How to be Great at Customer Support

June 26, 2014 12:00 AM

Portland I

When we set out to build Travis CI into a product and a business, I had one thing on my agenda that I wanted us to be good at, and that's customer support.

Offering an infrastructure product, we knew upfront that customers are going to have problems setting up their projects, and we knew that there'd be the occasional hard problem to solve.

Customer support turned into our number one priority to get right, and here's how we approached it.

Below are the simple hacks we've learned and applied over the last two years to make sure customers have a good experience when they interact with us. You can apply any and all of these steps instantly to improve your own customer support.

Remember Your Last Bad Support Experience

The simplest thing to help you how to do great customer support is your last bad experience with another company.

We've all had them, responses with blunt links to knowledge bases, canned responses seemingly matching keywords, and a customer support representative who's driven more by the number of calls he's making per hour than by the amount of happiness he's brought a company's customers.

If I'd ask you to sit down and jot down your last five bad experiences with a product and their customer support, the last tweets you fired off into the ether about a bad experience, you'll have a useful list in no time.

All you need to do now is figure out what annoyed you about these responses and incidents and figure out how you'd do it differently, how you would've wanted to be treated.

Great customer support people go out of their way to help a customer, they're the frontline of delivering happiness directly to people beyond simply selling them a good product.

First, Admit You're the Problem

When a customer is frustrated, you can read it in their emails asking for help. Some customers prefer to be snarky, others can say things that aren't very nice. People will say negative things about your product. We may not like it, and we may get easily offended when they do, but that shouldn't impact a positive response.

When your customer is having troubles, you need to think about their pain. When they're frustrated, it's because of your product and your decisions. Always assume that the problem is on your end when a customer is having troubles.

Adopting this approach makes you think twice about your response. It removes a barrier, it frees you from responding with a snarky email or tweet and helps you focus on the problem.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

The most important value of interacting with customers, heck, with people, is empathy. Understand that your product is getting in their way rather than solve a problem, and really think about the issue.

It's okay to take a step back, look at all the details you have available and consider the view of the customer.

Empathy means taking the time to understand other people's emotions, their train of thought.

Empathy is the core value of customer support. It's the one thing that makes you great at customer support.

Just coincidentally, empathy also makes you a great customer to work with.

We're all humans, we're all driven by our own goals, and customer support is your one means to align them.

And Honesty Too

If your product can't do something your customer wants, or you can't give them a solution right now, be honest about it.

There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know", as long as you're willing to take more time to investigate a possible solution.

If you can't find one, it's okay to admit that. We're all humans, and not every problem can be solved. Not every problem should be solved, at least not by your product.

Offer Solutions rather than Excuses

Customers aren't interested in hearing excuses, they're interested in one thing and one thing only, a solution to their problem.

If you can't offer one, that's okay, but a great customer support person goes out of their way to find one, even if it means using another product.

Giving a customer a solution, even if it doesn't involve your product, will make them happier than giving them none, than giving them excuses.

Learn How to Talk to People

You won't turn into a great customer support person overnight, but you can give your brain gentle nudges on how to talk to people better.

For me, reading a few books has helped a lot in shaping my languages. Two in particular have been invaluable, and I'd recommend them to anyone. They're useful not just for customer support interactions, but for all kinds of people interactions.

"How To Win Friends and Influence People" is a timeless classic, and it taught me a lot about empathy and how to approach people in general and disgruntled customers in particular. It's the one book you should read no matter what you do. It shaped my interactions a lot.

"Drop the Pink Elephant" is the perfect companion. It teaches you about saying what you really mean rather than focus on things that remove clarity from a conversation. It's shaped customer interactions and the way we write our public postmortems.

Customer support is your number one differentiator as a company. It takes a lot of work and effort, but it's your best way to make your customers happy, to have meaningful interactions with them.

It pays in the long term to make sure you're doing it right. Great customer support experiences can't be measured in money or in any meaningful way, but it'll help you get loyal customers. Knowing that you're willing to help no matter the problem gives every customer the incentive to come back for more.

