted to work with them and said they answered her phone call faster than any other company she’d called in the last 10 years, and with a real person! They spent 30 minutes with her, walking her through payment, setting up the domain, domain privacy, and more…all for just the domain purchase fee. Now THAT is how you do customer service!

Your support people have the potential to be the best sales people in your entire organization. They interact with your customer on a daily basis. They know all of the pain points, feature requests, competing plugins or services that have wooed some of your customers away and they know why those products were a better fit. Your support team is likely the best equipped in your organization to tell you whether the products you’re selling are products your customers even want to buy, let alone to inform you of the most requested features and whether or not your customers are willing to pay for them.

If the focus for your support team shifts to providing an amazing experience as their metrics instead of sales numbers, your customers will stay. They will become promoters of your brand, they will remember how you helped them even when it wasn’t specifically your job, and despite the short term sacrifice you WILL enjoy long term stability.

Remember the movie Miracle on 34th Street? In it, a “random” guy off the streets named Kris Kringle becomes a Santa at Macy’s. When children request certain toys that can’t be found at Macy’s, Kris tells them where to go…even if the solution is a competitor. His bosses are so furious that they are planning to fire him until one of the women he helped pledges to always shop at Macy’s when able because of the amazing service Kris provided to her. This altruistic marketing does so well for them that they even publish advertisements in the paper about their service to help their customers find whatever they need, no matter who gets the final sale.

At Saturday Drive we recently started adopting this as a matter of policy. If a user asks for a feature we don’t currently have, we do two things. First, we make a note of that feature request with as much information about the users use case as we can so our product owner can review it and consider it for a future release. Second, we tell the user where they can find that feature even if it means sending them to a competitor. It is more important to us that our customers are taken care of and get a solution that meets their needs than it is for us to make the sale of something that might NOT meet their needs.

Do we like recommending other products? Despite being friends with the folks at Formidable, WP Forms, Caldera, and more…of course we don’t! We want our customers to spend money with us, not with them! That’s the beauty of this policy, though. Our team is forced to bear the “pain” that our customers face…that we’re not the best solution in certain areas. If this pain is felt enough, it will lead to a tangible change in our culture and our product. If we ignored our flaws, and tried to force our product to fit where we know there are better alternatives, we might fare better in the short term but in the long run we will end up with jaded users who not only end up on another solution anyway, but are now brand detractors instead of promoters.

Today, we might not meet the need of that developer or site owner…but they will remember the interaction that they had with us, and that we cared enough about their well being that we put them on the right path even if it wasn’t with us. Maybe the next time someone has a need, they recommend us and tell that story. Maybe the next time they need a form solution for themselves or a client, they remember that we *do* meet the need for that use case well. Maybe they don’t. It happens.

For us, as members of this awesome WordPress community, it’s important to reduce the friction of the WordPress experience overall. We need to face the facts that even if they aren’t as flexible, Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, and others are here to stay. They are objectively easier to use for most people than WordPress, and people are willing to spend their money on the “easy” solution more than they’re willing to spend on the “best” solution. If we want WordPress to succeed, then hosts, plugin developers, theme devs and more need to remember that while we’re all competitors, on some level we’re also all on the same team. If WordPress dies because we make our bottom line more important than people, we’ll go down with that ship.

Stop Making Your Sales Agents Your Support Team (Part 1 of 2)

Man in office on telephone

At a conference I attended recently, I talked to representatives from a web hosting company about some issues that mutual customers of ours had experienced with their customer support department.

We constantly hear complaints on our end (as a WordPress plugin) that this hosting provider isn’t interested in helping them, or tells their customers that our product is bad and they should use a competing product instead. In fact…we’ve heard this from customers of this host for years…even when we had an official plugin partnership with them. Their support teams were trained to not waste time troubleshooting issues that might happen with a specific plugin, and instead to just tell the users that whatever plugin was giving them trouble was awful and then recommend something else in the hopes they could get the customer off the line and handle the next issue to come through.

At this event, I learned why their culture worked this way, and I was dumbfounded by the reason…

Their sales team and their support team were the same team!

It immediately became clear to me why this host had so many customer service complaints…they simply weren’t interested or incentivized to help customers, only to make sales! Their goal with EVERY email or phone call was to upsell something, whether it be a larger hosting plan, SSL certificates, security products, etc. If a customer called them with a problem, that problem immediately didn’t matter to their “support” agent at all unless it could be used to upsell their plan in some way.

