Here are the notes I took while listening to each presentation at SUPCONF 2017, Seattle.
Jake’s talk was about welcoming change when your company gets acquired. The first tip was to GET EXCITED about it! You have no choice in the matter, so you might as well accept it.
His other tips for doing so included:
Mentor others and find a mentor, join Slack rooms and observe and ask questions, have lunch with people you don’t know, and have one-on-one meetings in person whenever possible.
Participate in everything:
Sign up for the classes and training opportunities that people are offering. When someone says “Anyone want to grab a beer?” you say “YES!
Write a blog about what you know, get attention by volunteering to help out with things in your area of expertise, and be visible in any way you can.
Read all of the internal documentation, read old emails, read the archives, read other people’s blogs or the company blog, and read Slack channels.
Lisa’s talk was about how she accidentally went from being shy and insecure to being a community leader.
Her presentation asserted that anyone can be a networking ninja, as long as they’re brave and are willing to put themselves out there. She shared what she learned when starting the Support Breakfast podcast and meetup.
It won’t always work out, but the more you get used to being ok with that, the more success will be available to you. And you get to decide what success is. Is success at least one other person showing up to your event? Hooray! Enjoy a high success rate.
Someone has to make the decisions so it might as well be you. Keep trying, and manage your expectations so you don’t get demoralized every time you try something and it doesn’t work out.
Be consistent with the events so people have a chance to remember they are happening.
Try to be inclusive so others who are hesitant to join will feel comfortable doing so. Be welcoming when new people do show up- do you want a community, or a clique?
Don’t be afraid of shameless self-promotion. Pass out stickers at a conference. Tweet about your meetups. Mention them in Slack rooms.
Don’t focus on the end product, which is community. Focus on building relationships with individuals. The community will form naturally out of that.
Mike’s talk was about using peer review to maintain quality across tickets.
At BetterCloud, each team member gets a random selection of a small number of another team member’s tickets. They evaluate these tickets anonymously. They rate this conversation overall out of 5 stars. There is a comment box for good things and a box for things that need improvement.
These are then passed on to a manager, who reads them and then sends them on to the agent who authored the ticket conversation.
This happens weekly. It allows each team member to get frequent feedback from non-managers, and it requires agents to be just as familiar with tone and standards as the managers are.
Rather than having a system where only managers are expected and required to know/enforce the standards, everyone is reminded on a regular basis of what the team is aiming for, and how they as individuals are contributing to those goals. Because this feedback comes from your peers instead of your higher-ups, it has less of a micro-managing feel and more of a team-strengthening feel.
Jessie’s talk was about how GREAT liberal arts majors are at being support agents.
She went through examples of different majors and talked about the strengths of each one, and how easily and directly those strengths apply to what people are looking for in a customer support professional.
Liberal arts majors tend to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. These positive assumptions are important in a job where one is often in contact with the negativity of others.
Liberal arts majors are great at working alone or in groups. They’re excellent at noticing and understanding social behaviors. They’re people-people, since liberal arts studies tend to focus on how people work and the work that people do. They have a lot of practice with critical thinking, as most of the work they did in college was writing papers and producing other original works. For this same reason they tend to have stellar reading comprehension, as they spent most of their education reading and writing about what they were reading. They love doing work that has visible impact. And because of that, they will always be the kind of advocates for their users that you want on your team.
This is me. My talk was about how weak emotional boundaries can be one cause of burnout in support agents.
When you have weak emotional boundaries, empathy is a state of being rather than a tool. And empathy as state of being is not sustainable.
Each of us only has enough energy to be one person at a time. When we feel all of our emotions AND all of the emotions of others, we emotionally exhaust ourselves.
Compassion is a verb. You feel empathy for your customer, but then you move out of that state and into action. You can feel what they feel, but at an arm’s length while standing on your own two feet.
To learn more about the three tools I used to cure my burnout by creating healthy boundaries, check out this post.
Micah’s talk was about how to hire when you have a massive pool of technically qualified candidates. If you just pull a random one out of a hat, chances are they will be a terrible fit. Hiring a terrible fit is expensive. So how do you pick the right one?
