UserConf 2013 in Review

Micah Bennett
Micah Bennett / May 8, 2013


This past week I found my way to New York City for UserConf, a one day conference for support folks and anyone else who wants to keep customers happy. What follows is my recap of the day. In the interests of brevity I've kept the notes on the speakers in outline form, so if a point isn't clear, let me know in the comments!

The conference began with an intro from hosts Richard White and Sarah Hatter, founders of UserVoice and CoSupport, respectively. They introduced us to the conference and it's purpose, as well as took stock of the audience with light banter. The highlight: "Finland!? Is that a place?" - Sarah upon learning someone had traveled from Finland to attend. From there the talks began with the keynote.

Richard White, UserVoice Founder/CEO - "The Golden Era of Products"

  • The Internet spawned a generation of self-service businesses
    • This leads to less customer contact but more complex issues, necessitating talented technical support staff to handle those issues
  • Companies have moved towards subscription-based revenue
    • You now need to "re-close" your customers every month, blurring the lines of sales and support
  • Social Media has been a catalyst, but it is not the medium of the future
    • Only 1% of people want support handled by Twitter, it is a last resort when other channels fail your users
  • There are now fewer ways to continue to add huge volumes of users (e.g. Groupon, Zynga, eHow)
    • You now need great service to retain users and continue to grow

Notable quote: "Twitter is the small claims court of bad support" (Tweet this quote!)

Darnell Witt, Vimeo Director of Support & Community - "Being One with Your Community"

  • Remove the barriers between "us" & "them", it builds empathy from your users
    • Resonant empathy - The ability to pick up on vibes; Support needs to be "vibe masters"
    • Conceptual empathy - Understanding based on experience "knowing" how your community feels
  • Profile your community
    • Different types of users have different needs
    • Ask yourself: "What type of re-assurance does this person need?"
  • Partner with developer team to make experience great for both parties
    • Support needs to help shield developers from aforementioned bad vibes and make bug fixing as easy as possible
    • Developers need to build great internal tools to help empower support and minimize their irritation

Notable quote: "Good admin tools make good CMs, good CMs make happy members, and happy members make you rich." (Tweet this quote!)

Rich Armstrong, Fog Creek General Manager - "Slack and Support"

  • Fog Creek makes distinctions in types of time
    • Regular time
    • Over time
    • Recovery time - less productive time in response to overtime - This is okay and should be built into scheduling
    • Slack time - Schedule flexibility to also prevent burnout, allow time to work on additional projects, etc.
  • Fog Creek calls these "Dev Days"
    • Because all support at Fog Creek are coders, this has led to new internal tools, and features in existing products
  • Program expanded to Fog Creek developers, and modified to create "Creek Weeks"
    • Trello was born out of two developers on Creek Week

Notable quote: "When it comes to customer support, don't be a dick". (Tweet this quote!)

Marssy Benitez, former Support Operations Manager at Flickr - "Being a Crisis Ringmaster"

  • One team's crisis is not an urgent problem for another
    • Important to communicate across teams to have consistent definitions
  • You need a plan
    • Find out who needs to be contacted in what departments when crises do hit
    • Determine how that crisis will be tracked, and what follow up steps will be taken to evaluate
    • Build a matrix of potential crises with clear instruction on needed steps and people to contact
    • Then when crisis strikes, you can stay calm, because you now have clear direction and instructions

Notable quote: "You can't call the Ghostbusters [in a crisis] because you ARE the Ghostbusters!" (Tweet this quote!)

Andrea Murphy, Meetup Community Manager - "Incorporating Customer Feedback"

  • Support should be built in to the core of your organization
    • People - Including support in all onboarding, adding a cue to keep it in mind(e.g. a ringing red phone)
    • Process - Meetup has a usability lab to ensure UX is thoroughly vetted, "experience teams" to respond proactively to issues
  • Questions you see repeated should be fixed, either with better documentation or with improved UX to make that solution more intuitive
  • Evaluating processes
    • Creating a matrix of High/Low impact and effort
    • High impact, low effort processes should be prioritized, as they provide disproportionate benefit
    • Broadcast these efforts - Meetup has a status board front and center at HQ showing the status of those process improvement intiatives

Notable quote: "Make customer feedback part of your company culture" (Tweet this quote!)