It can be easy to get upset and/or frustrated at the support agent, but the reality is that these agents were accountable to their supervisors not for a great customer service experience, but rather for how much money they could make on each touch. Their corporate policy prioritized sales over support. The sad part is that for this company, most of the time it worked.

How can a company get away with such awful customer service?

When you’re a customer who doesn’t have a large amount of technical knowledge, you’re much more inclined to trust your host, the people you have paid, more than anyone else. This is called choice-supportive bias and I believe causes a lot of harm to smaller teams and companies, especially those in the WordPress community.

Choice-supportive Bias and the WordPress Community

Customers of a web host pay a sum of money and usually receive a domain name, a host, and a site/theme of some kind out of the box. With virtually no effort on the hosts end, users have an instant functional WordPress website for a fee. When they want to make changes to that site, they might use the WordPress repository to find other themes or plugins. Obviously, not all of these will meet their needs…but if they come across one that seems like it should and encounter an issue, the first instinct for most is to go to the people they paid for their website.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t expect web hosts to troubleshoot plugin or theme issues. In this instance, the best solution for hosts is to recommend that those users reach out to those teams or companies, or even put them in touch with them personally. Instead, their response is to be derogatory towards a team or product just to move that user along without offering ANY kind of substantial help.

This might seem like a big ask of these web hosts, but our team at Saturday Drive does this every day with web hosts or other plugin/theme developers with a fraction of a fraction of the resources of these larger web hosts. The WordPress ecosystem isn’t that big, and it doesn’t take that much time or effort…especially for a plugin that you have a public partnership with. The problem is that even if this were an official policy for these hosts, because their only performance metrics for these teams are how much they’re able to sell, it STILL would never happen because their priority isn’t to put the customer first.

Down the chain, if these users are eventually able to contact the plugin or theme developers, because of their choice-supportive bias they’re often unwilling to accept from those teams that the problem might lie with another plugin, theme, or perhaps the host. Sometimes the issue is in our plugin, but much more often the issue is caused by something beyond our control.

At Saturday Drive we are constantly encountering hostile customers who refuse to accept that their web host or another plugin is at fault for an issue on their site, because they were told by their host that we were the problem. They don’t understand that they were never interacting with someone who wanted to solve the problem for them…they were interacting with a sales person whose job hinged on getting them off the line so they could sell something to the next person.

The behavior of holding a customer service team to sales metrics is poison. It’s toxic not only to the customer, but to all of the teams and companies “downstream” of the host. I would even argue that this behavior is toxic to the host itself!

My GiveWP counterpart Matt Cromwell talks a lot about minimizing friction points for our users when we provide customer support to them. If a user experiences too much friction, they’re likely to abandon the product causing the issue for something with less friction. What happens, though, when the friction is caused by the WordPress ecosystem in general? When hosts (and even some theme and plugin devs) are only interested in upselling or passing the problem to someone else…how can we be surprised at the rise of companies like Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, and others?

Leave a comment with your thoughts below…I have another post on this topic coming later in the week.

Nothing is Special About Good Customer Service

Recently I had the opportunity to interview several candidates for a position with our company.  In the interview process, I asked a handful of carefully chosen STAR method questions and I noticed a concerning trend in some of the responses I received.

As an example, one of the questions was “Tell me about a time you went above and beyond for a customer?”  More than one candidates response was a variation of “One of my customers or my company had a really hard problem, and I worked really hard to fix it.”

One candidate worked in a retail environment where they ran low on a certain product, so he drove to another location to retrieve extra items to sell.  Another candidate worked as a contractor and mentioned fixing an issue that was done improperly by a previous contractor as their example of going above and beyond for a user.

Are you noticing the trend here?  These candidates considered doing their jobs as above and beyond, even though nothing in those particular stories were things that would be considered outside of their job description.  Getting extra inventory from a second location, or correcting a previous technicians crappy jobs are not going “above and beyond” for your customers…they’re doing exactly what your customers expect.