But most importantly, great customer support makes your customers feel like they're treated as humans.

The Power of Saying No (To Sugar)

June 25, 2014 12:00 AM

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been avoiding sugar. Not just avoiding eating spoon-fulls of crystal sugar, but avoiding food and drink that contains sugar.

I've thinking about reducing my sugar intake for a while now. There's been enough change in how science sees the sources of weight gain to be convincing.

But regardless, I found myself eating pie on the weekend, grab a sweet snack regularly (the perils of working from home) or regularly get a cookie or cheese cake at the coffee shop. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Of course there'd always be the convincing argument to myself that I could stop anytime I want, the classic trap of letting your irrational self get in the way of rational decisions. Just ask any smoker.

But then I came across an article that pointed to actively saying no being a possible answer. Studies showed that people who said "I don't" were much more likely to resist something than people who said "I can't."

Pretty remarkable, and I wanted to turn that into an experiment with myself.

It made me think of the day when I stopped smoking, on March 30, 1999.

All I said to myself was "I'm not smoking anymore."

I chucked my remaining cigarettes without much further thought, and that was the end of it.

The hardest part of breaking out of a habit is finding a replacement. Rather than resort to a cigarette after lunch or other meals, I went for a coffee instead.

Yes, this is how my coffee affinity started.

There's something powerful in consciously saying no. One day, I decided to just say no to sugar.

That meant cutting out delicious things like cookies, cake, pie and everything else that contains processed sugar, but it's for the good of the bigger picture. Most of these are non-essential foods.

There's no rational downside to saying no to sugar.

But the real power is in consciously saying no to something. Whether it's a habit you want to get rid of, or whether it's a feature you want to add to your product or simple deciding on what you want to do with your day, your month, your life.

Saying no to something can have an incredible effect on your conscious to actually go through with it.

Knowing what not to do can be quite liberating for your mind too. It leaves room for other, more important things to do.

Being Busy, Distractions and Just One More Retweet

June 24, 2014 12:00 AM

Thanks to the internet and the wild things our mobile devices can now do, we can connect with people anywhere, heck, even on the toilet, what used to be a sanctuary of quiet contemplation.

We love the distractions and the small kicks we're getting when something new happens, when someone likes our photo, when someone favorites a tweet or mentions us on Twitter.

We're prone to these distractions, to being busy, to just waiting for another email to come in. I am myself. It's been incredibly hard getting out of the habit of having my life evolve around the computer all day long. In particular, because our entire business is not only running thanks to and on the internet, it's also because we're a distributed team.

Because we're split out across time zones, you'll find someone in our chat room most of the time. If it's not one from our team, there's probably a customer I can help.

It's tempting to leave the chat open while you're busy with other things. It's tempting to take a peek regularly to make sure you're not missing out on anything. It's tempting to take the laptop with you to the playground to check your email and do some work while your kid is playing (yes, I've done that too).

But what does it give you really beyond the simple satisfaction of yet another distraction?

You can't put an instant price, value or reward on just watching your child play. It doesn't reward us in the same way as someone liking our post on Facebook.

Yet it's all we strive for, the distractions, getting more work done, staying up late to fix just one more bug.

Is that what we want to look back at when as we're getting older? Are we going to measure us based on the number of retweets we've received in our lifetime?

Or is there something more to life that we've somehow forgotten, something that's as simple as stepping away from your computer and devices and just enjoying life?

Planning Your Week

June 23, 2014 12:00 AM

Our household recently picked up an interesting habit, one where people tell me they couldn't do it, or they just don't work that way.

Every weekend, we sit down and plan our dinner meals for the entire week.

That's it, that's the whole habit. Seems straight-forward, doesn't it? It's so incredibly dull, even very German.

Five weekdays, two weekend days. Sit down, thumb through cookbooks, find some recipes to cook, make a shopping list, and off you go.

As a family, we mostly cook meals for dinner rather than for lunch, and I found that one of us usually goes shop for groceries every day, trying to figure out what to make for dinner, spending some extra money for things we probably don't need along the way.

