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All Hands Support: Why Everyone–Even Executives–Should Spend Time in Customer Service

By Wade Foster · December 2, 2015

Good customer support matters. Great customer support sets you apart. It's not a growth hack or a hush-hush marketing scheme; it's common sense. People like to be treated like people.

At Zapier, we believe that the best way to help people is to put everyone on support. Around here, we call it "all hands support," which means that every person on the team—no matter the job title—spends some portion of their day, week, or month talking directly to customers and solving problems for them.

It's not a crazy idea, either. Many of the fastest growing companies do all hands support. When I asked my Twitter followers who is doing it, a surprising (to me) number of hands shot up. Teams like Stripe, StatusPage.io, Olark, Basecamp, Slack, Customer.io, New Relic and Wistia are all committed to an all hands approach.


So what have these companies figured out that compels them to pull engineers, executives, marketers, and more off their day-to-day tasks to spend time on support?

The Benefits of All Hands Support

Effective all hands support focuses on making life better for your customers. But it can also cause a shift in how you and your team think about and build your company.

1. Customers get Better Service

That's not to say the front-line customer support team can't solve problems for customers. But certain problems require special expertise. For example, when something is broken, being able to talk directly to an engineer about the problem typically motivates the engineer to fix the problem quicker than they would otherwise.

Like David Cancel, CEO and Co-founder of Driftt, told me in a Twitter exchange:

"Doing all company support gets engineers to solve customer problems faster. They are hearing about the problem first-hand, they can empathize with the customer. Those same engineers would be skeptical if they heard about these problems second-hand. Then the customer is blown away that they are talking to someone who actually can solve their problem."

David isn't the only one to notice this happening. At StatusPages they realized that when an engineer sees a problem for the third time, they stop what they're doing and fix the problem. That means fewer tickets about the issue in the future.

My favorite story of improving customer experience through all hands support comes from Ali Rayl of Slack. At a previous role, her team—including the engineers—provided phone support. The engineering team hated phone support. But because they were required to do it, the team fixed issues as soon as they cropped up, to ensure that the phone never rang again for that same problem.

At Zapier: When APIs change, it can cause Zaps to perform in odd ways. That means trouble for multiple customers at a time. With an engineer doing support, these customers have their issues fixed right away.

2. Your Team Learns Directly from Customers

Upon polling the 30-person Zapier team, by far the most beneficial part of everyone doing support is the opportunity to see the everyday problems that customers face. Rather than being shielded from frustrated customers, everyone on the team gets an unfiltered view of what customers think about your product—the good and the bad.

This makes roadmapping and other product decisions easier, because everyone on the team has a shared understanding of the most common problems users are running into. If you're a designer, for example, you can learn which pages of your product confuse users the most, and implement corrections. Marketers, on the other hand, can find out what your customers worry about, and create content that alleviates those worries.

Martin Normark, co-founder of milage-tracking app 80, talks about how surprised he was when he first started doing customer support as an engineer. He quickly realized that the product wasn't solving his customers' problems. The support team was solving issues for customers using the product, but because he wasn't doing support he was shielded from the true issues.

At Zapier: Many users were frustrated with Tasks that would fail due to API outages, which meant they had to manually replay Zaps. We learned through support interactions that it would be great to automatically run delayed tasks for users. So a few months back, we launched autoreplay.

3. Support Becomes Faster, Easier and Less Expensive

Zapier support
The Zapier team working on support at a recent company retreat in Traverse City, Michigan.

When everyone does support, smart people with diverse skills start to think about how to make the more redundant parts of answering tickets faster. As a result, engineers start building tools to turn three clicks into one click. And suddenly, finding a needle in a haystack becomes a cakewalk, because logging gets more granular.

Building internal tools for your support team pays dividends as the company grows. Since a full-time support person can handle twice as many customer issues, you can keep your customers happy with half the staff, saves the company tons of money in salaries and management overhead.

Olark saw this first hand. The number one benefit they saw from all hands support is that "when engineers do customer service they are much more likely to build good internal tools and make quick fixes because they experience real customer pain."

At Zapier: We've built a Google Chrome extension on top of our help desk that adds quick links to our admin page, Stripe (our payment processor), server logs, and Mailgun (our email service provider). Those quick links make it easy to access details about a specific user, so we can help them faster.

4. Your Team Touches the Whole Product

As companies grow, individuals become more specialized. A product engineer may only work on a particular feature or two. As a result, individuals become more detached from the rest of the team.

But when you jump into the support queue, customers aren't concerned about your area of expertise. Questions will come about every piece of the product. This forces you to learn a little bit about the whole product you build, and gives you a better understanding to how your specialty fits into the sum of the parts. And you get the added advantage of feeling less lost if a teammate goes on vacation, and you need to pitch in to help.

The Basecamp team noticed that because new hires were getting trained on all of their products through support, it helped them understand why some features were so critical.

And Basecamp isn't the only company using support as a team education tool. Stripe has also found that support is a great way "to learn about the company, how everything works internally, and our customer’s needs."

At Zapier: Frontend engineers rarely touch the APIs behind Zapier. But through support they often have to deal with these issues. That helps them understand how it works, which in turn helps them design flexible frontend for Zapier.