Customers expect to find a product when they go to the store to look for it.  Customers expect a job to be done right the first time, and if it isn’t, they expect it to be fixed to their satisfaction.  While both of these instances might be outside of or harder than the normal, day to day tasks of the job…they’re not above and beyond for your customers…they’re just doing what your customers expected in the first place.

This is a really important aspect of customer service that a lot of organizations completely miss:  There is nothing special about good customer service.

Think about it…when was the last time you made a purchase and were excited about the mediocre customer service you would get?  No one buys a product and expects and poor customer service.  Good customer service is, in fact, the baseline for most people.  When I buy a product, if something goes wrong, I expect it to be made right.  I expect good customer service.  Good is normal.

In our team, we’ve talked a lot about “exceptional” customer service in the literal sense.  Exceptional is anything worth commenting or remarking about for it’s uniqueness.  There can certainly be negative exceptional service (think about the recent United Airlines debacles) but there can also be positive exceptional customer service (Amazon consistently comes to mind with their almost zero hassle returns and refunds for physical goods).

As an example from a recent Amazon experience of mine, our town was lucky enough to be in the path of the 2017 total solar eclipse.  To help me view the eclipse, I purchased some eclipse glasses from a third party vendor on Amazon.com.  It turned out that these glasses weren’t certified to meet the recommended safety specifications (doesn’t mean they didn’t meet them, they just didn’t carry the official certification).

Now, in this circumstance, good customer service would be me returning the glasses and then asking Amazon for a refund.  What Amazon did, though, was exceptional.  Without me doing a single thing (honestly, I never complained at all), they contacted that vendor and asked for proof of certification.  When that wasn’t provided to them, Amazon took the initiative (without my intervention) to fully refund the purchase, let me keep the glasses, but also send me an email to let me know the glasses I had were potentially unsafe and that I should be careful in their use.

This far exceeded any expectations I could have put on Amazon (after all, the product didn’t even advertise that it was certified, I knew what I was getting into when I made the purchase).  And that act, defying your customers expectations, is the key to making the jump from “normal” good customer service to truly delighting your customers.

What are some positive exceptional customer experiences you’ve had?  When are times you’ve gone above and beyond for others?  Let me know in the comments!

Fix Your Support Processes with “Sustainable Support”

For most of my career in customer service, I’ve worked in production environments.  Olin Chlor-Alkali, a chemical company that makes chlorine for use in a variety of industries, Amazon.com, and even a brief stint at Volkswagen.  In my time at these institutions, I’ve learned a great deal about lean manufacturing (a process by which you remove waste from a process without sacrificing productivity) and I’ve also learned how to apply the methodologies I’ve learned to systems aside from manufacturing.

Our support queues are like assembly lines.  A ticket or conversation comes down our assembly line, we interact with that ticket by adding documentation, bugfixes, clarification, and more, and then we send that ticket on to the next “process” or to it’s resolution.

This doesn’t mean that we take a mechanical, inhumane approach to helping our users.  In fact, if we practice some of these methodologies in our own companies and queues, we can likely provide even better support for our users in the end (remember, lean manufacturing is eliminating waste WITHOUT impacting quality/productivity).

So, what kind of waste does lean manufacturing eliminate?  For our purpose the biggest waste we’re looking to eliminate is TIME.

Once we look at our support queue as a production line, we can start looking at and thinking about our processes a different way.  When I worked at Amazon, there was a massive emphasis on saving time or costs on even the most menial tasks.  Think about it…if you can save a penny per package (or a few seconds per package before it leaves your warehouse), that’s tens of thousands of dollars in savings for a business that moves a million packages a week!

Our support queues are the same way.  At the WP Ninjas, we see around 2,200 support interactions a month.  On average, we spend around 5 minutes per new conversation, meaning we spend about 183.3 hours per month in support.

At $12/hr, that means our support costs us $2200/mo, or around a dollar per ticket.  That means that every minute we shave off of our support process saves us $0.20.  If successful in saving that minute, we would save $440 PER MONTH.  This adds up.  Support is a not-insignificant cost of doing business, and lowering your volume or increasing your efficiency can save big even for smaller organizations.

I call the idea of applying these lean manufacturing methods to your support queue practicing “Sustainable Support,” and I’ve been a champion of it for quite some time.  Below is a talk I gave in 2015 at WordCamp Atlanta on the topic.  If you have some spare time, definitely check it out!  If you don’t have time for the video, check back here soon…I’ll be tackling some of these ideas in the coming weeks.

