Support for support?
That’s the goal at SUPCONF, a conference for support professionals, put on by the Support Driven Community. The Nicereply team and I traveled to Atlanta for the fourth SUPCONF event, held November 6-7 at the Atlanta Tech Village. Over the course of two days, we listened to informative talks from people in support, caught up with fellow members of the community, and did the party parrot (Yes, at SUPCONF, “party parrot” is a verb).
We had the chance to hear from a variety of support professionals, and we learned a lot. All of the speakers did an amazing job, and while we don’t have space to summarize everything, what follows is a summary of our key takeaways across all the talks we witnessed.
Growing with Grace
Although there were companies of all sizes represented at SUPCONF, it seemed that every one of the attendees we spoke to were grappling with growth in some way or another. Speakers were no exception, with several sharing their advice on scaling successfully.
Michael Redbord from Hubspot gave the opening keynote, and shared advice on building a team from 0 to 250+ employees. According to Michael, customer support is just as much about when you do something as why and how you do it. In particular, he advised against not using too much process too soon, so you can stay nimble in the early days of your business when lots of things are changing. He went so far as to warn, “Be suspicious of process in the early stages of growth.” Instead, he advises early stage teams to focus on just getting their communication channels under control.
My own talk on forecasting was also very growth-focused. One main point that I don’t want anyone to forget is this: Hire employees ahead of when they’re truly needed. Employees need time to learn the ropes. Not planning for that can leave you understaffed, creating undue pressure on the new hire and the rest of your team.
Katharine McCarthy from ipsy shed light on how growth challenges distributed support teams and shared tips for how to share connected through solid communications and culture. As her team grew and became more spread out, it became a bigger challenge to keep everyone connected. She needed to create even more opportunities for connection than ever before.
Keeping people connected isn’t just the responsibility of managers, though. At ipsy, it’s everyone’s job. “Team leaders are primarily responsible for managing group dynamics and creating bonding experiences, but everyone needs to be contributing for it to work.” she said.
According to Katharine, tools, organizational structure, and culture are the triumvirate for keeping teams together. Katharine’s talk was jam-packed with tips on everything from which video conferencing software to use (Zoom!) to fun ways to how to creative ways to get to know your team and promote culture. One example: ipsy does “get to know you” spotlight sessions where they choose four team members to create a few slides with photos and give a short presentation on themselves. This highlights how unique and diverse their team is and allows them to see each other as people.
All three of these speakers mentioned the increased importance of individual performance as teams get larger. Michael listed creating predictability around individual performance as one of his top “to dos” for teams in the scaling phase (250+ employees), and I touched on this in my talk too. Consistent individual performance is crucial to making sure your estimates for how many employees you need work out as planned. Underperformance across the team can add up to a lot of undone work and cause your backlog to skyrocket. Katharine noted that holding everyone accountable to a shared set of standards keeps things fair, provide a benchmark for workload balance and individual impact, and fosters trust among team members.
Growth is tough, and with an ever-changing market and customer expectations, this is likely to be a common topic well into the future of support.
We talk a lot in support about “getting a seat at the table.” We’re always working to make sure our voices are heard, that our insights on the customer experience are respected and utilized, and that we have stable, productive relationships with other teams.
This is a work-in-progress for all departments, but it seems to be of particular interest to support, perhaps because, historically speaking, support teams have been seen as necessary evil, a mere cost center — and not the value building, competition differentiating, insight generating powerhouses that they truly are.
Mathew Patterson from HelpScout told us to forget trying to get about a seat. His rallying cry was to to “take the whole conference room.” He recommended we follow the precedent made by the rise of the CTO and CMO, and forge a rise of Chief Customer Officer. This helps support teams build influence through three key strategies:
1. Knowing your business: Find out where revenue comes from, what makes good customers, why customers churn, and how support can affect revenue.
2. Speaking their language: Communicate effectively with decision makers without shying away from their verbiage.
3. Telling your story: Use data alongside the qualitative. Stories alone don’t speak loudly enough.
In another talk, Rethinking the Support Agenda, consultant Bill Bounds talked about building influence through what many support professionals see as a “problem” — their employees taking on work from other teams or leaving the support team entirely to work in other areas of the business.
Instead, Bill advised, try to see this “problem” as an opportunity to infiltrate and establish strong connections with other teams across the business. Employees who leave support ultimately take the support mindset with them wherever they go.