You clearly define your values. And then you define the characteristic to look for that enforce these values.
The first question you need to ask is: what do you hang your hat on? What defines your support team and sets it apart from others? A company that prides itself on speedy ticket resolution is going to hire a different person than a company that values personalized phone conversations.
If you get stuck on this, it’s helpful to ask what you don’t want and work backward.
The second question is: what is unique about the support that your company provides? How you use the channels that you use, and why? It probably has something to do with who your users are, and whether or not it’s important that your agents have expertise in the field/domain of your product.
The third step is: convert these ideas into a list of behaviors. What specifically do your agents do that make them good at their job? At Zapier, their agents have to be ok with handling both a high volume and a high amount of uncertainty. They need people who are speedy and also not afraid to jump in with both feet and tackle complicated issues.
Fourth, convert these behaviors into personality characteristics. What kind of person displays the behaviors you want? Zapier’s agents are persistent, empathetic, and curious. They need to be persistent to deal with the large amount of uncertainty. They need to me empathetic to genuinely connect. They need curiosity to find the answers that often involve a large number of apps that are not their own.
So, now that you know what kind of people you want… how do you apply this to hiring?
First you think about your application questions. You want them to be open ended enough that people will have to get to the right answer on their own. Leading questions are too easy for people to figure out what you want to hear. You want questions that have no obvious right/wrong answer. This reveals things about the person, like qualities of their personality. then you can see if their personality matches what you need.
Second, you want to ask questions that are directly applicable to the role. Avoid the temptation to mask the point of the question with cliches. Everyone is sick of questions that aren’t relevant to the position, like “can God create something so heavy even he can’t lift it?” Whatever it is that you’re trying to pick up on (personality, critical thinking) you can figure it out with a question that is relevant to the position.
Third, understand beforehand what kind of answers you want to get, and what kind you don’t want to get. There’s probably a pre-defined spectrum of possible answers to this question. Where will YOUR future agents land on this spectrum?
During the interview, allow for room between good and great. You will probably interview several people who give good answers. But if you give them space to talk, you give them space to stand out and get into that GREAT category.
Use a skills test, but one that emphasizes process over end result. And find the right balance of difficulty. You’ll know if it’s too hard or too easy if you’re not getting good information out of the test.
After hiring, evaluate your own process. Ask your new hire what it was like for them. And if you find yourself confused by the answers your potentials are providing, or you find yourself not using the answers to a particular question, then reformulate it. Each question should have a purpose and give you something valuable.
Peter gave a talk about how AI is coming, and how support agents need to prepare for it. Certain things can and will be automated. What makes you human? What can you do that a machine cannot do?
At least 6% of all jobs will be replaced by AI in the next 5 years alone.
When a support department treats humans like cogs in a machine, they are making themselves obsolete. Are your agents doing nothing but sending off canned replies? Are they doing nothing but figuring out really basic logical steps to complete a process? Computers will always be better at this than we are.
What makes us human is creativity and empathy. If your agents aren’t allowed or encouraged to express and use these things in their interactions with your users, then they are easy to replace.
When interacting with an agent, a customer should have an experience of continuity. The same person (or at least the same tone and personality) should be interacting with them throughout the process of their problem being solved.
Long term memory is hard for robots. Humans are good at this, so our support agents should use it. We should mention past issues and resolutions, and things we talked about with this person in the past. We can have real relationships with our users, and robots cannot.
Standard scripts make our users expect less of us. Use them sparingly.
The ability to tell stories and improvise are also things that make us human. Agents should be encouraged to be themselves and connect to your customers in a way that feels natural.
Peter recommends a book called The Most Human Human.
Kendall’s talk was about finding the right fit for you in a job. It included a personal story of how she found out the hard way that jobs are relationships, not just paychecks. And like any major relationship in your life, this one should be healthy and mutually beneficial. She encourages each of us to find a job that allows us to express our own voice. We do our jobs 40 hours per week, which is more time than we spend on anything else. We should be fulfilled in those jobs, and it’s ok to keep looking until we are.