It feels a bit chaotic, but more than that, it causes stress and tends to make us spend more money every day when we go shopping. Little snack, little drink there, it adds up.

So we commit to the week upfront. It takes a bit of work to sit down and find nice recipes to cook, but that time is paid off by only having to go shopping once a week, twice if we do weekends and weekdays separately.

It's an amazing little habit change, and it does require a commitment to what you've planned to cook, but it reduces the stress levels throughout the entire following week.

Yet it seems so hard to commit to something like this, why is that?

Maybe we feel uncomfortable planning that far ahead, maybe the effort of even finding something to cook is throwing us off?

If you have a family and kids to feed, I'd suggest you try this out. Not just shopping for food once a week, but planning dinner meals for every single day in advance.

It gives an amazing peace of mind in return for a little focused time investment.

Beyond daily routines, even having specific routines can be very beneficial for your overall productivity. You could start by trying to plan your dinner meals for the entire week.

Only The Simplest Tools

June 22, 2014 12:00 AM

Over the past couple of years, there's been a curious trend in the world of coffee. While espresso is still a thing of expensive machinery to get the most out of the bean, filter coffee has taken an interesting turn towards simplicity.

...in coffee

Clover, Clover, Clover

When I started getting into coffee, I witnessed the most remarkable thing, the Clover coffee maker. An extremely well designed machine, costing about $11.000. It's a thing of beauty and it makes a pretty incredible cup of coffee.

But then Starbucks bought it, ceasing sales to anyone but themselves. Since then, we saw an interesting change. Rather than rely on expensive tools, filter coffee is now made with the simplest ones. Take the AeroPress, a piece of well-designed plastic, which makes for an incredible cup and is extremely versatile.

Now the AeroPress is everywhere, heck, there's an AeroPress world championship.

Or the Hario V60, a simple cone-shaped filter, also producing a great cup, though it requires more care than the AeroPress to get the best out of it.

All you really need to get a great cup is a grinder, an AeroPress and a scale. Only the simplest tools get you a great cup anywhere you go, lest of course, you buy Starbucks beans.

...in the kitchen

Since converting back from a vegetarian to an omnivore last year, I've grown very fond of a good steak. What really amazed me about making steak is the simplicity of it.

I bought a De Buyer iron pan in France a few years back. That's all you really need to make a great steak, a simple pan, a pan that rusts if you don't dry it after washing. A pan that develops an unpleasant looking patina over time that turns it into a non-stick pan.

All you need in addition to this simple pan is lots of heat, olive oil and a piece of really good meat.

...in photography

One Step Beyond

In the early eighties, a guy in Hong Kong set out to build a really cheap camera for the Chinese market. 35mm film wasn't yet widely adopted, so he built one that uses roll film, medium format or 120 film, they're all the same thing.

The camera had a plastic body, a plastic lens, one (unpredictable) shutter speed setting and two apertures (one of them not working by default). He called it Holga. It flopped due to the rise of compact 35mm cameras.

It's an incredibly crappy piece of photographic equipment, but due to its simplicity and constraints, I've grown really fond of it. In the right circumstances, it can take incredible photos.

It's amazing what you can achieve with simple tools and by learning to use them really really well.

What Adopting Blameless Post-Mortems Has Taught Me About Culture

June 20, 2014 12:00 AM

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the idea and practice of post-mortems through a talk by John Allspaw. I do owe him a lot, he's an inspiration.

Back then he talked about post-mortems as a company-internal means to triage what lead to and happened during an outage or production incident.

A post-mortem is a meeting where all stakeholders can and should be present, and where people should bring together their view of the situation and the facts that were found during and after the incident. The purpose is to collect as much data as possible and to figure out how the impact of a similar future incident can be reduced.

One precondition for a useful post-mortem is that it must be blameless. The purpose is not to put blame on anyone on the team, the purpose is to figure out what happened and how to improve it.

This can have significant impact on a company's culture. Speaking for myself, the idea of blameless post-mortems has changed the way how I think about operations, how I think about working on a team, how I think about running a company.

