How InVision Rapidly Built a 15-Person Remote Support Team

Joe Stych
Joe Stych / Published October 20, 2015

There's an old adage in sports: "You can't teach speed." But in the customer support arena, that's not always true. Practiced reps can fight back an unruly help desk queue in a matter of hours.

For Brandon Wolf, speed is secondary. His motto is "You can't teach curiosity." And as the VP of customer support at InVision, he hoards as much curiosity as he can find.

His inquisitive crew supports InVision, a comprehensive design platform that handles prototyping and facilitates collaboration between design and development teams. If one of those teams hits a snag, or has a question about the platform, Brandon helps them out.

We talked to Brandon about InVision's remote support culture, how they hire new teammates, and which support processes they rely on. Plus, we found out how he uses Zapier to simplify InVision's support queue. Here's how he and his 15-person support team help customers succeed with InVision.

Accidentally (and Deliberately) Remote

Brandon Wolf InVision
Brandon Wolf, a Wisconsin native and VP of customer support at InVision, has learned to love the remote work lifestyle.

Brandon grew up in Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and even served as support lead at the UW School of Medicine—both as a student and after graduation. But he wanted a change.

On a chilly February day, Brandon was feeling fed up with the Midwestern weather, and the shortcomings of the public sector. He decided it was time for some new scenery—and a change of pace—so he applied for jobs with a few Bay Area startups.

Zendesk, a help desk software solution based in San Francisco, took a flyer on him. But there was a catch: they wanted Brandon to stay put.

"I had every intention of relocating, but as chance would have it, they made a determination to keep me here," he says. Brandon was one of Zendesk's remote employees; a guinea pig for their global employment plan. And it was his first work-from-home job, too.

Remote work can make you feel isolated, like you're performing a monologue to an empty auditorium. When your co-workers are in California, and you wake up in Wisconsin, it takes effort to stay in-sync.

That's a lesson that Brandon learned the hard way. "I'm very close with Zendesk still, and they would laugh at this as well: It was a bumpy start," he says.

Zendesk was just embracing remote employment, and it was easy to overlook their new Wisconsin branch. Meeting schedules needed to be adjusted for time zones, conference call equipment needed to be rigged up, and communication expectations needed to be set. Brandon helped them work out the kinks, and enjoyed watching those best practices mature.

"Many of the internal processes required updating, because the escalation paths were underpinned by, 'If 'X' happens, go walk over to the sales team,'" he says. "That's really difficult when you're 2,000 miles away." Brandon saw it as an exciting challenge. He knew that he was helping Zendesk establish robust guidelines for their future remote staff, and he learned how to maintain a distributed culture along the way.

At InVision, things are different. Remote work is the norm, not an experiment. And it affords Brandon the opportunity to hire a diverse team of detectives from around the globe.

"At InVision, what I like most about the company is the egalitarian, democratized nature of distributed employment. I constantly forget where people live, which is great," he says. "It really allows talent to be wherever it needs to be. And it affords leadership the ability to truly target staffing wherever needed."

During his three-year stint at Zendesk, Brandon oversaw the buildout of a 50-plus person support team in Wisconsin. He's trying to do the same thing at InVision. But this time the hiring pool is much bigger: His 15-person team works all around the world, in Madison, Sacramento, Albuquerque, Austin, Atlanta, Winona (Minn.), and Tel Aviv.

"I hope, selfishly, that more companies embrace this distributed model to give folks—and top-tier talent—who would rather stay put wherever they are, an opportunity," Brandon says.

Finding Perfect Fits for the InVision Team

InVision Team Member
Brandon and Madison-based teammates regularly work together at Cargo Coffee. Pictured, from left to right: Brandon, Sean, Casem, and Aaron.

Running a distributed support team gives you access to a varied set of applicants. But you'll also spend a lot of time weeding out the less-than-ideal candidates. Here are some of the characteristics that Brandon looks for when he's hiring a new InVision team member.

1. A strong will (and a bit of stubbornness)

Customer support is a string of sprints packed into a marathon. When you're racing against yourself to answer a record number of tickets—five days a week—it's easy to burn out.

That's why InVision puts a high value on tenacity. "In any support role, there's a certain level of monotony and understood repetition," Brandon says. "You can usually get away with an 85 percent answer, the customer's placated or satisfied and you can go on your merry way. I'm looking for the kind of person that it just eats at them that they don't know the full and complete answer; they want to keep on going."