Erin’s talk told the story of a disaster. 30% of the staff at Moz was laid off, as they went from supporting four products to only two. How did she and her team get through it? Culture.
Team and company culture must be created when things are good. That way, when the shit hits the fan, you’re ready for it. You have the glue that keeps you together, and that keeps morale high in the face of something sad like layoffs.
Erin encourages an awareness of how you’re showing up. What kind of attitude do you have when you arrive at work each day? Do you feel confident sharing both good and bad feelings with your team? Doing so regularly increases trust so that when things are bad, everyone feels comfortable expressing things before they fester.
Taking breaks, practicing self care, and making time for fun are all an important part of company culture. Without being in support of that, you foster an environment where keeping heads down and backs bent means you’re working, and anything else means you’re slacking off. If self care like walking, chatting, and resting are considered disposable, then you’ve got a team with very little resect for themselves and each other.
Take the time to examine and rebuild your processes. Teams that do things just because it’s the way they’ve always done it… they are often wasting time. And that’s time that could be spent on taking care of the team and creating the glue that holds everyone together. So streamline the things that take a while, to make room for the non-work things that matter.
Don’t get stuck in the weeds. Come up for air. Keep an eye on yourself and your own career goals as individuals. Keep an eye on your goals as a team and as a company. Implement a structure that makes it easy to get a one-on-one with your manager if you need to. Allow employees a way to invest in themselves, build skills, and think about something other than the day-to-day tasks.
And speaking of those one-on-ones… have honest conversations. Ask for feedback. Meet as a group regularly to talk about things in person, and have an anonymous system set up so people can more comfortably express grievances. Get comfortable with hard conversations when things are good… because that will come in handy when all hell breaks loose.
Culture is something you work at all the time. If you’re not doing the work, then you won’t have a strong sense of identity on your team, and things will be harder in times of crisis. So put in the time. It’s worth it.
Anna Nagy spoke about what it’s like to support people who know more than you do. These can be power users (people who use your product so much that they know more than you do) or they could be experts in the field that your product deals with.
Anna recommends thinking about your relationship with them as peers. They’re really good at something you may not be good at… but the reverse is also true. Instead of being intimidated by these users, think about meeting them in the middle as equals.
To do this, it can help to identify your strengths and weaknesses. What’s your unique background? What is your degree in? We usually have hobbies which lend us to a large amount of information about a few random things. And when you identify what you don’t know, fill in the gaps. Identify your resources and take advantage of them. Increase your understanding of the vocabulary your experts are using, as well as the vocabulary you use that might be useful to them.
When you support experts, you’re collaborating with them, and building a relationship. You’re teaching each other. How cool is that?
Kallen’s talk was about his experience as a social extrovert working 100% remotely.
He told a humorous story about how easy it is to slack off in the self-care department when you work from home. It’s easy to let home and work blend together, to skip routines like exercise, and to make constant trips to the fridge (which is always just a few feet away!).
Kallen made an effort to schedule things outside of the house, and he is now a regular ballroom dancer. He fills his non-work time with social events to balance his solitary work days. He exercises more and eats less. And he’s much better now at turning off the computer when the work day is done.
Darren’s talk was a personal story of moving from Australia to San Francisco. He had various recommendations for a big change like a move across the world. He recommends volunteering, speaking at conferences, and participating in any way possible to meet new people. To enforce these connections, be yourself (which is to say, don’t be afraid of the fact that you are different). Be memorable by sharing your authentic self; be honest about your feelings. Connect with people as friends; your professional network will naturally grow and opportunities will come your way. But first, you need to forge those authentic friendships. Darren even went to a summer camp for adults, where there was no technology and no talking about work allowed. The connections he made there helped him find an apartment in SF. That’s quite a successful move, if you ask me!
Kimberly works in HR at Olark where everyone in the company does support (know as “all-hands support”). Most of the company’s employees are remote.
Kimberly outlined the particular challenges that we face when working remotely and handling conflict. When it comes to conflict, it’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when”! The technology used to work remotely is fairly new, and best practices have yet to be developed.