Humans Have Good Intentions

The normal focus of any team is to deliver value, either to customers, to stakeholders, to other teams in the same organization.

During an outage, this view can unfortunately change fast, and for the worse, mostly unintentionally. Being under pressure, it's easy to put blame on someone. Someone may have accidentally changed a configuration on a production system, someone accidentally dropped a database table on the production database.

But the most important idea of a blameless post-mortem is that humans are generally well-intentioned. When someone does something wrong, the assumption should be that it happened through circumstances beyond a single human.

Humans usually act in good faith, to the best of their knowledge, and within the constraints and world view of an organization.

That's where you need to start looking for problems.

Disregard the notion of human error. It's not helpful to find out what's broken and what you can fix. It assumes that what's broken and what needs to be fixed are humans in an organization.

Humans work with and in complex systems. Whether it's your organization or the production environment. Both feed into each other, both influence each other. The humans acting in these systems are triggers for behaviours that no one has foreseen, that no one can possibly foresee. But that makes humans mere actors, parts of complex systems that can be influenced by an infinite amount of factors.

That's where you need to start looking.

It's complex systems all the way down. The people on your team and in your company are trying their best to make sense of what they do, about how they interact with each other.

Trust

With the idea that humans are generally well-intentioned working in an organization, comes a different idea.

The idea of trust.

When you entrust a team with running your production systems, but you don't trust them to make the right decisions when things go wrong, or even when things go right, you're in deep cultural trouble.

Trust means that mistakes aren't punishable acts, they're opportunities to learn.

Trust means that everyone on the team, especially the people working at the sharp end of the action, can speak up, point out issues, work on improving them.

Trust means that everyone on the team will jump in to help rather than complain when there's a production incident.

Focus on Improvement

In the old world, we focused on mean time between failure (MBTF), on maximizing the time between production incidents. We also focused on trying to figure out who was at fault, who is to blame for an issue. Firing the person usually was the most logical consequence.

In the new world, we focus on learning from incidents, on improving the environment in an organization, the environment its people are working in. The environment that contributes to how people working in it behave both during normal work and during stressful situations.

When systems are designed, no one can predict all the ways in which they behave. There are too many factors contributing to how a system runs in production, to how your organization behaves as a whole. It's impossible to foresee all of them.

Running a system in production, going through outages, doing post-mortems, all these contribute to a continuous process of improving, of learning about those systems.

Bonus: Get Rid of the Root Cause

A common notion is still that there is this one single cause that you can blame a failure on, the infamous root cause. Whether it's a human, whether it's a component in your system, something can be blamed, and fixing it will make the problem go away.

With the idea of complex systems, this notion is bogus. There is no single root cause.

As Sidney Dekker put it:

What you call root cause is simply the place where you stop looking any further.

With so many complex systems interacting with each other, your organization, the teams and people in it, the production environment, other environment it interacts with. Too much input from one of these systems can trigger an unexpected behaviour in another part.

As Richard Cook put it in "How Complex Systems Fail":

Overt catastrophic failure occurs when small, apparently innocuous failures join to create opportunity for a systemic accident. Each of these small failures is necessary to cause catastrophe but only the combination is sufficient to permit failure.

While they won't transform your organization overnight, accepting post-mortems into your operational workflow can be a catalyst for long term change.

Fake Everything Until You Make It

June 19, 2014 12:00 AM

For the first 15 months of Travis CI's existence as a paid product, customer support went a little like this:

  • New email from customer.
  • Open a console on Heroku to fetch the relevant data.
  • Respond to email.
  • Repeat upon next email.

We didn't have any support tools, if you can imagine that. Nothing that gave us quick access to the data we needed to look into and solve a customer's issue.

But you know what?

It was okay. It was okay to fake it until we had the time to sit down and make it.

We could've spent the time building these tools much earlier on, no doubt. But with an unproven product it was hard to justify the time when we weren't fully sure yet if our product would help us build a sustainable business.