The best customer support teams push forward even when the path is tedious. If you're lacking determination, prepare to fight fatigue.

2. A focus on learning

You are not the comprehensive instruction manual for your product. But you should understand what makes the wheels turn. Brandon looks for people who want to grasp the technical odds and ends of InVision, even if writing code isn't part of their job description.

"It's not necessarily a technical requirement," he says, "but I want someone who, in their free time, is rifling through technical Wikipedia articles or something that's entirely tangential but related to their job. It should be eating at them that they don't know. That's what motivates me, and I think that the best customer support folks have that quality in them."

If you're a passionate problem-solver, shrinking gaps in your technical knowledge is a piece of cake.

3. A propensity for kindness

Culture ties teams together. And at InVision, the ways in which co-workers interact with each other are evolving as the team grows.

"We have, I believe, discovered our cultural identity," Brandon says. "How would I distill it? I would say that it's a very polite and accommodating place to work." InVision's employees strive to act with kindness, patience, and politeness towards each other, and that attitude carries over to their interactions with customers.

Inside InVision's Hiring Process

InVision homepage
The landing page for the InVision customers that Brandon and his team support.

Hiring has a huge impact on small teams. The right person can exponentially increase a team's output; the wrong one can drag everyone down.

That's why Brandon approaches hiring with a careful touch. Even though the pool of available applicants is huge, picking a perfect match requires precision. So his process starts with the people he knows and trusts.

"I'm a huge fan of the sometimes odd, interconnected nature of the startup world. Somehow, you're always two or three degrees away from anyone in the industry," he says. "I'm very happy tapping people's networks and trying to keep everything in the family."

Beyond employee networks, InVision leverages their new recruitment team and an app called Workable to find job candidates. Workable makes the sourcing and organizing piece easy by posting new openings to a slew of job boards, and tracking applicants as they roll in.

Once Brandon and his team unearth a few favorites, they send out invitations for a preliminary interview over Google Hangouts. Most interviews are held with a four- or five-person panel made up of Brandon, a rotating group of contributors from the support tier that the applicant would join, and that tier's team lead. The only real requirement for panel participants is that they're out of training.

These initial interviews are an opportunity for the whole team to gauge an applicant's passion for the product, and their inclination towards curiosity. Most of all, it's a test for culture-fit.

"It's important to have the team members involved in the process, especially at a remote company where culture is really the chief thing that binds you together beyond your paycheck," Brandon says.

"In a company that must lean on the culture to succeed as a virtual office, building those connections is better than having me unilaterally say 'I chose this person in a vacuum. I hope you like them.'"

Once the team decides on a few finalists, Brandon picks the best one with input from the team lead. In all, it's a four or five call process, plus time spent on providing feedback and comparing candidates. But finding the perfect fit makes everything worthwhile.

Onboarding New InVisioneers

Remember the team members who sat in on the interview? They become the go-to resource for their new teammate. "The people who were on the panel have a leg up in getting to know their new teammates," Brandon says. "Even in an informal capacity, they're helpers."

If a new hire needs help with setting up their software, or tackling an administrative issue, there's already a small circle of peers in place to provide some guidance. And when someone's just starting out, it's important to remember that slip-ups happen.

"Mistakes are made," Brandon says. "Hopefully they're not customer facing, but mistakes are made. So we constantly reinforce that politeness and camaraderie. The, 'Get up, dust yourself off, we'll get there,' attitude is the only way that works."

Humanizing new co-workers—even if you may never meet them in person—goes a long way in building a supportive, compassionate culture.

InVision's Tiered Support Strategy

Brandon answers a ticket
Brandon answers a help request from an InVision customer in Zendesk.

Effective customer support teams are strategic. Sure, an army of entry-level agents can wipe out surface level questions (like, "How much does this cost?"), but what about issues that require some coding skills? And if you hire someone with an engineering background, do you really want them to spend eight hours a day typing out "Sorry, that feature's not available right now"?

Brandon is a big believer in tiered support because it helps him create pipelines for different types of problems. And when his team is handling more than 5,000 tickets per month, they need to be deliberate about their efforts.

With a tiered approach, the support team is broken into different functional groups based on their technical know-how and interests. One tier might field things like pricing questions and feature requests, while another handles tickets that require digging through system logs and squashing bugs. People are generally hired directly into a specific tier, and the number of tiers varies based on the company's needs.

"The breadth of the product and the size of the team determines how many tiers or what kind of specialization there is," Brandon says. "But it leads to one distinction: It helps with costs. If you have to hire a support engineer for password resets, you're probably doing something wrong."