5. Support gets the Respect they Deserve

People who do support full time often get a bad rap. Our unpleasant experiences with airline companies and cable providers have conditioned us to think that support reps can do little beyond read from a script.

But when you're doing support on a weekly basis, you realize it's a tough and challenging career in its own right. Support reps often know more about the product than you do, and often have great ideas for where the product can be improved.

At Zapier: Prior to joining Zapier, many teammates viewed support as an entry level job. After having done support at Zapier, though, it's not uncommon for the support team to become the first team you reach out to when building a new feature or when searching for some customer friendly language for a new marketing piece.

6. You Build Empathy into the Core of the Culture

When you end up on the giving side of customer support, you start to strengthen your empathy muscle. You realize how much effort you put in to building a product, and how discouraging it is to deal with customers who don't quite appreciate the effort. You appreciate how often your customer support team goes to bat for you—day in and day out. And you sympathise with people and companies outside in your daily life a lot more often.

When you teach your team to be empathetic towards customers, you also teach them to be empathetic towards each other.

At Zapier: During 1-on-1s I'll often ask how support shift is going. A common reply is how people often think twice before losing their cool with another company's support agent simply because they've been in that situation, too.

The Challenges of All Hands Support

Doing all hands support isn't without its difficulties, though. Here's how pulling the entire company into the support queue can complicate things.

1. It Can Make Hiring Harder

If a weekly support shift is tied to every job offer, some people will look elsewhere. Some engineers or product people don't really want to spend time helping customers by answering tickets. And that's ok. But if your company is committed to getting the benefits discussed from all hands support, then you need to be ok saying no to otherwise great candidates who might want to join your company.

2. It Wears People Out

Depending on how you set up all hands support, it can be tiring. For example, engineers at Zapier take a one week rotation doing support. And it's pretty common for engineers to cite their support week as the most challenging and tiring week of work they do at Zapier.

slack conversation

To mitigate this, train non-support staff on how to do support effectively. Make sure they know all the tools and documentation they have at their disposal. And always provide backup. If support becomes too much of a grind, then your staff will become ineffective at it.

3. It Leaves People out of the Loop

When your team takes time out to do support, they aren't spending time on their primary duties. This means other projects will slow and when they come back to those projects they might have to spend some time catching up.

To mitigate this, make sure your teams account for when teammates are doing their support shift. Also make sure to document and log what's happening on the teammate's primary duties, so he or she can stay in the loop by reading through meeting minutes or chat logs.

4. It Costs Time and Money

All hands support also requires a time and monetary investment. You need to pay for extra users in your help desk software, and spend the time training everyone on the product and support tactics. This training doesn't happen overnight, so plan on spending a decent amount of effort coaching teammates on support and the product.

To mitigate this, train your support staff and your non-support staff with the same techniques. This way, you save time by reusing a lot of your training resources, and you can refine them as you go.

5. It Can Lead to a Poor Customer Experience

Contrary to this chapter's first point—that all hands support leads to better customer service— some organizations find the all team support creates a poor customer experience. This often happens when non-support staff isn't trained to engage with customers, and makes mistakes that frustrate them further.

But it doesn't need to be that way. Make sure you dedicate the time and training to get non-support staff to a level where you're comfortable with having them engage with customers. Or, make sure you hire people who are already empathetic, which which means they'll actively pursue a positive result for customers.

How to Set up All Hands Support

Jess and Lindsay doing Zapier support
Support teammates Jess and Lindsay answering customer questions

If you're ready to give all hands support a try, here are some guidelines to setting it up.

First, there's no cookie-cutter all hands support strategy. Some companies have engineers, designers, and marketers do support for one day a month. Others rotate engineers in for week-long shifts. The truth is, you'll need to experiment to figure out what gets the most impact for your company.

Here's what works at Zapier:

  • Engineers take a weekly rotation, doing tier 2 technical support. With 10 engineers on the team, every 10th week you'll be tasked with handling all of the technical tickets that are escalated by the core support team. Weekly shifts work best because they allow engineers to dig deep on issues and follow through on complex tickets.

  • Non-support, non-engineering staff do a half-day of support every week. This consistency gives them the chance to become proficient at support. If we only did one day a quarter, it would be too infrequent a task for them to be good enough to help customers. With a weekly shift, you can also schedule the half days to fill in the blanks for when support is heavy.

No matter how you set up the rotation you'll need to make sure to train your non-support staff on support. Up until recently, we haven't done a great job at this, but here's what we found works for training:

  • Document everything. We document as much as possible in our knowledge base and in our internal wiki, Quip, to help our full-time support staff and our customers. As it turns out, this documentation is really helpful for non-support staff, too. Take the time to organize the documentation so it's easier for non-support staff to dip their toes in the support waters.

  • Pair up. When you're just getting started with support, you'll have a lot of questions. So for the first handful of sessions, pair each non-support teammate with a dedicated support person who can help them learn the ropes. This could be as hands-on as doing joint support together, or as simple as being available on your team chat app to answer questions when they come up.

Getting your whole team to join in on supporting your customers is a great idea, one that can help everyone get insight into how your customers think—and what they really need.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about all hands support? Here are other great resources from teams that successfully bring their full team into support:

Want to learn more about Zapier's remote work culture? Read our free eBook, "The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work."

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