Instead we chose to spend the time improving our product to the point where we had enough happy customers that we could pay the bills and had a good feeling that the business would work out.

Of course we also pushed back on working on these tools over time for other reasons, but eventually, we sat down and invested the time to build better support tools.

In the end, that time was well worth it, as better support tools that everyone could use meant that less technical people could jump in on support and learn more about our customers' problems and how Travis CI works.

In the end, the effort benefited everyone. But initially, there was a trade-off between spending time on product to prove its viability vs. spending time on tooling around a product you're not certain yet whether it'll take off.

Implement Routines to Foster Habits

June 13, 2014 12:00 AM

I've been trying to implement daily habits over the past couple of months. Writing, push-ups, taking a walk, writing a diary. Those are my key habits that I want to practice every day.

Initially, I committed myself to writing before noon, while never checking my email until later in the day as well. As my days started getting slightly more chaotic, I lost track of writing, and it'd slip.

The further into the day my writing would slip, the more stressed out I would be about it. At the same time, all the impressions I collected during the day would cloud my head, keeping it busy thinking about other things rather than focus on writing, or focus on anything.

This is only natural. As colleagues wake up, as work and communication in the team and with customers progresses throughout the day, lots of topics are touched, making you think about other things than what you wanted to write about.

I've been trying the Pomodoro technique a while ago. It definitely helped me focus on writing, when I was working on the Riak Handbook. I found it not so helpful for my every day work in a team though, as work seemed to bubble up more than I could plan for it.

But what I figured out does help is to timebox some of your routine tasks. Daily habits can be fostered by setting a schedule. I already started doing that by setting my email processing schedule to be no sooner than noon.

Why not apply the same to writing, reading and push-ups, those things I want to do every day?

My day now starts with reading, I even get up slightly earlier for it. I get the push-ups out of the way before breakfast, and I focus on getting my writing done before 10:00. Boom, that's already half of my daily todo list done. On top of that, the day started with a quiet moment with just a book and a cup of coffee.

In the evening, I close my laptop no later than 20:00, so I have time for myself, and for my family. My goal is to go earlier than that.

Setting daily schedules for those routines, whether they're things you really want to do or they're things that you have to do, helps reduce the impact of them. You can focus on getting them out of the way without getting too stressed out about them.

Focus Starts With Saying No

June 02, 2014 12:00 AM

Every product out there is riddled by a thousand customers' requests for a thousand features. Every single one of them has an idea on what would make your product better, what would make it more suitable for their purpose, for their daily work.

As a business, even as an open source project, it's too easy to get swamped by feature requests. But even worse, it's too easy to fall into the trap of feeling the need to implement all of them, or at least as many as humanly possible.

After all, the customer is always right, aren't they?

When you want to tackle a thousand little feature requests, it's very easy to lose focus. Even worse, with a small team, they'll all be busy fixing and improving small and big things, but may be missing working towards a bigger picture, a broader mission.

Look at the Leatherman, it's a testimony to tools with multiple functioning, doing a somewhat reasonable job at every one of them. Ops people and roadies swear by it for their every day work in data centers and on stage.

The Leatherman is a prime example of lots of features molded into a single tool that's useful to a broad audience. It's even sold at a premium for the purpose.

Now look at an Opinel knife. It's the mark of a simple knife. It has one blade, and depending on which one you buy, it even rusts when you don't take care of it.

One blade, nothing more. But that single blade is incredibly sharp, and it stays sharp, is easy to maintain. It's a tool with a focus, to give you the best knife you'll have at hand, something the Leatherman won't be able to achieve.

It has a very narrow focus, but it excels.

Your product probably isn't as narrow in scope, but you should ask yourself, what's it closer to, a Leatherman with lots of options or an Opinel, solving one problem in the best and simplest way possible?

Getting there unfortunately involves saying no to a lot of those feature requests you're getting. Figuring out what you don't want to do is just as important as thinking about what you want to do.

It gives you focus, it helps to stop thinking about the features you're not going to build. It helps you to instead focus on what you want to build.