In fact, he encouraged support teams to seek out ways to work for other teams. “Find ways to make people’s lives easier. Get them hooked on what you can offer,” he recommended. This helps you build inroads across your business and establish influence there.
Another great angle on influence came from Meggan King and Nikta Kanuka from Klipfolio, who told the story of how they transformed the culture of product development in their business by bringing Product Management and Support together.
“Stop playing broken telephone!” they urged. And we all knew what that meant. We’ve all had that experience hearing about some new project from someone on marketing who heard about it from engineering, only later to realize that half the details were heard were wrong when customer questions started filling the queue. Instead, they advised, start inviting a representative from each team to key workshops so that everybody hears ideas firsthand.
In their workshops, they use the RACI framework to guide conversation and make sure all the bases are covered for implementing something new.
• R (Responsible):
Who is assigned to work on this task?
• A (Accountable):
Who is accountable if things go wrong? Who has authority to make decisions?
• C (Consulted):
Who can advise more on particular tasks?
• I (Informed):
Is there anyone whose work depends on this task? Who needs to be kept updated about the progress?
Through this, Nikta and Meggan worked together to bridge the gaps between all the departments at Klipfolio, form a highly effective working group, and ensure that support was part of it.
Playing with Perspective
As a support professional, I’m tooting my own horn here, but I’m going to say it: Support people are super thoughtful. We are always looking at things from different angles, thinking of ways we might shift their approach to work, and continually re-anchoring our viewpoints to ensure we’ve serving their customers, and our teams, to the highest level. There were several points throughout the conference where speakers referenced perspective and how to use it to get better.
In her talk, Sarah Betts from Olark revealed what she found out in her gender equality experiment, where she spent a month working on live chat under three separate names: Sarah, Sam, and Samuel. It turns out, customers treated her differently depending on what they perceived her gender to be, based on her name.
She found that Sarah and Sam earned higher CSAT scores as compared to Samuel, but that Samuel took far less abuse, blocking just 12 trolls as compared to Sarah’s 32. She also found that customers trusted Samuel’s authority more. He had to escalate just one case to management, whereas Sam escalated 9, and Sarah 12. The thing is: it was Sarah the whole time. She didn’t change anything else about her approach to support. What changed was how customers perceived her support.
Sarah’s experiment revealed some implicit biases. Rather than be discouraged by them, however, Sarah is reclaiming her power as Sarah. People believed Samuel enough to not ask for management. So, they can believe Sarah too.
In the end, bringing these biases to light and showing how they affect customer behavior is the first step toward changing those biases. Or at the very least, taking an informed approach to employee management. For one, empower your employees to set boundaries with customers. Samuel didn’t have to answer questions about what he was wearing, because he wasn’t asked those questions. Sarah shouldn’t have to either. So when she’s inevitably asked something inappropriate, she should be able to block that customer without fear of repercussions from management.
Covering “Becoming a Leader: From Title to Trust,” Mercer Smith-Looper of Trello talked about the difference between managing a team and leading a team. So what is the difference? Leading entails inspiration. It’s setting a vision. But it’s also empowering your team members with what they need to set and move toward their own visions.
She advised us all to take note of how we describe what we do. “I run a team,” is a lot different from “I lead a team.” It implies a different approach. “How you talk about things says a lot about how you perceive them, so try to notice how you talk about what your role in the team is and how you might shift it,” she said.
Drawing from the book The 5 Levels of Leadership, Mercer laid out a framework:
• Level 1: You’re a leader because you’ve been given the title.
• Level 2: You’re a leader because people CHOOSE to follow you.
• Level 3: You’re a leader because you get shit done and motivate those around you.
• Level 4: You’re a leader because you are developing other people to be leaders.
• Level 5: You’re a leader because the leaders you developed are going through the same steps (kind of like an MLM).
At one point in her career, Mercer was caught off guard when she learned that one of her team members perceived her leadership differently from the way she saw it. As a former leader myself, I can attest to this experience. It happens. People have different points of view. But with leadership, the way that your employees perceive you is extremely important.
How do you know what type of leader you really are? You can’t just rely on your own perception. You need to ask. Mercer’s solution was to survey her team, and she kindly made the survey available for others to copy and use with their own teams.
Join the fun
There were tons more amazing insights this SUPCONF — too many to document here. These events are worth their weight in gold. And while there will be another SUPCONF next fall, the next Support Driven gathering is SDX, a larger and multi-track experience set to happen this summer.