At InVision, the 15-person team is split into two tiers: tier 1 is the "Customer Advocates," and tier 2 is "Support Engineering." Customer Advocates take care of questions related to InVision "working as expected."

"The app is very intuitive, but even under the best circumstances, people have questions like 'What if I see this? Should I click this button? What will happen?'" Brandon says.

Beyond answering tickets in their tier, Customer Advocates also play a role in triaging more technical tickets to the Support Engineering team. If there's a bug, or an outage, or a log record that needs translation, it's bumped up to tier 2. "'I've had the luxury of identifying a number of junior engineers who really have no interest in going into engineering at the moment," Brandon says. "They're more customer-interested, and that’s a fantastic opportunity."

Most of the time, the Support Engineering team can squash issues on their own, but when larger problems crop up, they work directly with the core engineering team to straighten things out. Plus, there's the added benefit of devoted developer time: Tier 2 can work directly on small projects and enhancements for the support team, to help make their processes more efficient.

"A support engineering role is a fantastic soft introduction to the engineering world," Brandon says. "You get someone with all the technical chops, all the ambition and you put water wings on them. They can't totally down the product, but they can still grow and continually develop their technical skills."

Streamlining Support with Zapier

Efficiency is key in customer support. Eliminating five seconds here, and three keystrokes there, can add up to hours of saved time across the team in a given week. So when InVision needed a way to port Intercom's in-app help messages to Zendesk, they used app automation tool Zapier to bridge the gap.

"We already had a standing Zapier account for the marketing team. They were using it to pre-populate Google Sheets from some clumsy old form," Brandon says. "We had access to 50 Zaps, and we were using nowhere near that many. So I co-opted the remaining Zaps for the support team."

Brandon’s team set up a Zap—a Zapier automation—that watches for new conversations in Intercom. Whenever one pops up, Zapier automatically creates a ticket in Zendesk that includes the details of the conversation. Everything happens in the background; no copy-paste required.

Brandon's Zap matches up information like the subject, content, and requestor from Intercom to the corresponding fields in a new Zendesk ticket. Those tickets are also pre-populated with tags, ticket types, and a priority rating, so the they can be routed to the right tier without a bunch of button-pressing.

Today, Brandon says that support is by far the heaviest user of the company's Zapier account. "Absent that integration, support would have to externally man another queue within Intercom," he says. "It allows the support team to focus in a single tool all day, without keeping an eye on three other bouncing balls. It has greatly improved the efficiency and focus of the frontline support staff."

How Customer Support Impacts the Rest of the Company

InVision team working on tickets
The Wisconsin wing of the InVision support team sorts through tickets. Clockwise, from left to right: Khoa, Brandon, Jordan, Casem, Aaron, and Eliot.

Support teams know the nooks, crannies, pitfalls and loose ends of your product. And they're closely acquainted with the wants and needs of your customers, too. That's why, in Brandon's mind, every career should start with a stint in customer support.

"My selfish goal is that everyone hangs out in support, does a kick-ass job for a term, and then does something else," he says. Whether it's management, engineering, or marketing, support prepares you to think in a customer-centric way.

If InVision is sending out an email blast to 100,000 people, the support-trained marketers will proof it from the customer's point of view. If a code fix is going to take the site down for 10 minutes, veterans of the Support Engineering team will think about ways to decrease the impact on users.

"The people who think customer-centrically, immediately, reflexively, viscerally say, 'Oh, no. How will this affect the customer?' It's innate," Brandon says. "If you're in the trenches for a term, you naturally acquire that reaction."

Sometimes, people use customer support as a stepping stone to other careers; it's their "foot in the door" while they wait for the right position to open up. And for the right applicant, Brandon doesn't mind. Yes, he thinks that support can and should be a career, but he's not opposed to having agents in every branch of InVision.

"I don't imagine that anyone wants the first line in their obituary to be 'customer support rep,'" Brandon says. "When marketing or engineering positions open up, I've had to hold hiring managers back from recruiting my support talent. It's incredibly gratifying."

The ones who do end up transitioning to new roles bring a fresh perspective to the departments. They embody the polite, curious, customer-focused standard that Brandon holds for his team.

"They think about the customer without having to be in customer support." Brandon says. "I think that's truly what you gain from being in a good customer support environment: You frame everything from the context of the customer."

Photos taken by Beth Skogen of Beth Skogen Photography

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