A product is defined by what it can do just as much as it is by what it doesn't do. If a feature turns out to be important enough, it'll bubble back up later. Saying no now doesn't close doors forever.

The Secret to Latte Art

May 30, 2014 12:00 AM

I've been practicing my latte art at home as of late. I have a Rancilio Silvia machine, which packs a decent punch regarding pressure and steam, much better than the Gaggia Classic I had before.

The Gaggia had a nozzle that pulled in air to steam to make up for the lack of pressure, which lead to foam that's still far from that glorious micro foam you need for pouring that nice rosetta on your flat white.

Pressure is an important part of getting that micro foam action at home.

Beyond that, though, the most important ingredient for great micro foam and the essence of latte art is: fresh, whole milk.

None of that low fat crap, unhomogenized full fat milk. Unhomogenized is rather important, as homogenized has a different taste, overshadowing the aromas coming from the espresso. Plus, the foam it creates is stiffer than what you need for good latte art.

That makes pressure and fresh, full fat milk the two most important ingredients.

But how do you steam the milk, in a cup? No, you need a nice jug, one that lets the milk flow gently into the cup. In Berlin's coffee shop, the steaming milk jugs from Rattleware are fairly standard. So I got one for myself, and it makes a big difference.

Now that you have the main ingredients in place, how do you make the actual latte art? Steaming the milk is an art on its own, so I ended up asking my local baristas for some advice on how they're doing it.

You start by getting some air into the milk. How much air depends on the amount of foam you want to have. I only put in a little air for a flat white, as it only has a thin layer on top.

While foaming, you want to keep the nozzle right underneath the milk's surface. Initially, you can pull it out slightly to get air in. Make sure to not do that for too long, as the foam gets stiffer and the bubbles will be bigger the longer you let air in. If you hold the pitcher at a slight angle, you'll notice that it only takes pulling the nozzle out a little bit to let air flow in on one side of it. Nifty!

Then, once an initial amount of air is in the milk, keep the nozzle on the side of the pitcher at an angle that lets the milk swirl around. That way, you fold the air that's now in the milk over and over, building a nice layer of microfoam on top while reducing the size of the bubbles more and more.

That turned out to be the one secret and tip that I needed to start pouring some nicer rosettas at home.

Three steps:

  • Get some air into the milk by keeping the nozzle just at the surface
  • Keep the nozzle right under the surface for the remainder of the steaming
  • Keep the nozzle close to the pitcher's wall at an angle to cause a swirl

The colder the milk initially, the more time you have to fold the milk.

Repurcussing the initial requirements for a good microfoam:

  • Cold, fresh, whole milk (no low fat, unhomogenized, in short: real milk)
  • A pitcher that supports pouring the milk flowing thinly
  • Steam with good pressure

When is the foam done? I keep one hand under the pitcher while steaming the milk. When the pitcher gets too hot to hold in your hand, that's when the milk is done. The longer you'll leave the milk to steam, the hotter the foam will be, eventually not making for good microfoam pouring material anymore as it's too stiff. If I'd want a burnt latte I could go to Starbucks instead. Make sure to knock the pitcher flat on a surface a few times to get rid of the bigger bubbles.

Once you have the foam ready, the last step is the pouring into the cup.

Another trick I learned from my local barista friends is to pour the milk in a swirl, ever so slowly in the beginning. That way you don't pour your entire foam into the cup initially, but you spread a nice layer on top of the espresso. When you're close to filling the cup, leave the pitcher on the opposide side, shaking it to and fro with a steady hand, letting the milk swing into the beverage while slowly moving your hand back. The movement of the milk should move white milk stripes through the cup as if by magic.

Finishing off the master piece, you take one swing across the rosetta to give it that nice little finish.

You need to practice the above quite a bit, so be ready to pour lots of milk in the near future. But heck, who doesn't enjoy drinking one good coffee after another? Helps to have your friends or colleagues around too.

One more thing I've learned: crema matters less for a good microfoam experience than I thought. In fact, it doesn't matter at all. A good espresso stands on its own, whether it has a thick crema or not.

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