Sustainable Support – Creating Happiness for Your Users Without Sacrificing Your Own


The Most Effective Tool for Interviewers (and Interviewees) – The STAR Method

Before I write on specifics about interviewing a potential support candidate as a followup to this post, I wanted take a moment to talk about interviewing in general.  I’ve noticed a lot of my peers in the WordPress space are facing making their first hire, and/or don’t have a lot of experience interviewing candidates or even being interviewed themselves.  That lack of experience can make discerning a candidates value difficult.

Interviewing can be a bit nerve wrecking for both the interviewer and interviewee, but there are a few tools which, when understood, can make the process easier for both parties.  One of my favorite interview tools is the STAR method.  The STAR method is incredibly helpful for interviewers, but primarily outlines the response of the interviewee.

Responses within the star method contain four basic components:

  1. Situation – What was the problem you were trying to solve?
  2. Task – What was the goal you were working towards?
  3. Action – What actions did you take to complete that goal?
  4. Result – What was the result of your actions?

Notice that in the above description of the STAR method, I highlighted the word “you” every time it appears.  The focus of a star response should always be on the candidate, personally.  Responses should never be in the form of “my team and I did x” or “my group was assigned y.”  The point of the STAR method is to dig deeper into individual accountabilities, actions, and the results of those actions.  It’s easy to hide behind a team, and it’s common to do so especially in interviews.

When I give an interview, I always explain the STAR model before the interview begins, and I set the expectation for the candidate that I’m looking for personal contributions they’ve made (even if working as part of a team) to a project.  I don’t care about what their team or group was able to pull together…I care about what the candidate was personally responsible for as a part of that project.

For example, a common question I ask in interviews is “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond in helping a customer resolve whatever issue they were facing.”

A great answer that I received from a former GameStop employee went something like this:

SITUATION: “A customer came in looking for a newer game for their son that we unfortunately didn’t have in stock.

TASK: Instead of telling the customer we didn’t have that game in stock, I took it upon myself to find a copy for them.

ACTION: I called around to a few other stores in the area before finding one that did.  The store that carried the item wasn’t too far from my home and wasn’t far out of the way, so I let the user know that I would personally pick up the item for them from the other store and hold it for them for 24 hours so they could pick it up sometime tomorrow if they’d like.

RESULT: The customer was ecstatic and came in the next day to pick up their copy of the game.  They asked to speak to my manager and let him/her know how much they appreciated my tenacity and saving them the time of having to drive across town.

Notice that I’ve again added emphasis to the “ownership” pronouns above. “I”, “my”, “myself”….these are the words you want to hear in a STAR response.

Here’s an example of a response to the same question that should raise red flags and prompt you to stop the interviewee and ask for further clarification:

“One time we had an outage across our network that caused considerable customer impact.  My team was responsible for managing our customer happiness and worked overtime a few nights that week fielding calls and emails from frustrated users.  We decided to issue a bill credit to the impacted users who complained, and in the end most of our users were really happy that we had helped them!”

Nothing in the answer above identifies an individual action that was taken above and beyond the line of duty.  In fact, nothing in that answer identifies an individual action at all!  Followup questions are justified.  Some examples might be “What was your specific role in this situation?” or “What did you personally do above and beyond your normal duties to help out a specific customer?”

Below are some other examples of STAR questions I use on a regular basis when interviewing:

  • Tell me about a time you disagreed with your manager.  How did you handle the situation?
  • Tell me about a time when you had two competing needs in your position.  How did you choose which to prioritize, and what was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a time you made a mistake in a previous position?
  • Tell me about a time when you received critical feedback from a colleague?
  • What was the most difficult customer interaction you’ve ever had?
  • Give me an example of a time when you took the initiative to resolve an issue without the oversight of a manager.

Even if you’re not an interviewer for your organization, the STAR method can provide a valuable tool to your own toolbox when interviewing for positions.  Answering with the STAR method in a traditional interview is still a great way to show you individual accomplishments even if the interviewer doesn’t ask for this specific format.

What are some other tools you’ve found handy when interviewing potential candidates (or being interviewed as a candidate?)  I’d love to hear what you’re doing!  Hit me up here or on Twitter!