It’s harder to read body language and tone over text. When possible, use video chat to help cut through some of the noise that technology contributes to communication.
We tend to avoid conflict, which only makes it worse. But adults deal with conflict. It’s the right thing to do, and being open and honest about conflict with others encourages them to do the same for you.
The first step in any conflict is to Name The Thing. Name what your trigger is in this conflict. What is it about the thing this person said/did that upset you, and why? Don’t think about your assumptions about the other person’s motives. Look within and find the source of your own upset. If we feel someone is threatening our autonomy or our competence, for example, we might get defensive.
The second step is to be curious. Think about the conflict from the point of view of the other person. Most of our assumptions are totally wrong, especially concerning something as complicated as a person’s motives. And it’s hard to think clearly when we’re emotionally upset. Take some time and space to really build some empathy for the other side.
The third step is to say your side. You need to construct a sentence that communicates what you need to say, without escalating the situation further. That’s where Non-violent Communication comes in. NVC allows you to state what happened, how you felt, and make a request for what you would like the person to do differently next time.
Katherine and Anthony gave a talk about how they facilitate the network between the product team and the support team. They make connections within their own organization. They do a lot of introducing themselves to others and following up to maintain those relationships. They offer help in their areas of expertise, and they ask for help when they need it. They talk with people about what they care about (projects they’re working on, hobbies, etc) because connecting through someone’s genuine passion is more memorable and meaningful for both of you. They practice saying “Yes, and…” in order to both acknowledge someone’s contribution AND make a contribution themselves. Establishing trust by continually bringing your value to the table is what you contribute as an individual. When people are giving value to each other, that’s a network. Pretty simple, huh? But it takes a lot of work!
Alison gave a talk about meeting face-to-face with your customers… which was appropriately ended by her rushing off the stage and on to an appointment to do just that!
Alison talked about how it’s our responsibility to reach out and build relationships with our users. They’ve already reached out to us in the first place by asking for help, so they’ve done their part by being vulnerable and admitting that they are in need of help.
She told the story of how they had a user who was needy. He took up a lot of their time. His tone was often frustrated and hostile. They had an opportunity to meet him in person, and they did. And he could not have been more different in person than he was over text! He expressed his thanks to their team for being so attentive. And in this interaction she learned a valuable lesson. We often don’t get to know our users as people. We often only see them at their worst. And through visiting them in person or inviting them to the office (or if you serve a nonprofit, volunteering for their organization) you can forge a real relationship that is more meaningful for the both of you.
Mat Patterson gave a short and speedy talk outlining some of the stupid mistakes he has made. Like that time he left his computer open with the company Twitter account still logged in and his two year old kid sent a series of nonsense tweets. Or that time he added someone to the team based on their past experience, but ignored the fact that they had totally the wrong attitude. Each story came with a lesson (like “logic isn’t always the best strategy” and “always be aware of your surroundings”). And the ultimate message was: we should share the misakes we make. It helps us learn from each other and it helps us connect through shared (oh-so-human) experiences.
Anna’s talk was about her role as an operations manager. She’s a leader at her company, but she doesn’t lead subordinates. She’s not anyone’s boss; she leads her peers. Here is her description of what it is like to facilitate others when you’re not in charge of them.
You see a map and you guide your team along the route. You’re not Google Maps, giving specific orders to follow, but you can suggest general directions to help people get where they need to go. You have the company and team values in mind at all times… and this is more than just a list of things. It’s daily actions. And you help make those actions happen.
Build a foundation of trust and respect. Be kind, be candid (with a purpose), be humble (know your weaknesses, recognize the talents of others), and respect your peers (ask for help when you need it). Follow the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated.
To create the roadmap, fill in the gaps where you see them. When you find problems, don’t just bring those to the table… bring solutions as well. Act confidently. And always see the big picture. Check in with yourself- you’re going to make public mistakes and that’s ok. You don’t have to be perfect to be a strong leader; you just have to admit when you’re wrong.