Jon Lane, Harvest Expert - Getting to Faster Response Times

  • Straight from the Harvest Handbook - "Don't keep customers waiting. If it will take some time, let them know."
  • Harvest answers newest emails first, giving those users a memorable response while making minimal difference to other users still in the queue.
  • Getting to response times
    • Notifications - Jon uses Zendesk's integrations to get stats sent straight to his desktop like unanswered tickets, tickets answered today, etc
    • Finding answers - Jon uses Alfred for the Mac to hook into Harvest's documentation with just a quick keyboard shortcut
  • Measurement
    • Strive to get better, but don't beat yourself up over what you aren't actively monitoring(e.g. middle of the night emails)
    • At the same time, look to consistently shrink that which you aren't attempting to monitor

Notable quote: “Compete against yourself. Get better everyday. Don’t beat yourself up.” (Tweet this quote!)

Bill Bounds, Mailchimp Head of Support - "Empower Employees to Empower Customers"

  • Make sure your Support staff stays human and has a heart, you don't want them to become robots
  • Empowerment = Education
  • Work to develop fundamental ownership with your employees, this leads to enthusiasm for their work and is infectious with users
  • Gratification = Sustainable
    • "Loving what you do" is not the same as "do what you love"
    • People want appreciation for doing things capably, Mailchimp builds this into their workflow
      • e.g. Free lunch on rainy days, Puppies in the office (!) after rough stretch, "Education vacation" to learn about new topics(like trains and clock making)
  • Building empowered employees
    • Mailchimp has 12 months of on-boarding
    • 2 weeks of classwork and learning outside the queue
    • 8 weeks in, learning how to troubleshoot, identify issues, and get to solutions
    • 10 weeks in, start in the queue with monthly workshops on advanced topics
    • 12 months in, complete the cycle by training new hires
  • Result: Confident, compassionate, and helpful employees
    • Because they've been empowered to identify and fix issues, they're beyond the need for "escalation" and are truly self-sufficient

Notable quote: "You don't have to look far to see that robots are intrinsically bad" (Tweet this quote!)

Max Crowley & Alex Priest, Uber Community Managers - "Keeping the Uber Love"

  • Uber's core principles
    • Lean and Loyal
    • Always There
    • Essential to Success
    • Playful but Professional
  • Uber support drives product & design decisions
  • Strive for balance and fairness, which is doubly necessary since they must support riders and drivers
    • e.g. Surge pricing - After negative feedback from users, changed user-facing components to reduce surprise and irritation, still kept necessary policy to meet demand by giving drivers incentive
  • Uber's Community Managers are a hybrid of Marketing and Support
    • They get increased opportunities as a result since they are closer to their users, which lets them see opportunities and be the first point of contact when users have ideas

Notable quote: Not so much a quote but a concept. Uber tracks "Rides of glory", rides between 10p-4a on Friday and Saturday, with a second ride within 1/10 of a mile of the dropoff point 4-6 hours later.

Speaker Q&A

UserConf closed with a Q&A session with all speakers on stage. While the format combined with my note-taking abilities didn't lend itself to a thorough recap, here are a few highlights:

  • Rich Armstrong from Fog Creek unveiled a few policies that they try to adhere to. One is to include at least one exclamation point in each email. It "elevates the tone", as users only logically think that you're being friendly with them, rather than shouting at them. Rich also detailed Fog Creek's goal of "fix everything twice", once to fix the user's immediate need, and then again to make sure that issue doesn't come up again. They keep a list of these "second fixes" to work through when support volume allows for it.

  • Bill Bounds from Mailchimp pointed out that honesty is your ultimate trump card when dealing with potentially irritated customers. Especially if you aren't able to make that user happy with your product, clearly explaining the issue at hand is your best defense against anger. Bill also noted that burnout is a function of doing the same task repeatedly, regardless of volume. It's one of the reasons Mailchimp does their "Education Vacations".

  • All of the speakers gave their thoughts on how many emails/tickets a support person should be answering in a given day. Answers ranged from 50 to 100, with the acknowledgment that not all tickets are created equal.

This is just a small taste of the experience that was Friday at UserConf. I could go on for many more paragraphs about the great conversations had with many of the attendees, the tasty food, the awesome service from the hosts between sessions(they brought someone a sweater, a coffee, even $100 for taking the stairs!), and the incredible venue allowing us to socialize on a rooftop with a great view of New York city.

Needless to say I'm excited that UserConf 2013 in SF is already being planned. If you're on the fence, even after reading this recap, I highly recommend it.

Have any UserConf stories of your own to share? Find any of the speakers' points incredibly insightful? Let us know in the comments!

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